In HBO's The Jinx, director Andrew Jarecki isn't looking to tell the story of Robert Durst so much as untell it.
The six-part miniseries focuses on Robert Durst, the mysterious man with a connection to three crimes: two murders and one disappearance (which many assume to be a third murder). The only one, though, for which Durst was charged was the 2001 murder of Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas. Durst has never been convicted of murder.
What's also interesting about Durst is his deep pockets. His father is Seymour Durst, the New York City real estate mogul whose organization owns nine properties in New York. So when it comes to power, influence, and the ability to purchase the best defense attorney in town, Durst has it made.
Durst's Texas legal team was able to successfully argue that despite Durst's own admission that he dismembered Morris Black after he shot him, the initial killing was actually self-defense.
Reading this story in a tabloid paper, the self-defense plea might sound fishy. But hearing it narrated in The Jinx — well, you might be tempted to agree with the jury. That's because the way Jarecki has pieced together this series is masterful. There's a certain whodunit sensibility to The Jinx, no doubt, but for the most part, this is a show about complicating narratives to their snapping point.
What's interesting to Jarecki, who also directed the critically acclaimed, similarly themed documentary Capturing the Friedmans, is not that Durst did these things but why he did them. Every single detail that makes him look bad, every fact that casts him in a criminal light — Durst can explain all of them. Granted, you might not believe what he says. But he clearly has something to tell you.
Jarecki's series simultaneously revisits and shores up the narratives we think we know about his subject before turning on those same narratives and watching them wither away from the inside out.
I recently caught up with Jarecki to talk with him about The Jinx and what it was like to portray a hated man in such a complicated, nuanced, even empathetic way.
The interview has been lightly edited for length or clarity.
Brandon Ambrosino: This documentary started out as Durst’s idea, right?
Andrew Jarecki: We had made this narrative feature film about Durst called All Good Things, and reached out to him during the making of it. We’d spoken to his lawyer, and said, "We're making this film about your client, and maybe it would be appropriate for him to talk with us at some point, to have his perspective represented." He was polite, but he declined. A week before the movie came out in theaters, I got a phone call out of the blue from Durst. He wanted to see the film — he’d heard good things about it.
That is sort of how we connected to begin with. And after we showed it to him, he liked it. So he reached back out, and said he was interested in talking more, giving us his perspective on the story, which had been covered lots and lots of times by tabloid shows. I think he felt very frustrated that his version of the story was irrelevant to all the ways it had been told before.
BA: Because Durst approached you, some people, especially his family, have accused you of sort of being in Bob's pocket.
AJ: You know, it’s hard to say why his family took that position. That’s an idiotic position to take, for anybody. Because that’s not the kind of work that we do. A for-hire piece? We have no interest in doing anything like that. I just don't think that's a thoughtful analysis of anything we were doing. My sense was that his brother was anxious about the piece for other reasons, and just wanted to denigrate the movie to prevent people from seeing it by saying this was going to be "An Evening With Bob Durst."
BA: What was it like meeting Robert for the first time?
AJ: We'd spoken on the phone quite a lot by the time we met in person. He was very charming on the telephone. He’s got a very recognizable voice. When you're talking to him, you know who you’re talking to — he doesn’t sound like anyone else. By the time we met in person, I already had a sense of what he was like and what our interaction would be like. I thought he was very straightforward. That isn’t to say I thought of him as being consistently truthful — I didn’t. But I did know he was going to be truthful about a lot of surprising things. Things most people would keep to themselves are things Bob speaks about freely, and then other things that you would speak about freely are more mysterious when it comes to Bob. So he sort of has a … different rhythm when you compare him to a regular person.
We first met in person at the Peninsula Hotel. We had breakfast on the day we arranged to show him the film All Good Things. He was very gracious. He showed up on time; he was polite to everybody. But you can’t shake that feeling when you shake his hand: this is the hand of a person who's been well taken care of during his life; he doesn’t have the hands of a day laborer. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re shaking the hand of somebody who’s dismembered someone. There’s something about that — electricity — you can’t shake.
BA: When you began this filmmaking process, was your mind already made up about Durst?
AJ: I try to never have my mind made up for a few reasons. One, there are so many nuances to what somebody may or may not have done. I try to see situations individually and put myself in the position of the audience. I think there are a lot of filmmakers who assume they know who their audience is, and that the audience is gonna be really wound up on one side or another. And they think it makes sense to join that. But I don't agree with that.
I think the main thing you can do for the audience is to represent them: you’re their proxy. People that watch The Jinx are not gonna get the opportunity to sit down with Bob and ask the questions they want to ask, so it's my obligation to do that for them.
Some people might say they would have asked it differently. But the only thing you can do to satisfy that experience for people is to ask everything. Sometimes you ask it in more pointed ways, sometimes in less pointed ways. But you're always trying to create a safe place for the subject to express himself. That’s really what the audience is there for. They don’t care what I’m saying — they just want to make sure what I’m saying is gonna galvanize the expression of the subject.
BA: So at the end of episode six, will there be a definite conclusion? Or will we be left hanging, wanting more?
AJ: It’s sort of a mystery. There are lots of real people involved, so lots of people are paying attention to the series because Bob had such an impact on the world around him. I've said before that when we get to end of The Jinx, the audience won’t be scratching their heads. They'll know what happens.
BA: And whatever that ending is, did it blindside you the first time you learned it?
AJ: I think … I think the truth comes in strange ways. The truth is elusive, and it arrives in lots of strange little packages, and then things get put together. That always surprises me. I always find it surprising when you get a hint of the truth. And when you get multiple hints of the truth, it’s even more surprising and valuable.
BA: The narrative structure of The Jinx is really masterful. How did you decide on telling the story in this particular way?
AJ: I wish I could say we had it all figured out, but the truth is we didn't. Usually we try it the wrong way 100 times first, and that's sort of what happened here. It was really trial and error. We had a version of this that was in a sense movie length, but that version didn’t work. Every time we'd hint at something — oh, by the way, Bob has a current wife, so we'd put in a little moment with Deborah, and someone would say, "Wait a minute, you’re telling me that Durst, who’s been accused of murdering his first wife, has a new wife? I need to know more about that first story. You can’t just gloss over that."
When we started, we thought about it chronologically. There's a version that starts with Bob’s childhood and moves through to his health food store, and meeting his wife and falling in love, and then we see how that relationship deteriorates. That's one viable way of going about it. But that didn’t infuse the story with the kind of urgency it needed to carry the narrative.
It became very clear I wouldn’t care nearly as much about Bob if I didn’t see him in the context of how he ended up. If you look at the trajectory of his story, here's a young man born into a world of privilege and opportunity, in a fancy house in Scarsdale, New York. Then you follow it through 60 years later, and he’s living in a $300-a-month house disguised as a woman. You see what an unusual trajectory that is? When you know that, you have to ask yourself what kind of story structure will make that most absorbable to the audience. How will every part of that story have impact? You want the audience to engage at every level; you want them feel that every moment of this is important.
So [producers] Mark [Smerling] and Zack [Stuart-Pontier] and I are all grinding through this in the editing room. And we were also simultaneously all watching Breaking Bad. And we just thought, "Why, just because it's a documentary, can't we tell this story in episodic format?" We realized we might have to tell it that way. So we developed the story as a series, then we let each episode have its own beginning, middle, and end.
BA: What do you think about him unwittingly whispering "I did not intentionally lie" in episode four?
AJ: A lot of the stuff that Bob says off camera turns out to be important, but it’s not all stuff we were thinking about at the time. He talks to himself, there’s no question about that. I thought that was interesting. Certainly for the audience, it gives them the feeling of narration going on in his head. Bob's very casual: he speaks off the cuff, and he obviously speaks very confidently. He certainly has a clear memory of his life in some ways. I think [that moment you referenced] was one of first times the audience could see a little bit behind the curtain. It let you see that Bob is careful about what he says; he thinks about it in advance, and in some ways he rehearses it.
BA: What do you think your series can teach us about jumping to conclusions?
AJ: I’ve always felt like whenever you think about somebody — whether it’s Bob or the family in Capturing the Friedmans or the mom in Catfish, who’s also kind of a mystery — I think we tend to demonize these people based on the first few things we hear about them. That's wrong for a lot of reasons. First, it's wrong because if someone doesn’t happen to be guilty, then you're doing the wrong thing, and you could be damaging their lives.
But even beyond that, from the standpoint of what we’re doing to ourselves, that kind of narrative isn't very interesting. When you make Durst into a burlesque figure, and you say, "Well, he's a cross-dresser and a body-chopper" — both, you could argue, are technically true. Yet if you ask him, you'll find there’s an explanation for it. Now, that explanation may not satisfy you or justify anything. But there's an explanation.
Bob's explanation for why he was dressed as a woman is more interesting than someone saying he’s a transvestite. The truth is, I don’t think Bob's a transvestite. Do I think he dressed as a woman? Yes. That, by itself, is far more fascinating to understand as a specific choice he made. I'm sure a hundred amateur psychologists are gonna go, "Yeah, if it's true he dressed as a woman, then it's because he's sexually interested in feeling what it would be like to be a woman." Or maybe they think he dressed as a woman because he was trying to reclaim the identity of women in his life: he lost his mother, his wife, his best friend, so he wanted to recreate them. OK, I'm really interested in that complicated situation. I'd much rather be in that dialogue, thinking about that, trying to understand that, than reading a headline in the New York Post that says "CROSS-DRESSING FREAK."
BA: Some people might not be interested in humanizing someone like Durst.
AJ: These stories are deeply complicated. What do we take away from these things if all we’re learning about is the caricature?
You learn a lot more when you start with the premise that you’re both human beings who come at life in different ways, and approach challenges in different ways, and you have different kinds of dysfunctions. You come away with a lot more knowledge about the world, and come away with a lot more knowledge about yourself if you don’t point the finger at people — even if it’s a person you think is bad. Even if you get to the end of the series and think Bob killed all these people, and you reach own conclusion, you really haven’t learned anything by saying, "I don’t need to know anything more than X."
The truth is: you do need to know more than X.
The Jinx airs Sundays on HBO at 8 pm Eastern. It's also available on HBO Go.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Robert Durst was not charged with dismembering Morris Black. He was charged, though not convicted, of murdering Black but the defense repeatedly reminded the jury that he was not charged with dismemberment.