Capturing Andrew Jarecki
By April MacIntyre
“It’s a combination of different versions of different stories,” says first-time director Andrew Jarecki, describing his Oscar-nominated documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans. The Friedman family—Arnold, his wife Elaine and their three sons, David, Seth and Jesse—lived in suburban Great Neck, Long Island, where most people aggressively pursued the American Dream. In 1987, Arnold and his youngest son Jesse were arrested on multiple charges of rape, sodomy and molestation of young neighborhood boys who had come to their home for private computer classes. Much of Jarecki’s film is a cleverly crafted visual quilt of old and new footage, compelling viewers to mentally sift through ambiguous evidence and try to determine for themselves the question of guilt or innocence. It includes videotaped post-arrest family interviews by eldest son David, news accounts, old family movies and still photos, with new interviews and footage shot by Jarecki over a three-year period. It became one of the most talked about films of 2003.
Jarecki isn’t the prototypical documentarian. He co-founded Moviefone and sold it to America Online in the late ’90s. His resume also includes composing the theme for the television series Felicity. Here he shares how he and his crew crafted Capturing the Friedmans.
Below the Line: You set out to make a documentary about Manhattan clowns on the birthday party circuit, with David Friedman as the focus of the original project. How did that story morph into Capturing the Friedmans?
Andrew Jarecki: It wasn’t until I had worked with David for a few months that I discovered he had this secret story he hadn’t shared with me and I started to look into it more deeply. Eventually I met his mother, who gave me just enough of a hint of what to look for, so I went back and started investigating, and ultimately discovered this story about the Friedman family from the late ’80s.
BTL: Why do you think, after all these years, that David Friedman agreed to go on record and cooperate with you about this really personal incident?
AJ: I think he felt that the media attention at the time had been completely one-sided and he hoped that I was going to make a balanced film… that would ultimately, possibly benefit his brother.
BTL: How did you choose Richard Hankin to assist you in editing this movie?
AJ: Richard is highly intelligent and he immediately had a sense of what we could make out of a clown movie, which is what it was when he came on. He also has a dark sense of humor like I do. That other film was going to require some creativity because it wasn’t going to be just a survey film about birthday party clowns; it was going to really pursue a story. As the story changed, Richard and I, along with our producer Marc Smerling and [associate producer] Jenn Rogen and others working on the film, we experienced the changes as a group. We would come back from the day with whatever the new information or the new revelation was, and we shared it. Richard was very much a part of that process, and he stayed on as editor. Normally the editor is there a few months and then goes. In this case, Richard was on the film for over two years.
BTL: Both the music and your film ask us to relax and drift as well as focus intensely on the subject matter. Given your own background as a composer, what was the collaboration like between you and composer Andrea Morricone?
AJ: Andrea came in the last six months of the filmmaking process. I had met him in Rome. I knew how talented he was, and that he certainly has a version of his father’s [Ennio Morricone] genius. I love Ennio’s music, but Andrea really brings a different sensibility to it. I very much liked [his music] in a Barry Levinson film called Liberty Heights, and so we decided to work together because we just felt like we had a connection and I felt he would knew know what to do with this film.
BTL: Your cinematographer, Adolfo Doring, has done rock video projects with Savage Garden and Pearl Jam. What inspired you to work with him for this feature?
AJ: Well, Adolfo made a short film called Karaoke Man, which follows an eccentric guy who lives in Manhattan and sets up a radio on a street corner and performs karaoke. I felt it was a character study that was really creatively done, and that was what I wanted in the clown film. He’s also just a really technically talented shooter. He brings a lot of creativity to the discussion; he had a real feeling for the subject matter, and he really knows how to connect with the humanity of the subject. I felt like I wanted to have him to be part of it, and then again, as the film evolved, it was suddenly something more. I was glad I had chosen someone who had the emotional and intellectual ability to stay with it and not to be swamped by it.
BTL: What did you use to shoot the new footage?
AJ: We knew we wanted to shoot Super 16. It was Adolfo’s choice. This story had a sort of epic quality and it just felt to me that things like the beauty of the light, the seasons, the environment, and the intensity of a lot of what was going on… We wanted to feel that in an extremely real and present way, and film was going to get us that in a way that some other medium wasn’t going to. Yet it seemed like 35 mm was going to be overkill given the kind of movie it was. Another reason we shot Super 16 is that there were all these other elements—8 mm home movies and home videos that David took. All of those things were important, and we wanted the story that we were telling to segue into those materials, but they needed to be distinct. We needed to feel that we were entering the home videos then coming back out to the film.
BTL: Why did you seize on the clock shot in David’s footage of Jesse’s final hours towards the end of the film—imagery that was repeated throughout the film?
AJ: The overall look of the film was arrived at by the main filmmaking team. I did think the clock was important. I felt it was important to get the sense of time rushing by… that there was enormous pressure building up. The ticking of the clock presiding over the street signals that everything is under control, the trains are running on time, that this is a perfectly happy little suburb. But the reality is that what lies beneath is a seething, bubbling cauldron, and that’s what suburbia is like. That’s why I used those time lapse images of the train station, with the trains coming and going. There’s a certain biological feeling to the whole thing—this amoeba, this peninsula of Great Neck that’s sitting out in the soupy mass of Long Island Sound. If you look at it like an organism, there are these veins, arteries, and people on trains going to the city, then coming back home to the organism, bringing money and supplies and things to feed the organism… this pulsating animal. And at a certain point the organism decided that there was a bad cell on Piccadilly Road, that there was something wrong in the Friedman house and that they were basically going to get rid of that cell. From that standpoint, I felt that all was sort of biological. The sprinkler systems, to me, were all about washing down the lawns, keeping everything green, keeping everything looking perfect, when in fact there was a lot going on underneath the surface.
BTL: What material was the most difficult to edit out for the final cut?
AJ: Certain stories about the family. For example, there’s a story about Elaine’s suicide attempt. It was many years earlier and it really didn’t fit into the film but it’s a story about Elaine trying to take her life after she had Jesse and became very depressed—post partum depression—and was feeling very lonely. It’s such a beautiful, very sad story, but in its weird, Elaine-like way, it’s almost a comic story. It was so powerful that I wanted it to be in, but I knew it wasn’t really germane. When we built the DVD for this movie we gave ourselves the freedom to include things that are engaging but didn’t quite fit into the main film.
BTL: What were the greatest technical challenges you faced integrating the old and the new footage to create a cohesive story?
AJ: I’ll let Marc, my coproducer, answer that.
Marc Smerling: The old Super 8 mm and 8 mm had to be transferred to Digibeta on a Thomson Spirit telecine with an 8mm gate. That’s hard to find, but we finally found one. The home video formats and every other ungodly format had to be transferred to Digibeta as well. Then everything was up-resolved again to high-def for an HD online. The film footage we shot was transferred at Tape House in New York from Super 16 mm to high def. It went back into the Spirit for shot-to-shot color correction and finally out to 35 mm negative via the Arri recorder. It was a long and arduous process.
BTL: In the credits you thank the Friedman family for their archived film and stills. Was it difficult to decide what consideration to give David Friedman, such as a separate technical credit for his camera work and post-arrest interviews he recorded with his family?
AJ: It really wasn’t because David never wanted to be a filmmaker. He was trying to record those experiences for his own use. As it turned out it was probably so different than what he had anticipated when he was shooting that. He didn’t imagine there would be a film. I just felt like thanking the family generally for their willingness to share the story. That was an appropriate thing to do.
BTL: What other kind of projects are you interested in pursuing in the future?
AJ: I used to direct plays before I went into that business, then I made a short film along the way, but I have always been interested in the arts and music and filmmaking, so I will probably make another film. I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be, but I’m always cooking up a few things.
BTL: Creatively, is there someone in particular who you would like to work with?
AJ: I think almost the whole team on this film, except for a few people who flaked out along the way, or didn’t seem as committed as everyone else. It was such a positive experience. I would say that maybe the unsung hero of the film is Jennifer Rogen, who is listed as associate producer, but hadn’t produced or worked on a film before, and just learned so much in such a short time. She is an example of somebody who grew so much during the making of this film that, for me it will be great to see her on the next film because she will have even more confidence.