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The story behind ‘Making a Murderer’

Steven Avery in the documentary “Making a Murderer.”
Steven Avery in the documentary “Making a Murderer.”Netflix via AP/Associated Press

When it debuted in December, Netflix’s 10-part documentary series “Making a Murderer” opened up a nationwide debate on the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery, and whether the police had planted evidence and coerced a confession from an alleged accomplice to incriminate him in the 2005 murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. Watertown native Moira Demos and her partner, Laura Ricciardi, the filmmakers who propelled Avery into the national spotlight, were graduate students at Columbia University a decade ago when they first read about the case of the Wisconsin auto salvage dealer, charged with murder two years after he had been released from prison for a rape he did not commit. Avery had a lawsuit pending against Manitowoc County, its sheriff, and district attorney for his wrongful conviction in the rape case, for which he had served 18 years in prison, when he was charged with Halbach’s murder.

“Making a Murderer” calls into question some of the evidence the police used to support their case against Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, who admitted to helping Avery murder Halbach before recanting his confession later on. Demos and Ricciardi moved to Wisconsin to document the case, the two murder trials, and Avery and Dassey’s failed appeals. They spent 10 years filming, editing, and researching before finally unveiling what Demos called their “checkup on the American criminal justice system.”

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She spoke to the Globe recently about her early interest in filmmaking and what drew her and Ricciardi to Avery’s case.

Q. Did your interest in film start while you lived in Massachusetts?

A. It did. I took a film class in high school and took a summer class at the Massachusetts College of Art. I spent a lot of the time at the video store when I was young, renting and watching movies.

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Q. Was documentary always your main interest in film?

A. No, I mainly just had an interest in telling a story with images and characters, so that can take many forms.

Q. What does this series mean for you?

A. This process has brought everything we did in those 37 years before starting it together. My father is a Colonial historian and my mother is a psychologist. I was raised with the worldview that what’s on the surface is not all that’s there. There is much more to the world than that. Step two is my education at Columbia. I was a Women and Gender Studies major. I don’t know what that means now, but back then it was about studying systems of power and how they affect individuals.

We set out [in the series] to cover criminal stuff, but this is really a story about human beings. I think that our background plays huge into that. In other interviews we only got to talk about my background in film and Laura’s background in law, but there’s much more there that makes us apt to tell this story.

Q. How did you first pick this story up?

A. It was actually my partner, Laura Ricciardi, whose attention was first grabbed. We were at Columbia finishing our graduate program in film. She read a front-page story in The New York Times on the Avery case. I happened to be sitting right next to her and she was elbowing me the whole time about it — this one person who was failed by the system in the mid-’80s and now is back in. We saw this as a chance to do a checkup on the American criminal justice system.

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Q. How hard was it to get this story?

A. It certainly took a lot of time. We were there and we developed relationships and trust with the subjects. It’s a lot about what you hear when you’ve been there a while. When you talk to 12 people you see a lot of connections. It’s worthy to note that Wisconsin has a very expansive open records law. The material was all right there for us if we were willing to do the leg work.

Q. Were you met with any challenges from people who didn’t want this story to come out?

A. It appears there were people there who didn’t want this story told. When you’re telling something that happened before you get there, you have to get a little background. We had several news outlets hang up on us when we called to ask for licensed footage. To me that means they didn’t want this story told. We invited many people to partake, some of whom didn’t want to and we respected that. [District Attorney Ken] Kratz from the prosecution didn’t respond to us, but he issued a subpoena for our footage. The state was on a fishing expedition to shut down our production.

Q. Is there a conclusion you wanted people to come to on Avery’s guilt or innocence?

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A. Absolutely not. The series is intended for people to ask questions about what they hear on the news. We are showing how the bulk of the story is not making it to the public.

Q. What’s next for your film endeavors?

A. We’re looking for new stories now. We have a couple of ideas but nothing we’re going to talk about or pursue just yet.

Q. Would you ever want to do anything other than documentary now?

A. Certainly. It was not documentary that we went to film school for. We are approaching new projects in terms of that, but documentaries can be a more accessible form of filmmaking.


Interview was edited and condensed. John Paul Stapleton can be reached at john.stapleton@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnP_Stapleton.