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Making dysfunction work for him

Andrew Jarecki focuses on broken lives and the stories that grow out of them

Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things’’ is a fiction film ripped from true-crime headlines. Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things’’ is a fiction film ripped from true-crime headlines. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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Director Andrew Jarecki doesn’t mind that he’s identified with family dysfunction. And not just garden-variety dysfunction, but dysfunction writ large.

His lauded 2003 documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans,’’ about a father and son accused of child molestation, earned Jarecki a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and an Oscar nomination — not a bad way to launch a directing career. His second feature, “All Good Things’’ (opening Wednesday in the Boston area), is a fiction film ripped from true-crime headlines. Ryan Gosling is David Marks, a character based on Robert Durst, the scion of a powerful New York real estate mogul (Frank Langella). Durst’s wife, Kathy McCormack (called Katie in the film and played by Kirsten Dunst), an aspiring medical student from Long Island, disappeared in 1982.

Although Durst has long been a suspect in his wife’s vanishing, as well as in the 2000 slaying in Los Angeles of his close friend, writer and socialite Susan Berman, he was never charged with any crime — until some 20 years later, when he was living, disguised as a woman, in Galveston, Texas. Durst admitted to the 2003 killing and dismemberment of his elderly neighbor, but a jury acquitted him on the grounds of self-defense. He served four years for bail violation and evidence tampering.

“There’s a huge market for [family dysfunction films],’’ says Jarecki, 47, relaxing in a Boston hotel the morning after a question-and-answer session about “All Good Things’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts. “I think you make films about situations that you know or that you can relate to. My own family is very traditional. I’ve been married for 20 years and I have three kids, but that might be a reaction to growing up in a very nontraditional family. So, for whatever reason, I really feel I understand these families and what happens when they get in extreme situations.

“In ‘The Friedmans,’ the case that the family imploded over resulted in the removal of the father and the youngest son. So you took the bookends away and all the books in the middle of the rest of the family fell apart. With Durst, his mother died violently when he was a boy and it began a cycle of difficulty. This major event was maybe an explanation for [everything else] that happened to him.’’

A Connecticut native who lives in New York, Jarecki’s own “nontraditional’’ upbringing — his father was a stockbroker, his mother a writer — produced not criminals or sociopaths but creative overachievers. His two younger brothers, Eugene and Nicholas, are also acclaimed documentary filmmakers. Andrew, a Princeton graduate, is also a musician and composer who co-wrote with producer J.J. Abrams the theme song for the television show “Felicity.’’ Oh, and he also happens to be the cofounder/CEO of Moviefone, which was sold to AOL in 1999, making Jarecki a multimillionaire.

Jarecki’s work as a filmmaker — so far he also produced the buzzed-about, is-it-real-or-is-it-a-hoax documentary “Catfish’’ this year — concerns the masks people wear to conceal identity, the compulsion to record even unsavory behavior, and the impulse to confess. In “Capturing the Friedmans,’’ son David Friedman obsessively filmed his family as it was becoming unhinged because, says Jarecki, “it made sense to capture it on film so he’d be able to understand it. David says at one point, ‘Maybe I shot this so that I didn’t have to remember it myself.’ ’’

“Catfish,’’ about a relationship that begins online where identities change with a keystroke, “would not exist without the tiny Flip video camera that caught [a main character] by surprise; she wouldn’t have been natural with a big camera,’’ says Jarecki. “There does seem to me something about filming people that gets them to open up, rather than the opposite. It was funny, when we were making ‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ we kept calling the film ‘Everyone’s Gay,’ because five or six people came out as gay to us, either privately or on camera. . . . I guess it’s the compulsion to confess.’’

He recalls that legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, whom Jarecki befriended while making “Friedmans,’’ told him, “Nobody wants to die without telling their story.’’

“You’re giving them a gift to let them express themselves to a bigger group,’’ Jarecki says. “Maybe that’s why Bob Durst, in a rare interview with The New York Times, said that he likes the film. It doesn’t whitewash the story, but I do think it shows his humanity and I think there’s a big relief in that to somebody who’s been behind a curtain for a long time.’’

Jarecki’s interest in the blur between documentary and fiction will continue with his next project, based on the “life-altering, transformative’’ event his wife, Nancy, experienced at 21 when she was kidnapped.

Jarecki and his “Capturing the Friedmans’’ colleague Marc Smerling, who wrote “All Good Things’’ with Marcus Hinchey, immersed themselves in research on the Durst case and spent a lot of time with Kathy McCormack’s family. The Durst family, he notes, “sent us an eight-page lawyer’s letter describing all the things they thought were unfair in the film even though we used multiple sources and backup — the most remarkable thing was that in all those single-spaced eight pages, there was not one mention of this missing girl. . . . It was all about ‘we’re not going to do as much business if this film comes out . . . it will ruin our reputation, we won’t make as much money in the future as we did in the past.’ ’’

Asked to comment on Jarecki’s statement, Jordan Barowitz, spokesman for the Durst Organization, said, “The movie is a work of fiction and, based on the reception at the box office, apparently not a very good one.’’

Jarecki insists “All Good Things’’ was conceived as a fiction feature from the start for both practical and artistic reasons. “What interested me was exploring the relationship between Bob and Kathy earlier in their lives. She of course isn’t available. We reached out to Bob through his lawyer and even though we were told, ‘Bob does not want to be involved in your program; he’s a private guy,’ ultimately it opened the door for dialogue with Bob and that was an interesting part of this experience for me. My goal was to make a film that even Bob Durst could watch and have an emotional reaction to,’’ Jarecki says. “We arranged a screening for him and he told the Times that he cried. . . . I think the important thing for me is not necessarily that we make him sympathetic or explain his crimes but that we transport the audience back to a time before we know what happened. . . . The audience might see themselves in the film if we’ve shown the humanity of these characters.’’

Loren King may be contacted at loren.king@comcast.net.

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