BY CAROLINE SCHMIDT Director Andrew Jarecki is best known for Capturing the Friedmans, the acclaimed 2003 documentary that chronicled the 1989 pedophilia and sexual abuse scandal that resulted in the incarceration of Arnold Friedman and his son. The film examined the convoluted ambiguities of the Friedman case, and exposed the glaring failures of the justice system. The case was reopened this year after the Federal appeals court handling the case watched the documentary. Now Jarecki has trained his camera lens on another lurid criminal case that cries out for closure, if not justice, years after passing through the legal system. All Good Things is a fictionalized examination of the the bizarre real-life story of Robert A. Durst (re-named David Marks and played by Ryan Gosling), the troubled heir to a New York real estate fortune, long suspected of murdering his wife (played by Kirsten Dunst) who went missing in 1982.
Durst went into hiding after his wife’s disappearance, taking up residence in Galveston, Texas, disguising himself in drag and pretending to be mute. In 2000, the case resurfaced when Durst’s lifelong friend Susan Berman (re-named Deborah in the film, played by Lily Rabe) was found murdered execution-style in her LA apartment after agreeing to talk to authorities about the case. A year later, Durst’s neighbor Morris Black ( re-named Malvern Bump in the film and played by Philip Baker Hall) was murdered and his dismembered remains were found floating in Galveston Bay. Durst again went on the lam, but was eventually caught when he tried to shoplift a BandAid and a chicken salad sandwich in a Pennsylvania supermarket. Although Durst, claiming self-defense, was found not guilty of murdering Morris Black, he was convicted and served time for the charge of improper disposal of a body. All Good Things opens today at the Ritz At The Bourse.
PHAWKER: Bearing in mind your previous work in documentary filmmaking, what’s the relationship of All Good Things to the real life story of Robert Durst?
ANDREW JARECKI: I started out with an interest in the real life story of Robert Durst, just because it was such a unique story, and it’s a story that has sort of evolved over many years and I think the first time I ever heard about it I was in college, in 1982. I was in Princeton, New Jersey, and I guess I read something. At that point it was just a story about a guy who was from a very wealthy family in New York, who met this girl who was from a very modest background, and then ten years later she disappeared. At that point, all we knew was that this woman that was married to this guy had disappeared. And then 18 years later suddenly the story came back because the West Chester County District Attorney announced that she wanted to pursue the case and she was going to put all kinds of resources behind it. That West Chester DA, Jeanine Pirro—to me she seemed to be attracted to cases that could get a lot of press—which for DAs that have to run for election, that’s important. You want to be able to put your name on a case that’s in the public eye. But at the same time, one would hope that your goal is to actually pursue the case, and I think some times what happens with DAs that are grandstanders—they get wound up, they make an announcement—six months later, everyone says, oh what happened to that case? And they say, oh, we’re still active. But, there aren’t that many active cases. That was sort of the second bite at it, and I remember thinking that’s an interesting fact, that they’re reopening this case. And then shortly thereafter they identified this woman, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles, who was his best friend, and then she becomes a person of interest in the case. And then they go and try to find her, and she ends up agreeing to talk to the police and to the New York Times. And right before she goes to talk to the New York Times guy, she is found murdered in Los Angeles—and ostensibly murdered by someone she was expecting—somebody that was either a friend—she was shot in the back of the head so somebody would have had to know her, she let somebody into the house. Even the way she was found when she was dead was kind of respectful. She was lying on her back, and she had her hands folded. It wasn’t like someone was going into rob her, and no one did rob her. I thought: that’s interesting, another strange connection. Again, no one was pursued, and the LAPD handled the investigation, I think, inadequately. They had some other suspect in mind, and when that didn’t play out they were sort of stuck, because they had put all of their money behind this one witness, this one potential suspect, and then it turned out it wasn’t that suspect; and that’s very hard to say. So nothing really happened as a result of that. Then a year later, this body washes up in Galveston, Texas, and suddenly there is another connection back to Robert Durst. So I liked the story because it was—sort of like Capturing the Friedman’s—it was kind of a hidden story, even though there had been a bunch of press about it. Partly because the press happened in bursts—like, if you write one story about a guy who is suspected of three murders over a one-year period, that story comes out, and everybody starts talking about it, and it’s meaningful. If you write three stories over thirty years, its just, diffused, and nobody really focuses on it. So putting the pieces together, of that whole thing, seemed pretty interesting.
PHAWKER: Why did you decide to do this story as a docudrama instead of a documentary?
ANDREW JARECKI: I never thought of it as a docudrama, because, I don’t know if I even know what that is. I just think of it as a story and I think that there are aspects of it that are very tethered to reality, because we did happen to do a lot of research. But, I never thought of this as a documentary. There was so much unknown about what might have really happened and I thought that if you weren’t able to really get her perspective, because she’s gone, and you weren’t really able to get his perspective, because he wasn’t really planning on talking to the filmmakers, that we would be better off starting with actors and letting them develop characters, and try to understand in the context of that exploration; how did all of this begin? How do you have this couple that has this, kind of amazing life together, and had the potential to have a great marriage, and yet, everything goes so totally wrong. That I thought would be more interesting in a dramatic framework, I guess. Weirdly—we sort of accidentally ended up making a documentary anyway, because through the course of the film we went back and we read all of the stuff out there—pretty lousy journalism, for the most part—there is one New York Times writer that is very good, but everybody else was writing, you know, magazine articles that were kind of goofy, and not very well researched. So, I remember thinking, we need to go back and do primary research, we aren’t going to do a movie off of somebody else’s research. And, we got very into the process. We like to do homework, and that’s why it takes a long time to make a movie. We started looking into it, and found there were so many people willing to talk to us. And we found that there was an enormous amount of information—little stories, experiences that people had had with this couple, all kinds of quirky details—that were going to find a way into the movie, that we thought could be really interesting. I remember in the middle of it people representing us wanted us to work on something else, would say ‘are you still doing all of those interviews? You don’t need to do that. That’s not how it works. All you need to do is just find an article that you like, and just buy the rights to the article, and the movie can be the story of the article. And the audience; they won’t know the difference.’ And I thought, I think they will know the difference. I think if you can interview 75 people that were involved with this, and you can hear their recollections of what that couple was like—any one recollection might not be that informative—if you can gather a group of those kinds of memories, and you can put people back in that time, and start to hear what they remember, you’ll probably come up with some interesting moments and things for these characters to do. And that definitely turned out to be the case. And then we had this little film that we had made out of it, because we wanted to digest everything we had learned and have something that we could give to the actors. I remember when I first met with Kirsten, in New York, we were in my office and I just showed her this film that was maybe 30 minutes long. And it was so informative, about what the real Kathie Durst was like, and how people remembered her.
PHAWKER: I read that Robert Durst likes the film. Was he involved at all in the filmmaking process?
ANDREW JARECKI: He wasn’t. We approached him about four years ago or so, through his lawyer in Texas, who was represented in the film, that guy Dick DeGuerin, who’s a really smart lawyer. We said, we want to talk to Bob, because we are making this film, and we think it would be interesting for him to be involved in someway, or maybe just to talk to us about his recollections in these things; we’d like to get it right. This film would probably be the most public version ever done of the story. And he said, “I don’t think Bob would want to be involved with your program.’ We said, it’s not really like a TV program, it’s more like a movie, and he said, “Well, I understand. But, Bob is a really private person, and I don’t think he wants to be part of your program.” So, I don’t know if he ever got what we were doing — Dick’s an older guy. But I remember right when we were making the movie, right from the beginning we knew that the McCormack family is going to like the movie. Because, they’re going to want to go back in time and have an experience with their sister, and their daughter, and they’re gonna be happy that somebody is saving this girl from being forgotten. But, we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could make a movie that’s humane to everybody. Right in the beginning, I remember saying, if Bob Durst could watch this movie and have an emotional reaction to it, then I think we’ve done our job. So then when he reacted in that way—he said that he cried—and it was pretty gratifying, and not because I think he necessarily believes in every conclusion in the movie, and the movie certainly doesn’t try to promote his version of the events, but this is a guy who has been maligned in the press for many, many years, whether fairly or unfairly. And so he’s felt, I think, very much like an outsider, and he’s felt like everyone else is telling his story but because he’s restricted by the various legal machinations that are going on, he hasn’t been able to really tell his side of things—ever. So, I think it was somewhat liberating for him to be seen as a real three dimensional person, as opposed to a cardboard cutout.
PHAWKER: Why did you want to make this film?
ANDREW JARECKI: Capturing the Friedman’s came out in 2003, and just five months ago the second circuit Appellate Court —the second most powerful court in America, right under the Supreme Court—saw the film, and read an appeal by Jessie Friedman, and issued a statement saying they thought the Nassau district attorney should reopen the case. And that’s exactly what happened. Capturing the Friedman’s wasn’t a polemic, it wasn’t designed to make a specific point about guilt or innocence—that really wasn’t what the film was about—but, certainly it’s clear that in the film we show that the police work in the Friedman case is pretty awful. And therefore, if any one of the ten things that happened in the Friedman case had happened in a modern case, the whole case would have been thrown out. So the idea is that somehow—in the middle of all of this hysteria, about child molestation and sex cases that were floating around at that time—in this context it was possible for this to happen. And so, the fact that there was a court in 2010 that watches this film that was made in 2003, about this case that was forgotten in 1989, is pretty extraordinary. I love when you can make something and there is a social outcome, like that. I think it’s really great, but I don’t think that you can predict that. And I think the more you try and predict it, the more the whole thing feels manipulated. I definitely know a lot of people that are documentary filmmakers who make films that are about ‘let’s get this guy out of jail’ or ‘let’s get this guy his money back.’ I think these are some of the most boring films you can see, most of the time. Because you’re like ‘alright, I know where this is going.’ And the people who do it really brilliantly, like Michael Moore, you know, he’s such a good filmmaker, he’s making something that—when in Bowling for Columbine he brings those kids back to the Walmart to return the bullets that are in the kid’s spine, because, they shouldn’t have been sold at Walmart—I mean, there’s nothing better than that; that’s like, the greatest thing ever. That doesn’t happen to be the kind of film that I make, but I appreciate it. I definitely think it’s, unbelievably clever.
PHAWKER: What were some of the ethical considerations involved with making a film about people who are still alive?
ANDREW JARECKI: Well, some of the people are still alive. And I was definitely keenly aware of that, and I don’t think that it’s really fair to make a movie about someone that’s still alive and blatantly make stuff up about them. So, before we ever got started writing the screenplay, I sat down with my libel lawyer and I said, look, we want to make this movie about these people, many of them are still alive, what’s your guidance? He said, well, first of all, you’re going to be very methodical. You’re not going to come up with crazy claims about these people that are not supported by evidence. Number two, you’re making a movie, so — you’re not making a documentary, you’re not making a news show—and number three, the good news is that Bob Durst is probably libel-proof. Which means that, the things that he has admitted to having done are so extreme and objectionable — such as dismembering his neighbor — are so extreme that, he probably couldn’t ever sue you for harming his reputation because he doesn’t have a harmable reputation. On the other hand, you’re probably not going to say anything about him that’s made up whole cloth. So, I guess the answer to your question is, I just, try to put myself in the position of the subject of the film. And I try to think, how’s that person going to feel? You can’t always make them happy, because, some people—you know, we all have family members that you do every single thing they want you to do, and they’re still unhappy—a lot of people are just unhappy. The Durst family was very hostile to us while making the film, because they spend a lot of time staying out of the press, trying to distance themselves from Robert. I’m sure it’s frustrating for them that — they’re trying to build the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site — every time they do something good, like decide they are going to build a green building or something, they end up with some big article in the Post talking about their [infamous] brother. It’s just sort of a sore point for them, obviously, because they would like their family reputation to be unsullied by any of this stuff.
PHAWKER: Do you think the justice system failed Morris Black?
ANDREW JARECKI: I think, sometimes the Justice System is just kind of, bypassed. You know, like the express line at the airport security. If you paid for a first class ticket, you don’t have to stand in the long line. I think that’s clearly true; I think everyone knows that. I know of a guy who was arrested in Florida for soliciting girls from a local high school. It was a pretty big, popular case, and everybody wrote about him. He was indicted on what was essentially a statutory rape case, because one of the girls he solicited was like fourteen. He is totally out of his mind; everything he is doing is designed to blow himself up, and along the line he is blowing up a lot of other people. I happen to know this guy because he was an old friend of my Dad’s, he’s awful, and he has an incredible amount of money, he flies around in a 727 airliner — he has his own 727 — it’s sort of insane. And he spent, a year and a half in—not even in penitentiary—he spent a year and a half, or a year, in kind of a prison farm situation, but they let him out to go to his office. So, what exactly are they doing? Letting him sleep in a cell? Well—it wasn’t exactly a cell—it was more of a bedroom. He’s considered a non-violent sexual predator, but you’d still think that guy might go to jail for more than a year, and he might not be able to leave every day. Would that have happened if he were a regular person? Probably not.