Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling admit they are fascinated by Robert Durst, the scion of one of New York's wealthiest families whose bizarre behavior in Galveston and elsewhere is the centerpiece of a new HBO mini-series, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which debuts February 8.
The duo, whose acclaimed documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003, spent several years making All Good Things, a 2010 film about the wealthy son of a New York real estate tycoon and the series of murders linked to him, which is based on Durst's life. Just as the movie was released, they got a call from Durst and struck up a strange quasi-friendship that resulted in extensive filmed interviews.
"We weren't that keen on doing another Bob Durst film at that time," Smerling told an audience after screening the first two episodes of the six-part HBO series at the Sundance Film Festival. "We had had our fill of Bob Durst, writing a screenplay for two-and-a-half years. [But] we sat down to talk, and he was so fascinating that we kept at it for another five years."
Much of the first episode of The Jinx is based in Galveston, where Durst was arrested and charged with murder.
Much of the first episode of The Jinx is based in Galveston, where Durst was arrested and charged with murder after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found in Galveston Bay. The mini-series footage is graphic, and tourist officials won't be pleased with the depiction of the island.
"We see Galveston, it's seedy and it's decrepit," Jarecki said. "When you see New York City, it's opulent."
The contrast is intentional, as Durst's family is responsible for the construction of 11 major New York skyscrapers, including the One World Trade Center (aka the Freedom Tower) and the Bank of America Tower.
"It's a story that I see as operatic — a multigenerational family with a multibillionaire-dollar fortune in New York City. They've altered the Manhattan skyline. And then you have this remarkable character, Bob, who did not fit into that world, didn't want to be of that world. And I think the wealth of it, the privilege of it is something that never really agreed with him," Jarecki said.
The episode also features extensive interviews with Galveston Police Department investigators and the dive team that picked the body parts out of the water. All seemed amazed that the mild-mannered-looking Durst was capable of murder.
"It doesn't fit," one official says. "That guy looks like a librarian."
According to the mini-series, Durst wanted to hire Houston attorney Dick DeGeurin to defend him, while Durst's wife favored another Houston attorney, Mike Ramsey. So both attorneys were hired for a reported $600,000 each. In total, Durst says, he spent $1.8 million on his defense. "I hope it gets me acquitted," he tells his wife in a phone conversation.
Although most know what happens, we won't spill the results here. Jarecki said the entire fourth episode of the mini-series features the Galveston trial, including never-seen-before views of the proceedings. The judge allowed some video but no audio. However, when the transcripts came in, the filmmakers got the surprise of their lives.
"And we saw Bob saying this line, 'I did not kill my best friend, but I did dismember him.' I just thought how could that unique moment in time be lost to the ages? It was so lucky we were able to find it."
"The transcripts came in a big box. ... It turns out at the bottom of the box there was this big batch of old-fashioned cassette tapes that were essentially the whole trial that had been recorded," Jarecki said. "The reason the court reporter had recorded these things without the knowledge of the judge is that it was a big trial, he didn't want to get it wrong, so he had a little tape recorder there."
"We synched the two up and suddenly it was 2003 at this trial. We were listening to everything. And we saw Bob saying this line, 'I did not kill my best friend, but I did dismember him.' I just thought, how could that unique moment in time be lost to the ages? It was so lucky we were able to find it."
Jarecki, who directed the mini-series, and Smerling, who shot most of it, won't let on whether they believe Durst is guilty of crimes, including the strange disappearance of his wife in 1982 and the execution-style murder of a close Durst friend in 2000. (Both cases remains unsolved and Durst, now 71, has never been charged in either of them.) But it seems clear that they find him eminently intriguing.
"At one point [in the interview] I said, 'Some people say that you are the unluckiest person is the world because you lost your wife who you loved, you lost your best friend who was murdered, you lost your neighbor in Galveston you were good friends with, that's terribly unlucky. Other people say that you were the luckiest guy in the world because you killed your wife, you killed your best friend, you killed your neighbor in Galveston, you have a great lifestyle.'
"I asked him what he thought about that. He said, 'I think of myself as someone who was born with a burden I couldn't carry.' We sort of go into what that means. We do what we can to show both sides of the equation."
Most of the Durst family did not cooperate with the filming. "For the most part, they were adamant about not participating," Jarecki said. "Just two days ago, I was sued by the Durst family personally.
"There are very strong feelings. There were a couple members of the Durst family that were extremely forthcoming and have felt strongly that the family did not handle this part of their lives in an appropriate way and felt like they wanted to speak out and be heard.
"And, to some extent, that's why we have this beautiful home movie footage and history of that family, which is a family that has some significant certainly in New York City but in the history of the country as well."