One of the Best Serialized Documentary Creators in the World

Zac Stuart-Pontier Explains His Approach to Storytelling Across Several of His Well-known Works

“There it is. You’re caught.” So begins the final scene of The Jinx, a show that ushered in the modern era of true crime docuseries yet hinges on this jaw-dropping 90 seconds of audio while the camera is trained on an empty room, holding space to listen to an apparent triple-homicide confession captured on a hot mic. It was a fitting triumph for a series shaped by a podcast. “Serial was a big inspiration for The Jinx,” says Zac Stuart-Pontier, who edited the show. “There weren’t a lot of serialized documentaries at the time, so for years we thought The Jinx was going to be a feature film. But, Serial came out while we were working on it and got us thinking about how we could break up the story.”

Stuart-Pontier had long been a fan of podcasts, so when he and producer Marc Smerling were discussing what their next project would be, he suggested bringing in Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg to talk podcasting. Years before, Blumberg had interviewed a 17 year old Stuart-Pontier for an early episode of This American Life (Episode 173: “The Three Kinds of Deception”) and the two had stayed in touch. At first, they figured they could do an audio spin-off of The Jinx, using the hours of tape they had about Robert Durst’s trial for the death of his neighbor (which ultimately ended with his acquittal), but Blumberg wanted to create something entirely original. Smerling suggested a story about Buddy Cianci and the mob-controlled Providence, Rhode Island he presided over as mayor for 21 years, and season one of Crimetown was born.

“I think true crime is at its most successful when it pulls back and becomes about the bigger context of that central story,” says Stuart-Pontier.

After the juggernaut of The Jinx, Stuart-Pontier found the scrappier environment of creating a podcast refreshing. Unencumbered by the huge production crews and bureaucracy of HBO, they were free to doggedly pursue the story. Their perseverance especially came in handy when, a few days after Smerling arranged an interview with him, Buddy Cianci died. “We thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ How are we going to tell the story without the guy at the center of the story?” Stuart-Pontier says. Then they found out the co-author of Cianci’s memoir, David Fisher, had recorded hours of conversation during every dinner he had with Cianci over the course of writing the book. “We knew we had to get those tapes.” After extensive run-around, Fisher relented and told Stuart-Pontier and Smerling that his son would be home to hand everything over. “It was this huge incredible moment for us, getting those tapes, and this gangly kid opens the door and hands over this old Häagen-Dazs popsicle box that says ‘Buddy Cianci’ on the side.”

Digging through those recordings to get Cianci’s voice was crucial, but while Cianci was the hook, the core of the story was Providence during his reign, and how it both kneeled to and was shaped by organized crime. “I think true crime is at its most successful when it pulls back and becomes about the bigger context of that central story,” says Stuart-Pontier. “In The Jinx, there was a throughline of what role money plays in the criminal justice system, and with Crimetown it was important to us to weave this larger story of the city and what it was going through at the time and how that contributed to Cianci’s ability to gain and maintain power.”

Photo by Mary Murphy

But in order to tell the story of organized crime, Stuart-Pontier and Smerling needed to get a lot of mobsters to talk. And they are famously not fans of talking. Bobby Walason—whose story of growing up in Providence and climbing the ranks of the Patriarca crime family sets the stage for the season in episode two—was a particularly difficult get. “Marc taught me that you never hang up if they say no,” says Stuart-Pontier. “Instead of saying ‘Okay, goodbye,’ you say, ‘I’m going to let you think about it, I’ll call you back.’ Eventually you start becoming friendly, build up that trust. I try to make it clear to them that I think their story is important, and that I don’t have this preconceived notion of what I want them to say or how I’m expecting them to fit into the story.” Still, after Walason finished up his interview, he instructed the crew to “burn that tape.”

Besides those few eggs that were hard to crack, Stuart-Pontier found the more intimate recording environment of a podcast much more conducive to people warming up to the idea of sharing their story than his experience working in documentary film. The pared-down setting, smaller crew, and less intimidating equipment allows people to feel at ease more quickly. “I’ve learned asking simple questions gives people space to open up to you. ‘How did that make you feel?’ and ‘Tell me more about that’ are some of the most effective questions you can ask,” says Stuart-Pontier.

Giving that space to the victims of true crime is especially important for establishing safety and trust. “With true crime, you’re essentially cold-calling people and asking, ‘Hey, mind telling me about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?’” Stuart-Pontier says. “If you share a bit about yourself and make the conversation more of a two-way street so that you’re this three-dimensional person and not just a reporter firing questions at them, that shows you’re there to talk with them, and to really listen.”

These journalistic instincts come as no surprise for someone “raised in a weekly newspaper.” His parents dedicated their lives to uncovering and recording the stories of the world around them. (Their town, Narrowsburg, Pennsylvania, was briefly put on the map when the actor Richie Castellano conned the town into believing he was going to turn it into the Sundance of the East. This was the story of the This American Life episode that features aspiring actor Stuart-Pontier.) He grew up in an environment that heralded fact-finding missions, digging to the heart of a story, and placing it in the bigger picture. It was a house that respected the news and its history. Stuart-Pontier recalls being nine years old and being given access to the family’s copies of the archival tapes of the investigation into Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. “Those tapes were the first podcast I ever heard,” he says. “I listened to them so much that I’m sure my parents were starting to get worried about me. They made such a huge impact on me.” He would later create The RFK Tapes, a spin-off of Crimetown that aired between the two seasons in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

“I work hard to create those moments where you change your mind about how you feel about a character as much as I’m creating moments that move the story along.”

Like the rest of Stuart-Pontier’s work, The RFK Tapes is less concerned about whether there was actually a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy and focuses more on what Kennedy stood for that would drive someone to murder, and what leads people to believe in the possibility of a conspiracy in the first place. The driving force for Stuart-Pontier’s true crime tends not to be whether someone is guilty, but rather fleshing out empathetic portrays of complex characters that, in lesser hands, could easily succumb to cartoonishness.

“I like complicated characters, and as a storyteller I like it when your perception of those characters changes over time,” says Stuart-Pontier. “I work hard to create those moments where you change your mind about how you feel about a character as much as I’m creating moments that move the story along.” In one of his earliest projects, Stuart-Pontier was the editor of Catfish, a documentary about a man discovering that the woman he had fallen in love with over the internet was not who she claimed to be. The titular catfish’s arc from love interest to villain to tragic figure echoes in how Stuart-Pontier shaped Durst, Cianci, and other characters throughout his body of work. “I’m always looking for that third twist.”

Photo by Scott Newman

Neither his podcasts or his films are simply portraiture, though, and Stuart-Pontier delights in the narrative structure that serialization allows him, implementing cliffhangers and reveals to create momentum through the story. But with the net of his research being so vast, how does one look at the mountain of material and even begin to see what that story is?

Stuart-Pontier suggests going to a bar. “Human beings are naturally good storytellers,” he says. “If someone asks you, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’ The way you organize the information in your mind to answer that question reveals a lot about what the core of the story actually is.” He encourages his crew to do this as much as possible to learn from how they all informally frame the narrative and how others react to different angles. This gives a backbone to the story that can then be built upon.

For stories like Crimetown, that building could be constructed in a hundred different ways. This is the point where storytellers often turn to their metaphorical onion and its layers. For Stuart-Pontier, it’s a deck of cards. “First I concentrate on making the cards without even thinking about structure,” he says. “Then I look at what cards I have in my hand and think about how to reveal them one-by-one to the audience on the other side of the table. They can see I have all these cards in my hand, which piece of information is going to make them want to know what the next card is going to be?”

His work with Smerling has helped him find the balance of concealing and revealing information in a way that’s intriguing and not confusing. “We talk a lot about pushing information back,” says Stuart-Pontier. “When I’m figuring out how to spread out those turning points, I look to The Staircase. How late do you find out another woman died on the staircase—episode 3? I think about that all the time. That moment. Do we have something that can be treated like a second staircase?”

Here is where I tell you that Stuart-Pontier is leaving true crime behind. At least for now. The seeds were planted in season one of Crimetown, which was made during the election of Donald Trump and was shaped by the parallels between Trump and Cianci. The RFK Tapes, in turn, were a reaction to the Trump era, centering a politician who was an anachronism compared to the politicians of today and yet whose ideals and the murderous rage they inspired were nonetheless shockingly relevant. The philosophy of conspiracy theory that coursed through The RFK Tapes echoed the rising conspiratorial inclinations of the country, and led to Stuart-Pontier’s interest in QAnon. He made Q: Into the Storm, a docuseries investigating how the anonymous figure grew to be a hugely influential force in American politics, and who could be the power players behind the movement. And with his eyes turned fully towards contemporary politics, Stuart-Pontier felt compelled to grapple more with the present state of the country than continue his work with true crime.

“It’s not even that we’re ignoring our history, we’re in denial of it. We can’t even agree what that history is.”

Stuart-Pontier has narrowed in on the country’s dramatically shifting relationship with its own history. “It feels very timely to do a show about history these days,” he says. “It’s not even that we’re ignoring our history, we’re in denial of it. We can’t even agree what that history is.” So, his next project will follow a “this week in history” format — his first foray into his familial background of weekly production. Each episode will highlight not only what moment in history happened during any given week, but how its reverberations are relevant today and what the suppression or reinterpretation of that story has caused in its wake. Hosted by Simone Polanen, the show will debut on Gimlet later this year.

From acting to getting behind the camera, from film to audio, from serialized documentary to weekly history show, Stuart-Pontier has always been a storyteller first. “It’s exciting to tackle new mediums,” he says. “You need to figure out the story first, and then decide how best to tell that story.”

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