The new HBO documentary series, "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," comes from filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. It investigates the possible murders committed by Robert Durst — a member of a prominent New York real estate dynasty. But "The Jinx" is not the first project Jarecki has made about this troubled man, who at times has lived under assumed identities — including that of a mute woman.
Jarecki’s 2010 feature film, “All Good Things,” was largely based on Durst's life. His first wife, Kathy, went missing in 1982 and Durst was a suspect in her disappearance. The case remains unsolved. Meanwhile, Durst would go on to be accused of two other murders. While making "All Good Things," Jarecki tried to reach Durst, but it wasn't until he'd finished the film that he heard from him. That call became the genesis of "The Jinx."
The Frame's host, John Horn, spoke with Jarecki from his home in New York.
How did you react when Robert Durst actually called you?
My first reaction was to think, If he's prepared to be interviewed, I've got to interview him. It didn't occur to me to really think through whether we were making a film from it or really just an interview. I thought, Well, I'll interview him and we'll put it on television, and that will be the piece.
And then I ended up showing it to Diane Sawyer, who — along with her late husband, Mike Nichols — had been a great adviser to me. We sat in their apartment and I showed them 45 minutes of a cut-down version of the Bob interview, and she said, "I can't stop watching this guy."
Later, we realized that we had so much material and that our research had taken us in so many new directions that we had to let it be longer. It just wasn't fitting for it to be cut down to a film, even at four hours.
You had obviously thought about Robert and this case for a number of years, but when you actually met him did it change your perception of who he was?
It changed my perception a lot. Bob is a surprise when you meet him, because he's incredibly polite, he's well-educated, well-spoken and quite rational. He's not like everyone else, and his answers are not the same as the ones you get from everybody else, and you become used to that.
It's very compelling when you're going through the process, because he's got dozens of things to say that are unexpected; every time I think I know the answer to a question, I get a different answer.
You had made "All Good Things" and you had put that behind you. When you were talking to him, did you start thinking about how you made that film and whether you got things right? Or are you able to keep the two projects separate?
That's an interesting question. I had a very salient experience at the beginning, when I first decided that we would sit down and do an interview. I thought, It's going to be awkward to sit down with him for the first time. Why don't we start by going to a recording studio and doing an audio commentary for the DVD of "All Good Things?" That would be an interesting warm-up.
So we went to this recording studio and met him for the first time after a quick breakfast. We sat down and started talking about the film as it started playing, and as it was playing there were plenty of innocuous moments when he would say, "Oh, that's very much like what my house was like when I was growing up," or, "You really captured that moment at my birthday party." That was all fine.
But I knew that we were heading for a scene that's quite violent, where Ryan [Gosling], in the character of Bob, comes into the house where they're having a party for Kathy. He's angry it's taking too long, and he walks across the floor in front of her whole family and drags her out of the house by her hair. And this was the first moment that violence enters their relationship in a visible way.
I was nervous because I thought, It's easy for him to comment about little things, but what's he going to do when we get to this part? As we got closer to it, I got more nervous. And then suddenly the scene's up and he says, "Oh, I've heard this described a few ways." And I said, "Alright, how have you heard this described?"
"In one version," he says, "I walk in the house, I bound across the living room and I drag her out of the house by her hair. And in another version I yank her by the hair and a big chunk comes out." There was a long pause, and then he said, "Either one of those is pretty close."
But he's talking about those scenarios as if he wasn't there, as if it's been recounted to him like he wasn't the actual participant.
I think his attitude about it is, This happened. And that's important to me, because he could have easily said, "This whole thing is made up," and we would have had a fantasy conversation and this interview would have been for naught, because if he's not going to tell the truth about stuff that I know actually happened, what's the point?
It was disarming for me because it really tells you that he's willing to talk about things that a lot of people would hide. He's willing to talk about how he started out in the lap of luxury and ends up, 70 years later, living in a $300 per month rooming house in Galveston, Texas while disguised as a mute woman. This is a man who's willing to explain that to you, and that's pretty incredible! [laughs]
There are a lot of mysteries about Robert Durst's past, including the disappearance of his wife and another person. As you're making this film, is the goal of your documentary to figure out how these people disappeared? Or is it to figure out why Robert Durst thinks and behaves the way he does? Or are those the same questions?
I would say that the two are integrally related. There's no way for me to hear Robert Durst tell his story without also doing the investigation to figure out what he's telling me and whether it's true.
Douglas Durst, Robert's brother and the chairman of the family's massive real estate holdings company, has sent you a letter in which he calls you "an enabler of a sick and dangerous man," and that parts of your film are "a perversion of history." How do you respond to those allegations?
I'm surprised that he decided to weigh in before he had seen any of [the series]. It interests me that Douglas is as antagonistic to this as he is. Right up front he said, "Andrew Jarecki has allowed Bob Durst to fund the documentary," and nothing could be sillier, to tell you the truth. I've been making films for many years and I would never, in a million years, take money from a subject of a film. That's just absurd.
Then later they adjusted their version of that to say, "Well, maybe he's not paying for it, but Jarecki was taken in!" I'm not easily led, and this is certainly not going to be "Dinner Theater with Bob Durst." We're not watching Bob's version of the truth.
I think it's interesting that this family, who's now sued me and written endless legal letters to HBO, myself and everyone who works with us on this film, has never once mentioned this beautiful girl, a member of their family, who went missing in 1982. These letters include a lot of things about damages — the damages to their reputations and their ability to sell more square footage — but they never mention Kathy Durst.
Did you find that you were thinking of yourself less as a documentarian and more as a private investigator, that you were in that odd territory that Errol Morris was in for "The Thin Blue Line"?
I always feel that's natural territory for us, because when you're talking to somebody and the stakes are high — as they are in this situation with three murders that have taken place over 30 years, all kinds of allegations, and families destroyed around it — you realize that you have to do the work.
If you're going to go to the audience and say, "This is what happened," you have to represent the audience, and you have to be as thorough as the audience's nerdiest relative who would really do that last piece of work to make sure that you've really figured it out. So I always feel really compelled to do it, and we've developed those skills over the years; we're not afraid to do the investigative stuff, and it's really natural.
You say "three murders," but one of the cases is basically a missing persons report. Have you come to a different conclusion about whether his first wife is missing or was murdered?
He certainly was accused of murder, and then people came to the conclusion later that there was a version that did not include murder. And then you have Bob Durst on the stand in Galveston, saying, "I did not kill my best friend, but I did dismember him." So the question about what exactly happened in Galveston is something that we absolutely get into in the series.
"The Jinx" has been described by the Wall Street Journal as "a cross between the podcast 'Serial' and HBO's 'True Detective.'" What do you think of that comparison?
It's flattering because I like both of those products, but I do think it's a different animal. "Serial" was designed to be somewhat ambiguous, and I think this series will be less ambiguous and, at the end, viewers will know what happened.