10:15am PT by Alicia Lutes
'Making a Murderer' Isn't Interested in Guilt or Innocence in Part 2 of Netflix Breakout
It has been nearly three years since the first season of Netflix's mega-hit documentary series, Making a Murderer, turned everyone and their grandmother into a true-crime obsessed sleuth. After becoming a watercooler hit for the streaming giant, the decades-long investigation into Teresa Halbach's slaying and sexual assault took on a new life, reframed around an alleged setup and shady maneuvering done by local officials to bring a case against defendants Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey.
In "Part Two" of the docuseries — debuting Oct. 19 on Netflix — co-creators Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi examine the impact their series had on the case and its latest developments. Below, Demos and Ricciardi talk with The Hollywood Reporter about their continued investigations, telling more of Halbach's story and why, regardless of how the case ends, no one really wins.
How much of part two came about because you wanted to follow the story versus Netflix responding to having a breakout hit on its hands?
Ricciardi: We brought the prospect of part two to Netflix. We were aware that, at the end of part one, we were leaving viewers with lingering questions and we knew that Steven's new advocate and Brendan's advocates Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin were continuing to fight to overturn their convictions and their sentences. We saw an opportunity there to shine a light on the new phase of the process. It'll be the same story; it will follow the same characters with some new ones, but it'll be a new phase of the process that we believed our viewers would be far less familiar with — the post-conviction phase. We thought it was an exciting opportunity to offer something new.
Steven and Brendan's cases both became the focus of insane global media coverage after season one. What do you think season two achieves that hasn't already been covered in the press thus far?
Demos: So much. We're always interested in the journey; you can arrive in Los Angeles or New York, but I guarantee you, if you take a train across America, you're going to learn a lot more about America than if you fly. The headline of the outcome or a certain decision really doesn't offer you very much about how you got there or what that decision even means. We believe the journey and the experiences are what documentary and longform storytelling offer, because in this world, we each only have so many experiences. It's up to artists and storytellers to bring other experiences into people's lives and help them understand people that might not be exactly like them.
What was it about the post-conviction process that you felt was important for the audience to see?
Ricciardi: A number of things. There was just this general question of, "What happens next?" Because at the end of part one, our main character, Steven Avery, is vowing to fight on and at that point he'd been representing himself for a number of years, getting his case file boxes and sifting through them in his prison cell. And he's, at best, semi-literate. So [when he got] a new advocate in Kathleen Zellner, we thought that it would be very interesting to film her as she was advocating for Steven.
We wanted to know what it would look like for someone who has been convicted of the most serious of crimes, who has spent years serving a life sentence and is fighting for freedom and to clear his name. What's involved in the process of challenging this conviction and sentence and Brendan's? What are the obstacles in their way? How much time does something like this take? And certainly, the emotional toll it would take on others who were touched by this.
Kathleen Zellner in part two goes to incredible lengths to cast doubt upon a lot of the evidence. Could she make a difference? What do you think about her methods?
Demos: The one thing we know for sure about Kathleen Zellner is that she is the winningest private post-conviction attorney in the U.S. She has made a difference in many cases. In fact, she overturned the convictions of two other individuals in the time we were filming with her. Yes, her methods are unconventional — they are certainly nothing like any other attorney that you see in the series, but she has a track record. It's fascinating to watch her work and to learn from her through the choices she's making and why she's making them. Because clearly there's a reason for her methods: she learns from a process that's very scientific. When she does an experiment, she learns something. It directs her to the next thing. By watching [all the attorneys] work, and see what they're discovering, you end up learning quite a bit about part one and what you witnessed there. It's all coming full circle.
You're paying more attention to Halbach's story in the four episodes provided to journalists ahead of the debut. Is that the case throughout the rest of the season? Do you feel as though the family's fight has changed amid the #MeToo and Time's Up movements given that there is a sexual assault involved in this case?
Demos: As in part one, we cast a wide net to find anybody who had first-hand experiences that they could share; anybody who was personally touched by this story. And as in part one, the Halbachs declined that invitation, a decision that we not only understand but also entirely respect. We were very grateful that one of Teresa's college friends, Chris Nerat, agreed to sit down with us and gave us a very thoughtful interview so that we could hear more about the person she was, and hear about the experience of the loss and the pain of that — and the pain that continues and is exacerbated by the post-conviction process, digging things up again.
As the series progresses, you see it's not only people in Teresa's life that care about her and are inspired by her life, it's also people that you might consider to be "in Steven's camp," who you will learn they're doing what they're doing because they feel like they owe it to Teresa, that she deserves to have a thorough investigation. The questions are, in fact, an action of respect. It's not so binary and adversarial at that point, it's driving for justice, striving for answers and truth.
After season one, some viewers were critical of the way the less savory details against Avery were left out —
Ricciardi: With respect to Steven Avery, we were documenting a legal process and his experience as an accused, as well as the emotional toll it took on people involved. He stood accused of crimes that could carry mandatory life, and the prosecutor in the case [Ken Kratz] tried to offer so-called firebrand evidence to the court. The judge ruled it irrelevant. It is certainly not our place as filmmakers to put that sort of information, which is pure accusation, out there. We included all of his prior convictions in part one, but we are not going to include theories of pure accusation that have never been substantiated, crimes with which he was never charged. It would be irresponsible to do that. Especially when the person stands accused of crimes that can put them away for life.
What did you think of those criticisms? How do you address them in season two?
Demos: The criticisms that we read or heard were from people that had missed the point in the series — they were having a different conversation, a conversation about guilt and innocence, which was never a conversation that we were a part of or invested in, so it was irrelevant to how we approached part two.
What do you hope viewers take away from part two of the series?
Demos: Much of part one was focused on the experience of an accused. He's awaiting trial. Now what? ... Part two is a process of looking back. Kathleen, Laura and Steve are doing this and not only does it offer viewers this lesser-known phase of the process, it also — by watching them work and learning what they're discovering — we end up learning a lot of insights about part one and what you witnessed there. It's all coming full circle.