EXCLUSIVE: Amanda Knox, OJ Simpson and Our Fascination With True Crime

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Amanda Knox, the
original Netflix documentary
about an American girl in Italy found guilty and
later exonerated of murdering roommate Meredith Kercher, is the latest
true-crime sensation to find its way to TV. A year after Italy’s Supreme Court
determined Amanda Knox’s innocence in the nearly decade-long case, directors
Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn are letting each of the key players involved --
Knox, co-defendant and ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Italian prosecutor
Giuliano Mignini and Daily Mail
reporter Nick Pisa -- tell their side of the story. 

“We really hope that the film is a portrait of each of these
people who are caught up in something far bigger than them,” Blackhurst tells
ET, adding that “nobody had really taken the time to understand who they were
as individuals.” 

MORE: Did HBO's 'The Jinx' Lead to Robert Durst's Capture?

While the question of Knox’s innocence is not the focus of
their documentary (streaming globally on Friday, Sept. 30), Blackhurst and
McGinn acknowledge that people’s continued interest in the now-29-year-old is
about whether or not she did it. “The No. 1 question we get is about her
innocence, but that answer is out there,” Blackhurst says. “What’s fascinating
is that people are far more interested in having that conversation than wanting
to understand anything else about who these people were.” 

“These stories play to our fears and there's nothing more
frightening than the idea of having a loved one brutally murdered in an
extremely vicious way for no reason whatsoever. We're all terrified of that
kind of scenario,” McGinn adds, explaining why Knox’s story continues to be a
draw. “And in the same way, we're also all scared of being labeled as the
murderer or trapped in a story that's hard to get yourself out of.” 

Netflix

The telling film about the public and media fascination with
the real-life case follows a flurry of true-crime stories -- scripted and
unscripted -- that have captured the nation’s attention time and time again
over the past two years, whether it be FX’s dramatized retrial of O.J. Simpson
or the surprise hit of Netflix’s Making a
Murderer
, about Steven Avery and his ongoing battle with an unjust criminal
system. 

The latest wave of the true-crime sensation was first
sparked by Serial, season one of
which aired at the end of 2014. During the NPR podcast host Sarah Koenig
re-examined the trial of Adnan Masud Syed, who was found guilty of his
girlfriend’s murder. It was quickly followed by director Andrew Jarecki’s
six-part HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, about a real estate heir suspected in two
murders and the disappearance of his first wife.

“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst said
to himself
during a private (but still recorded) moment in a hotel bathroom
following his final interview, which aired in March 2015. That watercooler
moment, coupled with the news of Durst’s arrest on a murder warrant in Louisiana, had audiences and the media alike pondering his innocence in the
three unsolved mysteries. (While Durst confessed to the dismemberment of Morris
Black, he was twice acquitted of the charge of murdering him.)

HBO

What followed was Making
a Murderer
, Killing Fields on
Discovery
, Ryan Murphy’s The People v.
O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
, O.J.:
Made in America
on ESPN
, multiple scripted and unscripted programs pegged
to the 20th anniversary of the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey, as well as the
MTV serialized docuseries Unlocking the
Truth
about alleged wrongfully convicted prisoners fighting for their
freedom. Not limited to TV, there are several newpodcasts dedicated to trending murders and mysteries, including My Favorite Murder with hosts Georgia
Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff and the upcoming Wrongful Conviction with Lava Records CEO and advocate Jason Flomlaunching on Oct 4. 

With each new series or film, audiences are given a chance
to be a detective in their own right and perhaps study the human psyche. “I
would imagine it’s just an interest in the human mind and human behavior,
especially when something is so far from you,” says Samira Wiley. The Orange Is the New Black actress is
starring in the new film 37, inspired
by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, New York. The story became
infamous when it was reported that 37 neighbors had witnessed the rape and
murder of Genovese but did not intervene. “It's an interesting psychological
study to me. I'm definitely caught up in the Kool-Aid of true-crime
stories.” 

“I’ve been a crime maniac since I was a child,” says Marcia
Clark
, the lead prosecutor in Simpson’s murder trial for the murders of Nicole
Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. “But I think that when they’re televised like
this, especially when you have these multipart series, there’s time to really
invest and be a sleuth yourself.”

Clark’s story was later retold on American Crime Story by Sarah Paulson, who was joined by Sterling
K. Brown
and Courtney B. Vance in winning Emmys this year for their thoughtful portrayals
of the legal teams on both sides of the case on the FX anthology series. When
accepting the award, Paulson publicly apologized to Clark for the way the media
and public famously villainized her over 20 years ago, most notably seen in the
episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which producer Nina Jacobson says may be “one of
the most feminist episodes of television a person will ever get to see.”

Simpson’s story in particular reached peak nostalgia earlier
this year, when, in addition to the FX anthology series, the Esquire Network
aired a 12-hour special, The Real O.J.
Simpson
, featuring actual footage from the original trial, and ESPN debuted
O.J.: Made in America, which explored
the nation’s fascination with the athlete and the fallout of his fame.

MORE: 'Cleveland Abduction' and 6 Lifetime True-Crime Movies You'll Never Forget

While director Ezra Edelman says that his ESPN
documentary is not a true-crime story, he does say that the continued interest
around Simpson is because the two murders remain unsolved. “We don’t know the
truth,” he says, “because none of us were there that night. We maintain this
fascination.”

However, it should be acknowledged that true crime on TV is
nothing new. The Crime + Investigation Network runs daily content dedicated to
the retelling of real-life crimes, while Lifetime regularly airs movies of the
week -- Cleveland's Abduction, I Killed My BFF and Girl In the Box, among many, many others -- inspired by true
events. Then there’s the long-running Law
& Order
franchise
with its many ripped-from-the-headlines plots,
including the recent SVU episode “Making a Rapist” inspired
by Netflix’s docuseries. 

“Crime has always
been a staple of television,” says Tom Fontana, creator of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and an Emmy-winning
producer behind Killing Fields.
“These days, because of the advances in technology -- both in fighting crime
and behind the camera -- we have a much larger palette from which to choose, so
we’re able to tell fuller, compelling stories.” 

It’s also a matter of finding new ways to tell these
stories. In the instance of Killing
Fields
, the story unfolded in real time as Detectives Rodie Sanchez and Aubrey
St. Angelo reopened the 19-year-old unsolved murder of Louisiana State University
graduate student Eugenie Boisfontaine, who was last seen alive in June 1997.
When it came to the season one finale, Fontana says “the team had three
possible ways for it to go, so we were prepared for any eventuality.” In the
end, the investigators were forced to walk away with unanswered questions and a
killer still at large despite narrowing in on a few suspects -- though six more
episodes of the series have been ordered.

The dramatic buildup is partly why viewers were (and are)
hooked week to week, and why Durst’s apparent admission of guilt was such a
shock at the end of The Jinx. “The
drama heightens the storytelling,” Fontana says, claiming he doesn't worry
about whether it interferes with the facts of the story. If anything, it
enhances the viewing experience. “This isn’t a casebook, it’s a TV series.”

Netflix

In Making a Murderer’s
case, directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos says the drama was already
there. Wrongfully accused of the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen
in 1985, Steven Avery was exonerated after serving 18 years of a 32-year
sentence when DNA testing proved his innocence. In 2005, two years after his
release, Avery was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Teresa Halbach.
“The thing about this story is that we really didn’t have to work to create
plot twists or suspense or intense drama,” Demos says. “We could be factual and
intense at the same time.” 

“We were documenting events as they were unfolding,” Ricciardi
adds. The documentary took 10 years to complete. “There were so many
developments that just happened organically and we just tried to share that
with the viewers through the editing process.” 

Both hits have come under fire for biased storytelling, for possibly untruthful editing to create cliffhanger in The Jinx’s case and too great a
focus on advocacy in Making a Murderer.
“I’ve been very vocal about Making a
Murderer
because it’s simply not true,” Nancy Grace says. “It’s a
beautifully put together documentary that leaves out over half the story.”

But Ricciardi doesn’t classify Making a Murderer as truly a crime story. “There are many ways in
which it seems understandable that people would label it as true crime,” she
says. “But from our perspective, it’s really a look at the criminal justice
system and how it functions today.” 

While there are arguments for and against the methods of
storytelling used by these true-crime documentaries, there’s no stopping the
trend. Killing Fields and Making a Murderer are both slated for a
second season, with “more about this story,” Demos says of staying focused on
Avery’s ongoing legal battle

MORE: The 13 Stages of Being Addicted to 'Serial'

Meanwhile, scripted television is cashing in. TNT is working
on a Chandra Levy scripted miniseries adapted from Scott Higham and Sara
Horwitz's book Finding Chandra: A True
Washington Murder Mystery
. American
Crime Story
will return with a new season about Hurricane Katrina and
Murphy’s horror-themed FX anthology series, American
Horror Story
, is using a true-crime documentary as a frame for its new
season, Roanoke, with Sarah Paulson
and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing actors in a reenactment of the stories of their
“real-life” counterparts, played by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland.

“Every time something hits big, it brings in a wave of
people who enjoy that genre,” Murphy told The
Hollywood Reporter
. “It had been done before for years and years and years,
many times before we did it.” 

Inspired by the success of American Crime Story, Law
& Order
creator Dick Wolf is even taking a shot with a new anthology
series, Law & Order: True Crime,
starting with The Menendez Murders. The
show’s eight episodes will focus on the 1996 case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, two
brothers convicted of murdering their parents and sentenced to life
imprisonment. 

Despite so many series taking shape, Wolf is not worried
about burnout. “I think that there is an endless appetite for stuff that's
really well done,” he told The Hollywood
Reporter
. “If it's not really well done, yeah, I think you can go, ‘Oh,
please, I've got to watch six more hours of this?’”

And sometimes it comes down to the case itself. In the
instance of Simpson or Making a Murderer,
“you’re talking about literally life and death,” Clark says, explaining why
these shows are connecting with audiences and continue to do so with each new
hit. “It’s all so very compelling because it’s like you’re living through it.”
(And this is coming from someone who has.)