There comes a moment in Marc Smerling’s FX documentary “A Wilderness of Error” where the suspect, as described by the lone survivor of a brutal triple murder, is found. This means the remaining story will be focused on how the survivor was eventually exonerated, right? Not so — and, in fact, it is only from this revelation that the true intent of Smerling’s story comes to light.
Smerling has been down this road before when it comes to true crime. He was the producer of the 2015 HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which eventually saw Durst arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Smerling also served as screenwriter on the Durst biopic that stared Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, “All Good Things,” released in 2010.
Looking to dissociate himself from the Durst-ian world, he started the podcast “Crimetown” in 2016. And yet the story of how he came to Errol Morris’ book about Jeffrey MacDonald, an acclaimed doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, saw Smerling looking deeper than just the crime itself. The director knew that telling a story like this can threaten a filmmaker’s objectivity; he admitted he makes relationships with the people he’s focused on. (When he wrote the script for “All Good Things,” he became very close to the victim’s family.)
Smerling first read the book the series is inspired by, Morris’ “A Wilderness of Error,” after concluding “The Jinx.” He noticed what a contested and public story it was, and worried about coming to an assertion different than Morris — the acclaimed filmmaker behind “The Thin Blue Line.” “I was like ‘I could get myself into trouble if I were to come down on the wrong side of Errol,’” Smerling told IndieWire.
So he waited. “You’re trying to keep your neutrality; you’re trying to keep your objectivity and also try to balance people’s feelings,” he said. It wasn’t until Smerling became familiar with all the different narratives written on the case that he saw a way to analyze how stories are created from facts.
“Murder stories are particularly spiky,” Smerling said. “If there’s a story…that sort of transcends the murder itself, that’s about a bigger subject matter [like], for example, storytelling and how it affects reality.” Both “A Wilderness of Error” and “The Jinx” look at this in different ways. In the case of the former, Smerling found himself interviewing Morris and asking him to explain certain contradictions in the MacDonald case. Smerling said he didn’t want to corner Morris, but have a natural discussion about evidence, reality, and the crime at hand.
As the documentary lays out, so much of how the jurors and viewers in the 1970s and 1980s perceived the MacDonald case was through the media. In 1985, the TV movie “Fatal Vision” was accused of prosecuting MacDonald on-camera. “It’s a real statement when you see Gary Cole [as MacDonald] drenched in blood beating his wife with this stick,” Smerling said.
The director said his documentary features aren’t trying to tell audiences what to think even though he admits the infamous final scene of “The Jinx” was a rehearsed and edited moment meant to be a “gotcha.” But overall his goal is always to educate the audience and let them come up with their own assertions. “I’m just trying to put them in the timeline of events and let them walk through the investigation…and let them come to a decision,” he said.
“With Robert Durst, I always used to say to Andrew [Jarecki, director of ‘The Jinx] ‘I don’t know many people who are close to one murder…I got to believe he’s probably guilty,’” Smerling said, and, in a way, that’s going to stick for those watching “A Wilderness of Error.” Whether it be because crime statistics remind us that women and children are so often murdered by the men in their lives or because, by the law of Occam’s Razor, the easiest explanation is often the simplest, it’s hard not to see MacDonald as guilty.
“Jeffrey MacDonald is not what you would expect for somebody who would commit a crime like this,” Smerling said. Being a clean-cut, professional man there were many people at the time who found it impossible to see him as a murderer. And yet the knowledge that a woman in a floppy hat, later identified as Helena Stoekley, was found and confessed has never exonerated MacDonald. “People don’t confess to murders unless they were part of it” is the theory Smerling understood. But the director said upon pulling the layers back of who Stoekley was, he came to realize there was far more to her confessions. Much of what was left on the “Wilderness” cutting room floor will end up on Smerling’s supplemental podcast meant to accompany the series, “Morally Indefensible.”
With all this evidence, how does one stay objective? For all Smerling’s talk about neutrality and letting audiences decide for themselves, it might be just as hard to believe that he didn’t want to create an opinion in the storytelling. “As a storyteller you’re making decisions that are leading the viewer in a direction, no matter how you cut it,” he said. He hopes that for those watching the series they’ll use it to become more savvy consumers. “In the last, shall I say four or five years, our media outlets and the institutions of journalism have become more polarized. And a lot of what should be on editorial pages [are] slipping onto the front pages,” he said. “If you want to be able to think for yourself, you’ve got to be a better consumer.”
“A Wilderness of Error” airs on FX on September 25.
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