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Stranger Than Fiction: Constructing and Deconstructing ‘The Jinx’

The series covers the enigmatic figure’s life, the horrendous crimes of which he’s been accused and, most puzzlingly for some, the traits that have helped him win people over despite his reputation.

Years after dropping out of sight to avoid being tried for killing and dismembering his neighbor, Robert Durst, scion of a wealthy New York family, was apprehended in a Bethlehem, Pa., supermarket after he attempted to steal a $4 chicken sandwich. He was carrying $500 cash and had tens of thousands more in the trunk of his rental car. Strange as it is, this incident registers fairly low on the oddness scale compared to other events in Durst’s life, which becomes abundantly clear over the course of the six-part HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. The series covers the enigmatic figure’s life, the horrendous crimes of which he’s been accused and, most puzzlingly for some, the traits that have helped him win people over despite his reputation.

Series director Andrew Jarecki first delved into Durst’s epic story for his 2010 dramatic feature All Good Things. That film focused primarily on the unsolved 1982 disappearance of Durst’s first wife and his relocation from New York to Texas, where he assumed the identity of a middle-aged mute woman.

After reading the script of All Good Things in 2010, Durst contacted Jarecki and agreed to sit down with the filmmaker for the interview his lawyers had declined on his behalf during that film’s preparation. More than 20 hours of interviews with Durst form the basis of the new project, The Jinx.

Durst and his wife Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.

Marc Smerling, who had co-scripted All Good Things (with Marcus Hinchey) and had handled videographer duties for much of Jarecki’s documentary Capturing The Friedmans, immediately joined the new documentary project and would eventually shoot a great deal of it and work closely with Jarecki and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier over the long process of shaping the material into The Jinx.

“Andrew and I flew out to Los Angeles, where [Durst] lived at the time, just to talk to him,” Smerling recalls. “Then we showed him All Good Things and he had a very emotional reaction to it. We went back out shortly afterward and shot an interview with him that lasted four days. At first we thought it might be good for television news or something like Dateline. Andrew brought the interview to Diane Sawyer, who said, ‘This story is too big.’ We’d need more room to let it breathe.”

Following the initial interview with Durst, the team shot additional conversations with many people who had known Durst or otherwise impacted the murder investigations. Simultaneously the filmmakers were compiling archival material.

“We spent years thinking it would be a feature-length documentary,” says Stuart-Pontier. Since they knew they’d need visuals for many undocumented portions of Durst’s life, they shot some reenactments, starting with atmospheric material to show spaces, such as Durst’s hideout in a Texas rooming house, that didn’t exist in any documentary form. As the amount of material grew, the filmmakers tried to cut it to work at the length of a feature film.

Smerling continues, “Then one weekend Andrew and I were talking about all these incredible TV series. What if we made this into a series of 45-minute episodes?”

As an experiment, Jarecki, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier pieced together a 45-minute opening episode. “It was amazing,” the editor remembers. “Usually, as you start to cut [a documentary] down, it gets tighter and better, but this would always lose some of the magic that was really in the details of this crazy, sprawling story. Seeing it as the first in a series of episodes was a huge revelation.”

Jarecki, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier spent time going after additional interviews that could help develop the story while expanding the re-creations. As the DP, Smerling took a very different approach to the two types of shoots. The reenactments, he says, were shot in a fairly slick way using ARRI Alexa cameras and a significant lighting package including HMIs, lighting balloons (helium) and Condors.

Robert Durst

Meanwhile, the filmmakers approached the interviews, many of which were with reticent subjects, in a completely different way. “I wasn’t precious about the cameras or lighting,” he says of those shoots. “You can get very distracted by that, especially in documentary filmmaking.”

The team started with older HDV tape-based cameras, which yielded images Smerling describes as “crunchy” but appropriate in context, and then moved to a Panasonic AG-AF100 Micro Four Thirds camcorder, “because it could run for long periods of time without having to change batteries.” He also used a Canon EOS 5D Mk II DSLR and, in the later part of the production, a Canon EOS C300.

Lighting for the interviews was minimal. “When we were shooting our interviews or picking things up or on the road, I would always bring a couple of Kino Flos—a Diva-Lite kit—and an ARRI 150 kit. I’d pick up bigger Kinos if I needed them. I think Kino is very good for interviews. It’s a forgiving light but also not too conspicuous. When shooting interviews, it’s really important not to make it about the lighting. It’s really intimidating to have a huge bright light in your face, so a lot of time you’re trying to minimize the amount of lighting on the subject to make them comfortable.”

Stuart-Pontier handled the multiple formats in Apple Final Cut Pro 7. “It’s good with different formats,” he explains, ”and we knew this would have photos, SD, HD, all different kinds of stuff.”

Durst’s story and many others with similar elements have been told countless times, particularly on police procedural shows. Sure, the mysterious disappearances, the dismembered corpses, the charmer capable of unspeakable acts, they all make a compelling narrative on their own, but the filmmakers wanted this second chance at telling Durst’s story to highlight the small details and the digressions, which in aggregate transcend the genre.

“This story has been done so many times in awful, salacious ways,” says Smerling, “and everybody misses the details and intricacies that make it a human story. That’s why this format was perfect for us.”  

The first episode of The Jinx is available to watch for free on YouTube through March 4th, 2015.