Talk/Talk: Marc Smerling & Austin Mitchell
Marc Smerling made The HBO series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst about the eccentric and murderous New York heir – one of the greatest true crime documentary series. Austin Mitchell made The Ballad of Billy Balls, one of our favourite audio documentary series of all time; so good that we asked him to become a Creative Director at Novel. Marc and Austin already knew each other from working at Crimetown: Marc co-created it with Zac Stuart-Pontier, and The Ballad of Billy Balls was a spinoff from it. Given their joint history, we asked Austin to have a chat with Marc about the nature of documentary storytelling, ‘pushing back information’, humanising the bad guys and the stomach-churning verité of Gaspar Noë.
AUSTIN: You had a pretty celebrated film career before you got into podcasting. Why did you want to start making things in audio?
MARC: I had been working in television for a while, and it's a very layered and crowded place for a creative person to work. There's a lot of opinions. There's a lot of things that you can't do. There's a lot of boundaries. And podcasts just seemed like an open grazing field. It seemed like I could take a recorder out and just record stuff and build a story. And I could tell stories that I wanted to tell rather than stories that other people wanted to tell.
AUSTIN: So it was more creative freedom outside of the bounds of some entity that you had to answer to.
MARC: Yeah, exactly. And when I was a kid, my father owned a chain of movie theatres and I used to go with him at like seven or eight years old, and he would sit me in the seat in the theater and go up and do the books in the office or talk to the manager. So I'd always get plopped into whatever it was, at some point in the middle of the movie, and I begged to stay for the back end of the movie. I remember driving from place to place and imagining what the end of that movie or the beginning of that movie was about and hearing it actually more than I would see it.
AUSTIN: How would you describe your audio style?
MARC: You know, the interesting thing about documentarians that I found was that they were very opinionated and they had a real agenda. That's great because a lot of documentaries need to have an agenda and they need to get a message out, but that was never my thing. What I wanted to do was to transport people back in time and let them experience things as they happen to the people who are actually being interviewed. That gives you the permission to push pieces of information back in the chronology, and it becomes more cinematic that way. That's how we watch movies, and that's how we watch narrative television. So we were taking narrative structures and we were placing them on documentaries.
AUSTIN: When you say push pieces of information back, what do you mean?
MARC: An example of that would be Jaws. The first scene of Jaws is this beautiful girl running down the beach. She jumps in the water, it seems as perfect a night as possible, and then all of a sudden something grabs her from the water and she disappears. And then you come back to this small sleepy town, but you know there's something out there. And that piece of information, what is out there, drives that whole movie. We know [what it is] because we're kind of inside the joke a little bit, but the whole town's trying to figure it out.
AUSTIN: Yeah, that's an interesting example because it's pushing information back for the characters within the film, but it's not necessarily pushing it back for the person watching the film. Is there a difference?
MARC: Oh yeah. When you push things back in the story and you haven't hinted what they are, they have no power in the storytelling. It just sits there, and then when you hit it, it seems like it came out of nowhere. So the whole process is about teasing these pieces of information and then pushing it back, teasing it and pushing it back.
Let me give you one more example. My favourite movie, in some ways, is Sunset Boulevard. It's an amazing piece of storytelling, and it breaks a lot of rules. The first rule it breaks is it starts out with narration. It's from below the water of a pool at a mansion off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and it's looking up, and there's a guy floating in the pool, obviously dead. You could see the cop with the photographs and the guy's taking notes, and the narration is beckoning the viewer to ask the question, how did I get here? So you know this character is going to die at some point in this film, and now you go back in time and you meet this writer in Hollywood who is in hard times, and he gets in all kinds of messes and then he ends up in the pool. That's a big no-no, but it works so great because it pushes all the other information back and asks a huge question, right at the top of the story. So now the audience is in. They're looking for the answer to that question.
AUSTIN: Why is it a no-no?
MARC: A lot of people would say if you show your main character dead at the beginning of the story, nobody's going to want to watch it. Everyone's gonna say, I know how this ends! But it was that, with the narration, that raised the question that really made you watch it.
AUSTIN: When we were working on Crimetown, it was the first time that I had ever been working with a team that was really trying to recreate scenes with additional sound effects or outside actors. Can you talk a little bit about the process of recreation?
MARC: There's certain things that I can't go back in time with the viewer and show them through archival or interview. There are certain things that they can only see through recreation. I think a good example is [in The Jinx]. Robert Durst had this relationship with his father that was destroyed by the death of his mother, and this story about how his father took him to the window to wave at mommy to try to get her back into the house when she was standing on the roof of the garage, and she jumped.
How do you tell that piece of story in a documentary series without recreation? We could do it with Bob just sitting there, but you don't get the emotional impact of that without seeing it. And then, how do you shoot it in a way that creates the same level of weight in its visual representation that Bob has in his internal visual representation of what happened? You get a big fat camera and you shoot a thousand frames per second, you get a stunt woman to jump off a roof, and all of a sudden you've created this sort of magical moment that really tells a story well.
In audio, it's really a function of if you're going to travel the listener back in time, and you're going to do something cinematically, and you're trying to take the writing out and really let them sort of live in this story – because every time I hear somebody's voice I'm taken a little out of the story –
AUSTIN: You mean with a host's voice.
MARC: Yeah, the host's voice. So how do you bring the listener back in time and surround them with a story, put them in a strong perspective, and let him experience it? And what we found was that there are all these things out there other than interviews, and archival, and narration, that we hadn't thought about, [like] courtroom transcripts, wiretap transcripts, and transcripts in general. The key to recreating those transcripts and doing a good job of it is to make them sound like they're actual courtroom proceedings and they're actual wiretaps rather than just to have somebody read them.
AUSTIN: It's tricky though, because if it's done poorly, not only does it take you out of the story, but it feels a little bit like the person who made it is trying to trick you or trying to make you feel something that you wouldn't necessarily naturally feel.
MARC: Well, I don't think we ever did it without saying we were doing it. But the other thing is there's always going to be poor storytelling out there, unfortunately, and that's just a function of craft.
AUSTIN: It's funny because in all the things that you're saying, I recognize the way that I make things too. It's clearly because we worked together, but trying to have real teases and give listeners an arrow straight through the story where they can feel pulled along, and then also pushing back pieces of information, and trying to allow for characters to speak for themselves and not lean on the writing, if you can help it.
MARC: Want to talk about The Ballad of Billy Balls for a second? That great tape you guys got, you know, of Rebecca [the main character] just pontificating, telling stories, it makes it a little more special in my opinion. You can almost picture it like a shot, right. The camera comes right over one of the character's shoulders, and you don't even see the character next to the camera. And it feels very intimate. All of a sudden you're that character.
AUSTIN: Right. Rebecca is talking to you.
MARC: Exactly. When I heard that first episode, I was like, oh my God, this woman's a poet. She's a poet.
AUSTIN: Yeah I think so too. But it really divided the listeners, that first episode. A lot of people didn't like her.
MARC: The reality is if you're not dividing in some ways you're probably not creating something of any value, you know?
MARC: If you're not creating some sort of anxiety in certain parts of the audience, then you're probably not doing your job.
AUSTIN: The challenge is to not push it too far.
MARC: Yeah. What's that filmmaker that pushes it so far, Gaspar Noé? You ever watch his movies?
MARC: You should watch Irreversible. He's a kind of extraordinary filmmaker and storyteller, but he really pushes it.
AUSTIN: What does he push?
MARC: Well, he shows you things you don't want to see, and he leaves the camera lingering for periods of time where you're uncomfortable. He puts you with the camera and the characters and situations where you literally want to turn the TV off. It's like, I can't watch this, you know? But then he keeps you in it. You come away from his film a little bit damaged by the experience, to be honest,
AUSTIN: Do you think one could make a [podcast] that was like that, that was really difficult to listen to?
MARC: Oh, sure. Let's say you found footage of an interrogation of one of the many people we waterboarded after 9/11. And it was an intelligent conversation, but also a horrible conversation, and had parts of it that you cringed at and felt sick to your stomach listening to. Then it's just a matter of how much do you want to push the audience to listen to that stuff? A lot of people would be like, okay, we get it, now let's just move on. Right? Gaspar Noé doesn't do that. You gotta go through the whole thing.
You know, the entire Neuremberg trials were recorded. I've never listened to them, but I read an article that they were getting destroyed by time and somebody just restored it, and now they're in some archives somewhere. if you're going to tell that story, what would you do? You would make it a courtroom drama with probably some recreation using past transcripts and stuff like that, because everybody's pretty much dead. The entire story would be told by people telling their story on the stand.
So you humanise a bad person in the story, and have them tell them their story on the stand that sounds extremely heartfelt, and you feel real sympathy for this person, and then you reveal that, oh, this is that person. And this is that trial. And then you start weaving the story of what happened.
AUSTIN: So how would you handle that with recreations mixed with actual recording?
MARC: That's a technical challenge. The real challenge you have is: whose story are you telling? And how are you going to tell it? It's a big story with a lot of characters, so figuring out your way into that story, your person, is going to be the challenge.
AUSTIN: I tend to think of that person as somebody that you need to come back to at the end, or somebody who can extend throughout the series in at least some kind of shade of a way. Do you think that way too, or is it just the way in to explore the world and you can resolve it some other way without necessarily needing to come back to them?
MARC: You're always looking to answer the big question [but] it doesn't need to be the main character answering that question. So what would be the central question of the Nuremberg trials? As I understand it, and I don't know enough to be an expert, the people who put the trials on – the American government, Western governments – they wanted people to know what really happened. And if the question is what happened, you might be able to actually answer it in that trial.
And the other thing [is] what did we always learn? That everybody's thinks they know what happened with the Nazis in Germany. They have no idea what happened. Because once you get into it and you start telling it, you start getting on the ground, two feet on the ground. You're telling that story and all the little pieces start unravelling in front of you.
AUSTIN: Maybe we'll make that Nuremberg trials show one day.
MARC: This whole conversation started because you were like, oh, is there a Gaspar Noë version of a podcast? I mean, I don't know what they described in those tapes, but my gut is somebody gets up to describe something fairly horrific that nobody wants to hear.