It took Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos more than a decade to shoot, produce, and edit “Making A Murderer” before it reached the Netflix audience in late 2015. The sequel took just three years to make — but Ricciardi and Demos said they came back with even more material to edit. The difference? Money.
While shooting Part 1, Ricciardi and Demos were struggling filmmakers slowly piecing together the story of accused murderer Steven Avery while holding down day jobs. But then came Netflix, and the “Making A Murderer” phenomenon that became one of the streaming service’s biggest early success stories.
“With Part 2, Netflix was a partner from the outset, and so the project was fully financed from the start,” Ricciardi said. “That meant we were in production and post-production simultaneously the entire time. We were actually shooting longer this time, which I think most people would be surprised to read. We were shooting for two years, or 25 months [compared to 18 months for Part 1].”
Ricciardi and Demos said the story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey is “the gift that keeps on giving.” For the uninitiated, Avery originally made headlines as a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for a wrongful conviction before being exonerated for the crime. He was later accused and convicted of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach. But part of his prosecution came from a confession by his nephew Dassey, who also remains behind bars despite evidence that he was coerced by authorities to make false claims.
“A few months after the launch [of ‘Making a Murderer’], sometime in the spring of 2016, we knew certainly the story wasn’t over,” Demos said. “At the center of our story is Steven Avery who, if nothing else, is a fighter. And says outright at the end of episode 10 in part 1, ‘I’m going to keep going.’ We had these two men behind bars, sentenced to life sentences, who proclaimed they were innocent. But the question was, what was going to be happening. Post-conviction is a much lesser-known phase of the process, but one thing we knew is it could take years. And that’s not so conducive for television shows.”
But two things happened simultaneously to keep the story dynamic: Attorney Kathleen Zellner, who’s famous for having helped get 19 wrongfully convicted people exonerated, agreed to take on Avery’s case after watching “Making A Murderer.” And soon after Part 1 premiered, a federal judge overturned Dassey’s conviction. Part 2 centers both on Zellner and on Dassey’s post-conviction attorneys, Northwestern University Law professors Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin.
“For Kathleen to take the case, she was the winning-est private post-conviction attorney in the US. Her success came through often times very unconventional methods,” Demos said. “She doesn’t work her cases from behind the desk. They’re fighting for transparency. They’re fighting to get evidence from the state. They test evidence. And they’ll share those results and let them speak of the fact that they feel like they have nothing to hide in what they’re doing. We were the beneficiaries of that point of view and attitude. She becomes the engine of the story and a proxy for the viewers.”
Zellner also helped answer some of the criticisms levied against part 1 of “Making a Murderer.” Investigators alleged that they found Avery’s DNA from sweat on a car hood’s latch. Zellner tested that scenario, and found it impossible to actually happen.
“We knew we were going to have an incredibly active character who was not only going to be enacting the want of Steven Avery, ‘fight to free me,’ but at the same time in certain ways enacting the want of viewers, people who were dissatisfied with where we left things or where real life left things,” Ricciardi said.
If there’s one takeaway from “Making A Murderer” Part 2, it’s that the post-conviction process is even more convoluted and nearly impossible to navigate than most Americans expect.
“In many ways, these advocates are just fighting to get their day in court,” Demos said. “Fighting for the right to have a court listen to their arguments. I knew this process was very long and slow, it took years to come down, and I knew the odds were against you. But I don’t think I understood how the door to the courtroom is closed and you have to fight so hard just to get into court to present your evidence. I thought when you found evidence that would matter, but there’s a lot you can’t count on.”
And then there’s the case of Dassey, who had expected to be released after his conviction was overturned — until a federal appeals court upheld his sentence.
“There’s a huge revelation about how the state court and federal court work relative to one another, and how much power the federal court has to potentially second guess what the state court has done,” Ricciardi said. “I think as American citizens, if you think about the system, I think we all find comfort in thinking we’re U.S. citizens, we have state constitutional rights, we have federal constitutional rights, but if the federal courts don’t have meaningful power to review what a state court has done, then how you’re treated by the system can really be determined by what state you live in. And that will feel like a new proposition to a lot of people. It sure did to me.”
The second season of “Making A Murderer” opens with a recap of how the series impacted the cases of Avery and Dassey — including the knocks it incurred from critics.
“We felt like we were bridging the two parts of this story,” Demos said. “And we knew the story we were going to be documenting, the world, had changed since we had delivered Part 1. We knew there would be times where we were sitting down with a subject who would directly refer to ‘Making A Murderer.'”
Ricciardi and Demos remain steadfast in their defense of “Making A Murderer” Part 1 against critics who felt the original left out crucial case details. However, Part 2 includes a lengthy list of people who declined to comment for the series. “We didn’t know enough as first-time filmmakers that people wouldn’t implicitly understand that we reached out to all involved, that’s just what you do,” Demos said. “We had people out there saying we hadn’t reached out when we had. We thought, ‘Let’s just put that up there.'”
Also important was including more details about Theresa Halbach, whose murder is at the center of both convictions. Although the Halbach family continues to decline to participate (“a decision we completely understand and respect,” Ricciardi said), one of her college friends was willing to go in front of the camera.
A lot has changed in the nation in the three years since “Making A Murderer” debuted, and Demos said the two of them have been asked whether they think audiences will still be interested in the plight of Avery and Dassey when issues like Trump, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter dominate headlines.
“Our story, when it comes down to it, are these themes of identity, and accountability, and transparency and that’s exactly what we see playing out in the news and in our lives every day,” Demos said. “We very much believe having the opportunity to spend some time with characters who are struggling with these same things that are floating through the 24-hour news cycle can help you understand it in a way, and you can apply it to other things in your life. Not just the criminal justice system, but many aspects of governments and institutions. We hope it resonates even more so now, because of what’s going on in the world.”
As for a third edition, Demos and Ricciardi said they continue to keep tabs on the two cases, but they’re not sure if they’d return to this story again or find another case for a future installment. Their previously announced scripted project with George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures isn’t moving forward, but the duo is looking at other potential projects, both fiction and non-fiction, to tackle next. Said Ricciardi: “We know there are stories out there to be told.”