EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director James Solomon talks finding the truth in ‘THE WITNESS’

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Bill Genovese in THE WITNESS. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Bill Genovese in THE WITNESS. Courtesy of FilmRise.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens. By all accounts, this was a tragedy. Not only because Kitty’s vivacious, vibrant life was stolen, but also because none of her neighbors reached out to help in her desperate time of need – or so the newspapers reported. Her death became a landmark story about New Yorker’s apathy, however, it simply wasn’t true. There were many who were there that fateful night willing to help. Director James Solomon’s documentary THE WITNESS seeks to exonerate those folks and also reclaim Kitty’s dynamic life through her younger brother Bill’s investigation.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Solomon about the gripping and emotionally taut film at a recent press day.

FreshFiction.tv: It sounds like this has been a long labor of love.

That it indeed it has been.

FreshFiction.tv: They say “time heals all wounds,” but it also “waits for no man.” Was that something you found to be true when you set out to make this film?

Over the course of that 11 years, Bill located nearly a dozen of the witnesses and many are still alive – not all wanted to speak on camera, but a lot were willing to talk with him. I think it’s worth noting that many – whether those who knew Kitty in her life or death – have been reluctant to share their own experiences, their accounts, their narratives. It really wasn’t until Bill came along that they were willing to do so. I think that’s for a variety of reasons; they either felt they owed it to Kitty, and therefore Bill is a surrogate to Kitty. A number of witnesses who don’t appear in the film said the same. I also think there’s another aspect too. The folks who were the most reluctant clearly were the family, who experienced their loss privately against this very, very public story. The people who appear in the film and that met with Bill in the scope of his decade long investigation were put at ease by Bill in the way he has a singular ability to do that. He’s developed an innate ability to put people at ease. The other thing is Bill has through circumstance, has a great understanding of great psychological and physical trauma. As a result of that, people who are holding onto narratives that might be very upsetting are willing to share that with him because, in seeing Bill, they can see someone who gets them and what they understand.

It was actually kind of the opposite of what you said – many more people were alive than weren’t. And what was so striking was how few had been reached. What I think is rather remarkable is for a half century so many have been chewing on this story – journalist, academics, screenwriters, composers – and yet the people who were the most deeply impacted – either by the loss, or what happened that night, hadn’t been heard from, really until Bill came along.

FreshFiction.tv: How did Bill get in contact with you to make this? What was the genesis?

I’m a New Yorker and the Kitty Genovese story is such a seminal crime that defined New York City for decades as this cold, heartless place. Anyone growing up in the city would be aware of the iconic version of the murder. My profession is screenwriting. I have always been drawn to stories we think we know. The Kitty Genovese story is one of the great mysteries – what happened in those apartments that night? That’s an enduring mystery. I sold a pitch based on the story in combination with Joe Berlinger and Alfred Murray. It’s at that time that I met Bill as research for that project. As soon as you meet Bill, you meet Kitty. It turns out she was this extremely colorful, compelling, dynamic person who you wish we knew – that comes through when you meet Bill. The story had propelled many of the course of his decisions throughout his life. When nothing came of that HBO project, and when The New York Times questioned its merit in 2004, Bill was propelled for himself to find out for himself what actually had happened. He always wondered what had happened.

He had done some investigating, but never anything so substantive. In the years earlier, he had requested a box of the court documents and they sent him a box of them, but he never looked at any of them. He actually buried them. He was in a group and that group of people who had been victims of violence they counseled him to just bury it and he did. He didn’t really explore it. But when the Times questioned it in 2004, that was the catalyst for Bill. I talked to him about documenting his journey. We had no idea at the time that it would take 11 years. The film is serial like in that there are multiple mysteries he’s pursuing. Fundamentally, the film, at its core was and is a sibling love story about Bill trying to reclaim his sister’s life from her famous death. I think he’s been doing that from the very beginning.

FreshFiction.tv: The thing that really struck a chord in me was seeing the different perspectives – mostly from within his family. I think it was his daughter that said she had studied Kitty in class and she only knew that was her aunt.

That was the biggest surprise for me. I knew what we all knew – I’m the public. And we all know Kitty for being one way. It was a tremendous surprise for me and I found it very understandable and deeply sad that the public and horrific aspect of the crime had erased this remarkably compelling woman even from within her own family. And they did so, largely to protect mom. Bill speaks to this in the film.

FreshFiction.tv: It’s a traumatic. No parent should ever have to lose a child no matter what age they are. It’s completely understandable.

I can speak to it a little. I started out to make a film about sibling loss having no personal understanding of what that loss was like. But in the course of making this film, my only sibling and the person I looked up to more than anyone, John Solomon, was diagnosed with leukemia and died. So what began as an abstract understanding of sibling loss proceeds to be so. The power of [Kitty’s] narrative not only erased her life not only for the public but also for her family.

FreshFiction.tv: So sorry for your loss. Cancer sucks.

Yeah.

FreshFiction.tv: The air gets really heavy when Bill met with Winston Moseley’s son, Stephen. How was shooting that?

Bill approached everything with his hands up and open. That’s how he goes through life. In meeting Stephen Mosely, Bill was very open to meet with him and pleased Stephen was willing to meet with him. In my mind, and Bill’s mind, Stephen Mosely is much like Bill. Both are willing to step outside the comfort zone of their own families and seek some form of the truth and look for reconciliation if theirs reconciliation to be had. To challenge assumptions they had. We only learn through the course of the meeting how much fear and anxiety he has. That was genuine. To Stephen’s credit, he’s willing to, despite great fear, to confront that narrative.

The film in many respects is about false narratives. We see how so many of us are propelled by stories that may or may not be true. We need these stories to hold onto them because they help us get through life or get through the night.

THE WITNESS is now playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. For more information, go here.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.