“I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.”
Robert Durst uttered those words in a state district courtroom during his 2003 trial for the murder of Morris Black, his neighbor at 2213 Avenue K in Galveston. Now, for the first time, people will actually see and hear Durst saying them.
Director Andrew Jarecki and producer Marc Smerling’s HBO documentary miniseries, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, is built around the filmmakers’s unprecedented present-day access to Durst, the notorious and eccentric New York City real estate heir who’s been a suspect in three murders over the past three-plus decades. But they also managed to assemble never-before-seen footage of the trial, even after learning that Judge Susan Criss did not allow TV crews to shoot sound.
“You’d think, well, somebody’s got that. There’s some agency out there that films trials, right?,” Jarecki told the audience at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the first two episodes of The Jinx on Tuesday. “But that’s not true. There was a little bit of footage from Court TV, but it didn’t have any audio.”
“We go to the judge, and we say, can we get footage of the courtroom events in Galveston that have audio and video: you know, like a movie?” Jarecki continued. “And she said, ‘Oh no, I didn’t allow that. I let them film, but I didn’t allow them to record audio, because I didn’t want to have the case tried in the media, but I wanted to give them a little something so they would satisfy the curiousity of the public.’”
The original transcripts of the trial had also been elusive, but that treasure hunt eventually paid off. Jarecki and Smerling got them from a relative of the court reporter, who had since died. They were “in a big box with a bunch of stuff at the bottom,” Jarecki said. Among that “stuff:” audio cassettes of the entire trial, and even the court reporter’s tape recorder.
“We put that little tape recorder next to the edit, picked a time for some visual match, where Bob puts his glass down or something, and we [synced] the two out,” Jarecki recalled. “And there you were: in 2003, at this trial.”
The Jinx is actually the duo’s second project about Durst; much of their research was originally done for the 2010 fiction film All Good Things, which starred Ryan Gosling as a Durst-like character, and Kirsten Dunst as the character based on Durst’s wife, Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.
Jarecki said his goal with that film was “to make a movie that Robert Durst himself could watch and have an emotional reaction to.” Durst ended up having more than that—he reached out to Jarecki, setting the stage for his participation in The Jinx.
A stylized, noirish documentary in the tradition of The Thin Blue Line, The Jinx turns Durst into something like the latest cable anti-hero, a la Tony Soprano or Walter White—except he’s all too real. A zillion comparisons to the podcast Serial are also inevitable, though, having been at work on The Jinx for five years, it’s not even clear Smerling knows what Serial is.
“Well, we saw (sic) Serial, and re-edited the whole thing in about two weeks,” he joked during the Sundance Q&A.
Like Capturing the Friedmans, another documentary directed by Jarecki, The Jinx strikes a certain ambivalent and empathetic tone, leaving the viewer to decide if they are watching a monster, a mentally disturbed victim, someone who’s guilty-but-sympathetic (among other things, Durst claims to have witnessed his mother’s suicide when he was 7), or someone who’s been falsely accused but isn’t at all sympathetic (just last month the 71 year-old, a part-time Houston resident, pled no contest to a criminal mischief charge for alleged public urination at a Rice Village CVS).
For Jarecki, the answer’s probably all of the above. As he told the crowd at Sundance:
I said to [Bob], some people say that you are the unluckiest person in the world, because you lost your wife, who you loved. You lost your best friend, who was murdered. You lost your neighbor in Galveston who you were good friends with.
And other people say you’re the luckiest guy in the world because you killed your wife, you killed your best friend and you killed your neighbor in Galveston.
I asked him what he thought about that and he said, “I think of myself as someone who was born with a burden that he couldn’t carry.” And we sort of go into what that means. We do what we can to try to explain both sides of the equation.
The Jinx begins airing on HBO on Sunday, February 8. The first and fourth episodes are especially heavy on Galveston material, with appearances by numerous local law enforcement officials, as well as Durst’s co-defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin.
For an earlier take on the case, see Gary Cartwright’s story for Texas Monthly in 2002, as well as his follow-up on DeGuerin in 2004.