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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
True Crime Pioneer Marc Smerling

If you’ve spent any time thinking about the sprawling history of crime and politics in Providence, Rhode Island in recent years, it’s probably because you’re familiar with Crimetown ...or you’re from there. In this week’s episode, Nick speaks with Marc Smerling, the pioneer true crime documentarian who co-created Crimetown with Zac Stuart-Pontier, and whose wildly accomplished resume includes Capturing The Friedmans, Catfish, and The Jinx. Smerling’s latest projects are FX’s A Wilderness of Error and its companion podcast, Morally Indefensible.

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Servant of Pod True Crime Pioneer Marc Smerling Episode 24

Tue, 1/5 12:23PM • 24:46

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

laughter, people, podcast, providence, crime, true, marc, story, tv series, life, interviews, city, zac, thought, piece, find, television, buddy, gimlet, recreations

SPEAKERS

Tony Fiore, Buddy Cianci, Marc Smerling, Mike Stanton, Steven Antonson, Kwame Kilpatrick, Nick Quah, Zac Stuart-Pontier, Jesse Friedman, Brian Andrews, Robert Durst

Nick Quah 00:04

What has working in audio taught you?

Marc Smerling 00:09

You can get rid of that camera. It's a lot easier. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 00:16

Marc Smerling knows what it's like to dive deep into the darkest moments of people's lives. He's done it a lot as a documentarian and as a podcaster.

Marc Smerling 00:25

If I sit across from you with a little mic in my hand and I'm back-and-forth-ing, very quickly, that mic disappears, and we're having a really good conversation. Now, imagine you're sitting across from me, and there's lights blaring in your face, and you've got to sit upright, and behind me over my shoulder--or, even worse, you're looking at a screen of me--there's all this equipment and people. When I talk about intimacy and podcasting, that it's coming in your ear, you know? It's very intimate, the experience of listening to a good story-based podcast. It's also intimate on the other side, when you're interviewing somebody, you're closer and you're more free to forget that what you're doing is making a piece of storytelling for audio presentation.

Nick Quah 01:16

From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: behind the lens, and the mic, with true crime legend Marc Smerling.

Nick Quah 01:38

Marc Smerling is a documentary veteran. He's made feature-length docs like Capturing The Friedmans, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. And he's also made some of the buzziest true crime TV series of the last decade, including The Jinx, which tells the story of real estate mogul Robert Durst, who was accused and acquitted of murder. Marc and his team, including fellow writers Andrew Jarecki and Zac Stewart-Pontier, were so thorough in their reporting that they uncovered evidence that led to Durst's arrest and a new trial, including this damning, and now iconic, piece of audio.

Robert Durst 02:11

What the hell did I do? [Groaning] Killed them all, of course.

Marc Smerling 02:26

Well, the real reason I love doing podcasts is because of found audio, you know. I'm always looking for it. So there's some trials that are recorded in video, and there's some things that you can get in video, but there's almost always audio. When we made The Jinx, we were able to find audio tapes that were kept by the transcriber of the Galveston trial in the bottom of a file box that was in his garage. All of a sudden, we had these audio tapes, and you could be in that space. That would've worked great for a podcast, too.

Nick Quah 03:00

In 2016, Marc and Zac joined forces with Gimlet Media to release Crimetown, which became one of the most downloaded podcasts of all time. So what can podcasting do for you that TV or film can't?

Marc Smerling 03:13

Audio's so intimate compared to television. It's literally in your ear. So you're listening and you're making relationships based on just the intimacy you're having with the tape, as opposed to what you're talking about, which is, you're seeing something--either a recreation, or an interview subject, or some old archival--and you're processing another layer of storytelling that you're gonna have an emotional reaction to, and you're going to have some sort of reaction to.

Nick Quah 03:42

Yeah.

Marc Smerling 03:42

So, it's so intimate. I mean, it's... Doing Crimetown, it's my... Was my favorite thing I think I've ever done. It was such a great journey.

Nick Quah 03:50

Tell me about your jump into podcasting. If I've got my timeline right, you've finished making The Jinx, and then later that year, Crimetown was announced. What drew you to podcasts, and why this story?

Marc Smerling 04:02

We had gotten through with The Jinx; it was a long and arduous process. And I had married a woman from Providence, Rhode Island, and she was just this salt of the earth person. I love her to death. You know, I'd met her family, big Italian family, and so I knew this place, this magical place, where forgiveness reigns over violence and everything else. And humor is so prevalent. I'd met Buddy through my father-in-law, and I had fantasized about making a scripted version of a TV series based on Providence, Rhode Island, but I knew that people would say it was, you know, first of all, "It's provincial, who cares? Everybody's heard the Buddy story," but I knew that was going to be a mountain to climb. So I just... Zach and I just got a recorder and started recording stuff. We had been recording stuff, pretty much, months and months before we got into business with Gimlet, and Alex, who was added value for sure. And we just recognized right away that we had entered this really unique domain.

Nick Quah 05:03

So I want to hear about how you put the show together, because it feels like an epic; you're talking about all these different characters, all these different places.

Marc Smerling 05:12

Well, from the beginning, I knew that it would have to be a story told from the perspective of different characters that were interweaving, because everybody in Providence knows everybody, particularly in the world of crime and politics. So the process is very much going out and doing these really expansive interviews, and looking for source material, and studying the record to find out where these stories intersect. So the beautiful thing about a podcast, or like Fargo, the TV series, is you can go pretty far afield, as long as you bring people back to the central characters and their journeys. So for me, the central character, obviously, was Buddy, the mayor of Providence, and then these two organized crime figures who had been sort of strongarm and basically a hitman for the boss of Providence, the crime boss of Providence.

Zac Stuart-Pontier 06:05

This tape was played in court. The jury listened as Buddy told the city official not to cooperate with a federal investigation.

Steven Antonson 06:12

No I'm not. I totally agree with you.

Buddy Cianci 06:13

Don't let those guys intimidate you. Don't be a volunteer for the U.S. Government.

Steven Antonson 06:16

No. I'm not.

Buddy Cianci 06:17

Yeah. I mean.

Buddy Cianci 06:18

Who the **** do they think they are? They’re trying to put words in your mouth. This is a, this is just that U.S. Attorney's Office, or not U.S. Attorney, it's them trying to find an extortion because I got a club membership out of it which I didn't even want.

Steven Antonson 06:18

No.

Steven Antonson 06:29

[Laughter]

Mike Stanton 06:32

It was a key piece of evidence because it was Buddy on tape, not sounding very good.

Buddy Cianci 06:37

Thanks. And by the way, don't volunteer anything...

Steven Antonson 06:39

Okay.

Buddy Cianci 06:39

Over there, you know.

Steven Antonson 06:40

No problem.

Buddy Cianci 06:40

Just, you know.

Steven Antonson 06:41

Alright.

Buddy Cianci 06:41

Alright.

Steven Antonson 06:42

Bye.

Buddy Cianci 06:42

Bye.

Marc Smerling 06:44

And there were other people who weave through as well, but they're very big in this. There's a detective that goes through it, and there's Tony Fiore, the master thief, who goes through it as well.

Brian Andrews 06:54

Tony would purposely go into a neighborhood that he knew well, and he'd go down a dead-end street, knowing it was a dead-end street.

Tony Fiore 07:03

I took Brian, I mean, he’ll tell you, I took him down dead-end streets. Ya know, he’d follow me down a dead-end street like where am I going and then I'd stop and I'd just look at him and shake my head.

Brian Andrews 07:14

He just wanted to see who pulled down the dead-end street with him. And all of a sudden if he pulls down the dead-end street, and three of us pull down, caught again.

Tony Fiore 07:23

He said he was never so embarrassed in his life.

Brian Andrews 07:26

Embarrassing. Frustrating. Now you gotta worry about, did I just kill his plan, because now he knows the state police are watching him. Is he not gonna go through with what he's been looking at? Did I just ruin the whole thing by getting made? Pretty frustrating. Aggravating.

Marc Smerling 07:45

It does sort of revolve around these several lives. And that's how we structured it, and it was really about marking on a board where these stories intersect, breaking them off into episodes, finding out what's going on in the world around these stories that fertilize these stories, you know, what's happening in politics? What's happening with the banking system in Providence, wasn't there a huge bank run? And all this other stuff. and building this... You're right. It is an epic. I mean, it's sort of The Iliad, in some ways. It's like this, you know... It's about a place, and it's about all these people moving in different directions that all, sort of, are moving in the same direction.

Nick Quah 08:23

So part of what's so interesting to me about the show is how the Providence of Crimetown has kind of supplanted the actual city, in my mind. [Laughter] And I think that's probably the case for a bunch of Crimetown listeners, especially if they haven't spent very much time in that place. Do you have a sense of how the actual people of Providence feel about the podcast in general?

Marc Smerling 08:41

I mean, they love it, but the mayor of Providence didn't like it too much. [Laughter] I mean, he loved it. But, you know, he was like, "This is not who we are." And that's true. It's a piece of who they are, it's not the entire story of the city. But I think people in Providence recognize that it's a big part of the city. I mean, Buddy Cianci resurrected the city from the industrial downfall, and he put it on the map again. And he did so by being sharp elbowed and, for all intents and purposes, corrupt--making corrupt deals with unions, making corrupt deals with whoever he needed to make corrupt deals with. The underlying moral imperative for him, I think, was to be the big man in Providence, but also, the fallout of that is he actually raised the city. He raised the esteem of the city, he rebuilt downtown, he did some incredible things. And that's the beauty of Providence. There's always incredible good with the incredible bad, and there's tragedy with people, and there's forgiveness with people that I think is truly unique.

Nick Quah 08:54

I was going to say that it's a very American story of the city, but I feel like many cities have the story of like, it's built on a lot of sin, and the present condition is try to either cover it up or make up for it, you know? I don't think there's a single city in the developed world that--or anywhere--that did not have a bunch of eggs cracked in the process of making it the way it is. [Laughter]

Marc Smerling 09:50

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Nick Quah 10:10

And then, the second season, you decided to shift over to Detroit. Tell me a little bit about that decision.

Marc Smerling 10:16

Well, honestly, that was the... I wanted, the second season, because Providence was so dear to me, I wanted Zac to pick a city that he was excited about. And there were several. And Detroit really rose to a very high level because we went on a little scouting mission there--they did, Drew and Zach--and they got access. And then, you know, Kwame Kilpatrick being at the center of it, and John, who's one of the producers, being able to make contact with Kwame in prison and start this conversation, that was key.

Kwame Kilpatrick 10:49

I was charged with RICO conspiracy. I'm absolutely innocent of that. And the feds know that. I made stupid decisions. I made ignorant decisions. I was arrogant and prideful in a lot of ways. And that's what I want people to understand. But I stand on the fact that those things that I was charged with in that courtroom, I am not guilty of.

Marc Smerling 11:15

To be able to have the guy at the center of the story actually in a conversation from a federal prison was a unique situation. So it sort of built itself around that.

Nick Quah 11:26

You use dramatic recreations a lot in your work. Why do you use them, and do you think recreations are essentially an interpretation of historical reality?

Marc Smerling 11:35

Yeah, well, everything's an interpretation of historical reality, when you start editing stuff. [Laughter] I always tell my editors that every edit is kind of a little lie, you know? There's no way around it. You cut somebody words out of the middle, or their interview in half, you're taking some stuff out, and, contextually, you're changing the story. So what we try to do is challenge ourselves here to keep to the truth as best we can while telling a good story. The reason to do recreations, honestly, is always because you don't have a way to tell the story that you can do without recreations. And the way I like to tell these stories is by putting the viewer, or the listener, in the story, as opposed to having people interviewed and bouncing interviews back and forth, and everybody's talking retrospectively. So you're sitting in a room with a bunch of people talking about these events, and you're getting their interpretations of these events. And then you're getting the storyteller's interpretation of these events as well, because they're editing these interviews together. For me, I'd like to take that middle guy out as much as possible. And I'd like to go to Providence, Rhode Island and sit in the grand jury hearing with all the witnesses for Buddy Cianci's grand jury, when he attacked the guy with a fireplace log. Let the listener, or the audience, make their decisions on whether they hate or love people, whether they think people are guilty or they're innocent, by listening to original source material. And then when it comes to recreating testimony, you're really, short of having it recorded, which we used constantly when we had it, you're bringing the audience into that courtroom and they're actually watching the trial with you.

Nick Quah 13:19

After the break: how far is too far when it comes to true crime media?

Nick Quah 13:33

You know, Marc, I've been doing all this research on you for this episode, and there's a couple of writeups that regard you as a true crime pioneer. What's your relationship with true crime and how is it reflected in your work?

Marc Smerling 13:45

Well, when I was a kid, I told my dad, I wanted to be a cop.

Nick Quah 13:48

Oh, really? [Laughter]

Marc Smerling 13:49

That I wanted to be a detective. And then I wanted to go to John Jay, and he was like, "That's enough. You're Jewish, and you're gonna go to a nice college that I will send you to." [Laughter] Which is maybe a not-PC thing to say, but anyway, I've always been interested in investigations; not necessarily for the glory of solving things, but for the very... I mean, I used to rebuild motorcycles, so it's like, for just the process of holding the pieces in your hand and trying to make them fit into the case. And going through that process is actually more satisfying, I think, than getting to the end of it. So I think, yeah, I started out in true crime. I think Capturing The Friedmans is probably--I may be wrong, and I'm glad to be proved wrong--but it may be the first found-footage-based crime documentary, in the sense that most of it is home movies collected by David Friedman, the son of Arnold, and the brother, Jesse. And that has been a theme ever since we made that film. I find going back in time and being in the room with Jesse was just so fascinating. Much more fascinating than people standing around talking about it.

Jesse Friedman 14:57

People are telling me, "Look what your father did to you! Look at the mess he got you into!" And Mommy believes them, and I don't. I tell 'em to get lost. Mommy says, "You're right." And "I've lived with him for all my life, and look at all these horrible things he's done for me over 30 years," which is... Amounts to nothing, except this.

Nick Quah 15:19

Here's a very broad question that's been asked many times by many people, but I'm still interested in hearing your thoughts about it. Why do you think people are so drawn to true crime? I've heard you say somewhere that it might have something to do with the allure of ambiguity, and while I find myself drawn to that, as well, I also personally have a lot of moral/ethical issues with how many true crime stories are presented.

Marc Smerling 15:44

Well, I think Zac Portier put it--one part of it--very well. He said that true crime is the the magnification of true life in a very dramatic way. It's everything that we think about that we don't understand, and it's to the nth degree, so we're looking to find some sort of explanation. "Why? Why did this guy... Why would he do this?" You know? We need to know. The world needs to make sense to people. Unfortunately, the world doesn't make sense. [Laughter] You know, it just doesn't. And people are even more nonsensical. So a well-done true crime show makes sense of a world and gives you a clear answer. And I'm not for that. I'm with you, man. I feel like Capturing The Friedmans was very ambiguous for a lot of people. Now would we have made it less ambiguous if we had definitive proof that the Friedmen family was innocent? Or proof that they were guilty? Of course, if we found something definitive, but if you don't find something definitive, it's not fair to make it up. [Laughter] And I think that what you do is you stick to the factual history, and you do your best to tell the story in an exciting way without breaking it. And without getting into, "Hey, can you make that more exciting? Can the ending be more definitive?" I have gotten on, you know, showrunner job calls with major studios, when they're describing shows to me that I know are--in my heart--are a moral issue. One which will, you know, probably come back to haunt me was the JonBenet Ramsey piece that they got sued for. And I... On the call, I was like, "You're gonna get sued." Where they recreated... You know, they accused the brother of the murder. And they recreated the scene with a watermelon, I think it was--I didn't watch it, because it was just... They pitched that on the phone, on a call with me, and I'm like, "You can't recreate something that didn't... You don't know happened, about a guy who you're not even talking to.” You know?

Nick Quah 17:43

So you were also one of the earlier voices of true crime in the podcast space. And you were also one of the earlier teams to work with Gimlet Media. What was that experience like, working with Alex Blumberg in that company, during that moment?

Marc Smerling 17:56

It was a great experience. That place was sort of a wide open field of creativity. I loved it. And I was by far the oldest guy in the room. [Laughter] But you know, it was just like being reborn in some ways. It was a great place to work, and just the energy of just excitement was there.

Nick Quah 18:14

Yeah.

Marc Smerling 18:14

I think everybody there thought they were doing something extraordinary. And I think they were doing something extraordinary. And you look at those original shows, and there's some great shows in there. Crimetown was very unique. We came in with a little more bandwidth, in a Hollywood sense, than I think they had at Gimlet. They didn't under... I remember going to the meeting and saying... We're making our deal, and Alex, I mentioned the word, the letters “IP,” and Alex was like, "What's IP?" So at that point, nobody had thought about the value of these things crossing platforms. It wasn't really like... We weren't doing it... I don't think anybody was doing it, except for maybe me, because I wanted to make a TV series out of it, for any other reason but to just make something great. It wasn't unlimited budgets, but the budgets were fairly healthy, and we all thought we were making great stuff. So... I don't think that happens a lot in Hollywood, honestly. It's very rare. It's hard, because there's so much pressure when you're making television. There's budgetary pressures, obviously, which are needed, and because now you can't just spend everything. But there also is pressure to adhere to things that studio executives see as successful. And it's been my whole life, that I try to not do that. To do something off, and different. It makes it extremely hard. When we went into Gimlet, "off" and "different" was the name of the game.

Nick Quah 19:43

In April, Marc launched his own TV and podcast production company, Truth Media, through which he released his latest works: a nonfiction TV series called A Wilderness of Error, and the show's companion podcast, Morally Indefensible.

Marc Smerling 19:59

On a fiscally responsible level, on a business level, I have gone forth and said, "Okay, we're making podcasts, hopefully to create IP for television and movies." But that's disingenuous at some level. I don't really feel that way emotionally. I love making podcasts. I love it. I feel like that is such a great creative opportunity. If it turns into IP, great, but not every show we're doing is an IP play. You know, for me, it's just about a creative outlet, and working with creative people who are fresh, and open to learning how to tell stories and push the boundaries. And in television, I'm doing that anyway. But it's... So, these two things are sort of supporting each other. I'm not so sure that... If you know this, Nick, but it's hard to make money in podcasts. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 20:45

I, you know, I'm very familiar with that. That's about half the conversations that I have. [Laughter]

Marc Smerling 20:50

You know, so without the television, it would be very difficult to run a company that we're running here, and the television does keep the lights on, and it does... It's a great opportunity for people. I've had podcast producers transfer into television shows as story producers. And that's been a really good experience for me, because they're fresh, and we can start from scratch, and visual storytelling can become one of their tools, as opposed to somebody comes in with their own ideas of what that is. And t's it's a great incubator for storytelling. That's what I'm trying to create.

Nick Quah 21:25

Before we wrap up, I've got a couple of lightning-round questions for you. First one: what's your favorite true crime show that you've consumed recently?

Marc Smerling 21:34

You know, Tiger King, I must say, it was fascinating. It was really fascinating. It was, I thought, well put together. But you know, it was one of those looks into a world and I don't think it was very sympathetic.

Nick Quah 21:46

Yeah.

Marc Smerling 21:47

And I had a problem with that. But as a piece of... It was... I watched every episode, it was hard to put down. I'll tell you what I like. What's the... Ozark! I love Ozark. I thought Ozark was great. Did you like Ozark?

Nick Quah 21:59

I do like Ozark. But it's funny you bring in fiction to this, and it's actually a really effective way to think about the genre.

Marc Smerling 22:07

Oh, yeah, that's... That's what Crimetown is, right? It's cinema for your ears. It's TV in your ears. And that's how we try to construct it. I'm always thinking about it that way.

Nick Quah 22:16

Last question: what is your favorite true crime media of all time? It could be a book, podcast, a TV show.

Marc Smerling 22:24

I loved S-Town. I thought it was masterful, and it was beautiful, and it was true. I love the movie M, with Peter Lorre.

Nick Quah 22:33

Oh, Fritz Lang?

Marc Smerling 22:34

Fritz Lang.

Nick Quah 22:34

Yeah.

Marc Smerling 22:35

I mean, I remember watching that and being like, "Wow." That's sort of the first police procedural that was ever made. You know? It's just basically looking for a child murderer. And it was just so well done. I was just blown away. Anyway, I always read this stuff. Because back... You know, reading was the... I mean, everything. There's so much true crime--Rockford Files when I was a kid, then Law & Order as I got older--but reading was a big part of it. So Ross MacDonald was a Western author who wrote a series of books about Lou Archer that were made into movies with Paul Newman. They're amazing because they really... One of the things I love to do is dig into the motives in the sense of, who are the people involved in the story? And maybe that explains why they're doing the things they're doing. Dashiell Hammett, I thought, is genius.

Nick Quah 22:37

Great crime novels, yeah.

Marc Smerling 23:11

Even Jim Thompson. You know? I mean, that stuff's dark, but so great.

Nick Quah 23:31

Yeah. So you're a big fan of noir in general.

Marc Smerling 23:33

Yeah, I am. I am. All the Humphrey Bogart stuff, man. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 23:39

Marc, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate this conversation.

Nick Quah 23:42

Absolutely. Anytime.

Nick Quah 24:03

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.