A wilderness of mistakes
Marc Smerling's true crime documentaries for FX, A Wilderness of Error, due out September 25, are an in-depth investigation into the case of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, who spent the last nearly four decades responsible for killing his wife and wife in 1970 has spent two young daughters – a gruesome triple murder that the former Army surgeon and Green Beret accuse (and still accuse) of of the Manson family imitators. The five-part series is based on Errol Morris' non-fiction book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, an in-depth investigation into the case – specifically the case that both the prosecutor and famed journalist Joe McGinniss have set out in his own book 1983 book Fatal Vision. Which in turn was made into a two-part TV miniseries.
And when your head turns, buckle up. Smerling – one of the prolific forces behind capturing the Friedmans, The Jinx, and Crimetown podcasts – has made a rabbit hole for a ride. (Along with an accompanying eight episode podcast, Morally Indefensible, available now that follows the McGinniss point of view and asks if the journalist ended up getting too unethical on his subject.)
A week before the end of the first episode, the filmmaker reached out to Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated producer / writer / director / DP and founder of TV and podcast production company Truth Media for all of this re-investigation to experience the follow-up exams Switch between creating audio and video documents and capture Errol Morris for the small screen.
Filmmakers: How did you get into this project? Was Errol Morris always connected and how far was his participation?
Smerling: After The Jinx Jason Blum sent me Errol's book A Wilderness of Error. I made the Crimetown podcast and didn't really want to jump into a murder story. But Errol was inspiring to me as a filmmaker, so I read the book and then went to Boston on a visit.
I'm always looking for a reason to tell a story, especially a murder story, and I had an idea why I should tell that story. The MacDonald case provided an opportunity to examine how storytelling about real crime can affect reality. I had just done The Jinx so I thought of that.
The story of Jeffrey MacDonald is arguably the most popular true crime story of all time. Joe McGinniss' book Fatal Vision was a major bestseller turned into a TV miniseries that was watched by 65 million people on the first night it aired. It couldn't be bigger!
There have been so many books and TV movies on the case. And Errol's book was the latest. We talked about this idea and the fact that I would have to re-investigate the murders to do a good job. Speak to everyone connected to the case and still nearby, and see the evidence and read the court records. He wanted everything to happen. I felt like everything was fine and I could do my thing.
Filmmakers: You are one of the few filmmakers I can think of who is equally recognized for your podcasts. And you also seem to switch media seamlessly – creating the morally untenable part of this project as the Crimetown: Providence and The Ballad Of Billy Balls podcasts are turned into TV series. How do you decide which material is best for an audio or video format?
Smerling: When we chose Crimetown, we wanted to translate our filmmaking skills into audio storytelling. This may seem strange, but we got the idea that we could make a podcast cinematic by focusing on the character and using sound design to take the listener back in time. Put the listener on the timeline of the story.
The result is kind of a movie theater to your ears so I wasn't surprised when Hollywood called. Our audience grew a lot. Crimetown has millions of listeners. What we're looking for in a story are unique characters and twists and turns – and most importantly, a bigger perspective on who we are. A bigger idea. Something that resonates.
Filmmakers: Journalistic ethics matters on so many levels, with the question of whether McGinniss "betrayed" MacDonald at the heart of the accompanying podcast. I wondered if you personally had to grapple with this issue of “betrayal” to the man you refer to as your hero, Errol Morris, whose book results you often dissect in front of him. And have you been more sensitive to allegations of "crossing borders" since The Jinx received a little criticism on that front?
Smerling: Obviously, I work it all out in Morally Indefensible. Nothing is black and white. People have to decide for themselves what a non-fiction storyteller can do to pursue the truth.
Joe McGinniss has done a lot of work. He spoke to everyone around the case. And he read the court records and examined evidence. That's what I try to do, so I have a soft spot for his work. Has he crossed the line in his relationship with Jeffrey MacDonald? Perhaps. But did he deserve Janet Malcolm to destroy his reputation as a journalist? I do not believe that. In all of the letters he wrote to Jeff, he never told Jeff that he thought he was innocent. Has Joe crossed the line? What did Joe owe Jeff? What did Joe owe the truth? (As for The Jinx, I can't speak about it yet. The Los Angeles trial is pending, but much of what Andrew and I did and when we did it is incorrect.)
Filmmakers: They managed to win the trust of some key figures whose lives were forever changed by the murder of this family and the aftermath of the carnival. But some people declined to attend, particularly journalist Janet Malcolm for the podcast, and of course there are no recent interviews with the still-imprisoned man at the center of the story. Who else did you reach out to Malcolm but couldn't convince him? Did you purposely avoid contacting MacDonald?
Smerling: I was on my way to see Jeffrey MacDonald when his wife Kathryn called to cancel. I also called Janet Malcolm, and you probably know that she doesn't really talk about this in the press.
Nobody walked into the camera for this story. Everyone felt betrayed by one or the other storyteller. So that was a difficult task and it took a long time to gain people's trust. The only person I wanted to speak to, who I never got to call, let alone in the interview chair, was a prosecutor at the 1979 trial, Brian Murtagh.
Filmmakers: Surprisingly, two big revelations that rocked me to the core came from Errol Morris himself, a director so adept at pointing out the blind spots of others who suddenly seemed blind to his own. First, I was utterly surprised by his honest confirmation that he was hoping for a thin blue line-style repetition and wanted further relief with A Wilderness of Error. Did he admit opening an investigation with a confirmatory error? Second, by insisting that the notoriously unreliable narrator Helena Stoeckley's repeated confessions of witnessing the murders gave her words more credibility. How could he so cheerfully dismiss the possibility that Stoeckley had spent nearly a decade falsely confessing – as if it were often true to repeat a story often and long enough? I'm really excited to see how Morris' POV affected your own thinking about the case and how the series came about – and maybe even your approach to him, considering he's interested in his reputation Protect book.
Smerling: It's a difficult question to answer because I respect Errol so much. I wouldn't do what I do if I hadn't gone to a movie theater as a teenager and watched The Thin Blue Line.
But I'll say if you do this job and have an agenda other than looking at each piece of evidence, searching the file, speaking to everyone to find out what actually happened, you are not doing the job. And when you have an agenda, you can get in trouble.
Every article and television news show these days seems to have an agenda. And look where we are. Who can we trust These are dark days for journalists. I don't want to appear too right in the clouds, but isn't it the job of letting the audience decide? Present the facts and drop them however you like? I challenge myself and my team to keep asking questions – and removing any prejudice or prejudice until all the work is done. There is no right or wrong – until we have the story in a can.