At a masterclass at BAFTA in London last month, Making A Murderer filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi gave some useful advice on how to create a successful documentary series.
Ricciardi and Demos, film students at the time, initially read about the Steven Avery case in the New York Times. Avery had spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Two years after his exoneration while he was suing county officials for damages, a woman disappeared and Avery, again accused of murder, ended up back in prison.
As the two filmmakers picked up a camera and started following Avery and all the people related to the case the story started to develop more and more. What was initially meant to be a one-off feature turned – after filming and editing for 10 years – into a 10-part series. Netflix came on board in the later stages and scheduled the series launch during the holidays so that audiences could binge-watch.
The key to its success is the reasonable doubt that is left hanging in the air throughout the series. Did Avery commit the second murder or was he framed? It is a question much debated.
During the session, Demos and Ricciardi gave some useful tips for those looking for the key to their success. Televisual summed these tips up recently in a nice neat list of 10 key points, which you can see here.
What shines through is that it is key to give the story structure and be prepared for a ridiculous long editing process. To give you an idea, Making a Murderer was compiled from over 1000 hours of footage and over 1000 hours of phone calls. On top of that the pair had collected thousands of scanned documents and photos. Creating a storyline, scripting the story, was incredibly important, it allowed people to follow the main characters and keep track of the timeline, building up the suspense.
Patience is also a key trade that documentary filmmakers should possess – especially if they want to collect enough information for a series. As said, the story which the duo selected was inspired by a newspaper cutting in 2005. However, the film took 10 years to put together and these 10 years included long periods of waiting. It is only because they sat through it all that they compiled enough content for what was to become one of Netflix most acclaimed programmes.
Another piece of advice was to make sure you have the access you need. Demos and Ricciardi knew that they would be seen as two outsiders, New Yorkers arriving who arrived in rural Wisconsin and were digging for dirt – not many people would be keen to just tell them things. To circumvent this issue they relied on collaboration with various people from the local media, Avery’s family, his lawyers and many others. They also used a wide variety of sources, including plenty of archive materials collected from the police, the lawyers and the press.
If you haven’t watched it yet, cancel all your plans for the weekend and get cracking. This documentary series won’t disappoint.