Netflix's new true-crime show Making a Murderer may seem like the streaming service's response to "Serial" and The Jinx, but it's actually the result of a decade of effort on the part of filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, who have been following the story of Steven Avery since 2005. Two years earlier, Avery was released from prison after DNA evidence proved he'd served 18 years for a rape he didn't commit. Amid allegations that the local sheriff's department knew he was innocent all along, Avery launched a $36 million civil suit against those he considered responsible. But before the suit could run its course, Avery was charged in another crime: the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, who'd visited Avery at his family's scrap yard the day she went missing. Was he set up? Demos and Ricciardi spoke with Vulture over the phone to discuss the project's long journey to streaming, why they didn't wonder about Avery's guilt or innocence, and how the series is a new chapter in the true-crime genre.
You two have been working on this project for a decade now. How did you first get involved?
Moira Demos: We came across an article in the New York Times in November 2005: "Freed by DNA, Now Charged in New Crime." Reading the article, we learned that Steven had a multimillion-dollar lawsuit pending against the very county that had investigated him back in 1985 and was responsible for his wrongful conviction. We immediately recognized the conflict of interest and wanted to know more. So we decided to go out to Wisconsin for a week to test the waters and see if there was a story. We rented a car and borrowed a camera, and we drove out December 5. Our first day of shooting was December 6. No real preproduction on this one.
Since Netflix in its current form didn't exist in 2005, what were you originally planning on doing with the footage?
Laura Ricciardi: Originally we imagined it would be a documentary feature. We knew we would be tracking the criminal case as it was developing. We knew at the time that Steven was going to go to trial, he was proclaiming his innocence, he was not going to plead out. So, there was a natural timeline in place. We anticipated we might be shooting for six months or maybe a year, but we were out there more like two, two-and-a-half years. About four months into production there was a huge development that spun things around and turned them in a new direction. We were actually packing up, getting ready to go back to our day jobs and raise some money, and we got a call there was going to be a press conference. It was the development with Brendan, the nephew. We went to that press conference and then unpacked our bags. [Laughs]
Demos: That was a gift of sorts because we decided to move out there, and that made us available to attend every pretrial proceeding there was. It also afforded us the time to do the research and begin doing interviews about the past case. We were very interested in documenting the historical context for the new case. It was then we realized the story could sustain a much longer form. There wasn't an outlet at the time that we really knew of. The one example there was was The Staircase, an eight-part documentary series on Sundance.
What was the reaction like in the community to your presence?
Demos: Everybody knew we were there. We were out there in public, we were out there in every pretrial proceeding, every press conference. People's reactions definitely varied. We were the unknown in this equation, and some people's response to that was fear, wanting to have no part with us. Other people were curious and wanted to learn more.
The Avery family plays such a big part in the narrative. What was your relationship like with them?
Ricciardi: We developed an amazing relationship with the Avery family. We started to get to know Steven by telephone and we eventually started meeting him at the county jail, developing a relationship with him and gaining his trust. He called and arranged for Moira and me to go out and meet his mother. We were really impressed with how open the Averys were to meeting us. They heard us out about who were were and what we were were doing and why we were interested in their story. It's very much Steven's story, but it's also a family's story. It's clear that when someone is wrongfully imprisoned, not only that person but all their loved ones endure it as well.
Did you have much interaction with the Halbach family?
Ricciardi: We invited the Halbach family to participate in the film, and we had coffee with Mike Halbach, the official spokesperson for the family, to discuss the idea, but they decided not to participate. So we filmed Mike at all the press conferences that he held, but that was the extent of our interaction with him.
How much was the question of Stephen's guilt or innocence on your minds while you were shooting?
Ricciardi: When we first started we didn't have an opinion as to his guilt or innocence. What drew us to this story was Steven's status as an accused. In this country, people being accused of heinous crimes is unfortunately not that rare an event, but the fact that Stephen had been wronged by the system, and was in the process of trying to reform the system and hold people accountable just raised so many questions. Could somebody who had those motivations possibly do something like this? Or did somebody trying to change the system see the system come back down on top of them? Either way, there was a story.
It seems, in the early episodes at least, there are two opposing plausible explanations, and each of them is equally horrifying.
Demos: Exactly. When we went out there, we recognized this world of complex characters and incredibly high stakes and intense conflict. And as storytellers, we couldn't look for anything more than that.
Ricciardi: Stephen just seemed like such a unique window into the system. Both he and his family were very vocal about him being wrongly accused a second time. We'd never heard anything like that. The types of story that we had been modeled off — Paradise Lost, The Thin Blue Line — pretty much end where our inquiries begin. They culminate in a person being exonerated. And here we were with a protagonist who had been exonerated, but had been charged in a whole new crime. It presented itself as a new chapter in the genre.
You nod to that in the chronology of the show: We start by seeing Steven Avery getting out of prison in 2003, probably at his happiest moment, before flashing back to exploring the history.
Demos: The intention was to offer viewers a complete understanding of the past. It's easy to look back on a case and unpack with 20-20 hindsight. But that raises the question, can we recognize when things go astray right in front of our eyes, rather than recognizing it always after the fact?
The show has been pitched to viewers as full of twists and turns. How do you balance documentarians' responsibilities with the need for drama and suspense?
Ricciardi: Our process was very organic. From the research we did, through the final edit, in terms of the material to work with, it was almost an embarrassment of riches. There was no need to have to actually construct anything: It's a very interesting world, there's a pretty broad cast of characters, and we applied our own narrative filmmaking techniques to ensure we were able to show the organic arcs of all these people as they were experiencing this story.
After the revelations in the Jinx finale, did you feel a pressure to have your conclusion match that?
Demos: Making a Murderer and The Jinx are both true crime and they're both coming out the same year, but there are as many dissimilarities as similarities. We enjoyed watching it, and we watched it with great interest, but it did not affect the way we made the series.
Ricciardi: I think what was incumbent upon us was to provide a satisfying conclusion to the story. It deserves a proper dramatic resolution, and we hope that people feel it achieved that. That said, this is real life, and the story will go on in perpetuity, I think.
What kind of questions do you hope people are left with after they finish watching the series?
Ricciardi: The main question at the heart of the series is how do we as a society respond when injustice is exposed?
Demos: One of the experiences we hope will come across is what it's like to be accused in this country, what it's like to go through this system. The hope is that with firsthand experience, people will think differently about the criminal justice system: what is working and what is not working, and the role each one of us plays in that.