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‘Making a Murderer’: The Story Behind Netflix’s Hit True-Crime Show

Filmmakers on turning Steven Avery’s case into a docu-series: “We were taking a procedural look at the system”.

Filmmakers on turning Steven Avery's case into a docu-series: "We were taking a procedural look at the system".

For anyone connecting with Netflix over the holidays, it was anything but a merry Christmas. Premiering on Dec. 18, the streaming service’s docu-series Making a Murderer plunged viewers deep into one of the strangest and most disturbing true-crime cases in recent memory. In 1985, Steven Avery, a 22-year-old whose family runs an auto salvage yard in Wisconsin, was found guilty of rape and sent to prison. Eighteen years later, he was released when DNA evidence proved he was innocent, as he’d asserted all along.

Related: Watch ‘Making a Murderer’ Lawyers Defend Arguments

But then matters took the first of many dark twists: Two years after his release, just as Avery was about to sue the county and local officials for $36 million, he was arrested for the murder of a local photographer, Teresa Halbach. Avery once more asserted his innocence, but in 2007 he was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and is serving life in prison with no chance of parole; Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew who lived next door to him and allegedly took part in the murder, was also sentenced to life but will be eligible for parole in 2048.

Produced and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos — two filmmakers with backgrounds in the law and film editing, respectively — Making a Murderer devotes its first hour to Avery’s initial arrest and trial in the Eighties. The next nine episodes follow Avery’s arrest in the Halbach murder and the subsequent trial. From the crime itself to suggestions of tampered evidence and repeated shots of bleak Wisconsin winters, Making a Murderer is unrelenting, intense and sometimes infuriating. (Was Avery set up as payback for his lawsuit? Was Dassey’s confession coerced?) It’s also become the Internet-watercooler series of the moment; Alec Baldwin, Rosie O’Donnell, Ricky Gervais and Rainn Wilson have all recommended it on Twitter.

And the subjects’ situations are still fluid. Avery is working on an appeal, and thanks to the series, an online petition from Change.Org for release has generated over 300,000 signatures; a petition to the White House asking for President Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey has reached over 100,000 signatures. Meanwhile, Ricciardi and Demos just announced they were contacted by a juror who claims some jurors felt Avery was framed but that they voted guilty for fear of their “personal safety.” (“The person felt burdened for eight years and was hoping some new evidence would come out and lead to a new trial,” says Ricciardi.) In the midst of this hubbub, Rolling Stone spoke with Ricciardi and Demos about their left-field sensation.

You’ve said this all started with a New York Times article about Avery’s arrest in 2005. What made you want to investigate further?
Ricciardi: In terms of what appealed to us about this story, unfortunately lots of people in America are charged with serious violent crime, including murder. This was not going to be a murder story to us. From reading the initial Times piece, this was a man who we thought, if we embark on this journey with him through the American criminal justice system, we’d go from one extreme of it to another. When we read this was someone exonerated in a DNA case now charged with a new crime, that struck me as unprecedented.

Demos: What we saw in Steven’s story was this incredible and valuable window he provided into the system. He had been in the system in the mid-Eighties. It had failed him. He’d been wrongly convicted and here he was back in that system in 2005. It was this opportunity to say, okay, in those 20 years, DNA [testing] and legislative reforms were developed — all these things being heralded as a new and improved system. So let’s test that system and see what happens. Are we better off or not?

What prompted you to move to northeast Wisconsin for nearly two years to make it?
Demos: We read the article around Thanksgiving [of] 2005 and our first day of filming was December 6. We lived in New York but at that time Laura’s sister and brother-in-law lived in Chicago, so we rented a car, drove out to Wisconsin and rented a camera. The first shoot was Steven’s preliminary hearing, which you see in Episode Three. That was to test the waters and see if it was worth a week of our time.

We came back to New York but it was so clear there was something going on, so by January [2006] we’d sublet our apartment and rented an apartment in Manitowoc County. A few months later, we were packing up to go back to New York to our day jobs and raise money to come back for the trial in September, and we got a call saying, “Have you heard there’s going to be a press conference?” It was about Brendan [and his alleged confession about participating in the rape and murder of Halbach]. That changed everything. It made the story much more expansive. We literally unpacked our boxes and tried to figure out how we could borrow more money from our student loans to stay there.

Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos behind the scenes on the Netflix original documentary series “Making A Murderer”. Danielle Ricciardi/Netflix

What was your access to Avery?
Ricciardi: Steven was in custody the entire time we were filming. We were limited to telephone conversations with him. Before we arrived he had given some on-camera interviews to the local media. Steven was appointed counsel in the process and I believe his lawyer advised him to stop giving on-camera interviews, especially once in custody. We asked early on if we could bring a camera to visits and we were told “No.”

How did you get access to prison phone calls, videotaped confessionals and other engrossing material?
Ricciardi: Wisconsin has an expansive public records law. Any materials generated by state or county officials are part of the public domain.

Demos: For all the recorded calls from the county jail or detention center, there are stacks and stacks of CDs of recorded calls in the case files. Getting them wasn’t a problem as it was going through them.

“[From] what I’ve listened to of Serial, she’s on a journey to understand what may have happened. That’s not what we were doing.”—Laura Ricciardi

Did you presume Avery was innocent — and did you have moments during the trial when you thought, “Hmmm … maybe not?”
Demos: It was never our interest whether he did it or not; it wasn’t what it was about. Our job wasn’t about any type of investigation of did he do it or not?

Ricciardi: Some people have made comparisons to Serial and The Jinx. [From] what I’ve listened to of Serial, she’s on a journey to understand what may have happened. That’s not what we were doing. Ours was much more macro. We were taking a procedural look at the system. We have no stake in the outcome of the trial; we have no stake in whether Steven is innocent or guilty. What a risk we would have taken as filmmakers to devote all our resource and time to a case if it was going to hinge in a particular outcome. What we were documenting was the procedure that led to the verdicts.

Demos: What the prosecution is doing to get a conviction is of greater importance. Does our system leave us in a place where we can rely on the verdict or not?

As viewers, we have plenty of “whoa!” moments here, as when the defense team finds a clearly tampered-with vial of blood. What were those moments for you as filmmakers?
Demos: Certainly the Brendan revelation. I don’t think we saw that coming at all. That was the first press conference we attended, and that clearly changed things. When we first saw the video with Brendan — his defense investigator virtually interrogating his own client to get a statement out of him — we said, “Wait … who’s this? What cop is this?” It took a long time for us to realize this was his own defense investigator. There were definitely revelation moments and seeing things connect.

It’s interesting that the defense team wasn’t allowed to bring up other possible suspects during the trial.
Demos: The defense said if it was given the opportunity, they’d like to argue it wasn’t Steven Avery but it may have been this person or that person. And the judge said, basically, “You haven’t met your burden of proof and I’m not going to allow you to mention any of those people by name. But you can name Brendan.”

Steven Avery looks around a courtroom in the Calumet County Courthouse before the verdict was read in his murder trial Sunday, March 18, 2007, in Chilton, Wis. Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Did you ever hear those names?
Ricciardi: No. The judge ordered the defense motion sealed. After the verdict, the judge unsealed the motion. It should be part of the case file now.

Class — and how it shaped Steven’s standing — is also an underlying theme in the movie.
Ricciardi: What we learned along the way is that the Averys were perceived very much to be the “other” in that community. For the most part they kept to themselves. Steven had a number of priors and he would get into trouble when he essentially went out into the community and made bad choices. The Avery family was perceived to be, for lack of a better word, white trash. There was this desire as we understood it for the community to separate itself from the Averys. And that played a role.

You didn’t interview Ken Kratz, the former Calumet County District Attorney who prosecuted the case. Why not?
Ricciardi: We reached out to Ken Kratz multiple times. I first wrote a letter to him in September 2006. I talked about how our project depended on a diversity of insight and we wanted to talk to lawyers on both sides and anyone who would talk to what was relevant to the story. Ultimately he declined as did the Halbach family.

“The takeaway is that the American criminal justice system is in peril. We as American people should have concerns about that system.”—Laura Ricciardi

Demos: There’s nothing in the letter, in our behaviour and I would argue in the final product that supports Kratz’s sense that this is a defence advocacy piece.

Kratz (as well as a local sheriff) has since told the media that certain pieces of damning evidence didn’t make the movie, and Kratz has said it “really presents misinformation.” How do you respond?
Demos: We tried to include as much of the trial as we thought viewers would tolerate. We tried to choose what Kratz himself was claiming was his strongest evidence. He had a press conference saying that because Steven’s DNA is on the key and his blood is in [Halbach’s] car, there was no question who killed Teresa Halbach. So we had to include the key and the blood. We got the list of priority evidence from Kratz himself and tried to put all that in. As storytellers it’s in our interest to show conflict. It was choosing the state’s strongest evidence and the defense’s response to it.

By the end of the trial what did you learn?
Ricciardi: The takeaway is that the American criminal justice system is in peril. We as American people should have concerns about that system. The system had clearly failed Steven in 1985. He had 16 or more alibi witnesses, not all family members. There was so much evidence pointing away from guilt in that case and yet he was still convicted. We wanted to understand how that could happen. Why aren’t there more safeguards in our system to protect against someone who had been wrongly convicted?

How was that borne out in the Halbach trial?

Ricciardi: There were certain individuals who had stakes in the outcome of this trial besides Steven Avery.

Demos: This is a small community. Steven was suing the county for $36 million. The annual budget of the county is $80 million. It was a lot easier to think that junkyard man who had been in prison maybe was the bad guy and everything will go back to normal and the county doesn’t have to go bankrupt.

Related: ‘Making a Murderer’ Footage ‘Manipulated,’ Says Sheriff

When did you last speak with Avery, and did he mention the reaction to the series?

Ricciardi: We last spoke with him right after Christmas. He said he received 40 letters, 30 in one day. It’s difficult to speak to him. The calls are monitored and recorded. We had concerns about his safety because we’ve been told the Department of Corrections is not interested in inmates becoming celebrities. So we haven’t talked with him about the public response to the series. It was mostly about his family visiting him at Christmas, which is rare; it was the first time that happened since he was imprisoned.

What do you make of all the on-line chatter about defence lawyer Dean Strang as a “sex symbol”?

Demos: [Laughs] I didn’t see that one coming.
Ricciardi: I don’t know how his wife feels about that. It’s nice to be able to laugh about something like that.