Monday, March 30, 2015

How “The Jinx” became part of our Cultural History, but “All Good Things” is still a Boring Movie.

A Documentary Series and a Movie
Both Focused on the Same Man
Both Shot by the Same filmmakers
One Made History


Now that the media stampede reacting to the success of “The Jinx" is over, I want to compare the documentary series to the theatrical film, “All Good Things” (released in 2010), a “fictional” take on the same events depicted in the HBO showy series.
Because the documentary series and the earlier theatrical film were created by the same filmmaking team, it allows us a rare opportunity to gain some insight into the creative issues connected to a media project based on a real person/real event.
My basic question in comparing the two projects is this – How could “The Jinx” documentary series achieve creative and commercial success, while the theatrical film, "All Good Things," based on the same story, and shot by the same filmmakers, creatively fail on so many levels?  

“The Jinx” was a huge success, both commercially (over 1 million people watched the final episode of the documentary series), and with critics (who almost universally agree the series was a notable achievement in TV history). Perhaps more importantly, viewers reacted enthusiastically to the series with generally positive online comments. By the end of the documentary series the volume of social interaction rivaled the activity normally associated with popular Network TV dramas. 

The above is in stark contrast to the reaction of the film, “All Good Things.” The theatrical release was a burn-off by the distributor to fulfill the contractual obligation to the filmmakers (total Domestic box office gross was $578,000).

Critics and viewers of “All Good Things” generally had unfavorable reactions to the movie as well. Many acknowledged the film was  professionally produced, but was a “forgettable genre film,” with “a storyline that was both boring and confusing at the same time.”  
The key art for the one sheet used to market the theatrical release is a complete disconnect with the tone and content of the actual movie. This is a common red flag for a problematic project. The distributor’s marketing department is either confused about how to sell the film; or is instead very calculating in its strategy, opting for a “slash and burn” campaign meant to lure unsuspecting audiences to the first weekend and get as much money as possible before the bad word of mouth spreads about the movie. 

“The Jinx” focused on the tragic life of Robert Durst, an heir to a real estate fortune, who despite (or because of) his wealth, ended up being connected to three mysterious deaths (and a fourth if you want to count the suicide of Durst’s mother).

The final episode of the series concluded with Durst in a bathroom talking to himself (only his words being recorded by the microphone he was still wearing after his last interview with the filmmakers). Durst is heard saying to himself -- “Killed them all… of course.”
Whether the filmmakers caught the subject of their documentary confessing to murdering three people or his words were the ramblings of a mentally ill person, or both, is debatable. But Durst’s bathroom soliloquy was a dramatic conclusion to a six hour/six week investment by viewers. The documentary series had a “Hollywood Movie Ending,” rather than the circuitous dead-end climax of most documentaries dealing with real people and real events.
When Durst was arrested in New Orleans, a few days before the final episode of the documentary series aired on HBO, the event catapulted “The Jinx” to another level on the cultural list of achievements -- a TV event not only attracting a mass audience, but garnering newspaper headlines. The fact that the series could also be the impetus to Durst finally facing justice for a murder he has been able to evade for than a decade would be even more remarkable.

Every hour of the documentary series was impeccably produced -- the narrative structure cleverly constructed and skillfully edited. And the recreations of past events examined in the series were creatively conceived and executed.
Indeed, the quality of the HBO series was so top notch, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the project’s success may be that the director of "The Jinx," Andrew Jarecki, and the producer, Marc Sperling, were also the same filmmakers behind the theatrical film (Sperling was also one of the screenwriters, sharing credit with Marcus Hinchey).
How shocking? 
If one was unaware of the actual timeline of both projects, "All Good Things" comes off as a film that was thrown together quickly and shot after "The Jinx," to exploit the success of the documentary series. 

There are a lot of reasons that might explain the difference in quality between the two projects, and of course, at the foundation of it all is the theatrical film's bad script. But there's so much more, including the filmmaker's miscasting of the lead actor. 
Unfortunately, in the context of this post, I will primarily focus on a single factor, leaving the other issues to be examined in a forthcoming book on adapting real lives and real events into a screenplay.
The main character of “The Jinx” is Robert Durst. His “performance” in the documentary series ended up being the source of energy that kept audiences tuning in each week during the run of the series. Regardless of the documentary format, the magnetism of Durst’s presence on the screen can serve as a valuable reminder to all screenwriters of an essential basic in writing a quality script – create a main character readers/audiences will be compelled to read/watch from the beginning to the end.
But beyond the Durst Documentary reminder, is a lesson contained in the fictional film, “All Good Things” -- The professional screenwriter should never feel restricted in creating a main character that readers/audiences like personally, or root for.

The first (and perhaps) only creative obligation of the screenwriter, even when adapting a story based on a real person, is to make that protagonist captivating, fascinating, and exciting enough that his persona and actions will allow your script to standout. It does not matter whether we “like” the character. Examples of main characters in past movies/TV projects who aren’t necessarily likable, but are compulsively watchable are Tony Soprano, Travis Bickle, Melvin Udall, and Neil McCauley.

In “The Jinx” there was no one to write Robert Durst’s lines as he was being interviewed. No one directed him about how to “act” or behave in front of the camera. But the real Robert Durst proved to be charming, vulnerable, and, yes… likable. All character traits consistent with what perhaps enabled the real Durst (along with his access to money) to get away with murder.
Prior to shooting the documentary, the filmmakers had never met the real Robert Durst. Without any contact with the real person they were depicting in their theatrical movie, the filmmakers were forced to create a protagonist using their creativity and imagination. 
And they came up empty.
The main character in "All Good Things" is (for legal reasons) named David Marks, rather than Robert Durst. But the name change is not the only thing different between the two projects. The character of David Marks bears no resemblance to the real person he is based on. Marks is quiet, brooding, and boring. The real Durst we now know from the documentary series is charming, outrageous, and definitely not boring.

There came a point in the development of the movie script where the filmmakers apparently convinced themselves that the truly strange events of the real life case they intended to mimic in their screenplay would be all they needed to sustain audience interest and admiration. 
Unfortunately they ended up being wrong. If people want strange and unusual, they can watch documentaries airing on HBO. 
The story they had researched for years leading up to the writing of the screenplay did not lead to creative excitement on the page. Their fascination with the case, and with the real character of Robert Durst never made it to the page as a compelling part of the story they ended up shooting. 

And once they moved into production, the situation only became worse when the director, Jarecki, followed his creative instincts and shot a lot of the film as if it was a “serial killer” movie while at the same time never coming close to delivering what would be satisfying to fans of that sub-genre. The biggest problem was again, the content of the script, which couldn’t sustain Jarecki’s aesthetic, barely rising high enough to embrace the core conventional elements associated with a standard suspense-thriller.

Sadly what “All Good Things” ends up achieving is being a well-produced, bigger budgeted, “Lifetime” cable movie. I point this out not in a glib way, but with support for my view with a list below that contains the basic screenwriting formula generally used in all of the “women-in-jeopardy” storylines of a a bad “Lifetime” cable movie:

- Female lead meets a guy (male lead) who seems too good to be true.
- Everyone (or just one really good friend) who cares about the female lead tries to warn her not to move forward.
- Despite all the warnings, the female lead advances the relationship with the guy.
- Now that they are together, the female lead starts to develop her doubts about her guy. She tries her best to make it work, rather than simply breaking away.
- Female lead finally decides to break away. She fights back against the guy (who at this point is a "monster").
- Female lead either survives or dies in her struggle against the guy/monster by the end of the story.

The above, obviously with some variations, is pretty much the plot breakdown for not only the “Lifetime” women-in-jeopardy movies, but also the storyline of “All Good Things.”
At least the first half of the movie.
Another weird thing about the film is how it completely shifts gears with the storyline after the wife is killed.
This is a problem because cramming in all the formula plot beats outlined above into the first half of a movie really makes what is happening on screen predictable and boring.
So why do it?
The answer is because the filmmakers became creative slaves to the real events in the life of the Real Person they were fictionalizing.
Robert Durst  was suspected of committing two more murders after killing his wife, and the filmmakers needed to move on in the storyline.

Up to this point we, the audience, have been led through a plot that had the wife being threatened by Marks, while at the same time, we were also shown a handful of scenes where the Marks’ character is being victimized by his rich, powerful family. Both avenues play in a creatively vacuous way, but the thrust of the storyline still has us investing in the Marks character as a domestic wife abuser. That’s the thrust of the storyline.
But when the female lead is killed off (again at the halfway point of the film), we are now asked to follow the storyline as it starts all over again. Marks is now the… protagonist(?), and the backstory stuff with his family shows up in a few scenes so Marks can become more of the victim/protagonist of the story, rather than the antagonist.

But as the story progresses, viewers realize we’re still going to watch the Marks character move toward being directly connected to two more murders. This could all work... if what we’re going to watch is a “serial killer” movie. But as I’ve previously pointed out, the script has creatively prevented the project from going in that direction. 
The abrupt shift in plot and storyline is almost always a sign of creative desperation rather than innovation. When the main character shows up wearing a wig and women’s clothes, the film still continues to be boring all the way to the closing credits.  

Hovering over the development of the screenplay is another issue. 
I can easily imagine the endless development meetings about the script where the filmmakers were meeting their lawyer and taking notes about what they could and could not do creatively with the screenplay.  
Even though they had not met him, "All Good Things" plays like a movie that ended up being creatively afraid of what the real Robert Durst would do legally. They were so afraid of what the "monster" would do to their project he ended up scaring all the creativity from the filmmakers. 
Everything that is wrong with the theatrical movie seems to be the exact opposite of the documentary. The narrative power of "The Jinx" is the dance the filmmakers do with the real Robert Durst. They seek to understand him in all his complexities, who he is, and what he what kind of man he was when three people died. 
Because of this concerted attempt, the filmmakers wound up revealing to the world a multi-layered person and it made the story they told rise to a level of compelling entertainment. By the "third act," when the filmmakers confront the complex main character they have revealed to audiences, we were anxiously waiting to see how it would all end.