Producer Marc Smerling talks true crime ethics, creative process
Marc Smerling appears on camera.
Marc Smerling isn’t interested in telling people what he thinks.
The Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated true crime producer, writer, director and cinematographer opened The Media School’s virtual Speaker Series on Monday. Smerling, whose credits include the documentaries “Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Jinx” and “Catfish,” and the podcasts “Crimetown” and “The Ballad of Billy Balls,” described his ethical philosophies, creative process and sources of inspiration. The talk was in the format of a Q&A hosted by senior lecturer Susan Kelly.
Despite the title of his new podcast, “Morally Indefensible,” Smerling doesn’t issue judgments. The story he tells allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.
“Morally Indefensible” is a companion to his FX docuseries “A Wilderness of Error.” It tells the story of journalist Joe McGinniss, who befriends convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald to get insider access for a tell-all book. Smerling re-investigates the murders that brought them together, the four-year friendship they shared and the book that revealed it all, “Fatal Vision.”
“The question is, ‘Did Joe find the truth, and does the truth outweigh the lie he told Jeffrey MacDonald?’” Smerling said.
The podcast’s title is not a reference to the crime. It’s a quote from New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm, who criticized McGinniss’ journalistic ethics.
Smerling’s true crime inspiration comes from the 1988 documentary, “The Thin Blue Line,” which explores the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Texas police officer Robert Wood.
“I was in college and I went to see, with my friends, some horror movie or something. I think it came out in the fall, and it was sold out, so I went to the theater next door and it was ‘The Thin Blue Line,’” Smerling said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that. That’s an amazing thing.’”
When investigating complicated cases, Smerling said the first step is understanding the chronology and how the evidence, archival material and court transcripts fall into place. When it comes to telling the story, breaking the chronology can be a powerful tool.
To stay organized, he uses audio as the first element of storytelling and then piles the visual elements on top.
Since Smerling and his team are creating a podcast that has many elements of cinematic storytelling, they like to use little narration and instead rely heavily on interviews and archival elements to tell the story.
He said the intersection of journalism and entertainment requires that an ethical line be drawn. Smerling’s films use re-enactments, a tool that’s been criticized by some traditional documentary filmmakers. He said re-enactments should be cinematic and not mistakable for true footage. He tries to be transparent with the audience.
“You try to balance them, and you try to make the right decisions,” he said. “You can have poetic license. As long as you don’t twist it so badly that you change reality, you can have beautiful recreations.”
Over the last decade, Smerling said, consumers have begun analyzing and understanding stories more than ever. The audience is smart enough to handle cinematic tools like re-enactments.
“You need to either learn to trust the storyteller or distrust the storyteller based on your gut instincts on if you’re being manipulated,” Smerling said.
Before he can earn the trust of his audience, though, Smerling has to earn the trust of his sources – many of whom have been traumatized. He said this is the hardest part of his job.
“You tell them the truth,” Smerling said. “I think people are always sort of startled when you are honest with them. They appreciate it a lot more than when you waffle or you don’t look them in the eye or you try to make something up to just get around the question.”