In 2005, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi read an article in the New York Times that would change their lives. The story in question was that of Steven Avery – a Wisconsin exoneree who had been charged with the murder of photographer Teresa Hallbach.
At the time, those names meant little beyond the confines of Manitowoc, Wisconsin but, ten years on, they resonate with millions of viewers around the world. Why? Because Demos and Ricciardi – then film students at Colombia University – felt compelled to grab a camera and journey down to Manitowoc to see if there was a story.
There was. A decade later, the result was their ten-part Netflix series, Making a Murderer, charting the investigation, trial and eventual conviction of Avery who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 2007.
Like Serial before it, the documentary raises the question of reasonable doubt – did Avery do it or was he framed? And if he didn’t commit the murder of Hallbach, who did?
That very question led the series to go viral, landing numerous famous fans – Ricky Gervais, Mindy Kaling and Amanda Abbington, to name a few – and inspiring endless think pieces and petitions attracting hundreds of thousands of signatures and a response from the White House. There was even a Buzzfeed quiz titled ‘Which Making a Murderer lawyer should be your boo?’ although Demos and Ricciardi choose not to engage with the more frivolous reporting on their documentary.
“It’s hard to know what to make of it,” says Ricciardi. “I think those characters certainly fill for viewers some sort of need to have a hero figure. It’s a funny thing – you work so hard on your product and you try to make it as good and as quality as it can be but then when you let it out into the world, it becomes something else. The response to it is something organic that you don’t have control over so we do have to let go of that to a certain degree.”
Ever since their series went online, the pair have been caught up in a whirlwind of press commitments – they were in London last weekend for the BAFTA TV awards where they were nominated for the Radio Times Audience Award. It’s certainly a world apart from the three years they spent filming in small town Manitowoc but their travels also mean they haven’t been in contact with Avery – who remains in Waupun Correctional Institution – for two months. “It’s been a while since we’ve spoken to Steven just because of our intense travel schedule internationally,” explains Ricciardi. “Steven has to call us, he has to originate the call from the prison and, for the most part, he calls us on the landline in our edit room so it’s definitely been challenging for him to reach us.
“But last we spoke to him, he sounded like he was in a very good place. He was excited and encouraged about the fact he has new counsel – Kathleen Zellner who has an established record in overturning convictions – and he’s encouraged by the fact that viewers around the world have been sending him and his family, especially his mother, messages of support.”
Unbelievable it may seem, but Avery is yet to see the documentary of which he’s the subject. “He actually put in a request with the warden and his social worker to watch the series and he said they denied his request,” says Ricciardi. “I asked him why and he said they told him if we do this for you, we’ll have to do it for everyone.”
Nevertheless, Demos and Ricciardi are already looking at ways to revisit the story as Zellner sets to work to overturn Avery’s conviction. “It’s real life so part of it depends on exactly what shape events take,” says Demos. “We’re trying to sort that out right now and figure out how and when we might move forward with it.
“I think it would certainly be different going back and filming this time than the past ten years – one thing that would be very different is we would not be the ones covering this case. I would expect if there were developments in the case that many people would be filming, the public events at least, so it would certainly be a different endeavour.”
Should they return to Avery’s case, new episodes look likely to include Zellner herself who has already had a number of phone calls with the two filmmakers. “We’ve talked at length about the prospect of filming with her,” says Demos. “One of the things that really appeals to us about including her as a subject in the series potentially is her unique status as someone who’s had success and really made a career of challenging convictions that she thinks were achieved unjustly. We think what following her and her current efforts might offer to viewers is a window into the situation of someone who’s been convicted of serious crimes such as the ones Steven and Brendan have. It would be really interesting for people to understand how challenging it is to take on the system at this point and try to get the courts to meaningfully take a new look at the case.”
Brendan Dassey – Avery’s nephew – was convicted separately of Hallbach’s murder and faces life in prison with his first chance of parole in 2048. His lawyers have taken his case out of the state system which means it’ll be looked at by a federal magistrate. “The issues they’ve raised have to do with whether or not Brendan’s federal constitutional rights were violated,” explains Ricciardi. “It’s a very different venue now.”
Brendan’s legal team have been informed they will have a maximum of one or two days notice ahead of any ruling. “Honestly, we’re on the edge of our seats,” says Demos. “Any day there could be a decision from this one magistrate about Brendan’s fate. We could be in England when it happens. You have to be alert at all times.”
In the meantime, the duo have some time on their hands – and after spending the best part of a decade on their last project, they’re looking to do something a little different.
“We’re quite open right now, especially after being so singularly focused after 10 years,” muses Ricciardi. “Moira and I actually met in a masters of film program in the early 2000s so we’re also interested in working on the scripted side or in fiction film.
“We’re considering a number of projects – I think whatever we do will be socially relevant. Sometimes as a filmmaker trying to tell a story that’s actually unfolding, you can film it, it can be in front of your camera, and you can tell the story that way. And sometimes it’s not really accessible to the camera so you have to do it scripted so I think it’s just another way of telling relevant stories about life today.
“It’s certainly a very different process to work on the scripted side or fiction films – my hope would be if we worked on a fiction film it would not take a decade.”
But as the poster girls for perseverance in filmmaking, Demos and Ricciardi’s hard work has no doubt inspired many a young documentarian. Do they have any advice to pass on? “I would give them encouragement to have confidence in themselves,” says Demos. “We had a few people who believed in us and told us to keep going but for the most part you have to have faith in what you’re doing.
“And at every moment – whether it feels like an important scene or not – try to do your best the best way you can with whatever equipment you can. When we started we had borrowed equipment, no money – at one trial, two of the cameras were literally taped to the wall. Do what you can to get whatever you can and just have confidence.”
Confidence and a killer story to tell.
Making a Murderer is available to watch now, exclusively on Netflix