Andrew Jarecki’s career has had some unusual twists and turns — the co-founder of Moviefone, after selling the company to AOL, dove head-first into the world of documentary film, making a big splash with his first feature “Capturing the Friedmans.” He then dabbled in the world of dramatic storytelling with the feature “All Good Things,” based on the real-life story of the notorious Robert Durst, a tabloid lighting rod whose wife went missing under mysterious circumstances — and whose life only got weirder after that.
The full scope of that weirdness is the subject of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” a six-episode documentary series which premiered on HBO Sunday night, and is rooted in interviews with Durst conducted after Durst saw “All Good Things” and reached out to Jarecki for the opportunity to tell his side of the story. At the TCA winter press tour last month, Jarecki told Indiewire about how “The Jinx” evolved out of his earlier work, and the difference between working in fiction versus documentary. (Though first, he explained the oddest credit on his resume: Co-writer of the theme song for the J.J. Abrams series “Felicity.”)
You were always interested in movies, prior to starting Moviefone, correct?
Yeah. My mom was a movie critic for Time Magazine, and she said that when she was pregnant with me she would just sit watching movies all the time. I guess I’ve always been interested in storytelling of various kinds. I went to college and studied directing and directed a lot of theater. And I was always interested in all types of filmmaking, documentary among them.
For you, what was the transition point between selling Moviefone and making your first film?
It was almost immediate. I started Moviefone in 1988, and I ran it until 1999, and as soon as I sold it I started making “Capturing the Friedmans.” I was still handing over the business to AOL when I was making “Friedmans,” so it was clearly the next thing I wanted to do. It was lucky. It turned out to be an amazing subject, and I learned a lot from doing it. We’ve tried to be very intuitive about things that are interesting.
So, when I’ve told people that I’d be interviewing you, they mention that you’re the co-writer of the “Felicity” theme song. I’m wondering what the story is there.
I am very close to J.J. Abrams, and J.J. and I write music together. “Felicity” had started out with a different theme song for its first season, but they wanted a new one for the next — J.J. and I had already written a song called “New Version of You,” which was really what the story about. It was a story about change.
So they were trying to find a song, and J.J. wanted to know if we should audition this song we wrote together and suggest it as a theme song. Everybody really connected with it. For whatever reason it had a lot to do with the theme of that show, which I really liked.
I’ve done some other music stuff, but kind of sporadically. My son and I just had a band together for a period of time. He’s a talented musician, so we did a song that just was in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Periodically, when things are interesting, we do stuff.
Is it just a side project?
It’s just another thing that sometimes comes to the fore. If you like music, you get sucked into it, but when you’re working on other stuff you get sucked out. Making music with J.J. is one of my favorite things ever. We have an incredibly — for whatever reason — easy way of making music together. He’s an incredibly talented person, but he’s a very, very good musician, which is something most people wouldn’t think about. We think very similarly as musicians.
How often do you still collaborate together?
Whenever we can. We see each other all the time and we’ve been experimenting with trying to find a good way of doing things long distance. I’m in New York and he’s in LA, but he’s also just a very flexible thinker. He’s able to do many different things. He and me can trade off a lot. He can play an instrument and I’ll play a different one, or we’ll do a vocal part together, and then we’ll trade off, which is fun. It’s like having an extension of your creative brain, which is great.
My main collaborator in filmmaking, Marc Smerling, we trade off a lot of things. He’s a great shooter and I don’t shoot film at all, it’s not what I do. I sit down with people and talk to them, which he doesn’t do. But he can. So it’s a good collaboration when you can feel comfortable letting that person do the thing like you would do it. I’m a control freak, but with these two, they’re such great collaborators that they’ll surprise you with things better than you would do them.
So about “The Jinx,” I want to start off by nailing down the timeline. You had been exploring the story of Robert Durst for some time, prior to him making contact with you, but about when did you start digging into his story?
I think around 2005-2006, we started to be more serious. I had always known about the story of Bob Durst and I was always interested in it. He grew up a couple towns away from where I did in Westchester. He grew up in a wealthy family, and I did too. There were certain similarities and huge differences — like I had a strong mother and his passed away when he was young. We both had very strong-willed fathers.
We handled our lives differently, obviously. But I was always interested in this story of a young man who had all these expectations placed on him, and somebody who was the son of a multi-generational, multi-billion dollar family fortune, and than years later ended up in a $300 rooming house in Texas disguised as a mute women. It was such a remarkable transition and evolution of this person who was born with everything. I’m interested in that whole idea of the legacy of inherited wealth, the idea if you come from a long line of successful people, sometime the cumulative affect of that is so strong that it’s impossible to distinguishing yourself. You see that in “Foxcatcher,” where even if you find the cure for cancer somebody will say, “That’s almost as successful as the original DuPont.” It’s this phenomenon that you see a lot. It gets to the issue of identity and who you are.
I was always interested in the story and fascinated by the romantic side of it, that he had met this beautiful girl that was nothing like him and from a family nothing like his own, and in some ways to spite his family, he married her. But she was this incredibly charming, great person who goes on to accomplish a lot: first person in her family to graduate college, first person in her family to go to medical school, etc. Then one day she disappears, so the mystery of that was really intriguing. Later in life he gets involved in all these remarkable, shocking things that it just became this incredible arc that I was really interested in following.
In the first episode, you make this deliberate choice to tease out the reveal of Robert Durst, even though his name is in the title. What was your primary strategy, in focusing on the murder first and how that led to him being discovered?
The idea was to let people get to know him, but not yet one-on-one. So you do see him in deposition and trial, you see him and hear his voice and see moments of his life, like home movies of him as a child, so you begin to meet him. But we wanted the audience to have enough time to absorb him and realize what a complex person they were getting involved with. Those surprises were going to be around every corner, but it felt all that meeting him was going to be radically altered once you start talking to him on and one, so that felt like a good place to start.
You first made a feature fictional film about his story, and then you shifted to making a documentary series. What’s been different for you in approaching the fiction version versus the nonfiction one?
Well, in the beginning, there was never going to be any access to Bob Durst. We had reached out to Bob when we were making the narrative feature and said we were interested in the story and wanted to talk to him, but his lawyer told us that people had been wanting to talk to him for 40 years and he probably wasn’t going to change his mind. He never did agree to participate, but we still thought the skeleton of his story was really fascinating. We researched it and did a tremendous amount of work, in the same way you would for a documentary. In fact, we made a little documentary about him while we were preparing to make “All Good Things,” because we wanted to show Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst who the people they were playing were, and help them understand them.
Then we made the film and that was its own journey and it was great. We made a concerted effort to make it as real and accurate as possible. I said that I wanted to make a film so real that the actual Bob Durst could have an emotional reaction to it — and that’s exactly what happened. He called me out of the blue and I thought, well, this is what’s happening now. I wasn’t going to not talk to him. I was eager to hear what he had to say.
What percentage of that original documentary became “The Jinx,” eventually?
Probably only half or one percentage of it. But for my understanding of it, it began as an important sort of learning experience. We had big hard drives where we kept all this stuff and later, though we weren’t going to use all of it, it would be a great springboard for other stuff we’d do.
So you only had half a percent ready before you started working with Robert Durst. How did your relationship with him change the creation of the project?
I always try to have a relationship with whoever the subject of the film is. I want to understand them. I usually have a lot of compassion for them and how they see themselves. The reason people participate in projects like this is because they have that basic human need to be understood. Nobody wants to die without telling their story or explaining who they are in an authentic way. For Bob, he had been the subject of so many bad hours of tabloid television that he had experienced not being understood. He wanted that, and I wanted to tell that story.
Of course I knew that was only the beginning of it, and he knew I wasn’t going to make an evening with Bob Durst, I wasn’t going to make his version of the story, and to his credit he told me I could do whatever I want. His lawyer told me there would be a lot of restrictions, but Bob said he didn’t care if I put it on a billboard in Times Square — I could do what I want. That really was the best way to approach it, because then I was able to make my own determinations as I was going. He certainly had a seat at the table, which was important, but it never risked compromising my view of it. I wasn’t Bob’s biographer.
So at the end do you think you remained fairly objective with what happened?
I think I’m objective but clear. One of the exciting things that happens with this series is that you get part way through it, and you’re suddenly on this ride.