Jeffrey MacDonald, with his wife Colette and daughter Kristen
Jeffrey MacDonald facing trial in his U.S. Army uniform
Documentary filmmaker Marc Smerling has long been compelled by the moral complexities of true-crime stories.
He was especially intrigued by the the sensational case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the U.S. Army surgeon and Green Beret convicted of murdering his family at Fort Bragg in 1970. "It was a story told by several storytellers that had not been solved to anyone's satisfaction," he says.
The case, which has inspired many books and movies, is revisited in A Wilderness of Error, which debuted September 25 on FX and, the next day, on FX on Hulu. Smerling (The Jinx, Capturing the Friedmans) directed and executive- produced the five-hour limited series, produced by Blumhouse Television and UCP.
The series is based on the bestselling book of the same name by film director Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), which speculates that MacDonald — currently serving a life sentence — may be innocent.
Smerling uses archival footage, never-before-seen interviews and cinematic re-creations — both audio and visual — to reexamine the events. He presents new evidence that sheds light on MacDonald's claim that the murders were carried out, Manson-style, by a group of hippies.
"This was a very hot story for a lot of people, on a very personal level," Smerling says. "I wanted to rip the top off again, get the transcripts, read through them with a research team that was going to do a very deep dive, and see if we could understand what happened, how it happened and how we ended up here.
"We live in a time when journalists and storytellers are having their hands pressed to the flame," he continues. "The truth is more elusive, probably, than it's ever been before."
At first, the director's reverence for Morris — whom he considers a mentor — made him hesitate to take on the project. "I didn't want to step on any toes," Smerling says. "I didn't want Errol to get upset if I fell on the opposite side of him."
Morris not only approved, he appears in the series. But as Smerling admits, "Errol and I had disagreements over the facts." As the complexity grows, Morris reevaluates his own perspectives.
"Errol goes on a journey," Smerling says. "He starts one way, then there are moments where he's, 'Well …,' and then at the end, he's in another place. That's a testament to his honesty and transparency as a storyteller."
For Smerling, the central question becomes, "Which storyteller are you going to believe?" Key participants include MacDonald, Helena Stoeckley — a mystery woman who may or may not have been at the crime scene— her boyfriend Greg Mitchell, and teams of lawyers and military prosecutors.
AWOE also explores the media's role in turning public opinion against MacDonald, thanks largely to Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss's 1983 book (and the miniseries it inspired), which depicted MacDonald as a sociopath guilty of the murders. (McGinniss is the subject of Morally Indefensible, a podcast from Smerling's Brooklyn-based Truth Media company, that will accompany AWOE's release.)
In a joint statement, Blumhouse TV copresidents Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold said, "We were really intrigued by Marc's examination of the media's role in shaping the case, and its effect on the cornerstone of our justice system, which is its impartiality." (Wiseman and Gold are also executive producers, along with Jason Blum, Mary Lisio, Dawn Olmstead, Jessica Grimshaw, Rachael Horovitz and Michael Jackson.)
Ultimately, Smerling says, "The goal is to give the audience the tools to make an emotional as well as an intellectual decision about how they feel about these events."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020