HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” the well-reviewed retelling of the murder case against Michael Peterson, has proved to be a step too far from the truth for the filmmakers behind the original docuseries of the same name.
The eight-part crime drama, directed by Antonio Campos and starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, is based on the groundbreaking Peabody Award–winning docuseries “The Staircase,” created by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
For over a decade, the French director and his team tracked Peterson, who was accused and later convicted of killing his wife Kathleen after she was found dead at the bottom of their North Carolina home’s back staircase in 2001.
The making of the documentary is woven into the plot of the HBO Max series, with actors portraying de Lestrade and his crew, who are now blasting the production for misrepresenting their filmmaking process.
“I have to protect my work,” de Lestrade told Vanity Fair in a recent interview. “A series on HBO like this will get huge attention. And if people think what they’re watching is true, that’s really damaging for us. I’m really sorry, because I don’t want to damage the career of a talented director like Antonio. Because he is a very talented director. But in this case, he did something wrong.”
The filmmaker said he feels “betrayed” by how his team is depicted in the series’ upcoming fifth episode, which he says suggests that they manipulated footage in the editing room to portray Peterson in a more sympathetic light.
“We gave [Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man,“ de Lestrade said, noting that he shared archival footage, notes and tips with Campos during the production. “So that’s why today I’m very uncomfortable, because I feel that I’ve been betrayed in a way.”
“I understand if you dramatize,” he added. “But when you attack the credibility of my work, that’s really not acceptable to me.”
De Lestrade in no uncertain terms denied that he edited the documentary in Peterson’s favor, adding that he still doesn’t know if the novelist “had something to do with” Kathleen’s death. (Peterson was released from prison eight years after his conviction and granted a new trial when it was discovered a key witness in the prosecution’s case had given misleading testimony. He ultimately submitted an Alford plea and remains a free man.)
The HBO Max series also falsely proposes that a romantic relationship between Peterson and the documentary’s editor Sophie Brunet (played by Juliette Binoche) occurred during filming, potentially further compromising the reputation of the project.
The two did in fact have a relationship, but Brunet insists it did not begin until after she left the documentary or factor into how she edited the series.
“My relationship with Michael never affected my editing,” Brunet told Vanity Fair, clarifying that they split before she finished editing the additional three episodes released on Netflix in 2018. “I never, ever cut anything out that would be damaging for him. I have too big an opinion of my job to be even remotely tempted to do anything like that.”
Campos has yet to respond to the accusations, but de Lestrade and his crew are calling on the director to address the inaccuracies before the contentious episode arrives on Thursday.
The filmmaker and producer Matthieu Belghiti have asked Campos to either excise “the offending allegations” or to include a disclaimer that clarifies the series is “inspired” by real-life events at the start of each episode.