A Wilderness of Error, the 2012 book about the Jeffrey MacDonald murders by Errol Morris, is the basis for the new FX documentary series directed by Marc Smerling, yet Smerling appears to come to a different conclusion from Morris on the matter of whether MacDonald killed his family. Filmmakers often make significant changes when translating a work of fiction to the screen, but for such a thing to happen in a documentary adaptation, particularly one in which the book’s author appears as an interview subject and seems to change his mind about the story, feels unprecedented.
I spoke with Morris by phone about the miniseries based on his book and what still bothers him about the MacDonald case, which above all is that—regardless of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence—the trial, as Morris believes, was unfair. His doubts center around Helena Stoeckley, a young woman who confessed to many friends that she and three other people had entered the MacDonald home and committed the crimes. Morris had a lot to say about why he thinks the prosecution procured a lawyer for Stoeckley only after she had testified on the stand that she was not involved in the murders. He believes it was to make sure that she pled the Fifth if ever asked to testify again; Stoeckley would continue, until her death in 1983, to tell people that she had been present in the house when Colette MacDonald and the couple’s two young children were killed. But, for the sake of concision, this interview has been edited to focus on the remarkable differences between Morris’ book and Smerling’s series.
Laura Miller: First of all, have you seen the finale of the documentary miniseries?
Errol Morris: I have.
And what do you make of it?
I’m not sure what I make of it. Everybody seems to have a dog in this fight, although it’s not clear what kind of dog, or what kind of fight. And let’s not forget, my voice is in it too.
What exactly was the nature of your relationship to the documentary? Were you an interview subject or did you have some role in steering it?
I think the fair way to describe it is that I was in no way an author of the material, but I was an interview subject in the film.
It’s a documentary that has the same title as your book, and yet it seems to take a very different position from your book, which is peculiar.
Well, I’m glad you’ve said it.
Because you feel that you can’t?
I feel I don’t want to. I wrote the book. To the extent I like anything that I do, I like the book. I wanted to address these concerns that I have about truth and storytelling. And I think the book does that. I think Marc probably came further in grappling with it than most people, but am I entirely satisfied? You know, I’m glad someone did something. My book still exists. The book is the book. I did the book. There it is. Look at it. Read it.
So were you surprised at all about how the series turned out?
No, I can’t say I was surprised.
You knew going in that he would have a different take on it than you did?
Inevitable. There’s a sea of information about the case. And it’s a case where the evidence has been mucked over again and again and again. A lot of evidence was never collected. Some evidence was completely misinterpreted. Some evidence was lost. A lot of people believe in Jeffrey’s guilt.
When you watched the documentary, were there things in it that you had not seen before? Did they change your mind about anything? Or shift it, I suppose, because your mind isn’t exactly set?
I was interested to see all the interviews with people that I had myself not interviewed, yeah. But none of those interviews were crucial pieces of evidence. I found it just simply as another layer of complication in an already extraordinarily complicated story.
I still believe in the approach that I took. Of course I do. It’s an examination of how our minds are moved around. With respect to evidence, that’s not to say that evidence can be interpreted any way you choose. But it is to say that our own thinking is so malleable, our connections to rationality are—I hate to use this word, but I’ll use it anyway—so tenuous.
What did Smerling tell you about the documentary that he wanted to make when this began? At what point did you realize that he was leaning in a different direction than you did?
Probably I was aware of it from the first interview. But I did sell the rights to it. I suppose I could have just hung onto them. Or I could have made my own film. But when you’re writing a book, or at least the kind of book that I wrote, you can make the heart of the book ambiguity. It’s a choice. You can focus on all of those elements of uncertainty and doubt that have certainly plagued me throughout my examination of the case. And you can look at the various errors that I certainly feel were made. When you’re making a certain kind of movie, an interview movie—I think I’m more or less familiar with that!—it’s a different thing. You interview the Stoeckley brothers. You know that one of the brothers is a staunch believer in Jeffrey MacDonald’s guilt. But that’s not dealing with the evidence. That’s dealing with character.
I think what you’re saying is that when you’re doing a film that’s made up of interviews with subjects, you have a little less control over how the information is presented.
That’s one way to describe it. I would describe it slightly differently. You’re trapped in their view of the world. Unless, I suppose, it’s an adversarial interview. But I don’t do adversarial interviews. And even when it’s an adversarial interview, you’re still in some way trapped in your subject’s view of the world.
I really want to know whether you feel as I do, that the series falsely depicts you as having been given new and serious reservations about the case. The way that the documentary is constructed, there is a moment that’s handled as if it were the narrative climax. In one of the few times Smerling films himself, he says to you, “Can I show you the video of her talking about that night?” He presents you with the videotape of Helena Stoeckley describing the assault on MacDonald and he compares it to MacDonald’s own account. They’re different. You have seemed for most of the documentary to be very sure of what you think. The way that it’s presented, it makes it seem like this contradiction causes you to reassess your own position on the case. The way that it’s placed in the narrative of the film, it makes it seem like he has persuaded you that you were wrong.
He has not.
One of the main points that you’re trying to make in your interviews with him is that we formulate these narratives about what happens. Which makes it all the more striking that there’s a kind of false narrative presented in that last episode of you either changing your mind or coming to doubt your position more. It’s a twist. It’s a narrative that I sense he’s looking for in this final episode, this moment when you were forced to face the fact that those two versions of the story were so different.
Well, I’m aware that they’re different. I’ve always been aware that they’re different.
One of the things I wanted to clarify is that you always knew this.
I’ve lived with this story for so long. If the idea is that sudden clarity emerges at the end of this series, I would respectfully disagree. Here’s my feeble answer: I still believe that this case is a mess. And I suppose there is an argument to be made, perhaps a good argument, for Jeffrey’s guilt. But that’s not the argument that I’m making in the book—or even the converse, that Jeffrey is innocent (although the book does go there). The book is about something different. That’s what makes it interesting to me.
Smerling worked on The Jinx. He’s made great films, but like the ending of The Jinx, this just feels like a bit of a gotcha. The sense of that scene is, Then I showed him this, and now he doubts MacDonald in some way that he didn’t before.
I actually agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Marc is involved in gotcha journalism. Now, Capturing the Friedmans is an odder film. That’s a film that does traffic in a kind of ambiguity. The Durst film—you know, I have lots of feelings about the Durst film. I don’t find the conclusion of it to be terribly compelling. That’s just me. But it is an attempt at gotcha journalism. How else would you describe it? I don’t think this is unfair on my part.
I’ve often said that subtlety is for kids because only kids can appreciate subtlety. Adults need a two-by-four swung in a wide arc and connecting with the side of their head. Do I believe that Marc is interested in subtlety? What are the movies that he’s made? In the case of the Durst series, it’s proving someone who we believe to be a killer is a killer. Do I find the end of The Jinx compelling? I do not. There is something about the last scene that seems to me contrived, as if you’re trying really, really, really hard to make a point. And this is what you have to do to make it. But am I persuaded by it? Not really, no.
You did say that you thought Durst was a killer.
To the extent that I know all of the details of the case, it seems like he is a killer.
So you’re saying that particular scene, with the inadvertent recording—that isn’t what persuades you that he is one?
It’s everything else, yeah. And so I wonder what that’s about. It’s like, when you’ve already won the hand, somehow you dig up another hand that’s better? I’m not sure of the point that he wants to make about Jeffrey MacDonald, ultimately. Or is it a point about my delusion? My susceptibility to wanting things to be vague or undecided or undecidable, is that the point?
He suggests that with A Wilderness of Error, you were trying to repeat what you did with The Thin Blue Line [which played a role in freeing an innocent man from death row].
That’s absolutely not true. That I can defend myself against. Would I want to repeat The Thin Blue Line? Absolutely, yes. Who wouldn’t want to prove someone innocent and effect some kind of change on that basis? If you ask me would I want to do that: Yes, I’m raising my hand. Yes. Please call on me! But was it in the back of my mind that maybe I could repeat this with the Jeffrey MacDonald case? That’s making me look a lot stupider than I think I am. “Oh, I’ll pick this really fucked-up case, and I’ll make this impeccable, unassailable argument for Jeffrey’s innocence.” No!
Am I, unlike everybody else on this planet, not influenced by my enthusiasms and my hatreds? No, I’m a human, but I chose this case, I believe, because I knew how fucked up it was. And I wanted to examine that. And I wanted to examine how we’re led in so many strange directions. I’m still glad I did the book, and the book is, of course, really different than Marc Smerling’s series. He is interested in making a case for guilt. I clearly am involved in something different. There’s this presumption that if I’m not making a case for guilt, I have to be making a case for innocence or vice versa, that I could not be examining something different.
If the argument is that I now believe Jeffrey is guilty: I do not. Do I think it’s possible that he may be guilty? I do. Do I believe that my book is about something else? I do.
Do you feel that there was a false narrative imposed on your relationship to the story in the series?
As kind as Marc has been to me, I feel really hesitant to criticize him just because of common human decency. I think he has done a respectful job. He has done a lot of work on this case. We’re interested in different things. I think that’s an important thing to emphasize. For Marc, this issue of guilt or innocence, it’s not that it isn’t for me, but it is not the only thing.