Crimetown was a podcast phenomenon, a gripping saga of crime and corruption that made the story of Providence’s cops, robbers and rogues a weekly must-listen event. With hosts Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier in town this week for several Crimetown Live appearances at the Providence Athenaeum and Columbus Theatre, we caught up with them on Federal Hill (obviously) to talk about why they followed up their hit HBO series The Jinx with a podcast about organized crime, why the story had to be Providence and, of course, Buddy Cianci.
So why did you guys choose Providence to kick off Crimetown?
Marc: I have family up here through marriage, but I had no idea about Providence other than it was a city between Boston and New York. When I started coming here regularly for family reasons I really started to understand the weird nature of relationships in Rhode Island, which are very close. You would go to these family picnics and there would be part of the family that’s kind of connected, and then there’s part of the family that are Rhodes scholars. I was fascinated, and my father-in-law introduced me to Buddy. I got to meet him between going to journalism school at Syracuse at Newhouse and graduate school for film at USC. It was a very vulnerable stage, he was in this tortured place. It was right before DeLeo [Editor’s note: Raymond DeLeo was the contractor Buddy assaulted with a fireplace log for sleeping with his wife] because I remember soon after I read about this thing with the fireplace log. So he was brooding at the end of the bar at the Biltmore Hotel over a drink and a cigarette, but when I came over he lit up and we talked for a while. He was a very charismatic guy. Then when I read that article I was like “This is kind of Providence.” Then when he got reelected it was “Oh, that is Providence.”
Zac: We were finishing up The Jinx. The podcast world was kind of blowing up and we were trying to figure out what we were going to do next. I knew Alex Blumberg [Gimlet Media CEO, affectionately referred to as “The Podfather” at the end of each Crimetown episode] from my hometown and we had kept in touch over the years, so everything kind of came together. Alex said we should do something crime related as a podcast and Marc knew about the Providence story, so we started to do interviews. The first interview we did was with Charles Kennedy.
Marc: [The late Providence Journal reporter] Bill Malinowski was our original contact through a law enforcement person who I knew from years ago. Bill was really helpful. He took me to the courthouse, showed me how to work the system to get trial papers. He was really great.
How differently do you think Crimetown would have turned out without that connection to Bill?
Zac: I don’t think it would have turned out differently, but he definitely accelerated it tremendously. It would have taken a lot longer for us to get our bearings and make all of those connections.
Marc: He was a journalist who had befriended and was starting to write stories about these guys, particularly Charles. The guy who put me in charge with Bill was a cop who knew Charles and had a relationship with him, but [Bill] came with the prepackaged idea that he was someone who was going to tell their stories.
Did you have any concerns about these characters opening up to you?
Marc: I think we had an advantage because we were outsiders and because we had come off of Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated [projects]. We had an outside credibility that for some reason… you know how Rhode Island is. This made it feel like it wasn’t going to come back at people. They thought “We can talk to these guys because we’ve never seen them before.
I would have assumed that it would be the opposite because of that insular nature of Rhode Islanders, especially the types of people you were talking to.
Zac: It still took a long time to develop trust, but I think the outside nature of our approach as journalists was valuable. These are characters that are real people, and a lot of people that write about this are very judgemental. We tried to not say anything one way or the other about their choices, just present their lives. That really appealed to people.
Marc: When you watch The Jinx it’s a deeper dive, a fair dive to a guy who you could argue doesn’t deserve a lot of fairness in some ways. Before [Robert Durst] was killing his wife and killing his best friend and killing his neighbor, he was a kid. Then he was a young adult. Then he was married. He had a life before that. People recognize from our work that we weren’t just going to do the most salacious quick fix. All of the episodes are an exploration into that other thing. It’s easy to say, “Well Raymond [Patriarca] died, the mob fell apart, people were killing each other.” Or you can see that Raymond’s doctor has a really interesting perspective into this and it gives a whole new look to something that’s been told before.
Her story was fascinating. And then you hear Kennedy talking about his wolves and that Jerry Tillinghast is a Dungeon Master.
Marc: And I think that’s the magic. Once you took out all of the quirks and weirdnesses of Robert Durst, he’s just a guy who killed some people. We were watching all these great TV shows that have taken narratives and stretched them out, and right now I think the best example is Fargo. It’s so stretched out that you’ve gone into these microcosms, and it’s so interesting. That’s what we were trying to do here. Not just come at it from the front.
With your backgrounds in television and film, what motivated the transition to a podcast?
Zac: We were finishing up a project that was super long term and very expensive. We were going off and starting something new, and a podcast was something that Marc and I could do together.
Marc: This seemed like the best way to create a story where we wouldn’t have people yelling at us about budget and time, we could just do it. We wanted to something that was about crime, but something expansive. Providence was always the story cooking in the back of my mind, this tapestry of corruption in a town where it’s very understandable in a way because of the close connections and the loss of industrial might of the city during the century. We wanted to do something bigger. Try pitching that. “What I want to do is a very intricate study of a city and crime” and people will be like, “Okay, get the next guy in here.”
Especially when the city you’re presenting isn’t a New York or an LA.
Marc: We got a lot of “it’s too provincial.” But the financial commitment, to Alex’s credit, was not that big in the beginning and Alex was basically like, “I’ll bet on the guys.” Because we heard that: it’s too provincial, nobody cares about that, the mob’s been done a million times. But for us it was always about mob influence on political corruption. It was about how what was happening here on Federal Hill, not just in a physical day to day way but in a cultural way, had crossed the highway and was happening downtown as well.
What were your thoughts when the mayor said recently that he felt Crimetown was bad for Providence?
Zac: To the mayor’s credit that quote was taken a little bit out of context when you look at what he actually said. When I first read it I was like “He said that?” but then I read the quote. And he’s the mayor of the city, I mean what’s the guy going to say.
Marc: But that attitude of dismissing the “fake news’ or the reality of what happened in the past is exactly what perpetuates that bad behavior in the future. You can’t really fix anything unless you bring it out into the light and show everybody. The title is a little hard to swallow, and we suffered over that, but it ends up being a very sticky title. Ultimately the show is very honest, and it’s a piece of transparency on how history has happened in this town that I think needed to be told in the way it was told.
The timing really seemed right because after Buddy died and as the presidential election was ramping up there were a lot of comparisons made to Trump and their cults of personality.
Zac: I don’t know if that’s being fair to Mr. Cianci if I’m being honest.
Marc: Buddy was a very high functioning person.
Zac: And I do think he tried to do good.
Marc: I think when Buddy came into office they were desperate times, and Buddy projected that type of personality that people could get behind to change things. And I think people are desperate, particularly in the middle of the country and the south, and for some reason they've latched onto another cult of personality.
Was the idea always to have the rise and fall of Buddy be the backbone of the series?
Marc: He was going to be a big character, no doubt, and Raymond, but other than that we didn’t really know. Raymond was a challenge because no one talks about him in a personal way until we met Dr. Barbara Roberts. We had a problem trying to round him out as a person. But it’s funny, there are two names you can say in Providence and everybody knows who they are: Raymond and Buddy. Huge personalities, and very polarizing.
Were any of the people you spoke to particularly surprising?
Zac: you should have seen our faces when Jerry Tillinghast told us he was a dungeon master. “Like Dungeons and Dragons?” “Yeah yeah, love it! I got this cat. He goes out I can see through the cat.” If he made this up we wouldn’t have believed it at all. Then Bobby Walason invents the Easy Jump.
Marc: That’s Rhode Island. It’s always surprising. The state has a great sense of humor about itself, but it also has a sense of forgiveness. It’s kind of extraordinary.