Murderers, Mob Bosses, and Antiheros: What Makes for a Compelling Character?

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Zac Stuart-Pontier is, hands down, the best person to sit next to at a party. Not only does the Emmy-winning editor give you his undivided attention, he also has a knack for masterfully bouncing between esoteric subjects and pop culture headlines with grace, humor, and levity—he also has some pretty solid behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

With several indies and documentaries under his belt—Catfish (the movie), Martha Marcy May Marlene, and most recently, HBO’s The Jinx (for which he received two Emmys and a Peabody Award)—his most recent projects couldn’t be more different: Bleed for This, the biographical boxing film based on Vinny Paz and a true crime podcast with Gimlet Media called Crimetown, which follows crooked Providence mayor Buddy Cianci and mafioso kingpin Raymond Patriarca. Stuart-Pontier occupies a particular space: he’s one of the few editors who can produce poignant narratives across multiple platforms—documentary, feature, episodic, and audio—and make any character, no matter how extraordinary, deeply relatable. Understanding, for Zac, is an essential source of revelation.  

We caught up with Zac during a break from his Crimetown production over the white noise of a Providence coffee shop. It was, predictably, a great conversation.

Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling via Gimlet Media

 

Cinema Thread: The Jinx began with a 25-hour interview with Bob. What did it feel like after you wrapped? How did it feel to initially review that footage?

Zac Stuart-Pontier: I got hired a few months after the initial interview with Bob was done. Andrew [Jarecki], Marc [Smerling], and I had worked on the documentary Catfish together. They had just finished making All Good Things, which was a fictional version of the Bob Durst’s story and before the film was released Bob contacted them. They did the 25 hours of that first interview over three days and hired me right after in February of 2011.

[Watching the footage] was incredible. I was fascinated with the story in general, but hearing Durst talk about his life was fascinating. It’s hard to put a finger on what I thought about him—I mean, I probably went through every single possible emotion. You’re happy and you’re laughing with him, and then you’re disgusted and you’re angry with him—you’re sort of everything.  He goes back and forth between being seemingly brutally honest and completely lying. He’s incredibly complex.

 

CT: I felt the same way. I couldn’t decide.

ZSP: Yeah, everyone is always like, “Do you think he did it or he didn’t do it?’ When we started Marc thought he was probably guilty, Andrew was more like “maybe he isn’t” and I was probably somewhere in between. I don’t think any of us expected to come to a conclusion. And even in the end, it turned out to be kinda more about what the audience feels about him, as opposed to ‘Do you think he did it?’ The show subverts your expectations, for example, he’s set up as a monster in episode 1 and then redeemed by a horrific childhood in the beginning of episode 2. There is this push and pull that goes beyond guilt and innocence.

He goes back and forth between being seemingly brutally honest and completely lying. He’s incredibly complex.

CT: Have you been in contact since the show aired? What’s the latest?

ZSP: I’ve never been in direct contact with him but there’s all sort of interesting stuff going on in the Susan Berman murder case.  They are just beginning pre-trial motions and a secret witness just testified in LA. The sage continues.

Andrew Jarcki and Bob Durst via HBO

CT: You worked on The Jinx for over four years. In the beginning, did you think you were going to get so involved in the investigation?

ZSP: I always wanted to be a detective when I was growing up and was fascinated by getting into this but no, I don’t think any of us realized just how deep this was gonna go. But you’re just on the hunt and you find one thing, and then you find another thing and another thing. Andrew and Marc spent years trying to get those prison recordings of Bob talking to his family. And I remember first listening to them and it just feeling like another layer was being pulled back. You could see around another corner of the story, fill in some of the holes about what was going on in Bob’s mind.  It’s the kind of story that the more you know about it, the more interesting it got.

Long-term projects are really hard, in every aspect emotionally … spiritually; it takes a lot out of you to keep going. You don’t really know what it’s gonna look like when you’re in it. And at times it just seems impossible. You want it to be done sooner, but you also want it to be the absolute best it can be. But looking back now, I’m very proud of it.

 

CT: You both have worked on narrative films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Bleed for This as well as documentaries like Catfish and The Jinx. What do you love about the true crime genre?

ZSP: When somebody commits a crime, it makes every aspect of their life important in a way that doesn’t exist if they don’t commit a crime. And so you look at every piece of their life—is that why, or is this why? Oh, that’s so interesting, maybe that! It puts a spotlight on humanity in a way—it sort of raises the stakes. But you know, nobody would have given a shit about the effect of money in the justice system or domestic violence or this super interesting New York Dynasty [if not for] Bob Durst telling this mysterious crime story. [Crime] turns up the volume on regular life.

 

CT: It makes the stakes really high.

ZSP: Life or death. It doesn’t get any higher than that.

 

CT: The Jinx was originally supposed to be a 2-hour feature but ended up being a 6-part documentary. What led to that decision to change the show’s format?

ZSP: It was pretty late in the game [when the decision was made]. We were squeezing down the cut and it was losing magic; we were losing all of the best details. Marc [Smerling] always called them Bobisms: “How do you accidentally shave your eyebrows?” As it got shorter, we had to just sum up all the best parts really quickly.  If you only have 12 minutes to spend on one particular subject, you don’t really have time to let it breathe. No time to let the audience go back and forth.

[At the time] We were watching these shows: Homeland and House of Cards and television, in general, was just exploding. We began thinking, ‘What if we tell the story by doling out information bit by bit?’ Over a weekend, Marc and I cut that first episode and it came together so quickly—the tone of it was just so much better than anything we had done before. It was just like, this is the way the show is supposed to be told.

Bob Durst via HBO

CT: The episodic format allowed you to weave narratives in and out. It must have given you some agility with the storytelling.

ZSP: Yeah, and cliffhangers, a super cool theme song, and cold opens! The format for the television drama is really fun and I think we just tried to kinda—we weren’t the first ones to do it—but we were trying to take a documentary and treat it like a television drama.

You know, The Staircase was WAY ahead of its time and I think if it had come out now, it would be, like, the biggest hit on TV, but nobody saw it when it came out in 2004.

 

CT: That leads us to your latest project: a podcast with Gimlet and the Podfather Alex Bloomberg. Editing for an audio story must be very different than a film or TV narrative. I think we can assume the challenges, but what were the advantages?

ZSP: Oh yeah, totally, so Marc and I are making this show about crime and corruption in Providence, Rhode Island. Gimlet has called it “A cross between the Godfather and the Wire if the story were true” and I like that description. It’s not one story or one crime but more about all of these characters in this one place.

With audio, it’s been a little challenging, you have to sort of lead the audience more forcefully, so it’s been hard to find the balance of telling the story but not telling them exactly how to think.  But on the positive side, when someone is a good storyteller they can really take you anywhere. It’s a very intimate thing to have somebody’s voice in your ear and I think you get a different kind of connection to a person that might even be closer than you get watching them.

Gimlet has called it “A cross between the Godfather and the Wire if the story were true”

Crimetown focuses on a particular city and crime each season. Your first season is about organized crime in Providence that spans between 70-90s. How long have you had to research this subject in comparison to The Jinx?

We started last July. So Marc and I were finishing up the Jinx, trying to figure out the next project. How do you top Bob Durst? It’s got to be something different… and Marc had married a girl from Providence back in the day so he knew about this whole saga. I’d had only driven through Providence, I had no idea.  We started researching it together— we went through a similar process with The Jinx. You kinda don’t know how deep you’re gonna get, but by the end of [the research process], it sort of spiraled into being a pretty comprehensive look at how crime and corruption have shaped that city over the past four decades. It’s a soap opera of criminals, politicians, cops and lawyers all intersecting each other but it basically centers on these two figures, one of which is Buddy Cianci, who was the Mayor of Providence for six terms and was kicked out of office twice. The other figure is Raymond Patriarca, who was one of the last great mob bosses in America. He ruled Providence from the late 1960s to his death in 1984. The two of them struggled for the soul of the city, in a way.

That makes is sound dryer than it is though! We’ve got tons of colorful characters and great archival footage. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that went on in Providence.

Raymond Patriarca via The Providence Journal

CT: Buddy sounds like a populist reformer with a motley crew getting stuff done, sometimes with compromised ethics. Not to get all zeitgeisty on you guys, but do you draw any parallels between Trump and Cianci?

Yes, there are absolutely parallels to be made between Trump and Cianci. They were both larger than life figures with huge egos. They could both be charming but also bullies. They both ran for office on the idea that they were going to clean up corruption and then… I don’t want to say embraced it but… as Cianci says in the show. “You have to make… arrangements.”

 

CT: In your opinion, what makes for a compelling character?

ZSP: Flaws. I’ve been thinking a lot about this: flaws and the grey areas that we were talking about. I think one of my least favorite comic books is Superman because he’s so unflawed. Too strong, only vulnerable to one thing. Kryptonite. And one of my favorites is Batman ‘cause he’s so fraught. He’s angry, he’s struggling. He’s a real guy. I think about that, the grey areas, the people who are willing to cross lines… I don’t know, I think it has to do with the fact that none of us are all good or all bad—we are just people. As storytellers Marc and I never try to judge the characters. They all have their reasons why they make choices and it’s never so simple as do good or do bad. So maybe a compelling character is one you can relate to? I definitely think when people can see themselves in a character, that’s a special thing.

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