Just days after being honored by the Television Critics Association for Outstanding Achievement in Reality Television, the filmmakers got even bigger news: A judge had overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, one of the subjects of their series.
Dassey had been convicted, in addition to his uncle Steven Avery, for the 2005 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. But viewers of “Making a Murderer” know that Avery’s and Dassey’s convictions were fraught with questions, inconsistencies and controversies.
Now, Dassey will be set free within 90 days unless the state of Wisconsin seeks to retry him. Meanwhile, the main subject of “Making a Murderer,” Avery, remains in prison, and his guilt or innocence is less cut-and-dry than Dassey’s.
Avery had previously been exonerated for rape and attempted murder (later DNA tests proved his innocence). Avery’s new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has been aggressively putting together an appeal (due by the end of this month) – and she has already pulled off 17 exonerations in her career.
No matter what happens, Ricciardi’s and Demo’s cameras will be rolling for “Making a Murder” Season 2.
Meanwhile, the critics aren’t the only ones rewarding “Making a Murderer,” which landed six Emmy nominations this year. Besides Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, the show is also up for Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Writing, Outstanding Picture Editing, Outstanding Sound Editing and Outstanding Sound Mixing, all for Nonfiction Programming.
Just hours before the Dassey news became public, IndieWire spoke with Demos and Ricciardi about the Emmys, Season 2 of “Making a Murderer” and their new scripted project for Sonar Entertainment and George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures. That conversation follows.
How gratifying were the Emmy nominations, especially after putting a decade of work into “Making a Murderer”?
Moira Demos: When the nominations came out, the biggest thing was it was another opportunity for new people to hear about the show or just to think maybe this was worth watching. As storytellers and filmmakers that’s always the focus. We’re just hoping that this new round of attention means that more people will see the series and get involved.
The nominations also came just as Netflix picked up Season 2. I know you were kicking around your options, and whether or not to do more episodes. How did you decide to do more?
Laura Ricciardi: After the series was released we did not go back out to Wisconsin, but we certainly stayed in touch with our subjects and met new potential subjects for us, including [new Steven Avery lawyer] Kathleen Zellner. Essentially we’re just checking in and trying to find out what, if anything, was developing in their world. It was through those conversations and our understanding of what was developing out there that we decided that we should talk to Netflix about continuing to funnel this story.
There were definitely some threshold questions for us. The main one being, “Is there something to add to this conversation?” Kathleen, for instance, was someone who has come along and planned to reinvestigate the case and is looking for answers. She’s someone with an incredible track record. We thought, “She’s sure to make things happen.” If that is going to happen then, we want to be a part of it.
How much access is she giving you?
Ricciardi: We have negotiated access to her while she’s working on the case, so we think that we’re in a position to offer viewers something special and unique once again.
Demos: Two major things that we we’re taking away is there was a huge contingent of people that were wanting answers. They wanted to investigate the crime, wanting to be able to have a clearer sense of what really happened here.
Then, another huge thing we took away from the response of the series is a lack of understanding about the post-conviction process, and about what is it that’s even available post-conviction legally to people.
In many ways we think these new installments can address both of those responses. Here we have a lawyer taking on this case, Kathleen, looking for answers. She may or may not find them, but that’s certainly a journey I think many viewers will want to take with her.
And at the same time, by going on that journey with her and with Brendan’s attorneys, we think that once again viewers can really get a sense of how this part of our legal system works. What does it mean to be convicted and to be challenging your conviction? What are the obstacles? What are your chances? What are the stakes?
It also sounds like it logistically will have to be a different kind of series than Season 1. How will it be filmed and produced differently this time?
Ricciardi: We’re certainly documenting events as they unfold with respect to Kathleen’s efforts. As much as we can, we’re shooting vérité style with Kathleen.
But of course there are the other storylines and they all influence one another. There is obviously the family of both Steven and Brendan and how they’re doing in this. It’s a new world for them, essentially. When we left them at the end of Episode 10 they were in a place of feeling like their whole family had been vilified and their family business was in dire straits. It was a very challenging time for them.
In response to the series, they have experienced tremendous support from people all around the world. They’re finding strength in that and being encouraged by it, so it’s helping them. That’s one of the things we want to show is how the response to the series is affecting … Having a real-life impact on the people in it.
How much have you been able to stay in touch with Steven?
Ricciardi: It’s been a little tricky just scheduling-wise because we rely on Steven to call us. We’ve been traveling so much that it’s been difficult to be in a place where we can have the types of calls we need to have with him. When we do connect it’s incredibly powerful. We need to hear from Steven because essentially Kathleen is enacting Steven’s goal or his want. She has to do it for him. She’s his advocate. He can have a goal, he can know what he wants to do, but he has to trust that this person who is now his representative is going to do it very much for him.
And has Brendan’s team been pretty accessible and cooperative?
Demos: Yes, they have. We’ve been shooting with them as well. It’s very difficult for families or victims, for the town, for everyone to even want to tolerate questions being asked or to have these motions being brought. We’re hoping to be able to just cover that as well, but this whole phase as a process is so wrought on both sides. We’ve been reaching out to people in Teresa’s life and done some filming on that side as well. We’re really hoping to explore all the factors going into how this part of the process works.
Obviously you can’t help but have to be meta at times and mention how the documentary has impacted the town, how it’s impacted the Avery family, how it’s changed people’s perception of the cases. How do you address that?
Demos: We certainly are looking into ways in which it’s unavoidable. There will be parts of it that become quite meta as a response to the series affecting the world within the series and how we decide creatively to handle that. It’s definitely something that will be part of these episodes.
Ricciardi: It’s especially interesting to us because we were so diligent in creating a first season that we never wanted to be a part of the story. We wanted to have as little impact as possible. I mean, obviously we wanted to have no impact on it, but I don’t think that’s realistic.
If we do something that’s more reflective now or is a look at the response in this so-called new world of this story, then I think by definition there will be a bit of a loss of anonymity. That’s not to say that we ourselves will be in the story. It’s just interesting for us to be shooting a scene or talking to an interview subject and they mention the series by name or refer to the documentary. We’re still trying to navigate that.
In terms of taking on this new phase of the process, this post-conviction phase, it’s true that there are people who are of the opinion the jury has spoken. “Let’s move on. Let’s not revisit this.” It’s important to explore that perspective as well because none of this is easy for anyone in this story. There were no winners here and there continue to be no winners.
Does this give you an opportunity to respond to, Ken Kratz or some of the other folks who have tried to discredit the documentary?
Ricciardi: In terms of the critics, to the extent that criticism related to missing evidence, we have said before and we’ll say again, we think those criticisms really missed the point of the series we created. We never set out to anoint anyone or try to exonerate anyone. We had access to this individual who had this incredibly unique status as someone previously exonerated charged with new crime. We’ve wanted to go on a journey with him.
For us that journey extended well beyond the murder case. It was a 30-year-long story and an opportunity to look at the system across three decades. For people to try to reduce what we did to some sort of argument about Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence from our perspective misses the point.
You start up Season 2 in a very different place. We talked a lot about the struggles that you went through that first decade. I assume there are many more resources at your disposal now.
Ricciardi: It’s a wonderful experience to embark on this new chapter of things with the support in place of it. We can hire the people we need and not be distracted by as many practical worries that don’t really have to do with the filmmaking. We can really focus on the creative phase. It’s quite a privilege.
Demos: It’s exciting for us too because as many people who were on our team for Season 1 who were available to come back for Season 2 have come back. That’s just thrilling for us because we had an amazing team. That includes the executives at Netflix who worked on Season 1 with us. To have the same team going forward with an incredible institutional knowledge. People can really just dig in and be on this ride with us.
In recent interviews we’ve been learning about legislation that’s being introduced in different states that can have a meaningful impact on the system and the reliability of evidence that’s introduced in cases, especially a video taping of interrogations. It’s really exciting to see something really positive grow out of this.
Is there any timetable yet in terms of more episodes?
Ricciardi: No. This type of filmmaking really makes it challenging to plan. Because we’re documenting things that are unfolding and really feel like the most important thing is to give the story its due. We have to wait to see when it’s ready. I mean, at this point we wouldn’t even venture a guess.
In terms of following a pending case, there can be an organic structure to it. If we know what’s going to happen in the courts – when something is being filed, when there might be a court proceeding related to it – that helps us in some way. We can at least look to those events and have some understanding of a time frame.
There’s still so much that needs to be seen. We just don’t know. We just have to be diligent about getting out there and following things in a timely fashion, stay on top of the story and try to chase it when we can have some perspective on it.
Any chance you’re moving back to Wisconsin?
Demos: No more than a few days at a time.
Let’s talk about your scripted adaptation [a true story about how a pharmaceutical company marketed a powerful drug to children and the elderly while allegedly hiding data about its terrible side effects]. How did you wind up working on this project?
Demos: Someone introduced us to this incredible stories that Steven Brill wrote. We were certainly fans of his work and The Huffington Post published it last year. It’s another opportunity to hold a mirror up to a system, but through a particular story. It’s exciting when the work can be about a particular individual or a particular entity, but really also transcend and get to some bigger issues.
Then of course, the incredible team. The opportunity to work with Smokehouse and Sonar appealed to us. We jumped at it.
What made you decide to go the scripted route with this?
Ricciardi: Our training was in scripted filmmaking. We had gone down the rabbit hole with Steven Avery, of course applying everything about dramatic narratives to that project. We were looking to do something scripted. We felt like this was great … It’s a true story and it has incredibly rich source material, so it’s not a fantasy invention piece. You’re really doing something about the real world.
We’re interested in both documentary and fiction filmmaking and telling stories that really inform us about the world we live in. Sometimes those stories are something that you can point a camera at and really document and create a documentary film. Other times there’s incredibly rich material but it’s not necessarily something that’s still happening or that you could follow or that you could point a camera at. It makes more sense to do that research and do it with actors and create a fiction piece. This seemed appropriate for the latter.