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A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling have been lying low since March, when Robert Durst, the subject of their startling six-part HBO documentary, was arrested in New Orleans on the eve of the show’s finale and accused of being a serial killer — thanks in no small part to the revelations uncovered in The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.
Citing their potential role as witnesses in Durst’s trial in Los Angeles for the 2000 murder of mob heiress Susan Berman — for which no court date has been set and Durst is being held without bond in Louisiana, where he first faces a federal weapons charge for a revolver found at the time of his arrest — the documentarians have remained quiet until now.
“To try the case in the media, or for us to provide some pseudo-expert opinions about how the legal process is going to go, is only going to confuse people and go beyond our sphere of expertise,” explains Jarecki, recently breaking that silence in an interview with THR.
Jarecki, 52, who wrote, directed and produced the series, and Smerling, 52, who wrote, produced and served as cinematographer, talked about the controversy that has swirled around their project, the strange, chilling charisma of The Jinx‘s central character and when they first believed he was guilty of murder.
I’ve imagined you both in witness protection since the finale.
MARC SMERLING It’s sort of been like that. (Laughs.)
The Jinx initially was intended as a documentary feature. How did it become an HBO series?
SMERLING We were suffering trying to make a two-hour movie. Every time we cut it down, we lost some of the delicious pieces — the moments with Bob that raised it above just a murder story. At the same time, we were watching Homeland, House of Cards and these series stretching one crime over entire seasons. That’s what we needed: the ability to live in a structured piece of storytelling of these three murders but with time to focus on other things. We threw a pilot together and did a chalkboard outline of six episodes. The second episode introduced this kind of sympathetic, funny, interesting guy who confounds the audience. It subverts your expectations. Every subsequent episode turns it over again until he reveals himself.
ANDREW JARECKI We built the series before anyone saw it. The emotional through line for us was our connection to the family of [first victim] Kathie Durst. We had become close with them when we were making All Good Things, interviewed them and the police, and put together a sort of documentary about the story to show [the actors]. These people were so destroyed by what happened to their sister and daughter. It was really hard to ignore. Bob became kind of a burlesque figure — the unusual behavior, dressing as a woman, burping, all of the ticks and that background of wealth and privilege. He’s a fascinating character, but the big thing for the audience of The Jinx, I think, is seeing Kathie’s niece who looks so much like her and tells how this family has been torn asunder. Getting closure for that family was one of the things that drove us through getting this done.
At what point did you decide Durst was guilty?
JARECKI People think it’s a joke to give Bob the benefit of the doubt. As soon as you hear that he chopped up his neighbor, nobody wants to hear the nuances of whether or not he killed his wife, accidentally killed his wife and got rid of the body or if some drug dealers broke in during the middle of the night and secreted his wife away — which is what he’d like us to believe. But when he reached out to me [after Jarecki made the 2010 fictionalized Durst story All Good Things], I felt like I had to give Bob the benefit of the doubt. You had to give him a safe place to tell his story. But the moment where that changed was our finding that letter in the same handwriting [as an anonymous letter alerting police to Berman’s body].
SMERLING I always found it so hard to reconcile that Bob had been so close to three tragedies. But as journalists, we try to draw out the truth by neutralizing your perspective. Once we saw the letter, we couldn’t neutralize our perspective anymore.
Were you ever concerned for your safety?
JARECKI Murder is one possibility to solving a problem — you always had to be attentive to that. But the man, in our view, is not just a random killer. He’s a strategic killer and won’t put himself at risk unless he thinks there’s an upside. I think we were doing what Bob wanted us to do. He came to me knowing what we didn’t know at the time: that he killed all three of those people. What drove him to reach out to filmmakers and say, “I want my story to be told?” I think this compulsion to confess is a driver for him. It’s a release he was looking for.
There was some criticism about the timetable for production, what you knew when and at what time you delivered evidence to the police. Do you want to clear any of that up?
JARECKI We were really straightforward about it at the time. We had given the evidence to the authorities two years before the show aired. And we thought that it was responsible and appropriate. And there was so much heat around the show, the natural instinct of the press would include trying to figure out if we were making a spectacle of it. That’s not what we did.
Are you going to be called as witnesses?
JARECKI The reason we’re not talking to press now is that there’s a live case being prepared, and we’re going to be witnesses in that case. To try the case in the media, or for us to provide some pseudo-expert opinions about how the legal process is going to go, is only going to confuse people and go beyond our sphere of expertise. We’re just trying to be respectful of the process for everyone. Ultimately, Bob has to get a fair hearing and the victims have to be respected. This will be a real thorough, thoughtful process with lots of people weighing in.
Have there been any new developments on your end since the finale and Durst’s arrest?
SMERLING We’re as in the dark as anyone. We’ve been able to put it aside and work on some other things. It will come alive again if Los Angeles decides to try him, but right now we’re turning our attention to other projects.
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