Interview: ‘The Jinx’ director Andrew Jarecki on the origins of his HBO series

Hopefully you checked out last Sunday's premiere of HBO's “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which I gave an A- review and said had the potential to be the year's best new show.

Director Andrew Jarecki's second attempt at unraveling the mysteries surrounding Robert Durst, including the three murders he's been linked to over 30 years, began as a slow-burn building to the revelation that, after seeing Jarecki's “All Good Things,” Durst agreed to sit down with the filmmaker. 

This Sunday's episode relies heavily on Durst's recounting of his own biographical details, but also gradually shifts that focus to the “character” of Durst's wife Kathleen McCormack, missing since 1982. Even in her absence, Kathleen McCormack looms almost as large as Durst and, in an important role, Jarecki himself.

I got on the phone earlier this week with “Capturing the Friedmans” director Jarecki to talk about the structure and narrative direction of “The Jinx,” including how much closure will actually be possible after six episodes.

It turns out that the journey of “The Jinx” and its evolution out of “All Good Things,” is mighty complicated stuff and the explanation for the doc-to-narrative-to-interview-to-doc-to-series voyage took up roughly a third of our interview time. 

Jarecki still had lots of interesting things to say about McCormack's family's involvement, how he decided to make himself a part of the series and more, even if I didn't get to more than a few questions from my list. 

I'll just have to talk to Jarecki again after the “Jinx” finale.

Click through for the full conversation.

HitFix:    So I guess my first question is there”s the show “Finding Bigfoot” in which we watch each episode assuming that they did not, in fact, find Bigfoot because we would have heard about it already. In the same vein, since it hasn't made the news, is it safe to assume that “The Jinx” does not end with Robert Durst crying and confessing to everything?

Andrew Jarecki:    I think that would be a proxy question for me telling you what happens in the series which I think would sort of deny the audience the benefit of having the experience.

HitFix:    Okay.

Andrew Jarecki:    But I appreciate your leading with that question.

HitFix:    Let me try it like this: When you set out to do this as a project would you have hoped for that to be a conclusion? Does that seem like a better way of putting it maybe?

Andrew Jarecki:    I think it”s the same question. I think what we”ve done here is extremely unusual and I think it”s different than anything you”ve seen before. And I think that”s why we”ve said that there is closure, knowing that that”s an issue for people when they engage in something like this, you know. The joy of becoming a part of a journey like this which you”ve seen to some extent, you know, there have been other things that have drawn people in and you always hope to engage people at a high level because you care a lot about the material. I think that this is a story that”s not only entertaining and engaging but important and serious. And so I think that experience for the audience is going to be different because that”s, I think, why HBO”s engaged in it at such a high level and it”s frankly why my partner and I gave 10 years to it. This is not designed to be a kind of a one-off. We didn”t think, “Well there”ll be something clever about trying to make it six episodes or stretching out a story.” This is the story that had to be told in the long form. There was no other way to do it that we knew of and we allowed it to be as long as it needed to be in that journey and those twists and turns along the way are the things that the audience seeks to experience in order to get where this is going.

HitFix:    Now talk to me a bit about that structure. Why was six episodes the right amount? Or, as a variation on that when did you reach the point at which you felt like you were ready to, I guess, find the structure of the story and how you were going to tell it in the editing room?

Andrew Jarecki:    Well if you just look at the last 10 years, which is relevant because I was talking to my lawyer the other day and he said to me, “Andrew, do you know that you first sent me an email about Bob Durst in 2006?” that”s when we first started working on this. And if you”re looking at a macro standpoint, the first five years we were making “All Good Things.” We were writing it. We were researching the story for the purposes of making a feature film. And we went through all the permutations of that and we reached out to Robert Durst maybe a year into to that process because we knew we were making a film about somebody who is a living person, a controversial person and somebody who was at liberty to speak with us if he wanted to. So we called him through his lawyer and we said, “We”re interested in talking to your client. We think we're making film about his life and it would be fair to him to be able to weigh in on it.” And they declined politely and said, you know, “Bob has not talked to anybody in dozens of years. He”s not likely to change his attitude about it now but he wishes you well.” And then we went back to work. So the next three or four years of that were us going out and casting Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst and building a narrative that made sense to us for that film. 

And then out of the blue, five years into that, about a week before the movie came out in theaters, I got a phone call out of the blue from Robert Durst saying, “I”ve heard good things about the movie. I”d like to see it.” And we arranged for him to see it and thereafter, he called me and said, “I like the movie very much. I was emotional. I had a strong reaction to it. You know a lot about me and I think we should talk more.” And then there was kind of a dance that went on for a period of time about what that was going to be like. And then we agreed that we were going to do an interview. I did not at that time — and my partner and I talk about this a lot — we didn”t know what we were going to do with it. We had thoroughly addressed, we thought, the subject about Durst in the film and we had said what we wanted to say with the film and we were sort of done. But then suddenly our subject had called and said he wasn”t done and that if we wanted to he would talk to us about private things that he had not talked about in any way publicly before. 

So then we thought, “Alright, well now we”re making an interview. We don”t know what that”s going to be.” So we gave ourselves the flexibility in terms of our agreement with him and how we went out and began to do that. And we sort of thought of it as an interview for, I don”t know, the first six months or so. And then I showed it to a friend who”s a broadcaster and who is really smart about these things and she said, “You”re making a movie.” And I said, “No, no, no, no. We”re really not.” I said, “What I want you to tell me is how do we organize this so that I can do something appropriate with it, we”ll put it out '60 Minutes' and we”ll be able to have this piece of information out there and we”ll be done with it.” And she said, “There is no television out like that anymore and that's not how TV works. TV is like 12 minutes at most. And I”ve been watching this guy for 45 minutes,” I”d done a sort of cutdown. And she said, “I”m totally fascinated and there”s nothing I can do with what you”ve given me unless you let me keep going. And so the quicker you understand you”re making a film, the quicker you can stop with this hemming and hawing and start making the film.” So we sort of sat back down and said, “Alright, well maybe we need to conceive of this as a film.” And then we, you know, we had started working with a very talented editor, Zach Stuart-Pontier, who had made “Catfish” with us. And we said, “Look, let”s cut this into a film format and let”s see what it feels like.” And so we started cutting and we ended up with, I don”t know, four-and-a-half-hour cut. And when we showed it to people — and that”s a good commitment —  people didn”t get bored. Nobody got up to go to the bathroom unless we turned off the television. And we said, “How”s it going for you?” And people would stop on some little detail like, you know, Debra Charatan, Bob”s wife, comes up – I”m assuming have you seen episode one and two?

HitFix:    One and two, yeah.

Andrew Jarecki:    Yeah. So, you know, when Debra Charatan comes up, Bob”s wife, people would stop us and they”d say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. You just touched on the idea that he”s married now?” And we would say, “Yeah.” And they would say, “Well wait a second. A lot of people think he killed his first wife.” And we”d say, “Yeah.” And they”d say, “But now you”re telling me he… I need to know who marries him and why and how and how did that happen that this guy who”s accused of killing his first wife finds another woman and now they”ve got this marriage. How does that work? So I can”t watch this and not have that in it.” Then they would find some other detail like that and they”d say, “You can”t gloss over that thing.” And so we said, “Well maybe we”re living in a kind of a binge-watching universe where the definitions of what makes a show or what makes a piece of content obviously blurry. Why don”t we start from the other side. Instead of saying, 'We”re trying to make something that”s two hours' let”s just say, 'Let”s let this story be as long as it needs to be to tell the story that”s mandatory. We”re not going to make them a minute longer but let”s let this be as long as it is. And I bet at the end of the day we”ll find a place for it.'” 

And so we just started cutting it, you know. We began cutting sort of episode one and episode one was really fascinating and Bob doesn”t even sit down until the end of episode one. So we said, “Well that”s the pace of the thing. The pace of the thing is obviously we need to know enough about this person before we meet him and then we need to absorb these chapters of his life. And this is a guy who”s been accused of three murders over 30 years. There”s no zipping through these things because we investigate. So for us, we needed to go and understand what had happened in every one of these situations. The audience needs to understand them in a way that”s not the kind of glossy way that you get in a a traditional television environment. We need to go deeply into each one of these alleged crimes and we need to have a point of view on all of them. And then at the end we”re going to have to pull the camera back and see if we understand what happened.” And we felt that we didn”t know whether we would have closure. We thought the journey was going to be pretty interesting one way or the other. And then, of course, as we started to go down the path we did find closure. So I don”t think we knew until two years in that we were making a series. I think six months in we thought we were making an interview. I think a year in we thought we were making a movie. I think two years in we realized we were making a series.

HitFix:    And how complicated or how much convincing did you have to do in order to get, specifically in the second episode, to get Kathleen”s family and friends involved?

Andrew Jarecki:    None at all. I mean I would say none at all in the last five years. But the reason is that we already knew them all because when we were making “All Good Things,” we had reached out to them and had started making a documentary. And the reason that we started making a documentary — just to add another layer to the confusion — the reason that we started making a documentary back in 2006 is that we knew that eventually we would want to be with actors and that in my preparation with the actors I would want to be able to show them as closely as possible what the story was really like. I would want whoever was playing Kathy, ultimately Kirsten, to meet the McCormacks and to understand what their beautiful daughter was like or sister or sister-in-law, you know, that I wanted to meet Jim McCormack and have the ability to have that kind of openness. And that family is an amazing family. They”re an unbelievably warm and, in some ways, vulnerable family and we wanted to treat that relationship with great care because they had been through a lot. And so we never went to them and said, “Look, we”re going to deliver a hard and fast point of view on this and you might like it, you might not like it.” We just knew that they had been through a lot and that we wanted to treat them carefully but that we wanted to include them in the process. And we did the same thing with law enforcement. We knew that there had been people in all these cases who had really been very committed to these cases and had very firm points of view on things. And we said to them all, “We”re here to let you tell your story and we will try to incorporate it as best we can in whatever this turns out to be.”

HitFix:    In the second episode Bob has this visceral reaction and almost this sneer when he talks about spending time with ordinary people. Did he know your own socioeconomic background and did you get the feeling that he was sort of approaching you as an equal to some degree?

Andrew Jarecki:    Well I think Bob knew that I was not going to be put off by his resources or him coming from a kind of privileged, East Coast background. I guess you meet some people who don”t know how to relate to him, but I did know how to relate to him to the extent that you can relate to somebody who”s as unusual as Bob is. I think some of the basic distance was gone although, you know, we”re wildly different people there are certain things that, you know, that were sort of probably more natural than they otherwise would have been.

HitFix:    What do you think that sort of common ground was or that meeting-as-equals was?

Andrew Jarecki:    You know I think that I try to go into everything with a very open mind, which is to say that if I”m sitting down to interview Bob I can”t go into that interview assuming that anything anybody said about him in the past is correct. That interview has to be, there has to be a genuine connection. Now that does not mean that the thing we”re going to make is like “An Evening with Bob Durst.” We might disagree wildly on many things but I”m going to give him a safe environment in which to tell his story. I”m not going to interrupt him. I”m not going to attack him. I may express a contrary position. I may film a piece of evidence that doesn”t comport with what he”s saying. And if there is such a piece of evidence you can be sure that I will show it to him. But I think the important thing was more, for him, knowing that we were going to give him the benefit of the doubt. We were going to give him some safety. And he said in the beginning, “Look, the reason I”ve never talked to the media is because anybody in the mainstream media is just trying to zap me,” which is kind of a Bob-ism. But I think it”s clear what he means by that. And later in the series he says, “The downside of doing an interview is that the interviewer is going to take whatever I say to make me look as bad as possible. The upside is that there”s going to be something out there from me.” And then he was frustrated, I think, at how he had been portrayed. 

What”s interesting about Bob is he doesn”t disagree with a lot of the most negative things people say about him. He”s extremely self-aware in a unique way. The day that we did the first interview, we were trying to figure out how to ease our way into it so that I wasn”t just sitting across from Bob peppering him with questions on the first day. And we have never really sat together in that way before. So Marc [Smerling] and I, my partner and I, agreed that we would start by just having two or three hours in a recording studio in Los Angeles where we would watch the movie “All Good Things” together and we would record the audio commentary for the DVD. And that that would be sort of a warmup for the interview which was then going to follow that afternoon and then for a couple of days thereafter. And it turned out it was a good decision because we did end up going into the studio and sitting in the dark basically. We filmed a little bit of it and the two of us were sitting there with microphone watching the film. In the beginning it was pretty painless because we were starting the film with home movies with him as a child and growing up in this opulent way in Westchester and his mother and his father and so on. And that was kind of emotional for him to see because we were quite true to life about how we had done it even though we had recreated those things. So we sat there and watched it and he made some comments about it. “Oh, you really got that right” or “You really had a sense of what that was like” or “That house is like my house,” whatever. 

And then I kept thinking, “Well we”re headed for trouble here because there”s going to be that scene where Ryan comes in, as Bob once did, and walks across the living room at Kathy”s mother”s house in front of her mother and in front of her brother and grabs her by the hair and drags her out of the house by her hair.” This was a scene that I had heard described many times by people who were there and they had said it was really a very violent and frightening event. Now Bob and Kathy had been married for a while and this was the first time that violence is so visible in their relationship that her mother and her brother and other family members actually got to see him essentially come after her or attack her in front of other people. And I thought, “Alright, this scene is coming up and we filmed it in a very realistic way and it”s going to be really upsetting and I wonder how Bob is going to react to it.” And we got closer and closer and I was sort of nervous about it and then there it is. And I”m assuming that he”s going to say, “Well Andrew, this is obviously totally fabricated. I would never have done anything like that. That really makes me seem like a vicious person.” I assumed he was going to say something like that. So I”m watching and the microphones are still live and we”re watching the scene. And he looks up and he sees the scene playing out and he says, “Oh, I”ve heard this scene described two ways.” And I said, “Oh, how have you heard it described?” And he says, “Well one way is that I came into the house and I grabbed her by the hair and I dragged her out of the house by her hair. And another way I”ve heard it described is that I walked in and I yanked her by the hair and a big chunk came out.” And there”s a long pause and he says, “Either one of those is pretty close.” 

And I thought, “Well now I know where we”re going, you know. Now this is going to get interesting because this is not a guy who is going to whitewash everything. It doesn”t mean he won”t whitewash anything but he”s certainly going to be open about a lot of things that the average person would never be open about.” And that”s one of the unique things about Bob is that he will tell you things even if they”re shocking and make him look bad. He will be open about some of those things. It doesn”t mean you believe everything Bob says at all, but it does mean that you have a way into this person that you often don”t have with others.

HitFix:    And when did yourealize that you were going to have to be a character in this to some degree and how did you want to present yourself in the documentary?

Andrew Jarecki:    You know I never thought about being in the documentary until we had been doing it for quite a while. I think if I remember correctly maybe it was when we went to Galveston and I was walking around with one of the cops and we end up walking over to the place where the body was dumped in the bay. It was just clear that part of what was happening was that me and my partner Marc were going into these locations. Over 10 years we visited dozens and dozens of places and cities where Bob had been or where things had happened. And we interviewed well over 100 people, many of those on film. And so we just realized at a certain point that that sort of investigative process was going to be important for the audience to see. But we thought, “Well maybe it'll just be a hint of that so that they know that they can maybe trust the guys that they”re on the journey with.” 

But then as my relationship with Bob started to become more direct and took place over a long period of time, there were things like my frustration with Bob kind of disappearing in the middle of our process. That became part of the story too, that this person who had been incredibly open with us had decided to close back up again and it made us question some of where we were heading. So that naturally became a part of it. And then as we got further and further into it, for reasons I think you”ll see in the further episodes, it becomes really mandatory because just from a pure storytelling standpoint you need somebody to ride with through this territory. You can”t have the story be carried entirely by Bob. You can”t have it be simply a dialogue between Bob and his detractors or supporters. You needed some grounding. You needed to know where you were. And the audience sort of becomes part of an investigation, so you need to know who”s doing that investigation.

[I get the wrap-up warning here and have to scan through my questions trying to figure out something to close with.]

HitFix:    As a last question. Given all that you”ve done and all the interviews you”ve conducted over the time is there still a Moby Dick interview? Is there still a white whale interview that you wish you could get or could have gotten?

Andrew Jarecki:    I would say the people who I would love, the people who I”ve always been fascinated to interview and I always am open — even after we finish a film, we still go out and meet people. I would say we got virtually anybody we wanted and that the people who would still be interesting to talk to are mostly deceased.

HitFix:    Okay, that would be a liability I can see. I”m looking forward to those next four episodes.

Andrew Jarecki:    Well I thank you. I”m keen to hear from you after and I appreciate your engaging so much. It really is an experience. I think it will continue to be that way.

“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on HBO.