The true crime documentary series has recently had a tremendous resurgence in the public eye. What began with Errol Morris’ "Thin Blue Line" nearly 30 years ago has now gone viral, inciting millions to be transfixed by nonfiction narratives. The nascent genre started out as feature documentaries, but has evolved to take on the episodic format, allowing filmmakers to provide a greater breadth of detail for such complex cases.
Thus, in today’s fast-paced, short attention span era, we find ourselves continuously moving from one series to other, investing hours and hours into understanding the complexities of the criminal justice system. We began with the "Serial" podcast, before diving into the Robert Durst HBO miniseries "The Jinx." And with "Making a Murderer," it seems that the cycle is determined to continue.
It was a little more than 10 years ago that filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos rented a small car, borrowed their friend’s camera and headed out to Manitowoc, Wisconsin to document one of the most fascinating and vindictive cases that the legal justice system had encountered. To understand the immense effort, sacrifice and frustration that went into making such a revealing docu-series, Stranger Than Fiction’s Thom Powers, in conjunction with the New York Film Academy, hosted a three-part panel with Ricciardi and Demos (the latter of whom also served as editor).
Joining the panel in the first part, entitled "Production," was Maureen A. Ryan, who acted as the project’s production advisor. In the second part, which focused on editing, the panel was joined by editor Mary Manhardt. Finally, the last part, entitled "Takeaways," featured Stephen Glynn, who serves as Steven Avery’s post-conviction and civil rights lawyer. Here’s what we learned this evening.
Heartfelt Letters Go a Long Way
The Avery family have been hounded, harassed, and ridiculed by their community and peers for nearly 15 years: Whether it be the media, the police, or their neighbors, the Averys have had a great deal to overcome in keeping their sanity and self-respect. So how did two Columbia graduate students come to win over the hearts of a family they had little to nothing in common with? "We started by writing letters," said Demos, stating that the old-fashioned method of interaction not only resonated with the Averys but also demonstrated their heartfelt compassion and empathy to Steven’s predicament.
"I can’t underestimate the power of a well-written, heartfelt letter in the world of documentary filmmaking," added Ryan, a veteran producer who’s worked on films such as "Man on Wire." Demos went on to say that the Averys connected with them because "we were outsiders. We weren’t part of this media ecosystem in the town" and so "[the Averys] weren’t seeing the interviews up on the news." This made the Wisconsin family feel more at ease around the filmmaking duo.
Everything is a Character
There’s an immense difficulty that documentary filmmakers must overcome in trying to relate to their subjects; to find the right balance of solicitude and investigation so as to probe enough for them to reveal truths, without the fear of being shut out. But how are you suppose to find that mixture if the main character of the film is consistently unavailable? "This is a film where you embrace your limitations. You have no choice — this is going to be a huge obstacle in terms of narrative storytelling… and you have to not just neutralize it but turn it into a positive, to make your project unique," stated Ryan.
Because Steven Avery was imprisoned throughout the filmmaking, Demos and Ricciardi had to find another, more creative way to flesh out proxy characters. As a result, the Averys’ salvage yard, the media circus and the locals all became characters in their own forthright. Ricciardi explains that "we began to treat the media as our subject," adding that, "we would turn our cameras on the media" because "they were such an internal force on the process that they needed to be characters, and we tried to give them a character arc as well."
Even the salvage yard began to take on a life of its own, serving to be a visualized metaphor for the way in which the Avery’s had been treated. The family’s salvage yard served as "such a powerful metaphor for the people who society doesn’t care about; who are just junk," stated Manhardt.
How It Ultimately Became Episodic
Demos and Ricciardi originally envisioned the subject to be a feature film, akin to how most true crime documentaries at the time of the project’s inception had been organized and presented. But as the production bore on and more and more footage was compiled, it became abundantly clear that perhaps a miniseries of some sort would be the most salient way to present the facts. In explaining why an episodic format was ultimately chosen, Ricciardi explains that "doing a series presents so many aspects of storytelling that really aren’t available in a feature." The way in which the narrative ultimately played out allowed for "there [to be] a lot of planting that only really paid off six episodes later."
It was particularly evident due to the nature of Steven Avery’s case that a simple two or even three-hour film would not be sufficient in detailing the issues, dilemmas and malfeasances related to the handling of Avery’s case. "I was transfixed watching the rough cuts, which doesn’t happen often. I was totally absorbed. It was like I was having my own binge-watching experience," said Manhardt.
Backlash From the Manitowoc Community
Joining in on the last part of the panel was Steven Avery’s most vocal supporter and lawyer, Stephen Glynn, who had extrapolated Avery’s case to not just being an individualized incident, but part of a larger systematic issue within the criminal justice system. "There’s a lot of hostility towards these two women," lamented Glynn. The lawyer went on to explain, sighing along the way, that "there’s still some appreciation from people, because these are facts that need to be told and these are issues that need to be developed."
How the Duo Protected Themselves From Having Their Footage Seized
Demos made it abundantly clear that they "never asked anyone about the facts of the case. We were documenting the people’s experience. The experience of being accused," which saved them from having their 300 hours of footage be subpoenaed. And with no means of transferring such an enormous amount of data quickly enough, the subpoena would have essentially shut down the film.
"Solving the case was not our role whatsoever. We were there to document the process," added Demos. Thanks to that perspective, and Ricciardi’s law background, they were able to fight back against co-lead investigator Ken Kratz, who claimed that the duo was acting as an investigative branch of the defense.
The Necessary Reform to Right a Wronged Community
"We all felt abused," complained Glynn, regarding how criminal defense lawyers were treated within the justice system. Glynn went on to explain what the bigger issue was with the Avery case, explaining that "the point wasn’t to get money to Steven. The point was to show people what the hell had happened here and how this community got wronged," suggesting there be a systematic reform to prevent these dilemmas from arising again.
Demos begrudgingly finished off the night by stating the fundamental quality of what the purported role of the criminal justice system is in cases such as this one, noting, "justice is what you do when you are uncertain about the truth," suggesting that it’s good to "embrace the ambiguity."
"Making a Murderer" Season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix.