Zac Stuart-Pontier on Editing HBO Documentary Series, "The Jinx"

On Monday, April 6th, NYU Tisch Film & TV graduate Zac Stuart-Pontier, came to speak to Tom Jennings' Research & Writing for the Documentary class. You may know Stuart-Pontier from his work as an editor and co-producer on films such as Catfish or more recently The Jinx. That’s right THE JINX: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

The Jinx is a recent six-part documentary series produced and distributed by HBO about multi-millionaire and suspected murderer Robert Durst. It’s riveting to say the least, and the less you know before you view the better. Those who have watched the series know that Stuart-Pontier had a lot of questions to answer from the twenty or so people lucky enough to sit in on the class. Those of you who haven’t viewed it yet should do so immediately then come back and read this. There will be spoilers ahead.

He focused his discussion on structure. His approach to the series? “Work backwards. Keep the important moments in mind and plant seeds for them as you go. That way the audience is ready for them.” In other words, don’t start at the beginning of the story, think of where you want the audience to end up. “Beginnings are really, really hard,” Stuart-Pontier says. “How do you start the story, how do you flesh it out? Treat your audience like they’re really smart. Believe that they’re going to get it, and if they don’t give them a little bit more. When you treat your audience like they’re smart they rise to the occasion.”

Stuart-Pontier approached editing The Jinx with a focus on the small details. “The magic of the story was in the details.” Stuart-Pontier started with a small detail, a strange dismembered body found in Galveston, Texas and then zoomed out to encompass the two other murders, Bob’s past and the various testimonies of the people that knew him. “It was the complete opposite of starting with a large story and then whittling it down.”

One of the main strengths of the series was the character of Bob Durst. In creating the character, Stuart-Pontier had to make Bob likable. He had to take Bob from the monster of a man who would dismember a person, to a sad boy who watched his mother commit suicide. The audience then wrestles with those two sides for the rest of the series, struggling to figure out which one they sided with. Could they feel sympathy and pity for a man who had allegedly killed three people? “You know an interesting character from watching the raw footage." Stuart-Pontier says. "There’s no one thing that makes a character interesting, and it’s different to different people. You don’t know it until you see it. But when you can stick with a character and go, ‘hmm, that’s a good sign. They say you’ve got to love your subjects and I think that’s true.”

The last bit of advice from Stuart-Pontier to us NYU filmmakers? “Showing your movie is the most important thing. Show it often and show it before you want to show it.”