Occurrence at West 71st Street: the story
I've had the idea of a set of murder scenes in miniature for many years. As the ideas formed and coalesced, the ideas grew from individual scenes, to a set of events happening in a place where they might be connected. It wasn't long before the idea of an apartment building began to emerge as the place where all these events could be connected through a story, but also revealed to the viewer through different views through the windows. Of course, it wasn't an original concept in that sense; Rear Window, like all things Hitchcock, had never been far from my mind. But with a unique story that fleshed out the residents of the apartments, and a contemporary approach, the stories behind the characters, and their relationship to the murder, could be related somehow, joined by some common story.
I had the visuals. That was the easy part. I sketched out the various apartments. There would be police tape; the red and blue of police lights on curtains; there would be closed doors, or doors partly ajar, with shadows; there may be bloodstains; there could be evidence throughout the scenes to enable the viewer to form connections and sleuth their way towards a conclusion.
But as the lines came together and the size and scope and shapes of the scenes became clearer, it became increasingly obvious that I needed a story. Now, I can create a fictional narrative pretty easily; I have stories that morphed from notes or dreams to 100,000 words in a matter of weeks. But there was something about the atmosphere and the feeling of these apartments that kept tapping me on the shoulder. A place where people have lived tells as much a story as the people who lived there do. I kept thinking about Tosca.
Just like that, I knew I had my backstory. It had everything: romance, jealousy, murder, revenge, suicide. beauty, tragedy. Puccini's opera was perfect. It would tie all these scenes together in a format originally meant for grand drama. I could hear those arias and the building music as I imagined scenes from the opera. It would be perfect!
But wait. Tosca's backstory was based on a work by a French playwright that took place during the French Revolutionary wars, 1800 to be exact. I delved into the details of how Puccini finally acquired the rights to use the piece as inspiration. The backdrop of the play was the threat to the Roman state of a Napoleonic victory. This meant that in much of the story pesky little things like a Papal government, secret police, assassinations, not to mention the French fucking Revolution were all swirling in the background. That stuff would be tough to mansplain in a modern retelling, the hell! A modern reboot of the story behind Puccini's opera Tosca... maybe it wasn't the story I needed after all.
But over some weeks I kept returning to it. Much like Puccini had viewed the playwright Sardou's work as the framework for his own piece rather than the scripted source, I began to think about Puccini's version itself as my inspiration, and not focus so much on the elements that went into the opera. I began to consider the background details that had been bugging me all along. The more I thought about it, the less those political and social details in Tosca stood as obstacles. In fact, they seemed to translate very well into the modern American political landscape. I won't embellish those details here, since that is the point of the work.
Then it was game, set, match. The address I knew already: somewhere on West 71st Street. I had the characters. I knew their motivations. I knew why their apartments looked the way they do. I know what happens to all of them. I know how their stories are connected.
The rest, as they say, is in the details.