THE ARCHITECT: AWARD-WINNING EDITOR ZAC STUART-PONTIER IS THE ULTIMATE STORYTELLER Z
ac Stuart-Pontier is, hands down, the best person to sit next to at a party. Not only does the Emmywinning 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.
text by Erin Dennison
CINEMA THREAD: The Jinx began with a 25hour interview with Robert Durst. 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 January of 2011. [Watching the footage] was incredible. I was fascinated with the story in general, but hearing Bob talk about his life was fascinating. It’s hard to put a finger on what I thought about him. I mean, I probably hit 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?’ I don’t know if I had so many clear-cut ideas about that. 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 one and then redeemed by a horrific childhood in the beginning of episode two. 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 he’s in jail on gun charges and on his way to California. He’s going to be arraigned for the murder of Susan Berman sometime in the near future. 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 going to 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] almost turns up the volume on regular life. 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 all 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.
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 new 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. 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 kind of 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
CT: Another huge project of yours is about to debut as well—Bleed for This, starring Miles Teller and directed by Ben Younger. That film also takes place in Providence. Is that a coincidence? ZSP: It is! But somehow perfectly sums up Providence. Stuff like that seems to happen all the time. It’s a very small city and things overlap in unusual ways. But the film is based on this incredible true story of Vinny Pazienza, who was a two-time world champion who got in a car accident and broke his neck. They tell him that he’s never going to box again but he comes back and wins three more titles. It’s a great comeback story and super inspiring. I got to do all the fun stuff that comes with cutting a boxing movie; fight scenes, training montages. It was such a great change of pace for me after The Jinx. CT: But you were able to draw on your documentary background and use some archival footage. ZSP: Yeah, that was super cool. Ben [Younger] and I had talked about that from really early on and he had amassed this enormous archival collection. It was 25 hours or something and I remember thinking what a cakewalk 25 hours was after the hundreds we went through on The Jinx. There’s a lot of real stuff in there, announcers for some of the ﬁghts are real, all the news that’s playing on the television is real. We even got away with using Vinny’s actual voice in one moment which is a real testament to Miles’s performance and how good he is. CT: In your opinions, 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. 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 not being all good or all bad—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.
CT: If Bob called you up tomorrow, would you get a drink with him? ZSP: I am inherently fascinated by him, so yeah, I think I would go, but I’d have to check with my wife. I only met him once, but I was so excited to meet him and talk to him. There was this one moment when we took a picture together. I mean, I probably said six things to him over the course of the day, so when I asked him if he wanted to take a picture with me, he said, [Bob impression] ‘You wanna take a picture with me?’ And I said, ‘Yes please, Mr. Durst.’ And he grabbed me—hard—around my waist and pulled me tight to him. The look on my face is basically ecstasy.
somebody’s voice in your ear and I think you get a different kind of connection to a character that might even be closer than you get watching them.
photography by David Jacobson additional photography courtesy of HBO Films
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.
Robert Durst during the making of The Jinx (2015)
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.