In 2005 Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos set out to make what Demos calls, “A social justice film.” They were, Ricciardi says, only planning “To see how an accused was going to be treated in the American criminal justice system.” They’d seen the case of Steven Avery in The New York Times and thought they would simply follow his trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach. They had no idea they were in for ten years of unpaid hard graft and a long-term move to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Neither could they have known their planned film would eventually become a must-binge docuseries on Netflix and the subject of a nation’s intense obsession. As Ricciardi says, “It’s surreal. I’m still stunned.” Currently shooting Making a Murderer’s second season, Ricciardi and Demos will follow the process of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey’s appeal.
NB: In the days following this interview, Dassey’s conviction was overturned. Ricciardi and Demos released this statement in response: “Today there was a major development for the subjects in our story and this recent news shows the criminal justice system at work. As we have done for the past 10 years, we will continue to document the story as it unfolds, and follow it wherever it may lead.”
How did you keep going with this project for ten years before Netflix picked it up–without knowing if you’d ever get your work shown or be paid?
Laura Ricciardi: What drove us is we really felt we had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell the story of one of Wisconsin’s first DNA exonerees who was later charged in a serious crime. He was wrongly convicted in 1985 and 20 years later found himself back in the system. We wanted to know, was he stepping back into essentially the same system, or had the system evolved over those 20 years. He happened to be involved in a high profile murder case, but that wasn’t really what motivated us to cover it. We asked him if he would be okay with us telling his story, and we went on this incredible journey with him. We finished filming, for the most part, by 2007, and really needed time to work with the material, and felt like giving up was not a choice, it wasn’t an option.
Have there been times you’ve felt uncertain about Steven Avery’s innocence? Did that feel deeply problematic?
Moira Demos: I mean, throughout, Steven has been a very complex and flawed character. The story that we were telling, that we were really following at the time, it didn’t depend on his guilt or innocence, it didn’t depend on the verdict going one way or another. It was really to witness and ask questions and explore. So the more questions we had or the more doubts we had were just opportunities to make things richer. They weren’t at all problematic.
How shocking was the incredible response to the show?
Ricciardi: We were in our hotel room watching Good Morning America and they’re talking about Making a Murderer Season 2, and we’re just trying to hurry to get our gear together and get in the van so we can go do it. It’s pretty surreal, you know? It’s hard to remember that they’re talking about us when they’re talking about the show we’re in the process of making.
There’s been quite a backlash from those who say you didn’t present the full picture of the case–how has that affected you?
Ricciardi: There are people who have arguments today about whether or not we left out particular pieces of evidence. I have so many thoughts about that. One is the series was not about taking sides, essentially, in terms of how that case would play out. It wasn’t about arguing the evidence. We were trying to show that each side had their own theories and each side was trying to demonstrate that they had evidence. It was about let’s take the state’s best evidence and the defense’s best arguments and include those. But we certainly couldn’t include everything, and we certainly didn’t leave out anything of real significance. So there’s that.
Then the other thing about the criticism which I think actually is quite unfair is we cast the widest net we could conceive of. We asked everyone to sit down with us. We invited the state prosecutor, we even invited the judges. We invited the jury, anybody, the Halbach family, anyone was welcome to participate as long as they had some direct connection to the story and could speak from firsthand experience. So we sought pretty much universal access. We didn’t get it. Some of our most vocal critics are people who chose not to participate in the series. So it’s a little difficult now to hear them complaining about objectivity or bias when they had an opportunity to speak then and chose not to.
Avery’s new lawyer Kathleen Zellner has said she has a couple of other suspects in mind and new evidence. That will be the focus of Season 2?
Demos: What we took away from the incredible response to the series was a lot of people were very uncomfortable with the uncertainty we left them with and they wanted answers, which we had not been striving for in Season 1. We saw a lot of confusion about what post-conviction law is even all about. Here we have two convicted men who are claiming to be innocent, what does that mean?
Ricciardi: And they’re each serving a life sentence. I mean, Steven without the possibility of parole and Brendan not eligible for it until 2048.
Demos: So in Season 2 we saw two opportunities. With Kathleen Zellner taking Steven’s case she is certainly searching for answers. She is reinvestigating the case. So you have a character, you know, who very much can embody what many people are wanting to do, to investigate and search for answers. And then we also have this opportunity to once again, as it’s unfolding, follow what post-conviction law is all about, what are the odds that are stacked against you, what are your opportunities?
Have you found your film-making niche now in true crime stories?
Demos: It’s understandable people consider this true crime, there is a crime at the center of the story, but Laura referred earlier to the exploration of how things are covered in public and how things are documented and how that sometimes correlates and sometimes doesn’t at all correlate to what’s actually going on on the ground or behind the scenes. I think we’re more likely to look at other stories like that than to particularly look at another crime story.
Ricciardi: I think people do like to have projects fit within a certain genre if they can, and ours certainly has fallen into that category. I think for me I guess I struggle with that a little bit and part of it I think too is just my own lack of clarity about how people define true crime. I think what scares me about it is often people think it’s fetishizing death or somehow exploiting someone’s tragedy, and that’s certainly not at all what we were about. We also never set out to investigate the crime. So it was never a whodunit for us either. It really was about taking this opportunity to look at the American criminal justice system and to see whether it’s living up to its founding principles of trying to deliver truth and justice. Now have a major character, Kathleen Zellner and she herself is searching for answers, but we don’t feel like we’ve taken on the role of providing answers. We’re just going to document someone who is searching for them.
Can you give any sense of how Steven and Brendan are doing right now?
Demos: I do get the sense from their mothers and their supporters that the renewed interest in their cases gives them hope. Steven in particular. His cell used to be filled with his case files as he was working on his case. Now he has a lawyer so he can get rid of his case files, and now he has piles of letters from supporters. So that’s a positive change and helps him be patient and get through the days. I think the same for Brendan in terms of having friends now that live all over the world. He has people that he can call, he has letters that he can write back to, so I think that’s a new experience for him.
Ricciardi: And it must be quite strange because I know at least Steven has asked the warden and I think his social worker if he could see the series, and that’s been denied. So he’s never seen the series.
Demos: And neither has Brendan.
Ricciardi: It’s funny, there have been a couple of times now where I’ve spoken to Steven and he said, “Yeah, you know, the people who are writing to me tell me you did a good job with the documentary.” So he hasn’t seen it, but he’s heard good things about it, which is nice.