There are few moments in the history of watercooler television as unexpected and harrowing as the conclusion of HBO’s The Jinx. The sinister mutterings captured by Robert Durst’s “hot mic” led to his arrest nearly a decade after being released from jail on parole, and he is scheduled to be arraigned for murder charges in August. Jinx director Andrew Jarecki devoted years of his life to studying and documenting Durst, also directing All Good Things, a feature film he made about the millionaire’s life. Now, Jarecki is trying to move on, but finding it difficult.
The director’s emergence into pop culture started with the release of the Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans, a penetrating and haunting look at a pedophilia case in Long Island, in 2003. (He also co-produced Ariel Schulman’s notorious Catfish film in 2010.) But Jarecki has also been involved in tech throughout his career; one of his first projects, in the late ’80s, was co-founding Moviefone. Now, Jarecki is launching his newest project: a free moviemaking and editing app — currently available for iOS — called KnowMe.
With the help of celebrity backers like J.J. Abrams and Catfish star Nev Schulman (who appears in the app’s introductory instructional video), the app drew approximately 100,000 users within its first two weeks. Jarecki and his team are currently developing an Android version, and are looking to expand the scope of the app’s capabilities.
In KnowMe’s Manhattan offices, Inverse spoke with the filmmaker about the app’s connection to his own filmmaking ethos, the responsibilities of being a “true crime” documentarian, and mixed feelings about Making a Murderer.
Where did the idea for KnowMe come from?
I was in the middle of working on The Jinx, and I’d interviewed around 100 people. People never seemed to be finished telling me what they wanted to tell me; they would be calling me in the car afterwards. It became clear to me how strongly people feel about wanting to tell their story, and being heard and seen.
But it was clear they didn’t have a lot of choices in terms of handy tools they could use to do this themselves. They could do something like Snapchat which is really simple, but that’s limited, first-person, present tense. If you want to tell a more complicated story and show a progression, you have to use iMovie or something, which requires time and a certain level of sophistication.
As we started to create a prototype, people really responded — some people made like 50 things in two days. They were in a position that they had all this other media and video locked in their phone, and couldn’t show it in the way they wanted. Just giving them the ability to talk over their pictures — that was a pretty big thing already.
What’s the most attractive element of KnowMe in comparison it to other similar apps that are available?
One of the curious things with other apps is how obsessed with duration people are. This Vine is 6 second; Snapchat is 10 seconds; there’s even something called “Ocho” because 8 seconds is the charm. I don’t think there’s a magic number; that’s not how people think about telling stories. If something’s boring, it’s boring, even if it’s seven seconds.
What’s the most interesting way you’ve seen it being used so far?
I’m amazed at how personal what people are sharing is. There’s a guy who lives on a boat in Louisiana, and he works in the movie business, and just talks about his life living on this boat. There’s a lot of substance in just 30 seconds of a person talking on video; you know a person so much better after you do that. But people are using it for a huge diversity of purposes. Somebody’ll use it to send a private note to his girlfriend because he misses her, but others will teach English as a second language — sit with the kids and say “apple” and then say the word in Chinese.
What is the most unique and important aspect of this project for you?
You’re giving the means of production to people who normally don’t have it, and allowing them to make something pretty finished. And it happens pretty instantly, and you can post it the minute after. The original idea of YouTube was “broadcast yourself,” and that only lasted for a little while before it became SNL clips or whatever. There are a lot of people who want to be known — not necessarily to be famous, but interacting and having strangers looking at their stuff. It’s not just Snapchat — they want to make something.
It seems like a Catfish antidote — encouraging people to show themselves.
In a way, that’s probably the Nev [Schulman] connection.
The Jinx got people talking about the supposed “true crime” trend in earnest. There’s too much television these days, but the show cut through the noise, creating a ton of online discourse: communities of armchair detectives, fanboys, and so on. Do you enjoy that obsessiveness, or do you find some of it to be poisonous?
I think that’s what you want. You want people to be moved by what you’re doing, and you want them to give them a second look. Bob Durst had gotten away with murder three times; nobody really was in a position to stop him for doing it, and obviously he had to be. If you know that someone is dangerous and that there is something you can do to interfere with it, you probably have some obligation to do that.
Getting people to talk more generally about criminal justice issues is good. Getting them talking about how the justice system gets things wrong is important, and frustrating. It has a personal quality to it, because everybody has been touched by the law in some way that they think may have been unfair. Then you see a situation like this, where a billionaire family has such a strong imprint, and yet that empire is arguably built on a foundation that includes a bunch of dead bodies. That’s something that’s very infuriating to people. So you want that dialogue — you want people to vent about that stuff, and to see how that affects them.
Making a Murderer kind of serves as a counterpoint — the story of a poor family that doesn’t have a voice, that is dealing with a system that’s really not built to work for them. Did you watch the show?
Yes I did.
Did you like it?
I thought it was really good. It was frustrating on some level, because I think I wanted to know what the filmmakers had done to try to figure out what really happened. Obviously, the lawyers spend a lot of time arguing that Steven Avery didn’t kill Teresa Halbach, but they’re working on it for 10 years … presumably, there’s evidence that suggests somebody else did it. That seemed like not the province of the film, but I think that’s upsetting for the audience, because the audience then has to leave thinking, “Well, maybe Steven Avery really did do it,” instead of the audience saying, “I know that I, based on what I just saw, would think that somebody else did it, and this is who I think did it.” This is a grisly murder, and if somebody works on it for 10 years, you’d like to think that they had a theory about who did it. It was addressed very lightly in the film.
Do you think that’s irresponsible?
It was unsatisfying. Because even though the journey was really fascinating, I think there’s a desire for closure, or a next step. I understand that there was an explanation in the film that they weren’t allowed to introduce evidence that somebody else had committed the crime, but that doesn’t mean that the filmmakers can’t do that investigation. And if the filmmakers worked on it that long and didn’t find an alternative suspect that they believed did it, then I have to ask myself: Did the filmmakers do the right work?
By the way — we were extremely fortunate that we were able to make some discoveries about evidence that helped lead to a different outcome in the Bob Durst case. But that’s one of the opportunities that a filmmaker has, I think. Someone was saying recently, “If you have a client that’s wrongfully accused, the best thing you can do is find a documentary filmmaker that will take it on,” which is not always true. Sometimes they don’t do a good job. But if there’s an opportunity to take a whole new look at a case, and potentially exonerate someone who’s been wrongfully accused, then I think that’s something you ought to try to do.
That was sort of the question about Serial too. … I’m not saying we have some kind of magic formula, but I think you have to keep making your film until you have as clear a picture as you’re going to get.
You know, people criticized Capturing the Friedmans for being intentionally ambiguous, and I think it’s true that we left it to the audience to reach their own conclusions about it. But in the years since, we made a lot more discoveries. … Now we have more than 40 eyewitnesses to the computer class. I’ve been working on the case for 15 years, and I think we’re going to get it overturned. At the time we made the film, we didn’t have enough information. We always thought the police case was very weak and illogical, and that Jesse Friedman was innocent. But there was simply more gray area in that story, than there was in the Durst case or even Catfish.
There, you have somebody who’s kind of living a secret double life and obviously also wants to tell her story. That woman Angela is kind of the mastermind of getting that movie out. You know, she made this world up, and said, “Oh, you know, I was kind of thinking you guys might figure it out.” Everybody wants to tell their story; she wanted hers to be out there also.
Did you think about that with KnowMe — that it could be used as a method of activism?
Yes, definitely. This is an example of a KnowMe that someone made who’s never done any kind of journalism before, but happened to find themselves in this [protest] march [in Manhattan].
That’s just something great that this guy put together — there was no news report on any of this until that evening. The app not only gives people the ability to tell the story in a freer way, but it also lets them broadcast the story really quickly.
What has been the most difficult part of the fallout from The Jinx, and trying to move on from it?
I have to be a witness at the trial in Los Angeles, and so there’s a lot of difficult legal stuff to deal with; the D.A. is gonna want our materials. There’s a delicate relationship between the journalist and the law enforcement types, because those guys feel like any time a journalist interviews anybody that it should be available, because if there’s evidence of a crime, that’s way more important than whatever the journalist was doing to begin with.
People talk to journalists in a way they don’t talk to cops. It happens that we sometimes come across evidence that is determinative in a legal case — that happened both here and in the Friedman case — and that’s where the friction comes in. You’re doing something that was not originally built as a prosecution; it was built as a film. So then a prosecutor has to take that information and turn it into one, with protections for everybody, and so on. We’re going to spend a lot of time preparing for trial and I’m trying to focus on KnowMe.
Would you undertake another investigative style project anytime soon?
If you find a subject like that you’re interested in, it sort of happens. It’s kind of a non-decision. “Well I’ve got to get a camera so I can get this;” “I’ve got to talk to this person to get this straight — before you know it you’re making something. I just try to follow my nose.