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The Staircase: from Docuseries to Miniseries





Unpacking the ethics of truth-telling in documentary and dramatic license in adaptation.





If you go back and read the various iterations of my Story Screen writer bio over the past five years you'll see it ends with a little joke - that I have a film degree from Vassar College that I do not use. This is true. I graduated with a BA in film from Vassar in 2007 and then proceeded to fall into a career in accounting and finance-related roles in a number of industries. While you'd think writing about film, and television criticism would mean that I bust out that knowledge I spent four years (and a fairly significant amount of money) to obtain, the truth is most of my writing in this space has been to analyze media and pop culture through the lens of personal narrative.



HBO's recent fictional miniseries The Staircase (based on the true crime docuseries also named The Staircase) is the first time that I actively regretted having sold all of my film textbooks back to the Vassar bookstore and boxed up all of my class notes for recycling 15 years ago. What I would give, right now, to still have my books about documentary filmmaking, and the art of adaptation. How I wish I still had my handwritten notes.



And the reason for that is that the HBO series made me incredibly angry. Not angry at the fallibility of the justice system - though that is certainly a pertinent aspect of the story of Michael Peterson. Not angry at the death of Kathleen Peterson - though certainly, I am angry that a by-all-accounts intelligent, lovely, and loving woman died in a senseless way with no clear resolution as to what really happened to her.



No, I'm angry at HBO for letting showrunner and creator Antonio Campos make this piece-of-drek miniseries in the first place. I'm angry that Campos has been nominated for a writing Emmy and a directing Emmy for this show. I don't care about the positive reviews. I don't care about the praise for Colin Firth's performance as Michael Peterson, despite my grudging admission that he did portray Peterson well and I'm not terribly surprised he's been nominated for an Emmy for his work.



This miniseries should not have been made.



*



Let's back up a little. The original docuseries The Staircase, directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, depicts the story of the death of Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel executive living in Durham, North Carolina, and the subsequent murder trial of her husband Michael Peterson, a writer and local politician. In December 2001, Michael Peterson discovered Kathleen at the bottom of the eponymous staircase in their home in a pool of blood and called 911. He told the police that they had just had a quiet evening staying in watching a movie, drinking, and having a nice time discussing their lives and their kids outside by their pool, and then she went inside to answer a couple of work emails before bed while he stayed outside finishing his wine. When he came inside, he discovered her at the bottom of the stairs and panicked, assuming that she had tripped and fallen due to being tipsy and had died alone while he was still outside.





Police did not believe Michael's story; they concluded that he had beaten his wife to death with a fireplace tool (missing from the house) - specifically a blow poke - and Peterson was charged with murder. Their reasoning as to why Michael would suddenly lash out in violence towards his beloved wife (all of their friends described their marriage as a happy one - one that many of them envied) was evidence they found during a search of the house on Michael's computer - Michael identified as bisexual (though not publicly) and had downloaded gay pornography and had also been corresponding with a few male escorts. The working theory that the Durham County District Attorney's office went to trial with was that Kathleen did not know her husband was bisexual, discovered the evidence when she went to check her email that night, confronted him, and in a desperate attempt to not be outed, he bludgeoned her. Michael claimed that this was absolutely not the case, but there was no one in the Petersons' lives who could confirm or deny whether Kathleen was aware of his bisexuality.



The autopsy and crime scene photos were gruesome given the amount of blood, but the cause of death did not exactly fit the prosecution's theory as to what had happened; despite Kathleen's scalp showing several lacerations, she did not have any fractures to her skull, which should have been present for a bludgeoning that resulted in death. Regardless, the prosecution stuck with this theory - even when the mysterious blow poke was finally found in the Peterson garage, covered in dust (and therefore safe to assume it had not been used in years, either in the fireplace or as a murder weapon) - and their case hinged upon key testimony from State Bureau of Investigation Agent Duane Deaver, who performed blood pattern analysis tests that seemed to corroborate the bludgeoning theory, as well as a hefty dose of good old-fashioned homophobia, portraying Michael as a closet case who would have done anything at any cost to keep his sexuality a secret - even murder his beloved wife.



If this story seems complicated, I haven't even gotten to the half of it. The Peterson family was a blended one - the Brady Bunch with a twist - composed of Todd and Clayton Peterson, Michael's two sons from his first marriage, Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen's daughter from her first marriage, and Margaret and Martha Ratliff, two girls adopted by Michael and his first wife, while they were stationed in Germany during one of his tours with the Marines. Margaret and Martha's biological parents both died when they were very young, and after Michael and his first wife divorced, he married Kathleen, and they stayed with Michael. They were a close-knit family who adored each other - Todd and Clayton referred to Kathleen, their stepmother, as "Mom," and the Ratliff girls called Kathleen and Michael "Mom" and "Dad." Caitlin by all accounts, also deeply cared for her stepfather. These kids were not your average step-siblings - they all felt as connected as real siblings.





And so, the first big tragedy, after Kathleen's death, was when Caitlin, along with Kathleen's sisters, Candace and Lori, saw the autopsy photos and became suspicious, and then convinced, of Michael's guilt, while the boys, Margaret, and Martha, stood by their father, causing an irreparable split.



Michael's defense attorney David Rudolf does a hell of a job in the series, defending him in court, but in the end, the jury, heavily influenced by SBI Agent Deaver's testimony and also, (it is implied), influenced by the homophobic undercurrent in the prosecution's case, convicted him, and he was sentenced to life in prison.



This is where the original docuseries ended. It was completed in September 2004, and it first aired in January 2005, after the trial had concluded. This was by design. David Rudolf did not want the documentary to have any impact on the outcome of the trial or any subsequent appeals.



(Put a pin in that for a second.)



The docuseries was well-received and won a Peabody Award. The Peterson family, though obviously disappointed in Michael's conviction, was happy to have their story told. Eight years later, Lestrade returned to film Michael and his family for two "sequel" episodes because it was discovered that Duane Deaver had lied under oath during Michael's trial and his blood pattern analysis experiments were scientifically flawed. Since the jury had cited Deaver's testimony as the most compelling reason for conviction, Rudolf fought to have the conviction overturned due to a lack of due process and won. Michael was released from jail under house arrest pending a new trial.





Two years later, Lestrade returned to Michael Peterson one more time to make three more sequel episodes, in which Michael decided not to pursue a new trial and instead, take what is known as an "Alford plea," where he accepted a manslaughter conviction and was sentenced to time served. Simply put, an Alford plea is when a defendant in a criminal case maintains their innocence, but admits that there is sufficient evidence that would likely find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. While Michael was loathed to even accept any conviction in his case (to this day he says he did not kill Kathleen), he did it to put an end to the ongoing drama for the sake of living his elderly life in peace and restoring some measure of normalcy to the lives of his children and grandchildren. The series finally ends with Michael and his family finding some semblance of closure, despite the flaws of the justice system and no clear answer as to how Kathleen died, and Kathleen's daughter and sisters hopefully finding some semblance of closure knowing that Michael will have a guilty plea on his record for the rest of his life.



All thirteen episodes of Lestrade's docuseries (the original eight episodes and the five sequel episodes) are available to stream on Netflix, and I highly recommend watching them. It's very well done, and very thorough (despite having had the Durham DA and Kathleen's family pull out of participating very early on in the proceedings), and it is probably the first real example of a "true crime" series - a genre that, as we all know, has become very popular in light of programs like Netflix's "Making a Murderer," the first season of the Serial podcast (covering the case of Adnan Syed), and of course, the recent spate of "white collar grifter true crime" shows that I wrote about earlier this year.



*



Filmmaker Antonio Campos has reportedly been obsessed with Lestrade's docuseries for years. He began developing a scripted adaptation of the story back in 2008, before Lestrade went back to do the sequel episodes. In 2019, his passion project finally made its way out of development hell and was greenlit by Annapurna Television, who shopped the idea to several networks and streaming services until it finally landed at HBO Max as a limited series consisting of eight episodes, six of which were to be directed by Campos himself.



And here is where things start to get messy.



Campos reached out to Lestrade expressing his admiration for the docuseries and asking for guidance as he developed the scripted miniseries. Lestrade and Campos talked about the story extensively, and Lestrade allowed Campos access to all of the footage he had captured about Michael Peterson's case over the years - even footage that never made it into the original documentary. Campos began writing the show along with American Crime Story's Maggie Cohn (who also served as an executive producer and showrunner). In the meantime, a star-studded cast became attached to the show - Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson, Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudolf, Rosemary DeWitt as Kathleen's sister Candace, Parker Posey as one of the Durham County prosecutors Freda Black... and Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet, the editor of Lestrade's documentary.



Yes, Campos had decided to make the documentarians characters in his telling of the story. Vincent Vermignon was cast as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.



Things are about to get very messy now.





Full disclosure: when I was in film school, I interned for a film company, in the editing department, that was making a feature-length documentary. I know what it's like to be on the inside of a documentary filmmaking team. I know how hard it can be to separate oneself from the work, especially once you build a rapport with your documentary subjects and start to care for them. It's an interesting choice Campos made, to include Lestrade and Brunet as characters in the film, and not necessarily a bad one because the story of The Staircase that viewers of the original docuseries knew was created and shaped by real people. People who have sympathies and biases. Not to mention the fact that the very act of observation - in this case, cameras on a subject at all times - can change how the subject behaves. Campos' miniseries could have provided a very interesting meta-commentary about how the experience of being the subject of a documentary impacted Michael Peterson and his family and lawyers as they went through this harrowing experience.



And to be fair - before I excoriate Campos for what he ultimately did - I would like to point out some aspects of the HBO miniseries that are actually done well. For starters, by making Kathleen Peterson a significant character in the show, we, as the audience, finally get to see her humanity and her experiences, a glimpse of what her life may have looked like in her own eyes, and a sense of her own voice. Toni Collette does a wonderful job of making Kathleen feel like a real, lived-in character. She's a real person, not just a dead body. This is something that was obviously impossible with Lestrade's docuseries because Kathleen was no longer alive and could not speak for herself - all we were left with were the memories her family shared, and ultimately, those got swallowed up by the enormity of Michael's trial, prison time, appeal, and release.



Campos also spent an entire episode of the series exploring a theory for Kathleen's death, originating from the Peterson’s next-door neighbor, that seems like complete insanity at first, but then, weirdly enough, starts to seem like the most plausible theory for what actually happened to her given the flaws in the prosecution's bludgeoned-to-death theory and Michael's she-fell-down-the-stairs theory: that Kathleen was attacked by an owl, and said owl's talons are the only reasonable explanation for the pattern of the lacerations on her scalp, the amount of blood lost, and the lack of skull fractures. There were apparently many owl attacks in Durham that winter. This theory is so out-there that Lestrade never included it in his docuseries, but true groupies of the Peterson case have been talking about this for years. I don't want you all to think I'm a loony, but... I actually believe the owl theory.



Additionally, Campos reveals something that I myself was not aware of and something that presumably many people who watched the original docuseries weren't aware of either: editor Sophie Brunet began a romantic relationship with Michael Peterson while he was in prison. She felt that she had fallen in love with him during her experience editing him for Lestrade, and they struck up a correspondence, which blossomed into friendship and romance and eventually her splitting her life between being a mom and editor in Paris and being Michael's companion in Durham.





Remember how I said things are getting messy? Campos depicts the relationship between Michael and Sophie as starting while she was still editing the film and heavily implies that she and Lestrade were editing the film in such a way as to portray Michael as innocent and help his case and trial. And remember how I asked you to put a pin in something earlier when I was summarizing the docuseries? Yeah. In real life, Lestrade and Brunet were not editing the film in a rush in collusion with defense attorney David Rudolf to help Michael's case. The film was not meant to be seen - and indeed, was not seen - until Michael's trial had concluded and he was sent to prison. By showing Brunet's growing feelings for Michael influencing the way she edits the film (she has many arguments with Lestrade and their executive producer in Campos' version of the story trying to defend her editing choices that downplay some of the more suspicious aspects of Michael's character), it implies that she and Lestrade were a part of the defense team. It portrays them as unscrupulous and unethical. Documentary filmmakers have to maintain impartiality - or at least the appearance of it - as much as they can for their stories to remain truthful and not become propaganda. Lestrade's docuseries actually threads this needle pretty well; while understandably, we spend a lot of time with Michael and his family and his attorney (because the Durham County DA's office and Kathleen's family refused to participate in the film), Lestrade never makes a definitive case for Michael's guilt or innocence. He shows us how the trial went down, and he shows us the developments after the trial, but there is no smoking gun one way or another. While there are holes in the prosecution's version of Kathleen's death, there are holes in Michael's story as well, and Lestrade lets you sit with that discomfort, even as you see how valiantly his children and attorney are fighting for him. In Campos' retelling of events, we are clearly meant to think that Brunet believes Michael is innocent - okay, fair enough if she ended up in a relationship with the guy - but we are also meant to believe that Lestrade believes in his innocence as well. There is no ambiguity here - in a celebratory scene at a restaurant after Michael's conviction is overturned (not something shown in the original docuseries), Campos shows Lestrade actually sitting with the Peterson family and Brunet in the restaurant. He is celebrating too.



This is not even remotely true, according to Lestrade. He did not consider himself to be an ally to Michael (just an observer), he most certainly was not making a film to exonerate him, and he did not eat a celebratory taco dinner with the Peterson family when the conviction was overturned. And according to Brunet, her relationship with Michael, while admittedly a bit eyebrow-raising, did not start until after she completed her work on editing the film.





As the HBO miniseries was airing back in May and early June of this year, both Lestrade and Brunet gave multiple interviews with Vanity Fair (among other publications) talking about how upset they were at how they were being portrayed in Campos' miniseries. Lestrade said he felt, "very uncomfortable, because I feel that I've been betrayed." Brunet shared similar sentiments - like Lestrade, she had opened her doors (and home!) to Campos in order to help him develop the miniseries, and she was rewarded with a gross misrepresentation of her relationship with Michael and her own professionalism. Campos shows Brunet's relationship with Michael lasting for many years far beyond what it actually did in real life. Their relationship came to an end shortly after his conviction was overturned, and she was no longer involved with him at all by the time of the Alford plea; whereas Campos shows them living together in Durham after his conviction, shows her convincing him to take the Alford plea, and shows them planning to live a life together in Paris once the Alford plea is entered. In the final episode of the miniseries, Campos shows their relationship blowing up literally the night before they are to leave for Paris, because Sophie feels hurt that in interviews Michael keeps talking about how much he misses Kathleen and doesn't admit to his relationship with her, despite her having taken care of him for years and building her life around his. Michael feels that his relationship with Sophie has become too much like what he didn't like about his relationship with Kathleen - that all she wants is to control him - and sneers that "he does not want to live with a woman anymore."



This ugly moment is foreshadowed by an earlier scene between Michael and Lestrade before the Alford plea, in which Michael recounts a lengthy anecdote from his youth about the first time he realized he was attracted to men and women, and then confesses that he had lied to everyone during the original trial that Kathleen was aware of his bisexuality. “We’re friends, right Jean?” Firth-as-Michael says. (NO THEY WERE NOT, says the real-life Lestrade by the way.) Michael then asks him not to say anything to Sophie about what they just filmed, only to show it to her later - presumably, after he torpedoes the relationship. As if he had premeditated breaking it off with her.



Just to make this clear - in Lestrade’s original documentary, in the lead-up to the Alford plea, Michael does recount this same story of when he first realized he was bisexual, but he goes on to explain that in 1954, it just wasn’t something he could talk about. When he joined the Marines, it still wasn’t something he could talk about. And so he suppressed it for years, which became decades, and didn’t talk about it to anyone… including Kathleen. He doesn't say he lied. He says he buried it. That is not just semantics - not for a man who grew up in the 50s, not for a former Marine and Vietnam vet. He says this is the first time he’s really talked about it with anyone. This context is important - in the docuseries, he is speaking about it as a 73-year-old man thinking about how he wants the course of his life to go, how he wants to take the Alford plea and move on. It’s a sort of philosophical meandering on the topic of what it meant to grow up in an era where bisexuality or homosexuality wasn’t talked about, how it just continued throughout his life, and what it means to him now, as an elderly widowed man in 2019. He was no longer in a relationship with Sophie Brunet at this time. That relationship was long over. This sequence was just a part of the winding down of the story of The Staircase docuseries, a part of the winding down of this last chapter of Michael Peterson, the Defendant.



In the fictional miniseries, this same anecdote is conveyed in a far more sinister way - he demands to do the interview with Lestrade completely out of nowhere in a conference room after fighting with Brunet and Rudolf about the Alford plea wording, and there is no contextualization about the homophobia of the era in which he grew up. It is simply used as an admission that he is a liar, as a dishonorable way to break up with Brunet, and as a suggestion that he might be lying about other things - like whether he killed Kathleen.



By distorting the timeline of Michael’s relationship with Brunet and completely taking the story of his bisexual awakening out of the context in which it was depicted in the docuseries, Campos is trying to create a smoking gun. He tries to manipulate the audience into believing that Michael’s bisexuality is the key - the only key - that can explain whether he was responsible for Kathleen’s death. As I watched this, I thought, "Really? This is what Campos wants to hang the story on? The same kind of bullshit homophobic arguments that the Durham County DA’s office used to manipulate their jury during the original trial?"





These inaccuracies are rampant in Campos’ miniseries. Michael’s attorney David Rudolf is also reportedly livid about it - he actually started writing a regular column in a Durham newspaper while the show was airing to refute plot points in real time. For instance, a scene in the miniseries in which the Peterson family essentially has a fire sale to clean out everything in their house so as to afford Rudolf's legal fees for the appeal? Didn't happen. Rudolf was working for Peterson pro bono by that time, he so strongly believed in his client's innocence. Rudolf resents how that scene makes him look mercenary and uncaring. Additionally, one of the complications in Michael's original trial was the fact that 20 years earlier, Margaret and Martha Ratliff's (the adopted daughters) biological mother died of a brain aneurysm in Germany... which resulted in her falling down a set of stairs in her home while Michael was visiting their home. In the docuseries, Rudolf and his team take this strange coincidence in stride and Rudolf actually travels to Germany to interview Michael's ex-wife, visit the house where Margaret and Martha's mother died, and look at the reports from the German medical examiner that confirm that the death was due to an aneurysm and not Michael having some sort of disturbing hobby of murdering women on staircases. In the miniseries, the discovery of the circumstances of the Ratliff girls' biological mother's death is played for humor - "THERE WAS ANOTHER WOMAN WHO DIED ON A STAIRCASE AND I'M ONLY JUST FINDING OUT?!" Stuhlberg-as-Rudolf yells at Firth-as-Michael, who stands there looking befuddled.



I mean, come on. This shit isn't funny. It's just not. A woman died. A man is facing life in prison. Hahaha, another dead woman on a staircase? Gross. And in the Campos miniseries, Rudolf doesn’t take the trip to Germany to learn more, he just laments how much harder the case has gotten. It's flippant and it's a cheap laugh and it changes the reality of what was actually happening in the trial prep, in a harmful way.



(Speaking of things that are played as funny but are actually quite offensive, Rudolf is not wild about how his character is introduced in Campos' series at a diner eating a pastrami sandwich. "I don't even like pastrami," Rudolf said in an interview, but beyond that, he wasn't wild about the LOOKEE HERE AT THIS NEW YORK JEW LAWYER subtext in that scene. Yes, that is indeed not okay.)



But by far the worst aspect of Campos' miniseries - the thing that left me reeling - was his portrayal of the Peterson children. In Lestrade's docuseries, once Caitlin Atwater sides with her mother's sisters about Michael being Kathleen's murderer, we spend a lot of time with the remaining children - the older Peterson boys, and the adopted Ratliff girls - and it's so easy to see, even given how young they all were when the original trial was happening, how unshakeable their faith in their father's innocence was. And when Lestrade rejoins the family for the conviction being overturned, Margaret is actually editing together footage from the original trial to help Rudolf build his case against SBI Agent Deaver to prove perjury, and we see scenes of Michael being visited in jail by his children and grandchildren, and it's so clear how much they love him and how full of hope they are about this final appeal.





In Campos' retelling, the kids start to fall apart and splinter while Michael is in jail. Todd struggles with alcohol addiction and sobriety. Clayton, who was always a bit of a fuck-up in his youth, begins to rise to the occasion and keep his family together. The combination of Todd’s struggles and Clayton’s turning his life around creates a very strange dynamic of sibling rivalry between the two brothers that seem to exacerbate Todd’s issues with sobriety. Martha struggles to come to terms with her own sexuality and falters in her attempts to pursue a future in dance, and grows resentful of the family for not giving her space to explore herself; she visits her biological mother's sister and hears a different side of the story of their life in Germany, which includes several unflattering anecdotes about Michael's temper. She even travels to Germany, despite her sister Margaret being less than supportive, to try to learn about her childhood and heal.



Now admittedly, we do not know what happened in the lives of the Peterson children in real life between the first eight episodes of Lestrade’s docuseries and the subsequent five sequels. Maybe Todd did struggle with alcoholism, and possibly Martha did need to take a journey of healing and ended up in her childhood bedroom in Germany looking at the trees and finding peace. But it doesn’t come up during the sequel episodes - all we see is a family that has grown up amidst tragedy and chaos and has come together and become even stronger - Margaret says so herself at one point, in those words. This ordeal has made them stronger and more together as a family.



The negative portrayal of the Peterson kids gets worse as the Campos miniseries continues. During the post-conviction celebratory dinner, Michael struggles with being out in the world again and gets a bit irritable and short with everyone. This is completely understandable - THE MAN HAS BEEN IN PRISON FOR THE PAST EIGHT YEARS, this is a LOT to adjust to - but his kids view this as bizarre and mean and evidence of their father being "difficult". Todd relapses with a couple of giant tequila shots while Clayton looks at him with pity and dismay. After dinner, when everyone has gone home, Margaret and Martha come together over cigarettes on a bench, talk about Martha's trip to Germany, and promise to each other that they are only going to live their own lives going forward and not waste their focus on their father’s ongoing plight.



When it comes time for the Alford plea, Campos shows only Brunet present in the courtroom with Michael and David Rudolf, implying that his children have all abandoned him at this point. He hammers this in further with a scene of Todd, Clayton, Margaret, and Martha on a group chat in their own homes far away from Durham, sharing photos of their kids and talking happily about Margaret's job and Martha’s upcoming dance performance:



MARGARET

Did you guys see Dad took the plea?

MARTHA

Thank god

TODD

Finally

CLAYTON

Should we have gone today?

MARGARET

No, it’s still too hard to be around him

MARTHA

I agree. We all have better things to think about.


This is when I started shaking with incandescent rage and almost wanted to cry. This is when I began to hope and pray that none of Michael's children were watching this miniseries. Because in real life, when it came time for Michael to decide whether to take the Alford plea, he discussed it at length WITH HIS CHILDREN. After a long chat with David Rudolf, he speaks with Todd on the phone and then gathers Clayton, Martha, Margaret, and Clayton’s wife on the couch to talk about Alford vs. a new trial. This is a long scene in the docuseries, where the family all talks about how their faith in the justice system has been irreparably destroyed by their experiences. Martha and Margaret try to push him to pursue a new trial, despite it potentially taking another two years with no real guarantee of acquittal. Clayton disagrees, saying that Michael has somehow gotten entangled in this never-ending mess and it’s time to just cut it off and move on, don't risk more jail time, no matter how much it pains them all that he has to admit guilt to anything in order to make it go away. As a family, they come to realize that the Alford plea is the best decision - for Michael, and for everyone else.



Verbatim quotes from the documentary:



MARTHA

I just don't want to lose you again, Dad.


MARGARET

Yeah. I feel like we only just got you back.


MARGARET

I can't lose you again.


CLAYTON

It's time to put this to rest, Dad.



This is the conversation that occurred in real life, in reality, in actuality, right before Michael took the Alford plea. This is what Lestrade captured. Michael's kids never abandoned him. Never. Not once. If they found him “difficult” to be around, they certainly don’t reveal it here. If they think they have “better things to think about”, they - well, I’m not going to go there, because clearly, they don’t. Clearly, they love their father and want to participate in helping him make the best choice for himself. Campos shows them pointedly decided not to get involved in the Alford plea, and hammers it home by showing Michael calling each of the kids after Sophie leaves him in tears, and all of the calls go to voicemail.





What in the actual fuck is going on here? Why on earth would Campos so grossly misrepresent the lives of Michael's children - actual people, real people who lived through this unspeakable tragedy, traumatized human beings who stood by their father's side no matter what in real life - by showing gratuitous scenes of hypothetical addiction struggles, resentment towards their father, and literally ignoring him at the end - when there is actual, irrefutable proof that this is NOT what Todd, Clayton, Margaret, and Martha did? I cannot imagine, if any of them were watching Campos' miniseries, how painful this would be to see, how devastated they would have felt, watching their fictional selves abandon their father in his old age as he figures out how he feels about the Alford plea when in reality they all sat with him and counseled him on whether or not to take the plea at all?



This is a story about real people. This is a story about real human suffering. This is a story about a woman who died under mysterious circumstances, her husband who may or may not have been wrongly convicted, and their children who bore the burden of this trial and never faltered in their support of their father - and there's proof of that, in Lestrade's docuseries. And Campos - a filmmaker who claims he was obsessed with the docuseries - betrayed Lestrade's trust and turned it into a salacious soap opera about unethical documentarians, children who lost their way in the aftermath of their mother's death and began to resent their father, and oh yeah, also clearly if you're a bisexual man of a certain age, you're probably gonna murder anyone who finds out. That's the takeaway from Campos' version of this story.



And worst of all, for people who haven't seen the original docuseries, Campos' all-star miniseries is going to be what stands as their understanding of the truth of this story - especially given that the docuseries and the miniseries have the same fucking name (which, I tell you, is driving me absolutely CRAZY as I try to write about them both).



The final episode of Campos's series aired on June 9, 2022. It's been two months. And thinking about it still makes me sick.



*



All right, Reeya, you're probably thinking right now. So, Antonio Campos wanted to adapt a documentary and turn it into a scripted piece. And he only had Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's original documentary footage to use as a source. Campos is a filmmaker, he's a storyteller, and the crux of good filmmaking and storytelling is imagination. How do you distinguish his story from the one Lestrade told? You need... dramatic license.



Yeah, I agree. Dramatic license is a thing. And in cases of adaptation, it is a necessary thing. As I mentioned before, there is no actual footage or documentation of what Michael Peterson's kids were going through during those eight years in jail. Heck, there is no actual footage of Michael in jail (only a memoir he wrote about the experience after the fact), and there is no footage of his relationship with Sophie Brunet. And of course, there is no footage of Kathleen Peterson, alive. So, he filled in the blanks to tell a more well-rounded story, so that we weren't just watching Colin Firth and Michael Stuhlbarg and the actors playing the kids recite transcripts of the original documentary word-for-word.



And maybe that's fine. Campos never said that HE was making a documentary. He was telling a story based on true events - based on Lestrade's documentary. There is no obligation of impartiality or concrete truth from Campos given this, the way there implicitly is from a documentarian like Lestrade.



But in this case, I'm going to argue that the fact of Lestrade's work - 13 hours in total, telling this wrenching story over the course of 15 years - the fact that there is so much footage that has been released and published by Lestrade in the docuseries, the fact that he won awards for it, the fact that it is a famous docuseries because it was one of the first modern examples of long-form true crime reportage, the fact that everyone in the original documentary is still alive, and the fact that Lestrade allowed Campos unprecedented access to his archives in order to help him, means that Campos does have a bit of an obligation not to turn this story into a fucking smear campaign against Lestrade, Brunet, and Michael Peterson's kids. I think that much is fair. I think there was a way to tell the story of Michael Peterson - and the story of the documentary about Michael Peterson - without making key players in the story who are alive and well and WATCHING look like complete assholes. And I think Campos completely failed. And I think that is actually a huge problem.



It's funny, when I started watching the fictional miniseries, my boyfriend was watching with me - this is after I had subjected him to the entirety of Inventing Anna and The Dropout earlier this year. Tim has trouble with adaptations of real-life events. He doesn't like excessive dramatic license. He can sense when excessive dramatic license is happening. And it makes him less interested in watching the show. After we had watched the first episode of the miniseries, Tim told me he had a feeling he wasn't going to like it.



"I feel like they're taking way too many liberties," he said. "I just know it."



Tim had not watched the original docuseries - honestly, the man is just not a fan of true crime. But when he said that to me, and I read some initial reviews of the first episodes of Campos' miniseries where it was noted that viewers of the original docuseries would recognize a lot of things that were taken verbatim from the docuseries, I grew curious. And so I put the HBO version aside for three days, switched over to Netflix, and binged the entirety of Lestrade's docuseries.



And then when I returned to the HBO fictional series and followed it to the end, I began to get angrier and angrier. And that's when I started pouring over any articles I could find from the real players in the story, and I found the interviews that Lestrade, Brunet, and Rudolf gave refuting the miniseries and how upset they found the experience of watching it. And I was livid.





I listened to HBO Max's companion podcast while I was at work and was thoroughly disgusted by its self-congratulatory tone - they clearly think this is a brilliant work of art. And of course, that's all been reinforced by the Emmy nominations. But what was interesting to me was how at the beginning of the show being aired, HBO was allowing full journalistic access to Antonio Campos and his co-showrunner Maggie Cohn - and then when the interviews with Lestrade, Brunet, and Rudolf began gaining traction in the media, HBO suddenly cut that off. That felt telling to me. It felt like HBO knew that they were on the verge of being in hot water, and embargoed their beloved Campos to keep their property safe.



After the finale of the HBO miniseries aired and I wanted to throw things at my television screen, I went on Facebook and described what I had just watched as "an absolutely appalling, infuriating, historically distorted, and quite frankly irresponsible exercise in filmmaking... shame on Antonio Campos for abusing the trust of Lestrade, shame on Colin Firth, Toni Collette, and Juliette Binoche for participating in this, and shame on HBO for allowing this to happen."



Since then, Michael Peterson has spoken out about the miniseries as well. Apparently, no one told him or his family that Campos was making a scripted series about his case, so, that was a horrific surprise for them all. And while he's upset at the inaccuracies in Campos' version of the story, he's angrier at Lestrade for allowing Campos in. He feels Lestrade sold them out to HBO.



And finally, I found a brief comment from Margaret Ratliff about the HBO series as well. She watched some of it and then decided she didn't need to see the whole thing. But her takeaway wasn't "How dare Campos do this to my family," either. She said that now, with the miniseries out there and with hindsight, she wished that her family hadn't participated in Lestrade's documentary to begin with. Imagine that. The blowback from Campos' gratuitously inaccurate adaptation of Lestrade's documentary has resulted in the Peterson family being angrier at Lestrade than at Campos.



And now I find myself completely at a loss as to what my own takeaway from the experience of The Staircase - both docuseries and miniseries - is.



*



In the final episode of the miniseries, as Firth-as-Michael is fighting with Binoche-as-Brunet, he bellows at her, “I had a WHOLE LIFE before that documentary that you know NOTHING about!”





This is what I keep thinking about now, now that I know that the real-life Michael Peterson feels that Lestrade “pimped them out” (verbatim quote from a recent press interview) and that the real-life Margaret Ratliff wishes they hadn’t done the original documentary. They had lives before they all got pushed into the public eye by Lestrade’s docuseries. Kathleen Peterson was a real person, with real joys and real struggles. She and Michael were in a real marriage, a by-all-accounts happy one. They had a big happy, slightly dysfunctional but loving blended family. They didn’t ask for this kind of publicity. But when Kathleen died, Michael was accused, Caitlin Atwater sided with her aunts against her siblings, and Lestrade approached them about the documentary, the Peterson clan decided to participate - because even though Lestrade’s intention was never to help or hinder Michael’s case, the family thought that it might be beneficial for their story to be told. They had a life before the documentary. They also had a life after the documentary and before Campos’ fictional adaptation of the documentary. They seemed fine with the documentary up until the point when Campos came along and tampered with their life stories for his own gain. Now the HBO miniseries is throwing all of these years of work - the family’s, David Rudolf’s, and Lestrade’s - into question.



In the final episode of the docuseries, Candace Zamparini, Kathleen’s sister, gives a statement at the Alford plea hearing. “Alford shmalford,” she says. “You are guilty, and you are admitting guilt.” It seems that the Alford plea might finally bring some closure, not only to Michael and his children but also to the members of Kathleen’s family who have been chasing the version of justice they believe is righteous - the version of justice where Michael is held accountable for the murder they believe he committed.



But then Candace goes on and implicates Lestrade in her tirade. "This French film company came along, and now there is a film, The Staircase film, that my family didn’t give permission to make or consent to participate in, giving Michael Peterson the opportunity to pontificate on and on about how incompetent the Durham police department is, and the DA is, and how great he is. He says in multiple episodes that he believes he wouldn’t be in a courtroom if ‘Candace would just keep her fucking mouth shut.’” Candace is correct; Michael does say this more than once during the docuseries. And he does like bashing the cops and the DA (understandably), and he does seem to enjoy the sound of his own voice (but he was an aspiring politician). But it made me realize that of course, Candace had a life before the docuseries as well. A life that no one knew about. And now, all that people know of her is that she shows up in court every time Michael is in court and passionately speaks up on her sister’s behalf. All that people know of her is that he is convinced her brother-in-law is a murderer and is capable of ranting about it in a way that at times comes across as borderline unhinged.



“Wow. Dad,” Margaret says to Michael when he checks in with her after the Alford plea is over. She wasn't in the courtroom (Michael told the kids not to bother with the trip this time) but has just seen the footage of Candace in the courtroom on the news. “Candace is craaaaaaazy.” But is she? Or is she also just like them - stuck in her grief over the senseless death of her sister, with no clear resolution or satisfying bowtie of justice?



The HBO miniseries depicts Candace giving the “Alford shmalford” speech too, but for some reason, Campos leaves out the moment where she calls out Lestrade and the documentary for the harm they have caused in her life. It’s a puzzling choice, given that he’s spent seven episodes portraying Lestrade and Brunet as unethical and unprofessional. Maybe he didn’t include it in his scripted series because it was one moment where he could tell himself that he wasn’t doing a hatchet job on the documentary filmmaker whose work he loved so much?



I don’t know. Like I said before, it’s hard for me to know what my takeaway is at this point. I firmly believe that Campos’ miniseries is an exercise in completely irresponsible filmmaking. If he wanted to tell a story about ethical ambiguity and closeted bisexuality and whether we ever really know anyone we’re close to at all, why not write a completely fictional story, using elements of the Peterson case, and refrain from using the real-life names of anyone involved? Remove it just enough so that it’s not a smear on actual real people who are still alive and able to speak up? Or who are alive and will be hurt?



But maybe Lestrade’s original docuseries - despite the awards, despite the accolades, despite the polish - maybe that was also an exercise in irresponsible filmmaking. Is it really okay to purport to tell an unbiased story about a murder trial but only hear the voices of the accused, his attorney, and his loyal family? Is it really ok to then view that documentary as your own personal intellectual property even though it only exists due to the real-life stories and pain of other people? Is it ok to then take that intellectual property and hand it over to an enthusiastic filmmaker with a decade-long passion project and a giant check from HBO Max without saying a word? Campos had a responsibility to treat Lestrade with respect when Lestrade gave him access to his archives, yes, but didn’t Lestrade have a responsibility to his documentary subjects too? Not just in the creation of the original docuseries, but in asking Michael Peterson and his family if he had their consent to allow Campos to adapt his work that was literally the story of their lives?



I feel bad that Lestrade and Brunet have been maligned, but I ache for Michael Peterson’s kids. I hate how Campos distorted their relationships with each other and with their father. I hate everything about it. And maybe it would have just been better for everyone involved to have stayed out of the limelight. Can’t do anything about it now, unfortunately, and as far as I can tell, aside from Lestrade, Brunet, Rudolf, Michael, and Margaret, I’m the only one who feels this strongly that Campos has gone and fucked up big-time here. He has done the genre of scripted true crime a great disservice in the way he treated his source material from my point of view, but critics loved the show. There are Emmy nominations. It could well win some of them. And then what, exactly, is the message we are supposed to take away if it does? Ethics don’t matter when it comes to true crime? Once your story is out there, you stop being human and turn into a character in someone else’s narrative, and your life can be manipulated until you are unrecognizable, and it could cause you emotional harm, traumatic harm, but that’s okay because that’s show business, kid!



As a former film student, as a former documentary editor in training, and as a current storyteller both in writing and in song, everything about The Staircase - both versions - is going to trouble the hell out of me for a long time.




 

Reeya Banerjee

Reeya is a musician and writer based in NY's Capital District. Her debut album The Way Up was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.


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