Interview with 37 writer/director Puk Grasten
For her feature-length film debut, Danish writer/director Puk Grasten chose to return to Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. That’s where 28-year-old, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered in the wee small hours of the morning on March 13, 1964. The New York Times reported that there were 37 alleged witnesses that either heard or saw Genovese get attacked in the street outside their apartments, yet no one intervened or did anything. Grasten made a short film called “37” that offered a brief fictional look at the lives of some of those tenants and she has now expanded it into a feature-length film with the same title that asks viewers to consider other perspectives when addressing the social phenomenon known as “bystander inaction”.
“37” is another example of a filmmaker getting the opportunity to expand on the themes and ideas previously explored in a short film. Other directors have done this before and it often proves to be very interesting to compare and contrast both films. I haven’t seen Grasten’s short, but I did see the feature-length version of “37” and found it be a very interesting and unique take on what transpired on that fateful evening. I especially appreciate and admire her focus on exploring the lives of those bystanders, who for decades were looked down upon for doing nothing. Grasten’s film proposes there are reasons behind such inaction and maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to look at what didn’t take place, but ask ourselves what did take place.
In anticipation of her the theatrical release here this weekend in New York City, I had the opportunity to speak with Grasten over the phone. She proved to be an enthusiastic and generous presence, despite a communication mishap on my end. Here’s our conversation….
writer/director Puk Grasten (left) and actress Sophia Lillis, who plays Debbie Bernstein
David J. Fowlie: Good afternoon, Puk!
Puk Grasten: Good afternoon!
DF: Is it afternoon where you’re at? Are you in New York City?
PG: I am in New York. I came two days ago for the release and to do the Q&A.
DF: Okay, so your film will be shown in New York this weekend, right?
DF: Great. I watched it recently and I was curious – when did you first learn about the murder of Kitty Genovese and the circumstances that surrounded it?
PG: My native city is Copenhagen, Denmark, but I’ve lived in New York City for seven years. In New York, the Kitty Genovese killing is a ghost-like story of the apathy of the metropolitan city. I was interested in exploring the bystanders of the crime since they were described as evil people who did nothing, which led me to the research of the bystander effect. I focused on the social psychology of the crime; ‘the bystander effect’ and the group mentality. I do not believe that people are born evil and I wanted to find out why the bystanders acted like they did.
DF: Was the short part of your final senior film at NYU?
PG: I made the short version of “37” while being a third year grad film student at NYU. The short helped me in exploring how I wanted to tell this story and the effect it had on people. Following year, I wrote the script and made the feature-length film while attending my graduation.
DF: Now this is your feature-length directorial debut. Essentially, it’s an extension of your short on the same subject – what changes were made in this feature film, that differentiates itself from your short?
PG: The short explored how I could show a murder off-screen, but with the feature-length I was able to also explore the multi plot. The multi plot is important in telling this story since it is about several people witnessing the same crime with the same human behavior.
writer/director Puk Grasten (middle) discusses a scene with actresses Nancy Ozelli and Virginia Robinson (left), who play the Mowbray sisters and actor Adrian Martinez, who plays elevator operator, Gonzales.
DF: Did you find yourself doing even more research for the feature-length film?
PG: Yes – much more!! I went deeper into the crime and social psychology and also studied the characters I wanted to portray. I spent a great amount of time in Kew Gardens where Kitty Genovese lived and died , The neighborhood consisted of elderly Jewish people, young artists and stewardesses (close to the airport) and the immigrant elevator operator. It had three different buildings with three different social classes. In the mid 60’s, the American society was changing; among those changes was that African-Americans were moving into the white suburbs. In “37” the neighborhood portrayed is a product of its time: instead of becoming one big community; people became more divided.
DF: Your film was shot close to the original location of Kitty Genovese’s murder, correct?
PG: While I was writing the script I spent a lot of time in Kew Gardens, Queens where Kitty Genovese lived and died. I wanted to shoot the film in Kew Gardens for the respect of Kitty Genovese and the bystanders, but we didn’t get the permit since it is still a very sore subject. We therefore shot “37” in a nearby neighborhood with the same geographic settings. For the film it has no difference, but personally I wish I could have honored the neighbors by shooting it in Kew Gardens. With “37” I want to portray the people of Kew Gardens as real people and not as monsters as they were described as after the killing.
DF: Have you seen the recent documentary “The Witness” which follows Kitty’s younger brother, Bill, as he looks back on what happened that night?
PG: Sadly, I haven’t. It just came to Denmark on Netflix. I’m looking very much forward to see it! I was aware that it was in the making while we were making “37”.
DF: I have seen it and I thought it was very interesting. It brings to light different aspects and perspectives of the murder. Is the Genovese family aware of “37”?
PG: Kitty Genovese’s uncle had somehow found out that I was making “37”. While we were shooting he sent me an email where he gave me his support. That gave me peace at heart and a greater confident to tell the story.
DF: I live in Chicago, where there are many neighborhoods with a lot of activity at all hours. I’m always hearing things outside my window late at night, something I’m sure you can relate to. In your research, what have you found to be the most common response to sounds of trouble or criminal activity – a heroic intervening act or this bystander inaction?
PG: Bystander inaction for sure. The press likes to focus on the heroic intervening as the hero of the week, but the sad truth is that the bystander inaction happens everyday. In “37” we are portraying a community during the day and night of the murder to show that it is not only when people find themselves in a dangerous situation that they choose not to act; it is also when they are faced with racism, sexism and other social discriminations.
writer/director Puk Grasten (left) and actor Adrian Martinez on the set of “37”
DF: I admit I have a tendency to call 911, just from looking out my window, usually because I’m annoyed by the noise. So, my action is primarily selfish, not necessarily thinking about what’s actually happening out there. I just want it to stop.
PG: Today we have the 911, but I believe the human behavior of the group mentalities has not changed. The killing could happen today as well. It only takes one person to change the behavior of a whole group.
DF: Back then it was no big deal to just shout out your window and say “hey, leave that person alone!”
PG: I don’t think people are more afraid now, but they have their phones to tweet, Instagram, Facebook when they experience unfairness in the world. Unless you have thousands of followers who suddenly start changing their lives based on your update, I believe it is an empty help. On the night of the murder, one neighbor called out ‘leave that girl alone’ but didn’t do anything else. It turned out not to be a help since other neighbors then thought help (police) was on its way and did nothing – the murderer then had time to find Kitty Genovese who was in hiding.
DF: From what I gathered, in doing my own research, this murder led to the formation of the 911 emergency system.
PG: True, N.Y didn’t have the 911 emergency system at that time, why people – when they reported a crime – had to give their full name, address and occupation; furthermore, next day, they had to go down to the station to give a statement. That meant that people couldn’t call anonymously, they lost working hours and they might have to share things that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing.
DF: So, you’ve already screened this film at previous festivals, correct? What’s been the response to the film?
PG: Yes, we’ve been so lucky to screen “37” at some great festivals. It premiered at Gothenburg International Film Festival, we won ‘best director’ and ‘best film by the critics’ at the Moscow International Film Festival and next month we are taking “37” to Denmark for the CPH PIX where “37” will also have a theatre release. It’s been an important experience to show the film to people from different part of the world. Audience members have come up to me afterwards and shared experience from their own life based on what they’ve felt while watching the film. It’s been really overwhelming and amazing.
DF: It seems like something that anyone living in an urban environment can relate to?
PG: YES! I’ve lived in NYC for seven years and I myself am guilty of walking the street with my sunglasses covering my eyes and loud music in my ears. You get use to see everything in the city till the point where you become numb. I lived in the same apartment for many years; however I didn’t know my neighbors, I’ve heard things outside my window that I didn’t know what was. I guess that was interested me with the story; I questioned what I would have done myself if I was there that night when Kitty Genovese was killed.
DF: What’s the next project for you?
PG: I moved back to Copenhagen to make my next feature film. My next project is based on the book by Janne Teller called War, What If. The film is about how nationalism gets born and steals the democracy away from its people. In “War, What If” we follow a young boy who fights to keep his family together in a society going through changes. Denmark declares war against Sweden to be the big nation as they were during the Vikings. The boy looses his family member one by one to the fight for nationalism. It’s not a becoming of age story but a becoming of (self) destruction.
DF: I want to thank you for your time and I wish you luck with the film in New York this weekend.
PG: Thank you very much.
writer/director Puk Grasten having a laugh with actor Evan Fine, who plays Billy Cunningham
If you’re in New York City this weekend, you check out the “37” at Cinema Village, where Puk Grasten will attend a Q&A after the 7:10pm showings on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.