The Frame

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Why it took 10 years to get 'Making A Murderer' to audiences

by Darby Maloney with Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

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Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos behind the scenes on the Netflix original documentary series "Making A Murderer". Danielle Ricciardi/Netflix

The Netflix true crime docuseries "Making A Murderer" hit viewers' streaming devices just at the right time.

Only a week after the second season of the break-out hit podcast "Serial" hit iTunes and Pandora, and last year's "The Jinx" on HBO whet pop culture's appetite for long-form documentary storytelling. But when the filmmakers behind "Making a Murder" began production they had no such audience to court. 

It was 2005 when Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, fresh out of graduate film school at Columbia, read an article about Steven Avery in the New York Times. Avery, who had been released in 2003 from a wrongful, 18-year-long imprisonment, was facing a new charge: murder.

But there was a twist. The county that brought the charges was the same that Avery was suing for exoneration — to the tune of $36 million. 

As Demos and Ricciardi told The Frame, they were "overwhelmed with questions," so they "went to Wisconsin trying to find some answers." They would spend the next 10 years documenting Avery's travails.  

In many ways, Demos and Ricciardi were immensely lucky it took them that long to finalize their project. Not only are audiences primed for true crime storytelling, but the show now has the optimal form of distribution: Netflix.

In 2005, documentaries were largely released as two-hour features, to say nothing of the phenomenon of online streaming. Now, as television has become more cutting-edge, and binge-watching series has become something of a cultural norm, Netflix has led the field in producing the type of high-quality, episodic filmmaking that "Making a Murderer" required.

The series has since become a huge hit, as many people binged the show over the holidays. More than 130,000 people signed a White House petition asking for the president to pardon Avery (which the White House declined to do).

Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi discussed the origin of their project, their influences, and the struggles they encountered while making the series when they met in studio with The Frame's John Horn.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

At what point do you realize this is not going to be a film, but a series? How did that change your process?

Laura Ricciardi: A few months into our production, there was a major development. What had been, from the state’s perspective, a very strong circumstantial evidence case — they now thought they had compelling evidence to bring him to trial and get a conviction. So we knew we were going to be in it for the long haul . . . It already was an epic story. It started in the mid-1980's, and here we were in the beginning of our production in 2005. So we were going to document the first 20 years and then shoot vérité-style for whatever was to come.

In the last two years, two things have happened. “Serial” has come out and been a huge hit, and “The Jinx” has been on HBO, another series about the guilt or innocence in a crime. As you’re watching these shows come out, does it change the way in which you see your own material, and do you think it benefits the investment of time you’ve made?

Demos: It’s an interesting question. We sometimes joke, it was a good thing it took us this long to lock picture. It does seem like a great time for “Making  a Murderer” to be reaching an audience. But that said, the things that inspired us to make this, and the things that influenced our style of filmmaking go back so much further. To “Paradise Lost,” to “The Staircase,” to “The Thin Blue Line.” Or even outside of this genre, to Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream.” The intimacy that they offered and the way they captured a moment and real-life characters in such a compelling way really inspired us to take this on.

Over the course of your work on this series, something else changed in documentaries. And that is the means of distribution evolved dramatically. Two questions: what does that evolution in distribution mean to you and your film, and how did you come to be on Netflix?

Demos: I mean, we owe everything to that evolution. In 2006, we discovered that this was more than a feature. And in 2006, where were we going to bring something that was more than a feature? We went to film markets thinking, Well, I’ll just squeeze it into a feature. Maybe they’ll be interested.

But that was one of our greatest challenges, when we think back over the struggles of the past decade. Staying true to the knowledge that this story, in order to be told properly, needed a long format. And we needed to not go for the two-hour time slot, or the four-part series. That we really needed to tell this story right. Because one of the things that kept us going was, when we were out there filming, we were seeing not just a lot of the story being missed by the news, but we were even seeing history being rewritten, as they would talk about the past.

We started to feel that if we did not get this story out that it would be lost. So, it was two years ago that we connected with Netflix. By that point, you know, as two young filmmakers that don’t have a long list of credits, we knew that we had to demonstrate what this could be and that we could pull this off. So we actually had three episodes cut. And we had the outline of the whole series. So by the time we brought it to them, they could see what it really could be. 

The entire 10-part series, "Making a Murderer" premieres on Netflix December 18th.

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