Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos delve back into the disturbing small town story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey
In December 2015, a Netflix show about the exoneration and swift reincarceration of a Wisconsin man became the main topic of conversation for audiences around the world. Making a Murderer followed Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were accused of murdering Teresa Halbach in 2005. Prior to that, Steven had spent 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, and was in the process of filing a suit against Manitowoc County.
Documentarians and law graduates Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos became acquainted with the case after reading about it in the New York Times. This led them eventually to a production deal with Netflix, and in time, audiences all around the world who became invested in the case. From memes to conspiracy theories and even a parody show (also on Netflix), Making A Murderer became a global phenomenon. Three years later, the show returns to Netflix, taking audiences on a new journey with Steve and Brendan as they navigate the post-trial appeals system.
We speak to Laura and Moira, who give the inside scoop on what to expect from the new season, surprising fans, and how many people try to pitch them new cases.
It’s been a crazy three years since the first series of Making a Murderer aired. How are you both?
Laura Ricciardi: We’re grateful. It’s not a small thing for people to let you into their lives. We’re incredibly grateful that people had the benefit of seeing Part One, and understood what we’re about, what our work is about, and gave us a window into this whole part of the process.
It must have surprised you how the show blew up. You had Alec Baldwin tweeting about how much he liked it...
Moira Demos: Alec Baldwin rang my cell phone.
Moira Demos: Yeah, we ended up going on his podcast. He DMed me on Twitter and then called me – Laura’s mom was in the car with us so I put him on speakerphone because I knew it would make her day. But yeah, we would be lying if we said we could have expected that response. But it was thrilling, because as storytellers, you’re doing your work to share it, you’re doing it to be shared, and you’re thinking about those viewers all the time, even though at times, they’re imaginary.
We had faith that this story mattered, that these were compelling characters, and that telling it in this format – this long-form, subjective story format – was something that people would respond to. It was incredibly rewarding to witness that response – not only the size of it, but the scope. It was people from different countries, different ages, and people responded to different things. You had crime junkies obsessing about the evidence, people picking up on broader themes about the underclass in America. Our perspective is that there aren’t easy answers, and it is complex, and unless we deal with that complexity, we’re just gonna keep cycling.
There’s a particularly strong sense at the moment, given the Kavanaugh case, that class continues to be a huge issue in the American justice system. When you returned to the story did you ever feel like the odds were just stacked too much against Steve and Brendan?
Laura Ricciardi: We weren’t as familiar with the post-conviction process as we were with the trial system. One of the things we learned early on was the incredible odds that Steve and Brendan were facing now they were inside the system. Steven had got a new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, and it became clear she was going to be challenging his conviction and sentence in the state court system, and what that would look like. Brendan on the other hand, represented by Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, they’ve taken his case out of the state court system into federal court. But what drew us to the case in the first instance – the fact that it was a DNA exoneree being charged in a new crime – we’d never heard that and were fascinated by it. We recognised when we read the initial New York Times article there was, from Steven’s perspective, a conflict of interest. The very county he was sueing was going to be investigating in this new case. Ultimately they say they recused themselves –
Moira Demos: That’ll be explored more in Part Two as well.
Laura Ricciardi: – but we feel the story plays on different levels, or is layered. What drew us to the story was that, and the power dynamics at the centre of the story. That’s something we feel is universal, as well as the struggle against these incredible odds.
In the time since Part One, we’ve had American Vandal, which is a kind of parody of Making a Murderer. Have you seen it?
Moira Demos: We haven't actually seen American Vandal yet...
Laura Ricciardi: Only because we don’t have time to sit down and watch it!
Moira Demos: Right! We cannot wait to start watching Netflix, and going to the movies and reading books again, because we don’t have a lot of time for that when we’re trying to create 10 episodes in two and a half years.
“As Americans we believe in the justice system’s fundamental fairness and accuracy, and many people who watched Part One came away feeling that's not the case”
How much trepidation did you feel returning to the story?
Moira Demos: In terms of approaching Part Two, it seemed like this amazing opportunity. We knew we were going to enter this new place, the post-conviction system, which we personally knew less about but also knew that viewers didn’t know as much about, just from when they would ask us if Steve and Brendan were appealing. There’s a feeling that if something is wrong you should be able to ask a higher court, but there’s no sense of how that works. So we saw it as an exciting opportunity to take a journey through a new phase of the system. But also we knew that so many viewers had connected to the characters, and the power of storytelling is when people connect with your characters. Then they start to care, and the issues start to matter, and the audience starts to learn. Going back to this story felt like an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
In the new series, you really get a sense for just how low the odds are of making it through the post-trial system. Did that surprise you at all?
Laura Ricciardi: I think Laura Nirider speaks to this quite a lot in the show. There’s this presumption in America that if one court gets it wrong, another court can just get involved and along the way someone will get it right. As Americans we believe in the justice system’s fundamental fairness and accuracy, and many people who watched Part One came away feeling that's not the case. In an early episode of Part Two, Laura explains that in federal court, innocence is not enough to overturn a conviction. That really shocks a lot of people.
That’s the fact you can’t build a case solely on the argument that you’re innocent, right?
Laura Ricciardi: Right, so can you imagine being in federal court, maybe the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, and saying ‘I can demonstrate that I did not commit the crime’, and then the court just says, ‘Yeah, okay. What else you got?’
How do you break the complexity of these ideas down for viewers?
Moira Demos: That’s one of the big challenges. It’s crucial that our viewers understand the complexity and the details, but also the mechanisms of the various court systems, because if you don’t understand, your interest and the drama dissipate. It’s such a driven, dramatic narrative but we do have to spend some time being educational. Luckily we do have some very articulate lawyers who are top of their fields and can explain what they’re doing and why.
Laura Ricciardi: It’s like explaining the rules of a game that someone doesn’t play. Like my nephew plays football but I don’t understand the rules of it. But we understand that in order to maximise viewer engagement, we have to explain the rules, so they can watch people playing within the rules of the game.
Especially when you have long sequences of what could be quite dry and unengaging court footage.
Moira Demos: I think it comes down to your engagement with the characters, because if you’re on the stand for murder, what’s going on in the courtroom is not dry. If you understand why it matters, it’s dramatic. In Part One we were trying to give viewers the experience of being accused in the American justice system. In Part Two, it’s the experience of being a convicted person and trying to find advocates and work against the odds stacked against you.
As you were making the new series did you find yourself reevaluating things that you’d learnt while making Part One?
Moira Demos: With Part Two, you’re on a journey, but you’re also looking back at the journey taken in Part One. I think viewers will learn a lot about Part One by watching Part Two. Steven’s new lawyer Katherine Zellner very much does not work the case from behind her desk – she’s going to the crime scene, she’s doing tests and experiments. She’s someone in search of answers. Some of them will emerge, or new questions will develop. I think if you’re certain about your point of view, or what’s going on... you should be more open.
“The story is this giant organism that’s constantly changing”
Was it a challenge to make a show when every day there seemed to be new information about the case coming out?
Moira Demos: We like to say that ‘It’s necessary to be nimble’. We were constantly keeping tabs on what was happening in the midwest. We live in L.A, and production was in L.A, unlike with Part One where we relocated to Wisconsin and within a few moments we could cover something. But the challenge is part of the fun of it. There’s just a real aspect to working with footage, and you think ‘Okay I can reflect on this and work out of the structure’ and then something else comes up, and suddenly the first thing isn’t as interesting –
Laura Ricciardi: Or it’s not the right place to include that bit anymore.
Moira Demos: Right. The whole process is fluid, and the story is this giant organism that’s constantly changing.
Since Part One have people started coming to you with stories that they want you to investigate?
Moira Demos: We have had people reach out to us, but we’re pretty busy!
Laura Ricciardi: I had one scary experience. Someone found a way to reach me personally and was like, ‘Oh, I have a new idea for you – it’s a series called Making a Stalker.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, you just did the first episode’.
It’s challenging though, because we do feel as storytellers who are in this fortunate position with Netflix and our huge audience, there’s this power in that, and when someone reaches out to you and asks for help, you wanna help everyone. That's what’s rewarding about this story. We hold onto the themes that emerge from it, and hope that it offers more than just a look at one particular case.
Making A Murderer Part Two is available on Netflix from October 19