Andrew Jarecki reflects on the year he got Robert Durst to admit that he 'killed them all'
We said goodbye to Don Draper and hello to Adele. Doughnuts were licked, and dinos were vanquished. And whether we were getting to know Supergirl or supervillains (looking at you, Robert Durst), 2015 turned our emotions Inside Out. So join us as we revisit the year’s most unforgettable moments—for better or worse. (By the time we’re through, maybe we’ll finally have our invitation to join Taylor’s #squad.) See more Best of 2015 coverage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Robert Durst contacted you to tell his story, why do you think he wanted to do that? He had everything to lose.
ANDREW JARECKI, DIRECTOR, THE JINX: Number one, he likes to be the center of attention. In his life, he’s had periods when he’s been in the news every day, and there had been a long lull. I made a movie, [All Good Things], and suddenly Ryan Gosling was playing him, and there was a whole bunch of press, and I think he felt like that was his moment to step back into the public eye.
Number two, his antipathy toward his brother and his father were so strong that when he saw the threats that the Durst family had made against me — when he saw that they kept threatening to sue us — he was incensed that they were considering coming after us for telling his story. He has gone through his life feeling like his brother is always trying to take a step ahead of him. He’s the eldest son. He was the one who was in position to take over the family business, and his brother stepped into that position instead of him. And now even Bob’s murders are suddenly going to be coopted by his brother.
The third thing is, he really does have a compulsion to confess. Even though he might not feel guilt in the same way that many of us might, he knows that murdering his wife was one of the terrible moments in his life, and he got away with that. He got away with murdering his best friend, He got away with murdering his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. He was carrying around this burden and needed to tell the story, knowing that there was a very real risk that he wouldn’t be entirely able to control that information flow.
Bob called me knowing that he had killed three people, and he still felt misunderstood. We used to joke when we were making the film, we’d say, “Bob might have killed three people, but he always had a good reason.”
EW: What was your first impression of him?
JARECKI: He comes off as a gentle person, attractive and charismatic. He’s extremely funny. It was interesting to meet him for the first time. [He was wearing] a beautiful cashmere sweater, driving up to the Loews Santa Monica Hotel where we did the interview, in a canary yellow Smart Car. You think, “If I’m a triple homicide suspect living in Los Angeles, might want to lay low. I might not buy a canary yellow Smart Car.” There’s something about him that plays against type.
I had many conversations with him on the phone, and he was always extremely polite: “Oh, I’m terribly sorry that I didn’t get back to you earlier!” [He] observed etiquette that gave you a sense that he was raised rich, in the suburbs of New York City, and he knew how to behave.
But then I went to breakfast with him at the Lambs Club with his lawyer, and he sat down — again, perfectly polite — and about 15 minutes in, he had ordered something that hadn’t arrived immediately. He called the waiter over, and the waiter leaned down close to him, and Bob said to him in that gravelly voice, “How long does it take to grill a grapefruit?” I saw the teeth for the first time.
EW: What did you learn about him by the end of the project that you didn’t know in the beginning?
JARECKI: I didn’t think that Bob was innocent, but I didn’t know that he was guilty. [Once] I knew he was guilty, I had to recognize that this person who, in some ways, was my friend, at some level still is… The big personality shift was suddenly I realized that I was dealing with a murderer.
EW: Why do you consider him your friend?
JARECKI: Well, I guess what I mean by “friend” is, I have an understanding of him that very few people have. And I understand and can empathize in some way with certain aspects of his life without endorsing them. I understand why he felt mistreated by his family. I understand why he felt the loss of his mother. I can feel sympathy for a 7-year-old boy who was present when his mother committed suicide.
That doesn’t mean that I justify his actions. I put my money where my mouth is by revealing that evidence, not only in the series, but also to the police, a couple of years before the film ever came out. We put the film at risk, frankly. If we wanted to have the best possible chance of our film being a big revelation, we probably wouldn’t have given the evidence to the police two years earlier.
I did a lot of soul searching, and I concluded that the right thing to do was to let the audience understand as much about Bob as possible, including the things that we would be sympathetic to, including letting him be charming in his own way, not cutting that stuff out of the edit. We let him be the fullest person that he could be — and then ultimately allowed him to hang himself.
EW: There were a couple of pieces that came out after The Jinx aired, comparing your experience growing up in a wealthy family with his. Do you think that that’s an unfair comparison?
JARECKI: No, I think that’s fair. I mean, when we were shooting the scene of his mother jumping off the roof, I shot that at the house I grew up in, in Rye, [New York].
I don’t know if we’ve talked about this before, but when I learned about the house that Bob grew up in as a child, and I looked at photographs of it, it’s a big stone mansion in Scarsdale with a slate roof that’s fairly steep. His mother climbed out of a casement window onto the roof in the rain, and then eventually jumped to her death. That house is almost identical to my family home where I grew up in Rye, which is a stone house with a slate roof and a steep angle. She landed on the macadam driveway below and died. So we shot that at my parent’s house in Rye, and it just felt extremely familiar to me.
None of the murderous part — I was lucky that my mother didn’t pass away at such an early age — but I know the world that he grew up in. My family had a large business for many years, and various family members went into the business, and there was pressure on me to go into the business. I did it for a short time and eventually decided to pursue other stuff, but I know that feeling of the whole family saying, “You’re the eldest son, and you should be expected to carry on the tradition of your father and family before you.” I think that’s one of the things that gave Bob some measure of comfort.
EW: You said there was a certain point where things turned and you knew he was guilty. Did that happen with the Beverley letter or before that?
JARECKI: The day that we were doing the first interview with him, we decided to do the director’s commentary on the DVD [for All Good Things]. And I said to him, “Why don’t you do it with me?” What emerged was potentially the strangest DVD extra of all time: the accused murderer commentating on the film in which he murders a number of people.
There’s a scene in that film where there was a party for his wife Kathie. In the middle of the party, Bob had gotten fed up with all of the attention being on Kathy and he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of the house. This was the first time that her family — her mother, her brother, who were sitting with her — had seen any kind of violence between Bob and Kathie. So that’s a key scene in All Good Things: Ryan Gosling grabs Kirsten Dunst by her hair and drags her out of the party.
It’s such a shocking, disturbing scene that I was nervous, sitting there with Bob, because I was about to interview him for three days and I didn’t want to upset him. I just keep thinking he’s going to say, “That never happened.” So the scene comes on, and Bob immediately starts talking as Ryan is pounding across the floor to grab Kirsten by her hair, and he says, “Now I’ve heard this described two ways. One way is that I stormed into the house and I grabbed her by the hair, and I dragged her out of the party. The other way is that I yanked her by the hair, and a big chunk came out.” And there’s a long pause, and he says, into the microphone, “Either one of those is pretty accurate.”
EW: Wow. That’s the first moment you thought, he’s guilty of killing Kathie?
JARECKI: I always knew that he had a very good likelihood of having killed her. But this was the first time I thought, He’s going to tell me.
EW: Were you ever scared of him?
JARECKI: We heard, at one point, from the FBI, that he was in New York and he was upset with me. I decided it would be smart to have a security detail. Maybe the security started at the beginning of the series? I think that’s probably right. Anyway, over that period of time, I had security, and that was a little nerve-wracking. I remember saying to my daughter, “Tomorrow morning, there’s gonna be a new guy taking you to school with Mommy.” And she immediately started crying. She’s 11.
EW: Take me back to the so-called confession that Bob gave with the hot mic. You didn’t discover that until later. Can you describe the circumstances of finding it?
JARECKI: So, it was basically the two big interviews, right? There’s the one that’s the first three days we spent with him, and then, as you see in the series, there’s a lot of drama over whether he’s going to sit for the second interview.
EW: Right. And you didn’t shoot the second interview until a couple of years later?
JARECKI: How long was the second interview after the first interview? I should know that off the top of my head. By the time of the second interview, we’d been through a lot of back and forth about when it’s going to happen. We scheduled it. We canceled it. Going into the second interview, the critical things were, we wanted him to take ownership of the cadaver note, and we wanted him to take ownership of the letter that matched the cadaver note. We figured he wasn’t going to say, “I wrote the cadaver note,” but we thought that he might say, “This other piece of handwriting on this envelope, which perfectly matches the cadaver note? That I did write.”
Then we go in for the second interview, and he completely acknowledges having written the note that’s identical to the cadaver note. We were just elated. We thought that was about as close to a confession that we were gonna get. Little did we know, he was literally confessing in the bathroom.
While we’re dismantling all the stuff, he goes in there and says, “There it is, you’re caught.” When he said those things, we didn’t know that they were recorded. The sound guy took off the headphones and continued to record, but we’ve got a small crew, so he’s helping us clean up. It just wasn’t what was on our mind at that point.
Cut to two years later. Shelby Siegel, our intrepid No. 2 editor, is doing some clean up work, and she plays that little segment back of the interview and Bob going into the bathroom, and she hears just a little tiny phrase: “There it is, you’re caught.” She just couldn’t believe it. She immediately went into the next edit room where Zach Stuart-Pontier — who’s the primary editor — was sitting, and she said, “You have to listen to this.” They knew that Bob had been talking to himself, which we know he does periodically. Zach said, “He stayed in the bathroom for 10 minutes. Is there anything else?” And she said, that’s all that’s here, but the audio that doesn’t have video attached to it – there’s more of that. We have to go back to the source material. So they went back to one of the big Go drives that has all the audio, and they cued it up. Zach looked at the editing screen, and he saw where the sound file comes up, it looked like somebody was continuing to talk. So they started to play it, and that’s when they heard all the other material that ends up in the series.
They called me and said, “You gotta get over here and listen to this.” They didn’t tell me what it was, but I knew it was important. There’s film of me watching it for the first time. It was just, absolutely, staggering. And then we needed to also share that with the authorities, so that happened. They were preparing their case long before we ever found that.
EW: Why didn’t the sound guy listen to that audio while it was happening, knowing that Bob talks to himself a lot?
JARECKI: The main thing that is important to understand is that my head was spinning. You remember A Few Good Men, when Tom Cruise says “Did you order the code red?” and Nicholson says, “You’re goddamn right I did!” That look on Tom Cruise’s face, which is like “Oh my God, did he just completely make my case for me?” That was what was going through my head. From the standpoint of the sound guy, I think he felt the same way. He took his headphones off. In general, the rule is you don’t stop recording sound, for perfectly ordinary reasons, like you want to have room tone. It was so normal that we never even listened to what was happening in the bathroom other than hearing the toilet flush from outside.
EW: You’ve said that you see yourself as an observer. Do you think it’s your responsibility as a documentary filmmaker to be working toward justice, or only to observe and document?
JARECKI: It’s the psychiatrists’ dilemma. You’re sitting there talking to your patient, and your job is to help your patient express himself and give him a safe way to do that. And then in the middle of it, your patient says “Oh by the way, I killed my wife.” As a psychiatrist, aren’t you also obliged to tell the police? To me and to Marc [Smerling], my partner, it was so clear that if we didn’t do something very serious, Bob was going to be in a position to continue what was essentially a 30-year murder spree. There’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have more people to kill, and there was every reason to believe the families — especially Kathie McCormack’s family — had suffered for many many years because he was in a position to avoid justice. It wasn’t like we thought we were freedom fighters. We just thought, even if it puts our film at risk — which we knew that it would, to share this information with the police — we had to do it.
EW: You watched the finale with Kathie’s family. Can you describe that experience?
JARECKI: We had invited a small number of people to my apartment to watch it, including Kathie’s brother, Jim McCormack, and his sister and daughter, who is this incredible spitting image of Kathie. We felt like it had been such an emotional journey, and these people were about to see Bob Durst confess to killing Kathie, among other things, and we just thought how terrible that would be for them to do that on their own, in some lonely house somewhere, without being able to commiserate with Kathie’s friends.
Anyway, right before that, we had gotten a phone call saying that the police were going up to the home of a woman who was Bob’s assistant for many years. She has all of Bob’s papers in her basement, and we heard that the police were going up there to raid the basement, and we went up there. By the time we got back, we came in shortly after episode 6 had aired, so I saw some video from someone’s phone of Jim and his family seeing Bob say, “Killed them all, of course.” He was crying. They all knew at that point that Bob had been arrested, so it was some beginning of closure for them.
EW: How do you reconcile feeling like you’re still Bob’s friend, and also feeling empathy for this family who lost Kathie because of him?
JARECKI: Both things can be true. When I say I’m his friend, I don’t know if it would be the traditional definition. To some extent, I’m somebody who can explain Bob in a way that might be useful for people, including Kathie’s family. Having been close enough to him, I can talk to some of those people and say, “I think he loved her a lot, and I don’t think he set out to murder her – and yet he did, and that’s a terrible, terrible thing.” Jim McCormack is a very staunch Christian, and he says “My Christian soul says I have to have empathy for Bob. Bob must be in a lot of pain to have committed these terrible crimes.”
Maybe I see myself as the conduit for Bob at some level, a way for Bob to maintain some level of humanity so that he’s not turned into just a caricature serial killer. Once we turn somebody into a caricature, we actually don’t learn anything anymore.
I guess what I mean by “friend” also is that I gave Bob what he wanted. If I were Bob and I wanted to tell my story, would I see Andrew Jarecki as the person who did me in? No. I would see Andrew Jarecki as the person that I handpicked to tell my story, including the part where I confessed to my guilt. It’s not impossible that Bob and I will talk again.
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki examines the complicated life of reclusive real estate scion Robert Durst, the key suspect in a series of unsolved crimes.