As we await the return of Making A Murderer this Friday, Stylist meets the co-creators of the cult Netflix series.
Steven Avery’s two mugshots, taken 20 years apart, are among the most famous in recent history. Even if you’re one of the few remaining people who haven’t seen the true crime show Making A Murderer, the chances are you recognise them. But it’s easy to forget that a female murder victim is the reason why any of us know who Avery is. And with this week’s arrival of season two of the documentary, the show’s creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are keen to make sure Teresa Halbach is not forgotten.
In November 2005, Ricciardi and Demos were fledgling New York film makers when they saw Avery’s mugshots under the newspaper headline “Freed by DNA, now charged in new crime”. Two weeks later the pair relocated to Avery’s home town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin and spent the following 10 years documenting the story of how, months earlier, Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were arrested for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer.
Avery had just been released after serving 18 years of a prison sentence for sexual assault he was exonerated from by DNA evidence and was suing the county for $36 million (£27 million). Dassey has learning difficulties and only confessed to killing Halbach with his uncle after intense police questioning. Something didn’t seem right.
Ricciardi and Demos first met studying film at Columbia University when they were in their late 30s. This was a second career for both of them; Ricciardi was a lawyer while Demos worked as an electrician on film sets. They had been dating for two years when they took the leap of faith to upturn their New York lives in the depths of winter. It took eight years from the end of the trial for them to hone their docuseries, calling into question the guilt of both men.
But when the fruits of their labour premiered in 2015, Making A Murderer became a global phenomenon the likes of which had never been seen before. Netflix is no stranger to successful shows, but this became the subject of intense obsession, spreading through word of mouth and completely consuming its audience.
Binge-watching all 10 episodes was mandatory if you wanted to join the conversation that was firing up pub chat and social media. Following 2014 podcast Serial which left us hanging, in Making A Murderer the answer seemed much more obvious – which made the injustice feel all the more harrowing. Armchair detectives extended the show’s narrative in chatrooms and blogs, some even fundraising to use Freedom of Information requests to access court documents. Ricciardi and Demos meanwhile have repeatedly stated that they haven’t seen evidence that proves Avery is guilty.
There were protests, global headlines and a petition signed by 130,000 people asking for Avery to be pardoned; President Obama issued a statement saying, “since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them”. Most powerfully of all, the show affected real-life events, with Dassey’s conviction being overturned by a judge in 2016, although it was later upheld.
Ricciardi and Demos couldn’t have predicted the ferocious reactions the series would inspire and now, its return comes under the heavy weight of expectation from opinionated fans as well as detractors.
Before the next round of bingewatching begins, Stylist caught up with Ricciardi and Demos on the phone from LA, where they now live. The show they created together redefined the zeitgeist.
Now it’s time to wrestle power back from the audience by delivering Part 2.
Making A Murderer captured the world’s attention. What can we expect from Part 2?
Moira: Expect the unexpected. It deals with an entirely new phase of the journey, into the post-conviction world. There will be events as they unfold, but there are also new characters – like the lawyer Katherine Zellner – exploring the events of Part 1. Viewers will come away with not only a new set of episodes but a re-experience of the first 10. Part 2 is another opportunity to explore [the case] even more.
Despite the huge success of the first series, you faced criticism for losing sight of the murder victim Teresa Halbach. Have you worked to ensure she is included in Part 2?
M: We invited the Halbachs and Teresa’s friends to participate in Part 2, as we had with Part 1. We want to include Teresa as much as we can in this story, because she matters so much. We have deep empathy for the Halbach family’s loss and it’s actually that empathy that inspires some of the questions we’re asking. We want [the series] to have integrity for her.
Laura: We often talk about how there are no winners in this story. The Halbach family has endured an unimaginable tragedy and our hearts go out to them. There’s pain all around and what we’re asking viewers to do is to spend some time in that complicated place. It’s not simple.
You were accused by the former prosecutor Ken Kratz of not including all evidence and of being biased toward Avery and Dassey. Did you want to address that in Part 2?
M: We’re not taking our cues from viewers. We’re following through on a story that we structured and laid out in Part 1 and continuing to follow it in the next chapter. L: What was interesting is one of the main accusations [Kratz] pushed at us is his claim that we left out what he called “the significant piece of evidence in the hood latch” [Avery’s sweat was allegedly found on the latch of Halbach’s car]. What happened organically was that the new attorney Kathleen Zellner thoroughly looked into that herself. So we documented her addressing the issue, but I wouldn’t say our inclusion of that was motivated by any particular statements by the prosecution.
What about omitting Avery’s history of aggression towards women [his ex-fiancée has accused him of violent and abusive behaviour]? Was that a conscious decision in how to portray him?
M: No. Those were allegations by the former prosecutor to paint Steven as a “bad guy”. That was not part of our enquiry because that was not part of the legal process. Our story was to look at the investigation and prosecution of these two men and ask, is it fair?
It was a huge leap of faith for you to leave New York to make the show. What made you do it?
M: We were both in our 30s, on the cusp of finishing our film masters. We weren’t so naïve as to think that anybody was going to open any doors for us, so it was about finding a story. I had some experience on film sets as a documentary editor and Laura had been a lawyer, so together we thought maybe we could do this.
How did your friends and family react to you dedicating so much time to it?
M: I remember someone referred to our project as a hobby and that really stung.
L: It was really about blocking out all the voices – either imagined or real – that were saying, “You guys are crazy”.
Part 1 took a decade to make, did you ever come close to abandoning it?
M: We didn’t intend to spend 10 years making it, but the project was self-financed so we were editing while doing our day jobs. But we were willing to do whatever it took. Luckily, we had each other and a commitment to our characters.
L: There was never a moment where we thought we should stop. We felt a tremendous responsibility to the people who had opened up their homes and shared their stories. We owed it to them to finish it.
Everyone had an opinion on Part 1, did that create a lot of pressure?
M: That was the one major difference. We started out documenting a local story most people hadn’t heard of, so we could work on it without people telling us what they thought. In Part 2 people were so vocal about their opinions. It’s actually something we embrace because the world that we’re now documenting has been affected by all of that. But you do have to block out some of it out.
In Part 2 we see Avery and Dassey receiving hundreds of letters from fans. Is that something you experienced?
M: We had people reaching out via email, Facebook. There were so many different people responding to different aspects of the story, which was incredibly rewarding.
L: It means a lot to us to know that the story resonated with people of all ages. A big part of this is we’d like our story to be an example for emerging creatives and film makers. We were two women in our 30s, this was our second career and our goal really was just to finish. To not only finish it but have a global audience was beyond our wildest dreams.
Were there any documentaries that particularly inspired Making A Murderer?
L: We’re inspired by so many films, such as Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple, and there are so many other documentaries we love by James Marsh and Frederick Wiseman.
Who are the other female documentary makers you’re impressed by?
L: When we think about directors we often think of feature film makers such as Lucrecia Martel, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold.
Was there a moment when your success really hit home?
M: Being honoured with the James Joyce Award for Human Endeavour from the University College Dublin was pretty stunning because we always considered this a social justice film. It was overwhelming.
It has reignited interest in the criminal justice system. Is that where you see the real value?
M: One of our goals all along was hoping that our work would spark a dialogue about the criminal justice system. I think most people spend some time in their life thinking of themselves as the potential victim of a crime and we were asking people to think about what it would be like to be accused. How would I want to be treated? Because it could happen to anyone.
How has living with this story for so long had an effect on you?
M: We have grown so much from the whole experience of filming, crafting the story, and from the experience of it coming out. It’s been such an integral part of our lives for the past 13 years that it’s hard to separate or exactly put a label on how we’ve changed, but it certainly has shaped us.
L: Something that really affected us both was the experience of witnessing history being rewritten, and the power of narrative.
Will there be a Part 3?
L: There is a possibility. We’ve moved to LA and we’re interested in narrative film making too.
Something with lighter subject matter next?
L: Perhaps! Part 1 took 10 years and we pulled off Part 2 in less than three. It’s been an intense time so we’re going to take some time to figure out whatever we take on next. We need to make sure it’s something we’re just as passionate about.
Making A Murderer Part 2 will be released on Netflix on Friday 19 October.