'The Jinx' Q&A: Andrew Jarecki on his hotly anticipated HBO docu-series and shaking hands with a killer
HBO is clearly hoping that the The Jinx, a six-part docu-series about infamous Manhattan scion Robert Durst and the three murders he’s accused of committing, will tap into the same hunger for thoroughly reported true-crime stories that made Serial a zeitgeist must. But director Andrew Jarecki has been working on this story for eight years, long before the podcast was even a twinkle in Sarah Koenig’s eye.
Jarecki, director of Capturing the Friedmans, first turned his research on the Durst saga into the 2010 feature film All Good Things. Ryan Gosling played a thinly-veiled version of Durst, a man from one of New York’s most powerful real-estate families whose wife went missing in 1982 under suspicious circumstances. Later, he was found to have killed and dismembered his 71-year-old next-door neighbor while hiding in Texas, disguised as an elderly woman. It’s a juicy story, to be sure—bolstered by the fact that Durst is also suspected in the death of a friend with knowledge of the disappearance. He has never been convicted of murder. (He pled self-defense in the Texas case.)
Shortly after the release of All Good Things, Jarecki received a call from the notoriously press-shy Durst, saying he wanted to sit down with the director and, for the first time, tell his side of the story. Jarecki promises the series will have many improbable twists and turns as it unfurls over the coming weeks. We talked with him about his new potential phenomenon, the answers it offers, and the questions it raises.
EW: From your point of view, why do you think Robert Durst chose to make contact with you?
Andrew Jarecki: I think nobody wants to die without telling their story. I think he’s getting older. I think in the last 30 years, he’s watched so many tabloid, superficial versions of his story being told in ways that I think he felt were not coming from him. There was nothing about those versions of the story that felt familiar to him. And certainly when you see the cover of the Post, or some newspaper that says “body-chopper,” or “cross-dresser,” or any of the epithets that people throw around at him, you can understand that him being able to explain himself has obviously been driving him. I think there’s a frustration in having been so described for so many years and not being able to respond at all.
When big game like this just delivers itself to your door, do you think, “How do I not scare him away?”
People have said to me before, “Does Bob Durst know what you’re doing? That you’re making this thing about him?” And I’m like, “It was his idea.” He knew what he wanted to do, he knew he wanted to do a substantial piece, he knew that he wanted to tell a story. When he asked me about it originally, I said, “Look, the way I do this is not going to be me sitting down with you for 20 minutes and then throwing something up on television. We don’t do that. We spend all the time that’s required to understand the story. We’re going to learn everything and you have to be prepared to sit down for five days.” And to his credit, he said, “There is no question you can ask me that I won’t answer. There’s no time when you’ll ask me a question about some subject and I’ll say ‘I don’t want to go there.’”
Not everyone believes that he’s always telling the truth—but he answered every question very thoroughly, and that’s something he had never done in any way before. Because he had not only not spoken to the media, he had not spoken to the police. His only communication with the police at the time of his wife’s disappearance was that initial interview. There really was no examination of those stories.
You had been gathering thread on this for years with the research you did with All Good Things. When did you feel comfortable that you had enough to knit together a narrative?
Once you start learning about the story and Bob starts talking, you’re on a thrill ride. There is no moment making it when we thought, “This isn’t going anywhere.” You never know where it’s going, but you have to just sit up in the saddle and do everything you possibly can to meet the story. There’s going to be so much material, so many people to talk to, so many conflicting opinions, and you don’t want to miss anything. There are photographs in the series, even in episodes 1 and 2, that I got in the last three or four weeks, because someone I had been talking to—or Marc [Smerling] had been talking to five years ago—finally they saw an ad, or in TV Guide—whatever it was—and they said, “You know, I never gave you that picture.”
This is different from making a feature film. There’s going to be a longer period of audience engagement. Is that something that excites you?
I do think that’s right, and I think it’s going to be a completely different chapter. The chapter of talking to people who are seeing it is going to be a very interesting and therapeutic and fascinating journey. That’s when it becomes real, when people start to collectively respond to it. That’s part of the uniqueness of being in this day and age, being in 2015. You couldn’t do this even five years ago. This thing didn’t exist, that you could have a time-shifted experience—that you could binge something, that you could get this deeply into a story. This isn’t a museum piece; this is a ride. And people have to go on it, and they have to go on it in real time and experience it. It’s probably the closest thing we have nowadays to what it was like to see a newsreel in a movie theater.
I’ve heard talk that there are some pretty hairpin turns up ahead, bolstered by the fact that HBO gave me access to episodes 3 and 4—then promptly changed their minds and took them back.
It’s funny, I think you’re one of only two people that happened to. I met another one of them last night. She was like, “I think I’m going to go back to my room and watch this,” and I was like, “I don’t think you are.” You will not be disappointed in the slightest.
Have your lawyers been getting a workout?
We’ve made a movie about Bob Durst, and when you make a movie about somebody they like it or they don’t like it. And if they don’t like it, sometimes they have a fight with you. That’s not what’s happening at all. We made a series about Bob Durst, and his estranged brother who has absolutely no say in the piece, and who refused a dozen invitations to be interviewed, has sued us over this series—even though he admits that he has never seen it. It’s an extraordinary situation, because this isn’t coming from Bob. Bob will have his opinion of the thing, of course, but Bob’s brother is way more concerned than Bob is about a hundred different things. In some of their legal wranglings and threats they’ve said, “We believe that Bob Durst has taken in Andrew Jarecki, and he’s going to use this as a platform to spout his lies about this family.”
At one point they even accused you of having Durst underwrite your movie.
Another amazing, amazing idea! Number one, you don’t have to do a lot of work to figure out that we’ve never taken outside funding for a documentary. We don’t have any reason to do it. It’s not how we work. We’re not making a vanity piece for Bob Durst—and when people watch this, they’ll see it’s clearly not a vanity piece for Bob Durst. It’s just not something I would have any interest in or even consider doing. That was just a wild opinion. I didn’t understand where that came from. And then there’s this front page article in the New York Times saying, again, “Even though we haven’t seen it, we’re sure it’s going to be inaccurate.” So you have to ask yourself, where is all of that anxiety about this coming from?”
They have a lot of power. You almost wonder, would there have been a long New Yorker piece on it if the Dursts didn’t own the Condé Nast building? Who knows.
I think one of the unique things is, most of the billionaire, multi-generational New York real estate families are quite more famous than the Dursts. So it’s possible that by design they have wanted to be off the radar. And then of course something like this can put them on the radar very quickly, and I can understand how that might generate some anxiety. Which is why we offered so carefully to include them in a respectful way. We offered to meet with them off-the-record, on-the-record, to give them some idea of what we were doing. We wouldn’t make it different based on that, but they would have a better sense of what we’re doing.
I realize there are tremendous rivalries between these siblings, at an almost Biblical level. There’s an amazing line in one of the depositions where someone asks, “Why do you have these feelings about your brother?” And he says “I guess when I was little, he stole my toy.” And when you think of that in the context of the Condé Nast building and the Bank of America tower and the Freedom Tower and the fact that Bob was passed over for running the family business that includes a dozen of the skyscrapers that define the New York City skyline, that is a story that is writ large.
You must obviously have your own personal opinions about Durst’s guilt or innocence, but when you went in there to do your 25 hours of interviewing, how did you prepare yourself? Did you try not to psychologize him? What was your thinking going in?
Some people say, “What you should do is get a doctor to say what they think about Bob Durst,” and it’s like, why don’t you get a doctor to say what they think about Douglas Durst, or about Kathie Durst? These people are complex, and I think that these are just labels.
My dad was a professor of psychiatry at Yale, and my conversations with him about Bob Durst are always fascinating—but he never assigns a diagnosis to Bob. I think he finds that Bob is a complex person and the more that you learn about him, the more complex he is. And like a lot of people, he’s got a whole range of motivations and behaviors. I think once you put a label on somebody, you’re really trying to simplify the thing—and doing so in a way that I think, it’s sort of designed to get yourself out of having to think about it. If you can say, “Well, somebody’s got this or that psychiatric diagnosis,” what you’re really saying is, “Forget about the human motivations, forget all about the family, forget all about the sibling rivalry, forget about the marital issues that we all have to deal with. Let’s just call this person crazy, and then we don’t have to learn any more about it.” And God forbid we should imagine that we have anything in common with this person. The more interesting thing is to say, “What do I have in common with Bob Durst? Can I understand him? Can I understand anything about his life, what motivated him?”
Did you have your own moments of unexpected sympathy?
I already had phone conversations with him where I realized he was funny and extremely clever, so I didn’t think I was going into an interview where someone was going to be speaking in tongues. I’m dealing with someone who is engaged in the world—maybe historically inscrutable, but obviously brilliant, and now there’s an opportunity to really dig in and find out what makes this person tick.
The one thing you do know is, whatever else is true or untrue, he has admitted to killing a man and taking apart the body with a paring knife and bow saw. Is that something that sticks in your mind?
He and I had a number of phone conversations, and then we decided we’d get together in Los Angeles and have breakfast. I remember meeting him at the Peninsula Hotel. He looked very well dressed, and well put-together, and looked very comfortable in that environment. And I remember walking in and shaking his hand for the first time—and whatever else you think about him, you can’t ignore the fact that that soft hand, of this kindly bright person across from you, is a hand that did dismember a human being. And if you know that history, you feel that. That’s something that you remember.