December 17, 2015

Netflix's 'Making a Murderer' Tracks a True Crime in Ten-Part Series

Courtesy of Netflix.

The holidays are a time for bingeing on turkey and trimmings and — if Netflix gets its way —a new true-crime documentary series.

The 10-part Making a Murderer, which premieres this Friday, December 18, on the streaming service, recalls In Cold Blood and, of course, HBO's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos directed the series, which focuses on a small-town Wisconsin man, Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He got out, only to be later accused of an even more heinous crime—killing a woman at the family auto junkyard.

"Making a Murderer fits well with the Netflix ethos of series that can be binge-watched," Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told Documentary. "People can get really hooked on the story. It unfolds and unfolds and unfolds and unfolds."

Documentary spoke with Ricciardi and Demos about their decade of work on the series and comparisons to The Jinx and the 12-part podcast Serial.

 

How did you first hear about Steven Avery and his case?

Moira Demos: We first learned about it when there was a story on the front page of The New York Times the day before Thanksgiving in 2005. And we were hooked right away just by the headline: "Freed by DNA, Now Charged in New Crime." Laura practiced law before going to film school and was clued in right away to the fact that this was an unprecedented event. We rented a car and we borrowed a friend's camera and by December 6, we were there [in Manitowoc County] filming his preliminary hearing.

 

This is a story with so many layers—possible gross misconduct by law enforcement, a defendant who may or may not be guilty of a horrible crime. And the characters make it such an original piece of Americana.

Laura Ricciardi: We moved to Wisconsin. We lived in Manitowoc County. We were out there filming for two years as the murder case was unfolding. So we got to experience the community and began to realize that the series could offer so many things—a portrait of this man [Steven Avery] in extraordinary circumstances; how a community would respond to injustice having been exposed; a family drama and ultimately, hopefully, a view of ourselves right now and how we as a society respond to some of the issues that are raised in the series.

Laura Ricciardi (left) and Moira Demos (right) in production on 'Making a Murderer.' Courtesy of Netflix

How many court documents and case materials do you suppose you’ve gone through over the years?

LR: I would comfortably say I’ve read tens of thousands of pages relating to all of these matters.

MD: I think we have over 1,500 hours of footage that we’ve gone through. Then on top of that, when you’re incarcerated in the county jails or detention centers, your phone calls are recorded, so we have everything Steven said over the phone for a year and a half. It’s really through that process that you end up seeing connections, seeing the inconsistencies. It was through that that we were really able to weave the story together.

 

How would you characterize the degree of official misconduct or error in Steven’s cases?

LR: I’d like to be very careful here because we really want the series to speak for itself, but what I will say is that we believe that we documented lots of irregularities in these cases. Part of what we hope the series gets at is this question of accountability and whether there can be accountability in our society today.

 

At what point did you realize you wanted to tell this story in a serialized fashion?

MD: In a way, that was one of our biggest challenges, knowing that we needed the serialized format in order to tell this story and to tell it right. In our efforts to find a home for this, we had people offering us a two-hour slot, or talking about maybe a four-part series. We just had to have faith that it would find a home.

That’s when Netflix started making original documentaries, and by the time we brought it to them we had a rough cut of three episodes, and we had a 20-page outline of the series. We really could show them what it could be, and we’re grateful that they recognized that and they took the plunge with us.

LR: Netflix not only has the infrastructure to support this series and to share it with the world, but from a creative standpoint Moira and I feel very fortunate that this is the home for the series because what we care most about is the integrity of the project.

Courtesy of Netflix.

There are moments watching Making a Murderer when it feels like the TV show Fargo.

MD: We’ve definitely been hearing that comparison. We do feel like this has as much in common with certain narrative shows as it does with documentary series. We always try to focus on these complex characters with goals and obstacles. Our training is in fiction filmmaking, so we try to apply all those storytelling techniques to the footage.

 

What do you think of comparisons being drawn between Making a Murderer and The Jinx and Serial?

LR: We’re definitely flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Serial and The Jinx. We feel fortunate to be able to ride that true-crime wave right now. We do think there are some similarities, but we also think that there are some important distinctions.

In terms of similarities, both Serial and The Jinx are stories about one individual. The idea of a long-form parsing out of one person’s story—it’s wonderful to think there’s an appetite for that, and viewers want to engage. I think it just bodes well for storytelling, and is really exciting.

In terms of differences, we as filmmakers are not part of Making a Murderer. There’s no narration in this story, at least that comes from the filmmakers. We are very focused on showing and not telling.

Courtesy of Netflix.

What do you think the impact of the series will be on people in Manitowoc County? Are you concerned about traumatizing them again?

LR: I would say one of our primary concerns is the impact it will have on the Averys. They still live in the community. They still own and operate a business in the community. And we are concerned that it will stir things up again.

Our hope is that lots of people in the community will watch the series, hopefully all the way through and maybe learn things they didn’t know or become curious about different aspects of it they weren’t aware of and maybe try to look into it more themselves if they’re so inclined.

But our hope is that it will get people talking in a hopefully levelheaded, unemotional way. And that some good will come of it, because I think there probably is some healing for that community to experience, and I think healing can come through a dialogue. So that’s our hope. But then again we know this was a very charged case. We were filming in a very charged atmosphere. We just can’t predict how people will respond. We just hope that ultimately they feel this was done responsibly and with the best of intentions.

 

You can watch the first episode of Making a Murderer right now on YouTube.

Matthew Carey is a documentary writer and producer whose work has apperead on CNN and CNN International. He is editor-in-chief of nonfictionfilm.com. Instagram: @docspotlight

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