You might call Andrew Jarecki an expert in family dysfunction. His directorial debut, the Oscar-nominated documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," was a gripping portrait of a father and son accused of child molestation. The subject of his latest project, the six-part HBO series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," was born into a fabulously wealthy Manhattan real estate family but is better known — infamous, even — for his connections to three mysterious deaths.
Robert Durst's first wife, Kathie, went missing in 1982. Eighteen years later his close confidant, Susan Berman — who also happened to be the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster — was murdered in her Benedict Canyon home just before she was due to speak to New York police about Kathie's disappearance. And in 2001 Durst, then living in disguise as a mute woman in Galveston, Texas, was arrested on suspicion of killing and dismembering his elderly neighbor, Morris Black. Claiming self-defense, he was ultimately acquitted for the crime.
The series is Jarecki's second crack at the bizarre tale, following the 2010 feature "All Good Things," which starred Ryan Gosling as a barely fictionalized version of Durst. But this project boasts something that film didn't: The participation of Durst, who sat for more than 20 hours of interviews with Jarecki and speaks with often jaw-dropping bluntness about his past.
Jarecki's own life story is full of unexpected twists and turns: The Princeton graduate founded the ticketing service Moviefone and sold it to AOL in 1999 for $388 million. And before he tried his hand at directing, he co-wrote the theme song to "Felicity" with fellow emerging director, J.J. Abrams.
Jarecki, 51, recently spoke with The Times at his plush home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Durst reached out to you about working together after you made "All Good Things." This seems strange, given that the movie portrays him as a killer.
He said the movie made him cry three times, that compared to everything else that's ever been written about him or made about him it is by far the most humane portrait, whether or not he agrees with the implications about his guilt. [He's] also played by one of the most appealing actors in the history of the world, Ryan Gosling. We see him as somebody whom we can have some empathy for, and I think he responded very much to that. I also think he has a compulsion to tell his story, and frankly I think he enjoys the feeling of being at risk. He knows that this is a very live ball, that he hasn't been prosecuted for two of the three murders that he's been accused of.
Were there conditions to his participation in the documentary?
I got together with Bob and his lawyer for the first time at the Lambs Club [in Manhattan] for breakfast. The lawyer says, "Bob, I think this is a terrible idea, but since you've told me that you're going to do it, all I can do is give you a list of restrictions that I think you should put on the project." Bob interrupts him: "I don't care if he puts it on a billboard on Times Square, let him do what he wants." That was a very important moment in the relationship. He went on to say to me, "There's no question you can ask me that I won't answer." He was mostly true to his word on that. I was very satisfied that what we were getting was as much Bob as you could get. That's one of the remarkable things about him, the way he tells the truth about so many things.
Durst maintains his innocence but also admits in "The Jinx" to lying to police about key details in his wife's disappearance. What do you make of this?
If you don't know Bob, there are many things that he says that instantly make you assume he's guilty. But as you start to delve into his personality a little more, you realize that he also just says some odd things. For a period of months after our first interview, he was just not responsive. We'd schedule a meeting and he'd cancel it. [I'd say], "I'm going to see you Thursday, right?" and he says, "No, we're going to have to reschedule that." And I'm listening and he's in a restaurant and there's Spanish music. He says, "I'm in Madrid. I decided I didn't want to be in New York because the weather is yucky." Not long after that, we're talking to one of his assistant people and he says Bob told him, "When you talk to Jarecki don't tell him I'm in Los Angeles because I just got done telling him I'm in Madrid." I talked to Bob maybe two weeks later and I said, "You know, sometimes I talk to you and you tell me things that aren't true." And there was this long pause and he says, "I've been lying all my life, but nobody ever said I was a particularly good liar."
After the success of "Capturing the Friedmans," you chose to make a narrative film about Durst when perhaps the obvious choice would have been a documentary. Why?
This young man is the scion of this incredibly powerful family, these are people building the Conde Nast Building and the Bank of America Tower, and somehow he ends up living in a $300 a month rooming house in Galveston, Texas, disguised as a mute woman. It doesn't get any more surprising than that. That to me felt like a story that we could build a fascinating narrative around.
"All Good Things" suggested that Durst was directly involved in at least two of these deaths. Has your opinion evolved in the process of making "The Jinx"?
My opinions didn't get formed until pretty late in the game. That's something you'll see, my evolution personally. I kind of want the audience to get there on their own. At the end, they may agree with us, they may not, but they're not going to be scratching their heads.
Do you feel like you know what actually happened?
I do, which I don't know if I necessarily anticipated. That's a change. Every story has its own trajectory. People said to me, "'Capturing the Friedmans' is more ambiguous and I liked that about it." I liked that about it too, but this is not going to be like that.
How do you respond to the criticism that true-crime stories like this one glamorize accused killers like Durst, while overshadowing the victims.
I think it's a much more interesting story if you try to accept Bob's humanity, whatever you conclude about him. What's shocking is you may find you have more in common with him than you think. Even for a minute if you can understand something about him, then there's something in this series that's telling you something about yourself. I think that's more interesting than putting someone up on a stage and laughing at them.
People have compared "The Jinx" to the "Serial" podcast, which may have helped Adnan Syed win a recent motion to appeal his murder conviction. "Capturing the Friedmans" also spurred ongoing legal developments. Would you be pleased if "The Jinx" yielded similar results?
That to me is when it gets the most interesting, when you're working on something and there's a real-world impact. But I guess I don't want to have an opinion about that at the moment. I think it will be interesting to see how people respond.
What do you make of Durst's relationship with Susan Berman?
It's really clear that he loved her, platonically. I've always seen that relationship as demi-romantic in that it was never an overtly romantic relationship. But I have to assume that she was in love with him. First of all, women love Bob. I don't know that all women love Bob, but certainly some women love Bob a lot, and he's had no trouble attracting women. I always felt that Susan had a thing for Bob and at some level figured maybe they would end up together when he was finished with all of this gallivanting around. But she would not be the only woman that has been in love with Bob. There are dozens. He had a serious relationship with Mia Farrow's sister, Prudence. I think he was genuinely upset by what happened to Susan.
Do you still communicate with Durst? Is he a friend?
I had a great email from him the other day that was sort of a response to an article in the New York Post about his brother [real estate developer Douglas Durst] saying I'm enabling this evil in the world. Bob writes me a note after he reads this article saying, "I think you should arrange for him to get a refund on his HBO account." The answer is, we're in touch. Sometimes people have said, "Does Bob know what you're doing?" And I say, "It was his idea."
You've mentioned what it felt like to shake Durst's hand for the first time knowing what he'd done to Morris Black.
I do remember when I shook that hand I was touching the hand of a person of means, there were no calluses, and yet at the same time you're feeling this very delicate hand. You can't take it out of your mind that this is the hand that dismembered a human being.
FOR THE RECORD
March 9, 3:50 p.m.: Robert Durst’s first wife, Kathie, was misidentified as Kristen in a photo caption with this post.