True crime stories fascinate director Andrew Jarecki. He first made a splash with Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a Long Island father and son who were accused of child molestation. The documentary went on to win Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Now Jarecki returns with All Good Things, his narrative debut. The film is inspired by the real-life disappearance of Kathleen McCormack, wife of former New York real estate mogul Robert Durst. Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst star as David and Katie Marks, a happily married couple whose domestic lives takes a turn for the worse after David shows signs of fraying sanity.
Tiny Mix Tapes recently talked to Jarecki about his directorial efforts, as well as the controversial documentary Catfish, which he produced and is now available on DVD.
What legal challenges did you face in adapting the Durst story?
When the screenplay was nearing completion, the Durst family obtained an early draft and went totally nuts over it. They wrote us an eight-page lawyer’s letter about how unfair it was to the family. All the things I remember from the letter are without merit. They wrote, “We were never landlords to porn businesses in Times Square.” Not only were they the biggest landlords for porn, but the facts are well-documented in the New York Times and various books. I guess they didn’t anticipate we’d do as much homework as we did. They sent a copy of the letter to CAA [Creative Artists Agency], the Weinstein Company, and Magnolia Pictures. Anyone involved with the film was threatened by this family. I had to go to distributors and say, “We want you to distribute this film, but there’s one little detail: the wealthiest family in New York is suing us.”
With All Good Things, Ryan Gosling gives yet another intense performance. Can you talk about what rehearsals were like?
We talked a lot about the physical qualities of his character and whether he should look more like Bob Durst. They don’t look that similar, but once we styled [Ryan’s] hair and put him in the suit Durst wore to court, I could see Ryan take on his qualities. We considered prosthetic make-up, but I was concerned it’d be too much of a distraction or that it’d subliminally impede the performance. Later, we looked at the script to see how it evolved — not just emotionally, but in terms of pacing. Violence is an important part of the movie, for example, but it happens infrequently and in bursts. We’d say to ourselves, “Nothing bad has happened for 12 pages. Does that feel right in the context of the story?” Questions of pacing and context are also important for Kirsten’s character, who goes through a big arc. For the first part of the film, her arc is bigger than [Ryan’s].
A focal point for Katie and David’s relationship is the decision whether to have children. To what extent were those discussions fictionalized?
The facts of the case are that Kathy Durst, the real one, desperately wanted to have a baby. Robert Durst desperately did not. It became the salient issue of their relationship. Our sense is that he is someone who is not comfortable in his own skin, someone who had not had a warm, happy upbringing. While growing up, I think Durst felt under siege a lot, so he was always against reproducing that kind of situation. Clearly the dialogue is not precisely what was said, but at the same time, by understanding what drives them, it is possible to show who these people were.
I was so concerned about doing a Hollywood rendition of this movie, one where motives are mapped out in a traditional way. Early on in the writing process, I said, “I know we can make a movie Kathy’s family will respond to because they’re so happy someone’s still interested in her story. The challenge, then, is to make a movie that’ll get a response from Robert Durst. “Actually, he called me not too long ago. We talked about the movie in general terms. He hadn’t seen it yet, so I arranged for him to see it, and he called me again later that night. He said he was very emotional and had cried multiple times. He said it was 100 times more accurate than anything that’s been done before. If we were making up dialog without regard to what the characters were trying to achieve, Durst wouldn’t have felt so respected by the portrayal.
Have you been keeping in touch with the Friedman family?
Jesse Friedman came to the premiere of All Good Things and Catfish. In fact, the Catfish guys came to the All Good Things premiere. Who knows? Maybe next time we’ll take pictures with Kathy’s brother Jim McCormack. It’s interesting to see how these movies cross-pollinate each other. Kathy’s family was very moved by the film. They’re such a kind group, and these movies have a way of making families appear like bigger versions of themselves. Kathy Durst’s family, for example, are shrinking violets. They’re people who don’t ask for a lot, who don’t expect much from the world. They want to work hard and have a good life — they know they aren’t going fly around the world on a private jet. They don’t want to fight with other people, which may be a reason why their case didn’t come to light earlier. They might be put off by the public elements of their case.
Conversely, I’d say The Friedmans are a very sarcastic, acerbic bunch, and it got them into a lot of trouble. I sometimes say, “Some people go to jail because they’re guilty, and some people go to jail because they don’t know how to behave.” When the Friedman boys were driving Jesse to court for sentencing, it was an incredibly sad event and yet they’re standing on the courthouse steps, joking around with little Monty Python sketches. Most of us would think, “The court house steps are not the best place to do a show expressing enthusiasm of being with your brother.” The judge and district attorney were looking out the window as this happened, and their impression was that the Friedmans were mocking their victims. The Friedmans just got more obstreperous… I don’t know if you know this, but the 2nd Circuit Court, right below the Supreme Court, just reviewed Jesse’s request for an appeal. It’s very hard to do, particularly when Jesse confessed a series of bad crimes. But now the court just issued this opinion, having watched the film, suggesting the Nassau County District Attorney reopen the case.
So your film was submitted as evidence?
The judges watched the film,and cited it several times in their opinion. It was a wonderful thing because when films meet reality, the result can be very powerful.
Speaking of films and reality, there’s a fair-use trial that may be happening as a result of a song in Catfish. Do you have any comment on it?
There’s no trial at the moment. They’ve only announced to the Hollywood Reporter they plan on suing us, but they’ve never filed such a suit or given us a copy of it. It was kind of a game, I think. When you want to showboat an event, you issue it to a newspaper and take a long time before filing a formal complaint. See, if a movie is a documentary, no one has to pay for things that actually happened. This is part of fair use. As an example, there’s a scene in Capturing the Friedmans where Jesse listens to James Taylor’s “Carolina on My Mind.” It has a real impact on the film, and it’s considered fair use because that’s what Jesse Friedman was actually listening to. These guys think that if they can prove Catfish is fake, they are entitled to money because an Amy Kuney song would not fall under fair use. Their theory is novel and not a bad idea. But I think if they had seen the hour-long episode of 20/20 where everyone involved with Catfish is interviewed, they wouldn’t have thought they could make an argument the movie is fake. Still, I love that a film stays in the news over the threat of legal action.
All Good Things features Phillip Baker Hall and Frank Langella, two actors who famously portrayed Richard Nixon. Do you have a favorite Nixon?
You know what’s funny? I never thought of that until you said it. I love both of those actors, but it’s very hard to argue one of them would be better at something than the other. They both bring a huge amount to their roles in very different ways. Phillip is a naturally sympathetic actor, so you’re more likely to feel sorry for his Nixon quicker. Frank, who can be a prick when he wants to, is not so sympathetic at the beginning of Frost/Nixon, and yet he does show a certain tender side.