A Wilderness of Error exclusive: Marc Smerling talks murder, Morris and Morally Indefensible podcast

Marc Smerling
Smerling brought you The Jinx, Capturing The Friedmans and now Wilderness of Error for FX. Pic credit: Lisa Berg/FX

Emmy-winning producer, writer, DP, and director Marc Smerling wants to get into your head.

Specifically to illuminate, or perhaps alter the way you look at famous crimes.

In FX’s new docuseries A Wilderness of Error, he accomplishes this with famous author and filmmaker Errol Morris.

Morris’s book on the crime was, in large part, the inspiration for a re-examination of a horrific 1970 triple homicide.

FX Networks brings A Wilderness of Error — a five-part series from Emmy Award-winning producer Marc Smerling and Emmy Award-winning EP Jason Blum — just in time for the chillier nights of fall.

The story begins when Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald is convicted and sent to prison for the murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters. However, producers uncover a maelstrom of swirling narratives which uncomfortably challenge the given truths of the case, and now suggest a chilling possibility: MacDonald may be an innocent man.

Marc Smerling’s impeccable work speaks for itself in the award-winning and groundbreaking Oscar-nominated (2003) documentary Capturing the Friedmans, plus the edge-of-the-seat docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths Of Robert Durst.

The award-winning HBO effort proved Smerling could sort and highlight the facts in an entertainingly cerebral fashion.

In doing so, Mr. Smerling reframed the status quo narratives and created compelling fresh and counterintuitive arguments. He exposed new facts and, in the course of his work, forced the hand of law enforcement to start a new trial in Jinx’s prime suspect Robert Durst’s case.

In Wilderness for FX, Mr. Smerling deftly takes all of us down a true-crime rabbit hole of facts tainted by media slant and biases — through the twist and turns of Errol Morris’ work and re-examination, especially for fans of the genre who love the thrill of the chase.

The fun is getting into the details — old and new — and hearing directly from people involved with the case in Mr. Smerling’s refocused lens, with overlooked statements and evidence for a can’t-miss mental rollercoaster ride.

In the course of Monsters & Critics chat with him about this new FX docuseries that peels back the 1970 case of Jeffrey MacDonald, we learn his new passion and focus is on continuing the work in the more intimate audio medium of the podcast.

This puzzling story will continue for Marc Smerling through his new production company, Truth Media, that will further the MacDonald case in a detailed podcast titled Morally Indefensible.

The FX docuseries questions the guilty verdict rendered for MacDonald, whose entire family was allegedly slaughtered by “hippies” who told him “acid was groovy.”

At the time of this, MacDonald’s almost copycat version of events that occurred during the infamous 1969 Tate-LaBianca (Manson) murders and the fact he was barely wounded alerted law enforcement, creating immediate suspicion in the general public.

MacDonald was, by all witness accounts, a devoted and loving husband. No one could wrap their heads around the fact he could have done the crime. Even his grieving in-laws sang his praises in depositions.

Enter Marc Smerling, with help from Errol Morris, a filmed participant in the series who answers a question in the film about why he wrote about this crime.

Morris said: “I get interested in stuff because I get bothered by stuff.”

You, the viewer, will too.

Monsters & Critics: “I get interested in stuff because I get bothered by stuff,” – Errol Morris said. It seems like this is also your outlook by the looks of your CV. 

Marc Smerling: Like Errol, I want to find the truth. And I think that’s what makes true crime such a popular genre for movies and television. We want to make sense of events that make no sense.

To know there is a solution out there somewhere that helps us deal with life’s uncertainties.

M&C: Wilderness of Error is based on the best-selling book by Morris, and yet I feel like he is a character in the docuseries, talk about that enigmatic quality he has on camera.

Marc Smerling: Errol is an easy guy to like. He’s smart and direct. He’s curious and open to the journey of this re-investigation, so he makes a great shepherd for this story.

But he is also a subject of the series because we wanted to not just tell the story of the murders that occurred back in 1970. We wanted to take a look at where the many divergent popularized narratives affected reality.

And Errol’s 2012 book is the last word on Jeffrey MacDonald.

M&C: This FX project, A Wilderness of Error, is also a damning look at the American justice system, and how media reporting taints impartiality.  The event seems to be the first time that the news picked up on the commercial importance (ad sales, ratings) that delving into a true crime story held. Expand on your take, please.

Marc Smerling: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter are really at the forefront of the mass interest in true crime in America.

Fatal Vision, the TV mini-series made from Joe McGinniss’s book about the MacDonald murders, is right up there.

It was a true-crime television event. Sixty-million people watched it the first night it aired.

The Green Beret Doctor accused of murdering his family and the intrepid father-in-law looking for the truth — it ignited America’s passion for murder.

M&C: FX and John Landgraf, why did you take this project there as opposed to HBO where The Jinx played out?

Marc Smerling: Landgraf has set a high standard with FX.

He’s created a destination for unique and provocative programming. Everybody at FX works hard to help people like me make truly unique shows.

M&C: How did the Morris book idea come to you for the Jeffrey Macdonald case — to expand into a docuseries in the first place?

Marc Smerling: Jason Blum, of Blumhouse, sent me the book soon after The Jinx aired. I was working on the podcast Crimetown and visited Errol up in Boston.

I needed his permission to do another investigation. And to accept that the chips would fall as they may. He encouraged us to dig deeper, to try and find the truth.

M&C: A core theme to me is that the best stories you find are families in a crisis mode. There’s a current one in Idaho underway — the Vallow case — where Lori Vallow had her two kids killed, burned, and buried, and then skedaddled to Hawaii, under the aegis of leadership in an offshoot of the Mormon religion. Are you contemplating that story to tell?

Marc Smerling: I have not looked into the Vallow case beyond what has been readily available online. But, for me, whatever crime story comes next, it will hopefully reflect back on our humanity in a larger way.

M&C: Is the love of the research and the chase and the discovery an addictive quality that keeps you in this true-crime lane?

Marc Smerling: I like to dig. There’s no doubt.

These series, like The Jinx, A Wilderness Of Error, Capturing The Friedmans, take a long time to make because it takes a lot of trust-building with people and digging through evidence and transcripts — whatever is available.

There’s nothing like a Sunday afternoon, cuddled up with ten pounds of court transcript.

M&C: It is interesting how your projects dig for the truth, you create an emotional connection in the way you present the facts of the case and the media fallout too, and it’s a damning reveal of our legal and judicial system for indicting somebody for a crime that they didn’t commit — like Capturing the Friedmans’ Jesse Friedman, or somebody who escaped indictment for a series of crimes they did commit, like The Jinx’s Robert Durst, can you tell me your modus operandi and how you approach and tell the stories of the victims in these stories?

Marc Smerling: There are good people and bad people. There are good cops, good prosecutors; there are even good people who commit crimes.

But people make mistakes too. And there are really bad people, but they are bad for a reason.

I’m not trying to indict anybody. Life’s more complicated than that. I feel successful if I can make you understand why certain things happen, and feel some sympathy for both the bad people and the good.

M&C: You have done narrative features, documentary features, docuseries, and now the podcast seems to be taking front and center. What do you like about working in that aural medium versus TV or film? Truth Media and Crimetown, in the age of COVID, is this a preferable medium to explore versus physical production?

Marc Smerling: My partner in Crimetown, Zac Stuart-Pontier, had the idea of doing a podcast. And Alex Blumberg (Co-founder of Gimlet) did as well. I thank them both.

Practically speaking, our historical record, whether police interviews, wiretaps, or court recordings — it’s mostly audio. Found footage is important to me.

It transports the listener through time and space. And I love how audio stories are consumed so intimately. It’s a very different experience than watching something.

It’s in your head and promotes your imagination. I love it. And making podcasts is a personal journey as well. I can go out with a recorder and a mike and open up whole worlds.

M&C: What stories and storytellers are you looking for in the podcast world?

Marc Smerling: I’d like to see more cinematic stories told through podcasts.

There is enough public radio-style stories and talk series. But series like Love & Radio and S-Town, they bring you to a new place and ask you to immerse yourself.

A Wilderness of Error kicks off Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FX, and the following day on FX on Hulu. The premiere will include the first three episodes airing back-to-back-to-back from 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. ET/PT, with the final two episodes airing the following week.

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