“The Staircase” debate takes another spiraling turn.
After the true-crime show — although the words “true crime” don’t easily apply to the murky death at the center of the HBO Max series — concluded on June 9, the real-life players are speaking out on its accuracy. “The Staircase” centers on North Carolina-based novelist and would-be politician Michael Peterson, played by Colin Firth, who is accused, convicted, and then cleared of killing his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette), who died bloodily and presumably alone at the foot of their staircase.
The Peterson case was at the center of a documentary directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade that debuted in 2004; additional installments as the case progressed were subsequently released, while editor Sophie Brunet (played by Juliette Binoche in the HBO series) also started a romantic relationship with Peterson. Brunet has since disputed the timeline of these events.
But now, Peterson and de Lestrade are duking it out over the fictionalized depiction, helmed by Antonio Campos and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn. De Lestrade, who produced and directed the docuseries, has a co-executive producer credit on “The Staircase” but has since voiced a “sense of betrayal” over the handling of the project. De Lestrade’s complaints led Peterson to slam the filmmaker’s involvement and exploitation of his personal story.
“[De Lestrade] is the individual responsible for what happened to us, and while I am sorely pissed at Campos for all the liberties he took with the truth (and for stealing from my book ‘Behind the Staircase’ — the only source for his prison scenes, and for which I of course was not compensated), I am angrier at Jean who should have had our interests in mind when he sold our story,” Peterson wrote in a letter to Variety. “I have no sympathy for him, any more than I would for a hooker who contracted an STD after peddling her ass. Sounds harsh — but look at the result to our family for what he did.”
Peterson continued, “What has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family. We feel that Jean pimped us out — sold OUR story to Campos for money — what word other than pimped describes what he did?”
De Lestrade allegedly did not tell Peterson about the HBO series and maintains that he was paid only €7,500 (roughly $9,370) for the story. Yet Peterson claims de Lestrade received at least $75,000.
“Jean should have known that when you sell your ass/property, you assume the risk of getting fucked/betrayed,” Peterson said. “Every hooker knows this. So he got betrayed/fucked. Why should he be surprised? He was compensated — paid off. But we didn’t sell our story to Campos — were never even consulted or informed that Jean had done this. We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely depicted as fighting among ourselves (which NEVER happened), and with made-up storylines that denigrate all of us in the eyes of millions.”
The author added, “He released his archive to Campos who then created a fictional account of events, most of which trashed me (which I really don’t care about) and my children — which I really do care about. There are egregious fabrications and distortions of the truth in the HBO series, well beyond what may be considered ‘artistic’ license. It is disingenuous and hypocritical for Jean to talk about his integrity being challenged when he sold himself to Campos and showed no integrity or sense of responsibility to us.”
“The Staircase” writer, producer, and co-showrunner Cohn told IndieWire that the series was a “risk” since the truth over Kathleen’s death has never become clear.
“We don’t know if a crime occurred, so what is this really about? That’s what the risk was,” Cohn said. “We had concurrent timelines, we had the multiple depictions, [as a way of] slowly letting you become, as a viewer, comfortable with the idea that this is just a story and that we can never fully know anything. The basis of a true-crime show is that there’s a crime, and that’s actually what we’re interrogating here.”
Cohn revealed that the “meta” series is “inspired” by the night of Kathleen’s death but that it doesn’t take a stance either way to show Peterson’s guilt or innocence.
“The show is about multiple perspectives and being like, everyone has the right to their own perspective,” Cohn said, “and it doesn’t make anyone fully right and it doesn’t make anyone fully wrong.”
One bleary aspect of the series finale is a scene in which Firth’s Peterson, appearing in court testimony, admits to lying about his wife’s complicity in and knowledge of his bisexuality. “A lot of that came from the transcripts. There was a lot of footage and media not included in the documentary from which we also drew inspiration,” Cohn told IndieWire.
Ryan Lattanzio contributed reporting.