On Dec. 18, 2015, when Netflix dropped Making a Murderer, the timing was perfect for holiday-break binge viewing — not just for crime obsessives, but for laypeople too. Netflix doesn't release ratings information, but it was quickly clear that the 10-episode docuseries was a massive, viral success. It soon became a cause célèbre on the internet as well, with redditors picking apart every detail of the series, gathering court documents, and dividing into vicious factions over questions of guilt and innocence.
Soon there will be more to binge, and possibly more to fight about: Making a Murderer Part 2, 10 new episodes, will launch on Netflix on Oct. 19. The entire Making a Murderer project is a close-up — and often critical — look at the American justice system. It is filled with heroes, villains, buffoons, and bullies as characters — but who you root for (or against) depends on your point of view. The series is also an empathetic examination of disenfranchised white working-class people in the Midwest, long before that population's discontents became an area of interest for the mainstream media after the 2016 election.
Set in picturesque Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, the series — written, directed, and executive produced by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi — revolves around Steven Avery, who was once known as the state's most famous exoneree. Avery had served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, and was set free in 2003 after DNA evidence proved his innocence. He then sued Manitowoc County for $36 million, blaming the county for his wrongful conviction.
Two years later, with the lawsuit in full swing, Avery was arrested again: this time, for murder. He was accused of killing Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer for Auto Trader magazine, who had come to his family's auto salvage yard on Oct. 31, 2005, to photograph a car for sale. According to the police, she never left.
Demos and Ricciardi — graduate students at Columbia University's film school, who had been dating for two years — first learned about Avery from a front-page New York Times story in November 2005. The story mostly focused on how embarrassing his arrest was for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and for those who had lobbied to free him. But toward the bottom of the article, it touched on the possibility that Avery was being framed by the Manitowoc police. “There are 36 million reasons why they should be doing this to him,” Avery's brother Chuck told the Times.
Ricciardi and Demos were intrigued. Using their own money, they decided to fly to Wisconsin to see if they should follow his trial for a documentary. Their first day of shooting (with a borrowed camera) was for Avery's preliminary hearing on Dec. 6, 2005.
"Part of what we were interested in in choosing this particular story is just an exploration of power dynamics," Ricciardi told BuzzFeed News during a recent interview at Netflix's headquarters in Hollywood. "It's undeniable that we chose a main character, if you will, who we thought was this unique window into the criminal justice system."
Soon after that first shoot, they would move to Manitowoc County for 18 months.
Part 1 of Making a Murderer followed Avery's trial; the trial of his nephew Brendan Dassey, who had confessed to participating in the murder with Avery (but later recanted his confession); their lawyers' attempts to defend them; and the effects on their families as the cases proceeded. Ricciardi and Demos had full access to the defense teams and their strategies. Avery's lawyers argued he had been framed because of the lawsuit and general dislike of the family. Dassey's defense was that his confession had been coerced by investigators. The prosecutors and the Halbachs did not participate in the series.
Both Avery and Dassey were found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. They are still there. Part 2 of Making a Murderer is about the very different legal journeys both men have been on since 2015, when the show exploded into the world.
There are many people who think Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are exactly where they should be. But Avery's final words in Part 1 indicated that he would never relent in trying to prove he's — once again — innocent. "When you know you're innocent, you keep on going," he said over footage of the Avery salvage yard. "The truth always comes out sooner or later."
Making a Murderer, it turned out, was not over.
The show premiered with a bang — and then they decided to do more.
For Part 1, Demos and Ricciardi spent 18 months in production, and then moved back to New York to make money to keep going with the project. They went further and further into a financial hole, which was compounded by student loan debt. (Ricciardi had debt from law school, as well.) How much debt did they have? "A debt that we would never have paid off in our lifetimes," Demos said. They moved to Los Angeles in 2010, no longer able to afford life in New York City.
Having tried and failed to sell the series to documentary-friendly broadcasters like HBO and PBS, they turned to Netflix in 2013, with a proposal and three rough-cut episodes. The streaming service, which was aggressively starting to program original content, bought the show. Fifteen months later, they had edited all the footage — a thousand hours of it, they estimated — to deliver ten hourlong episodes.
It was a smash, which they had hoped it would be. Yet, Riccardi said, "I think it was beyond our wildest dreams."
But anyone who watched Part 1 was left wondering what in the world would come next for these men. For Avery, yes, but perhaps especially for Dassey, who is intellectually disabled, was arrested at age 16, and was questioned for hours by investigators without a lawyer or his mother present. Making a Murderer persuasively showed that during Dassey's drawn out confession, he seemed to want to please the police, and perhaps tell them what they wanted to hear.
At the end of the first series, Dassey had two new attorneys — Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, from Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth — and at the time of the show's 2015 debut, they were still appealing his case through the federal courts. As for Avery, after Making a Murderer became a phenomenon, Kathleen Zellner, a flashy Illinois-based lawyer who specializes in wrongful convictions, took him on as a client. Zellner would be taking a different path from Nirider and Drizin, and would be attempting to get Avery's conviction vacated in criminal court.
It became clear to Ricciardi and Demos that they were not done with Making a Murderer. They talked to all of the lawyers, who agreed to be filmed. "There was a lot more to be mined," Ricciardi said. "And what Part 2 could offer is a window into the lesser-known part of the system — that post-conviction part of it."
But the appeals process is so different from having a trial date, then a trial, and then a verdict: There's no built-in arc to it. "Would that fill one episode, would that fill two episodes, three...?" Demos said about trying to plan how to move forward. "It's one thing to be two individuals with their student loans and with their credit cards, saying, 'I don't know where this is going, but I have faith in myself, and faith in my abilities, and I'm going to do this.'"
Netflix, obviously, was on board for more.
When they did start up again, they found that some things had changed — because of Making a Murderer.
Making a Murderer's popularity had an immediate effect on its participants: They all became famous. The filmmakers soon realized that, "due to the series," Ricciardi said, "the world had changed — the world that our characters, our subjects, inhabited."
For Dassey and Avery, their families received gifts; they had fans. "People were driving out to the salvage yard to meet the Averys and express their sympathy or empathy for them, and their support for them," Ricciardi said.
Those were positive effects, but there were negative ones, too. The Manitowoc Police Department fielded abusive, threatening calls. Ken Kratz, the lead prosecutor in Part 1, who some viewers perceived to be a creep — especially after the series revealed he had been suspended in 2010 for sexually harassing a domestic abuse victim — was cyberbullied on Yelp and received death threats. And for Avery, his celebrity left him open to fame-seekers who might want the attention of Dr. Phil as much as his. (He was romantically betrayed not once, but twice, on Dr. Phil, when one jailhouse fiancé, and then another, went on the show.)
In Part 2, Ricciardi and Demos would have to account for these transformations in a way that felt organic to the series: Making a Murderer's visual language is specific. There's no narration. In its place, Ricciardi and Demos frequently superimpose white text on a black screen, leading viewers through developments as they unfold. Conversely, there are often sweeping shots of the Manitowoc landscape, and the Avery family compound, set to Gustavo Santaolalla's theme song and Kevin Kiner's score: It's atmospheric, and gives a sense of place. We hear Avery only through conversations and interviews with him on the phone from prison — they've never been allowed to film him there. And they made use of their own footage, archival footage, and the extensive local news coverage of the Avery and Dassey trials to piece together the story.
Part 2 had to catch viewers up immediately, and news clips showed the series' impact. Episode 1 begins with montage that shows the aftereffects of Making a Murderer, with stories about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker weighing in, as well as the threats against Kratz and the local sheriff's department — the whole post-release uproar. There's even a rally on Manitowoc's courthouse steps — both for and against Avery and Dassey — with one participant holding a sign that says, “Don’t let Netflix tell you what to think!”
Upon their return to Wisconsin, Demos and Ricciardi marveled that the formerly vilified Avery and Dassey now had supporters. "There were two sides being debated at the Manitowoc County Courthouse," Demos said. "[Before], there had been one story."
And Demos and Ricciardi were also well-known. Most of the interviews they were doing were on private property — with the Avery family at their house, or with Barb Tadych, Dassey's mother, at her home. But when Zellner filed a 300-page brief at the courthouse, arguing that she had turned up new evidence, they had to set up the shoot with their Wisconsin crew from afar — the local media would have swarmed them. "We were concerned just our presence would have an impact on the event," Ricciardi said. "And we didn't want to be part of the story."
That wasn't always possible. They went to film a scheduled interview with Len Kachinsky, an attorney who had represented Dassey in Part 1, who had come off as incompetent. But "a media team was there, and they were filming with him," Ricciardi said. The news crew filmed them arriving to talk to him. "And then they thought they would film our interview with him — which we didn't allow to happen." Ricciardi first told the story without naming Kachinsky, but when asked whether it was him, she said yes. "I'm not speaking out of turn or anything," Ricciardi added. "It was on the news!"
There's a new cast of lawyers for Part 2.
Did you stan for Jerry Buting and Dean Strang, Avery's defense lawyers? The two men were valorized by Making a Murderer fans, so much so that they did a speaking tour together. There was also a Tumblr dedicated to Strang's normcore style, and Kristen Bell tweeted about her love for them.
But according to Kathleen Zellner, they did not do a good job of defending Steven Avery. She reinvestigates the case against him, top to bottom, trying to poke holes in the evidence. She needs to come up with plausible ways things could have unfolded that don't implicate Avery (other suspects, for instance) — and proving Strang and Buting were ineffective counsel will only help matters. Avery is convinced: “If they’d done all the things she’d have done, I wouldn’t be here,” he says during a phone interview in Part 2.
The charismatic Zellner speaks in soundbytes. "That will be a real pleasure, unmasking Mr. Kratz,” she says at one point. To Avery's mother, the beleaguered, weakening Dolores, she offers assurance: “Their judgment day is coming. I want to catch who did it.” She conducts even nerdy scientific tests with a flare for melodrama, making pronouncements all along the way.
She's the engine that drives the story, Demos said: "And she certainly does things differently than most lawyers out there — certainly all the lawyers you've seen in the series to date — so it's really exciting."
Dassey's lawyers, Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, have the opposite presentation to Zellner's theatricality. They are earnest and quiet. They zealously fight for Dassey, having successes along the way, only to be thwarted. (The case is a matter of public record, but no spoilers.) Ricciardi said they found Nirider and Drizin's journey "fascinating," especially given that they went into Part 2 not knowing "how dynamic it would be" to follow a case through the federal court system.
"And in many ways, we feel like they had inverse arcs this season," Ricciardi said about the two different legal teams. "Steven's case has so much to do with forensics, and challenging physical evidence. Whereas Brendan's has to do with rewriting the narrative about what happened in the room with the officers."
The Reddit "guilters" will probably still be unhappy with Making a Murderer.
There is a subreddit that's simply called "r/Steven Avery Is Guilty," which was started after the self-named "guilters" got tired of repeating their arguments over and over. It is arranged like an easy-to-read FAQ, with subtopics like "What Making a Murderer didn't tell you" and "Why the blood wasn't planted."
Demos and Ricciardi feel strongly that they presented both sides of the case, despite having direct access only to the defense lawyers. "In Part 1, we spent five episodes in trial, where you're hearing from both sides, and they're fighting it out in the courtroom. We didn't avoid that, we didn't shy away from that — as storytellers that's where the richness of the material comes from when you have the protagonist and the antagonist in the same room and they're fighting it out," Ricciardi said. "Obviously, there are theories that Steven — or even Steven and Brendan — committed this crime. And there are theories that they didn't. I think we show those competing theories."
Avery’s blood was found in Teresa Halbach's car, her car was found on the Avery property, and her bones were found near his home. When asked whether the simplest explanation — that Avery totally did it — is the most likely one, Demos demurred. "There was a five-week trial: It's not as simple as that," she said.
Did their belief in Steven Avery ever waver?
"I think that question has the sort of premise that I might question," Demos said. They chose Avery because he was "a DNA exoneree charged with this new crime," she said, who was "uniquely situated" to provide an interesting view of the criminal justice system.
"But it wasn't premised on an opinion — at the beginning or the end — that he was innocent of this crime, or was guilty of this crime," Demos said. "The question was, 'Will this process be fair to him?' That doesn't matter whether you did the crime or didn't do the crime. It was sort of never part of what we talked about with Steven."
Ricciardi talked about how they had been about to go back to New York in March 2006 when Ken Kratz called the press conference in which he described Brendan Dassey's lurid confession, in which Dassey said he had raped Teresa Halbach, and that he and Avery had shot her in the head. They were there, filming. "And it was horrific; it was scary, actually," Ricciardi said. "We didn't know what to think. We were just told what to think."
Dassey ended up recanting most of that confession, and Making a Murderer shows how the two lead investigators planted some of those ideas for him. But at the time, she said, it was a "challenging moment."
Demos said, "Most of the criticism that I heard about or read seemed to come from people who misunderstood what the series was about."
Ricciardi was definitive about their agnosticism. "We don't have an agenda. Our series did not hinge on guilt or innocence — it never was our inquiry," she said.
Ken Kratz, despite having nothing to do with the cases anymore, is still a main character in Part 2.
Neither Demos nor Ricciardi — who carefully thought through their answers as we talked — mentioned Kratz's name once during our 90-minute conversation. But if his specter hangs over Making a Murderer, so it did during the interview.
After the series premiered in 2015, Kratz, whom many fans loved to hate on the show, went on a media tour to discredit the docuseries. Five days after its release, he told a Green Bay, Wisconsin, Fox affiliate that Demos and Ricciardi hadn't asked to interview him, and that Netflix should give him the opportunity to respond. Kratz then did extensive interviews with People and many other outlets about evidence the show had left out. He has since written a book, and will participate in Convicting a Murderer, a docuseries response to Making a Murderer, which does not yet have a network attached to it.
That they had to answer to Kratz — particularly his misstatement that they had never asked to interview him — clearly bothered the directors. "People were out there saying they hadn't been contacted when they were — when the letter reaching out to them was in the case file," Demos said. "So there was a lot of wasted time in media interviews having to say what would be par for the course for any documentary. That's nothing to talk about."
Lesson learned: For Part 2, when each episode finishes, the first screen in the end credits is now a list of everyone they asked to interview who declined. Demos said: "We respect everybody's decision not to participate, if that's what they choose. We can only show the intimate experience of people who do participate."
As Part 2 unfolds, Kratz continues to pop up, which, since he again declined to speak with them, they include through footage of his media tour. He even gives an impromptu lobby press conference after the oral arguments at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in February 2017, where Nirider presented her argument that Dassey's confession had been coerced. The normally calm Drizin is irate about Kratz's gall. “If he wants to do that, do it on his turf," he says in an interview in the sixth episode. "Don’t come into this court and soil the process.”
Because one of Zellner's arguments on Avery's behalf is that Kratz overstepped in his role, Ricciardi said, "We knew that through her lens we would be looking at him." Sounding resigned, she said: "He was doing things in the media that Kathleen felt were having an impact on her case. Which then made it part of this story, and something we had to document."
The Avery parents are also a big part of Part 2.
When Steven Avery — who'd had many legal scrapes over the years, some serious — was convicted the first time, his family knew he hadn't done it, because he had been with other people all day. "It just so happened that none of them was believed at trial," Ricciardi said. So his parents never wavered when he was arrested for Halbach's murder. "They had already endured the horror of not only having a family member locked up, but locked up for something they knew he didn't do," she said.
"They feel that way about Steven and Brendan now — they think they are experiencing that again," Ricciardi continued. "So the fact that they were open to letting us in, and have been tolerant of us for so long — it's an incredible gift. And it's a tremendous responsibility."
A big theme of Part 2 is the health of the Averys as they get older, and Steven Avery's fears that if he is freed, they won't be around to be with him. It's a worry his parents themselves share. In one episode, Allan Avery, Steven's father, says, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I wish something would happen pretty quick.”
Even though their last shoot for Part 2 was in July, Demos and Ricciardi continue to check in with the family. "Mr. and Mrs. Avery are incredibly resilient. Mr. Avery — he will work in the shop until his last day," Ricciardi said.
Dolores Avery has two different surgeries in Part 2 to help her walk, which Ricciardi said was in part so Steven would feel better about her health when she visits. "I think it's really important to her that he sees her in a good place, and that how she physically presents herself doesn't cause more stress for him," she said. "It's really incredible."
The future of Making a Murderer isn't clear.
During the making of Part 1, when they didn't know whether the project would ever see the light of day, Ricciardi had trouble not obsessing about it. "I would talk about work all the time. Dinner, during a show we were watching — anything!" she said. "I had a really hard time turning off."
Part 2 was also "all-consuming," Demos said, but that was because they were in production and post-production at the same time, trying to edit the first episodes as they continued to shoot new material. "That's a lot of shooting, and a lot of editing — we do five passes of every episode. That's a lot of product," she said.
The post-conviction process is so attenuated; picking an ending must have been difficult.
"Ten seemed like a good number," Demos said with a laugh. "We could have very well found ourselves at this point in September of 2018 with three episodes' worth. But a lot happened, and we have 10 episodes."
Now, they want to concentrate on developing scripted entertainment for their next projects. And on having a life in general. "There hasn't been a lot of time to read, to really even be in touch with what's going on in the world today," Demos said. "To watch movies and remember cinema, and to remember what it is that got us into this in the first place. So there's a lot of filling the well that will happen while we explore our next project."
But the obvious question is, will there be a Part 3? "There's been a resolution of at least one part of Brendan's case in the federal system at this point. He still has legal options available to him," said Ricciardi. "But Kathleen, we know, is still actively working Steven's case."
Ricciardi said the question of Part 2 is that these two men, who maintain their innocence, are both challenging their convictions: "Will they succeed?" she posed. "There's a resolution, in a sense, of that story we're telling in Part 2. But real life continues."
Does that mean they're open to pursuing a Part 3, if there's more story to tell?
"It's certainly something we're thinking about," Demos said.
"We're open," said Ricciardi. "We're open, period!"