It would take a decade, personal sacrifice, and dedication to their vision before the filmmakers behind “Making a Murderer” found a home for the series at Netflix.
It started with an article.
When then-Colombia University students Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos arrived in Wisconsin for Steven Avery’s trial, they didn’t even know if it would be a story.
In late 2005, they had read a New York Times article about a man who had been exonerated of a crime after serving 18 years in prison only to then be arrested again for murder. Within two weeks, the women were shooting in Wisconsin.
“There was really no time to develop or have pre-production for the project,” Ricciardi recently told Business Insider, “because we were documenting a case as it was unfolding and whenever there was downtime relative to that case, we were going back and working on the historical context for the case, so we were constantly in production for the first two years.”
About a year into the project, they were given fiscal sponsorship by the New York Foundation for the Arts, which allowed them greater access to private donations and grants. They stayed in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, for about a year and a half straight, documenting Avery and his teen nephew Brendan Dassey’s trials and sentencing hearings.
“We then moved back to New York and desperately went back to work,” Demos told BI. “Then we would go back and forth for isolated one month, two weeks, five days, depending on what was happening. So for the eight years following that, we were doing isolated shoots, but not the same kind of intense shooting.”
While the creators first set out to make a feature film-length documentary, things changed when 16-year-old Dassey was arrested for helping his uncle.
'We certainly didn't set out to make a series,' Demos said. 'But when they said they were going to hold this press conference, and they announced that Brendan Dassey had confessed to the crime and implicated Steven, it became a much bigger story. It became an intergenerational story as far as the family was concerned and much more complex.'
The multiple-episode format became very important for the filmmakers when it came down to finding a partner to help complete and distribute 'Making a Murderer.' Over the years, the women pitched the idea and tried to find distributors in a process they likened to speed-dating. But they couldn't find a company that wanted to or had the ability to see their film finished as a series. HBO and PBS both passed on the project. Shaping 'MAM' as a series became necessary to them. Companies asked if they could condense the show into two hours or make a four-episode miniseries, but they refused.
'They were responding to the material, they were very excited to meet us, but they really just weren't in the position to give us what the story needed,' Demos said. 'We sort of recognised that, and it wasn't worth the energy to be shoving a square peg into a round hole, so we put our energy into continuing to work on the series.'
In the years that followed, the filmmakers returned to their previous jobs for production money: Ricciardi was an attorney, while Demos worked on film sets doing lighting.
'We needed time and some financial support to bring on collaborators to complete the vision,' Demos explained.
Prepared to prove they knew where the series would be going, the duo had rough cuts of the first three episodes, sketches of episode four and five, and they had a 20-page outline of the series when they met with Netflix in 2013.
Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos said at the Television Critics Association press tour that the company wasn't in the market for a true-crime series at the time it picked up 'Making a Murderer,' but he was impressed by the filmmakers.
'This film came to us three years ago, it was already seven years in the making,' Sarandos said. 'The filmmakers have lived this thing for 10 years. I think that's what played out on-screen. I think that's why people followed.'
As for other filmmakers looking to do something similar to 'Making a Murderer,' the filmmakers have a few pieces of advice.
They wouldn't suggest jumping into a project, as they did, without already having the finances to complete it. Demos suggested filmmakers 'fundraise or apply for grants or anything' they can find to help.
'Also, I would encourage filmmakers to just make the most out of the assets you do have. Laura and I didn't have any funding, but what we did have was time,' she continued. 'We could embed ourselves in this community and capture something that nobody else was capturing for not a lot of money
'I would advise people to be very clear on your priorities when shopping it around. Different distributors can offer you different things. Our priority was format, and that drove our decisions.'
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