NEW YORK — Andrew Jarecki has identity issues: Wherever the entrepreneur turned filmmaker points his cameras, he unearths people acting as if they were someone else.
In his Oscar-nominated debut, 2003’s “Capturing the Friedmans,” he examined a well-liked teacher leading a terrifying double life. He produced this year’s “Catfish,” a look at how people can concoct multiple Internet versions of their true selves.
And now Jarecki has directed “All Good Things,” a glimpse into a woman’s unsolved disappearance — and the chameleon-like real estate heir suspected in his wife’s vanishing.
Unlike his first two films, both documentaries, “All Good Things” is a scripted drama. But the movie is based on the life and famous family of Robert Durst, a scion of a family that is among Manhattan’s most prominent developers.
Although the names of the protagonists have been changed in the film, the Durst Organization has threatened to sue Jarecki and distributor Magnolia Pictures over the company’s depiction in “All Good Things,” one of several challenges he has faced bringing the story to the screen.
Durst’s 29-year-old wife, Kathleen, was last seen in 1982; she was never found. Her family believes Durst, who took several days to report her missing, killed her or had her killed. “Absolutely, absolutely,” said her brother, James McCormack, who helped Jarecki research the story. “I truly believe he’s a narcissistic sociopath.”
Durst was never charged. Nearly two decades later, a friend of Durst’s, Susan Berman, was killed in Los Angeles in 2000 just before she was to talk to police about Kathleen’s disappearance. Durst was suspected in that case too, but again was never charged.
Durst, who had moved to Texas about that time and began dressing like a woman, was arrested in 2001 and accused of murdering and dismembering an elderly neighbor, Morris Black.
After skipping bail and going on the run, Durst was apprehended. He admitted that he hacked up Black’s corpse but said he had killed him in self-defense. He was convicted of improper disposal of a body and served nearly three years.
Jarecki said Durst was asked to cooperate in the filmmaking but did not. “It’s Hollywood fiction,” Dick DeGuerin, a lawyer for Durst, said in an e-mail this week.
Jarecki said that he didn’t want to tell the story as a documentary, believing that narrative inventions (the screenplay is credited to Marc Smerling and Marcus Hinchey) would enable audiences to better understand Durst.
“We just thought that unless the core of the documentary is going to be Bob Durst talking, it’s going to be more interesting for us to speculate — to interpolate a story that I think is going to be closer to the human story of what really happened,” Jarecki said.
Ryan Gosling stars as David Marks, as Durst is called in the film. He’s reluctant to join the real estate business, although, while attending to a problem at one of his family’s apartments, he meets Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst). Their differences prove magnetic. They marry and try to establish a life in Vermont, where they open a health food store called All Good Things.
David’s imperious father, Sanford (Frank Langella, playing a character based on Seymour Durst), presses his son to return to the family business and tries to drive the couple apart. David is soon collecting rent money from tenants of the family’s Times Square properties, some of which are dens of prostitution. David, traumatized by his mother’s suicide during his childhood, grows abusive toward Katie.
Just as she is about to finish medical school — and become more independent — Katie vanishes. Although the movie doesn’t say so explicitly, it strongly hints that David was responsible for her disappearance.
“I am always fascinated by stories that use epithets: ‘crazy,’ ‘madman,’ ‘twisted,’” said Jarecki, who became a filmmaker after selling his ticketing site Moviefone to America Online for about $400 million in 1999. “We put people in these boxes, and say, ‘Well, this person is crazy.’ But a lot of the time we do that because we want to think that the people who do these extreme things have nothing to do with us.”
Jarecki and a team of researchers spent months digging up information about Durst and his family.
Jarecki at one point outfitted Gosling with a prosthetic nose that made him look more like Durst but ultimately ditched the fake. “It didn’t feel right,” he said. “It felt like we were trying to imitate Robert Durst.” As filming was set to start, Jarecki said, he changed the names of the characters, abandoning the Durst name.
“We thought that it would be more fair if we weren’t putting words directly into the mouths of people with real names,” he said. “It would give us the greatest freedom to think and invent things. ... We didn’t change the names to make the Dursts happy.”
And the Durst Organization is not happy. Even though Seymour Durst died in 1995, the company says a screenplay for the film is “false, inaccurate, and defamatory” and “casts false and damaging aspersions on the honesty, ethics and good business character” of the business. In letters to Jarecki’s talent agent and Magnolia, a lawyer for the firm said it will sue if the film is released. The Durst Organization declined to give further comment.
Said Jarecki: “The film is not defamatory in any way.”
“All Good Things” faced other hurdles. While Jarecki was editing the film in 2009, his wife suffered a brain aneurysm (she has since recovered). Then, the Weinstein Co. lost confidence in it and tried recutting it.
Jarecki bought the movie back from Weinstein, and Magnolia came on board.
James McCormack says he hopes the film helps bring his sister’s killer to justice. “The more I see it,” he said of the movie he’s watched four times, “the more I see my sister brought to life.”