When Making A Murderer first arrived on our screens in December 2015, its popularity – and notoriety – spread like wildfire.
Whether you were one of the first people on it, or whether it took some time for word of mouth to reach you, the show became a hyped-up talking point, the likes of which is normally reserved for big budget dramas like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
Documentary has always been a popular format, but it has been consistently on the rise in recent years, largely thanks to people like Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and Brett Morgen.
Making A Murderer, however, took on a life of its own thanks to its astonishing and – importantly – ongoing story.
The first episode of the first series alone, which told the hard to believe tale of Steven Avery’s 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, was enough you convince any viewer that this was a story worth following. The fact that there were nine more episodes, filmed over 10 years, however, meant that no one could expect the twists and turns the documentary was about to make.
It took just seven months from airing the first episode of Part One for Netflix to announce they’d be doing Making a Murderer Part 2, which meant filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, rather than take their time crafting a narrative over 10 years, they had to film, edit and string together Part 2 on the fly, focussing on the post-conviction period.
With such a huge audience eager for the follow up, and while events in the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are still unfolding, it’s remarkable to think Part 2 even got made. Making a documentary around ongoing court cases, with statements and evidence tied up in legal proceedings, without ever knowing the ending to the story you’re trying to tell, is no mean feat.
Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have successfully navigated those dangerous waters, however. With remarkable access to the post-conviction process, the filmmakers have aligned Steven Avery’s new lawyer – the determined Kathleen Zellner – and Brendan Dassey’s new legal team – Laura Nirider and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth – to play out simultaneously as the real life events unravel.
UNILAD caught up with filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos to chat about Part 2, the pressures of following up such a successful show, and the difficulties of keeping up with real life legal proceedings as court cases progress.
Getting stuck into Part 2 just six months after finishing part one, Moira said:
It was an exciting opportunity to get back into the story. At some level, of course, we knew the story wasn’t over when we finished Part One.
At the centre of the story is Steven Avery who, if nothing else, is a fighter, and you hear him in the final scene of episode 10 talking about how he’s going to keep fighting. At that point he was representing himself, and it really wasn’t until after the launch of the series that he had a new advocate in Kathleen Zellner, and then we had the sense that he’s our protagonist, it’s his want that we’re following, and his drive, and who was going to be there to fight for him.
But now with Kathleen Zellner, there was going to be someone, so we thought that if we could reach out to her and find out if she would be amenable to us, to giving us access, that would really offer us the ability to give viewers a new experience and take them into the less familiar part of the justice system, which is the post conviction phase.
Kathleen Zellner is an attorney who has successfully obtained the exoneration of 19 wrongfully convicted men, more than any other attorney in the US. In the new episodes, she takes up Steven’s case and assembles a host of world-class experts who employ the latest scientific methods which raise serious questions about the forensic evidence used to convict Steven over a decade ago.
And it was Kathleen’s acceptance of the case, and her acceptance of the documentary team, that was a catalyst for Part 2.
As Laura said:
After we had spoken to Kathleen a number of times, and she expressed to us that she would be willing to participate, we definitely thought about what Part 2 might look like and I think we envisioned her, as well as Laura Nirider and Steve Drizen [from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth] as being the engine of the story, because they’re advocates and we knew they were going to be the ones pursuing the goal or enacting the wants of their clients who were not in a position to do that for themselves.
And we also believed that, for viewers who were left with unanswered questions and really wanted someone to pick up the mantel and try to find some answers, we thought that these individual characters could embody that for them. So we went in and we talked to Netflix and we said ‘Here’s what we have in mind for Part 2’ and we feel very fortunate that they were in agreement that there could be a Part 2 and that we’re here today.
However, for anyone who’s kept up with the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey since the original series finished airing, they’ll know Kathleen has been more than vocal via other means, regularly tweeting and doing interviews about what’s going on. Something which, naturally, the documentary makers were aware of, but didn’t let phase them.
— Kathleen Zellner (@ZellnerLaw) December 27, 2017
What we’re focussed on is process, we’re documenting the investigation and the prosecution of these two men, and now – post conviction – the active party is the defence. So we’re there to follow and document what Kathleen is doing, whatever that may be, and she certainly uses some less conventional methods, but she’s also the winningest post conviction private attorney in the United States, so clearly she knows what she’s doing.
But we learned a lot from her and I think it’ll be an incredible journey for our viewers to go on as she reinvestigates the case, and by that I meant its two-fold – the case in terms of what happened on October 31st, what does the evidence show, what happened to Teresa Halbach, but also what happened in the investigation and what happened in the trial, and what is it that caused Steven Avery to be convicted.
There are ways in which we rely upon [Kathleen] to narrate the process. Part of our job this season is to inform the viewers about a phase of the criminal process that most of us aren’t that familiar with — the post-conviction phase. She was incredibly gracious and really helped guide us through the process. Of course we were doing our own research and fact checking, but she was incredibly valuable in laying that foundation.
She’s had more exonerations than any other private attorney in the country. And in the case of Steven Avery, she feels the clock is ticking. She’s trying to race against time because Steven isn’t necessarily in the best of health but also his parents are ageing and ailing, and Steven’s primary relationship is his relationship with his parents. So we were cognisant of that and always had that at the forefront of our minds as well when thinking about the experience of our viewers.
Of course, while making the the first part of any TV show, it’s almost impossible to know how an audience will react. However, after acquiring such a huge audience off the back of it, the pressure was certainly on for the follow up.
Thankfully, the duo were just as eager to make a compelling Part 2 as the audience was to see it.
As Moira put it:
I don’t think we felt pressure from the outside for Part 2. Honestly, we’re two people where the pressure always comes from ourselves first, maybe it was out there but really what we were feeling was just wanting to make sure we could do our best work and tell a compelling story.
So what were the big differences between the two parts? Laura said:
I think the most apparent difference was that, certainly from Netflix’s perspective, they were hoping that obviously we wouldn’t take 10 years to deliver Part 2. But there was the consideration on some level of trying to be current and we were in production and post-production simultaneously when we were working on Part 2.
I really think that was the main difference and that was the main hurdle, because we’re documenting events as they’re unfolding so we were shooting right up until July of this year. And yet, if you don’t know the end of your story it’s hard to tell the beginning and the middle of it. So there was a lot of back and forth, and it was a very fluid process.
Part 2 doesn’t just look at trying to prove Steven Avery’s and Brendan Dassey’s innocence. We know Teresa Halbach was tragically killed, and someone must be held responsible, so part of the new episodes is also suggesting possible alternative suspects.
As Laura said:
What we were capturing and showing was part of Kathleen’s process. Her argument is: part of my job is to see whether or not Steven’s Constitutional rights were violated. And her argument, with respect to these other individuals, was that it was the job of Steven’s trial attorneys to do their best to investigate: if not Steven, then who?
And Jerry Buting said to us in Part 1 that he knew going into trial that the jury would have that question: if not Steven, then who? And he was concerned that they were not in a position to offer an alternative suspect to them. But we felt it was imperative that we cover that part of the process because our goal is to give the fullest picture we can and in the most responsible way possible.
While the story is a fascinating one, it’s ultimate goal is the right conclusion for everyone involved. So will we see that in Part 2?
It’s hard to imagine what a true end to a story with so many threads and so many people who have gone through so much, would look like. We certainly have deep connections to many people in this story.
For us, the questions of continuing past this Part 2 will be the same questions that were there when we finished Part 1: what is the story that’s taking place at this point? Can we maintain or gain access to it and does it offer something new? So we will continue asking those questions.
And as viewers, we can only hope they find the answers.
Making A Murderer Part 2 launches on Netflix from October 19
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.