Emmys: 'Making a Murderer' Was in the Works for 8 Years and Other Revelations From the Year's Buzziest Docuseries

12:30 PM 6/9/2016

by Anna Lisa Raya

Whether they dwell in the heart of the current news cycle (Showtime’s close-up view of the presidential campaign, 'The Circus') or back in America’s disco days (CNN’s 'The Seventies'), this year’s docuseries contenders intimately — and sometimes harshly — reveal the characters, events and forces that animate the culture.

Courtesy of PBS/©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

  • Making a Murderer (Netflix)

    Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, series creators, writers and directors

    Courtesy of Netflix

    This docuseries spent 10 years following the two criminal prosecutions of Steven Avery, who in one case was exonerated by DNA

    "There are many advantages to making a serialized documentary. With Making a Murderer, we knew we wanted to share the incredible 30-year story of one man's journey from one extreme of the American criminal justice system to the other. And we knew that no piece of that journey could be truly understood in isolation. With the longer format, we were able to contextualize events, let scenes play out, develop rich characters and in the end tell a complex, layered story with the nuance it deserved. That said, deciding to do this as a series was also our biggest challenge because, until recently, there were not many outlets that were positioned to support that kind of storytelling. We had to stay true to our vision for the project as a series, and we continued to make it independently for over eight years before we found support at Netflix."

  • American Masters (PBS)

    Michael Kantor, executive producer

    Courtesy of PBS

    For 30 years, this docuseries has examined the lives of American film, music and visual artists

    "The challenge with our show is to keep our viewing audience engaged over the course of the year as we present 12 different films — but that's why they invented social media, right? When we air a film on Carole King or The Highwaymen or Mike Nichols, we make sure that not only our core audience tunes in but fans and potential fans as well. It's a little like those wine or fruit clubs that send you something new each month, and you get a chance to expand your palate. We hope to get you to expand your cultural palate rather than simply stuffing you with a tasty but heavy-duty 12-course meal. The biggest debate we had in the editing room was over our Mike Nichols film, which was directed by Nichols' longtime comedy partner Elaine May. As executive producer, I wanted to include more hilarious footage of Nichols and May performing as a comedy duo. As director, Elaine wanted to ensure that Mike's other artistic collaborators — Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Paul Simon, etc. — had plenty of time to tell their stories. Ultimately, when Elaine included some rare footage of Nichols and May performing at the 1959 Emmy Awards — in which she presented a special award to Mike, who had been voted 'the most total mediocrity in the industry' — our debate simply ended in hysterical laughter."

  • Dark Net (Showtime)

    Mati Kochavi, creator

    Jackie Hurwitz/Courtesy of Showtime

    This new series exposed the vast netherworld of the web and the characters who frequent it.

    "I hope this series made people more aware and cautious of what we put online about ourselves. The biggest advantage is our ability to pair the stories we found in the best way. We use a proprietary technology called Verne. That's how we are able to source data and characters from the deep web to feed the series. The biggest challenge is visualizing technology in a way that feels dynamic. We got around that with our graphical overlays and what we call 'Room 404,' which looks like a data server room where we display graphical representations of our data analysis. But we're always looking for ways to make it more interesting, revealing and dynamic. We're constantly asking ourselves how far can we push the envelope in terms of where technology is taking us without scaring people too much!"

  • Woman (Viceland)

    Ariel Wengroff, executive producer (with Steinem, Nomi Ernst Leidner and Amy Richards)

    Arianna Lapenne/Viceland

    One of the new network’s shows is this docuseries in which Gloria Steinem shines a light on women throughout the world, many of them oppressed.

    "The idea for Woman came out of a conversation between Gloria Steinem and Shane Smith. Gloria mentioned this is the first time in documented history that there are fewer women on Earth than men. Shane and I found that shocking, and, working with Gloria, we decided to make the show. There's a sense when you see some of the footage that it must be from an earlier time. We constantly came back to the same conversation: How is it possible this is happening to women today? Having a serialized show gave us an opportunity to partner with different organizations to focus on working toward solutions to these huge problems. It can be hard to gain the trust and access to the women and people at the end of these stories. Gloria was really helpful there. She helped us go into some really sensitive places and make these documentaries in a truthful and respectful way."

  • The Circus (Showtime)

    John Heilemann, 'The Circus' co-creator, executive producer and co-host

    Thomas Stukas/Courtesy of Showtime

    The weekly series follows the presidential campaign in real and is edited right up to the morning an episode airs.

    "The central aim is to pull back the curtain to let viewers see what the presidential campaign is really like behind the scenes. Each of the episodes that we've produced so far has shown in vivid and intimate detail just how difficult, demanding, draining and (at times) demeaning the job of running for president is. But it's also about the people closest to the [candidates], especially their families, and it's here that the show has in some ways been most revealing. We put three (and often four, and sometimes five) crews in the field with the candidates six days a week. Campaigns are by nature controlling enterprises. But by spending so much time inside their worlds and having the candidates and their teams see the results every Sunday night, we were able to build trust and good will, which allowed us to delve deeper and deeper inside the respective campaign 'bubbles.'"

  • The Seventies (CNN)

    Gary Goetzman, executive producer

    Courtesy of CNN

    Following last year’s The Sixties, this season of the decade-themed docuseries delved into more than just disco.

    "It was surprising to be reminded of what a difficult time the 1970s was for America. Many people remember that era as a time of disco music and wacky fashions, but it was also gas lines and the energy crisis, our only presidential resignation and the difficult ending of a very unpopular war. The '70s also saw the birth of the modern face of terrorism. On the upside, it was amazing how great broadcast journalism was and how great the strides of the women's movement were in changing the face of America. Being able to tackle something as complex as the 1970s over multiple episodes obviously allows for the opportunity to explore subjects as diverse as the fall of Saigon to the rise of Studio 54. Editing room fights are always caused by the embarrassment of riches we enjoy with our footage, both archival as well as the interviews we conduct."