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The drama around The Staircase continues. This time, writer Michael Peterson – whose murder trial and conviction are the subjects of both The Staircase series – has come out to blast the HBO production, and the director who filmed him two decades ago.
“There are egregious fabrications and distortions of the truth in the HBO series, well beyond what may be considered ‘artistic’ license,” he wrote in an email exchange with Variety. He then went on to comment on the recent public fall-out between 2004 docu-series director Jean de Lestrade and HBO director Antonio Campos.
“I have read about Jean de Lestrade’s sense of betrayal by Antonio Campos and HBO Max’s presentation of The Staircase, but what has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family,” he says. “We feel that Jean pimped us out — sold OUR story to Campos for money — what word other than pimped describes what he did?”
“We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely depicted as fighting among ourselves (which NEVER happened), and with made up story lines that denigrate all of us in the eyes of millions.”
The Staircase began its life as the 2004 French docu-series. In 2001, Peterson’s wife Kathleen died. Peterson made the 911 call to emergency services, reporting that he had found her unconscious at the bottom of their home’s staircase.
Peterson allowed director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team to film the run-up to his 2003 trial and conviction. The series became a major hit after it was released on Netflix in 2018.
Running at the same time was the passion project of director Antonio Campos. In the early 2000s, he had seen the series and decided to make a TV adaptation. He contacted Jean de Lestrade, the docu-series director, who was said to have opened up his Staircase archives, sharing footage and notes. Reportedly, the two stayed in touch for years, and Campos even joined the French crew in 2011 as they filmed a few further episodes.
However, following the miniseries’ May release, de Lestrade came out saying that he and his team felt betrayed by their portrayal by Campos. In the fictional show, the director and editor can be viewed as having a looser ethical framework.
“Because I trust Antonio, I didn’t ask him to read the script. I was respecting his liberty as an author, as a creator, as a filmmaker. And I never asked to watch the episodes before they were shown because I was quite confident,” said de Lestrade to Vanity Fair. “I’m very uncomfortable, because I feel that I’ve been betrayed in a way.”
Now, in the Variety email exchange Peterson explained that he had no sympathy for the French director.
“Jean should have known that when you sell your ass/property, you assume the risk of getting f***ed/betrayed. Every hooker knows this. So he got betrayed/f***ed. Why should he be surprised?”
“He 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.”
“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.”
De Lestrade did get a fee for the materials he sold to Campos but the amount was also challenged by Peterson in the email exchange. De Lestrade says he was paid €7,500 ($9370), but Peterson said it was a sum closer to $75,000.
“I like and respect Jean, but no matter how he tries to spin it, he received somewhere around $75,000 for our story, a paltry sum, certainly in light of the horrific damage my family suffered,” Peterson says. “And he failed to mention how he opened his entire archive of footage on us to Antonio.”
In an interview with Variety, de Lestrade was reported at having said that he didn’t see Campos’ scripts and wasn’t part of the HBO Max production. Variety also reported that de Lestrade said he told the Peterson family around 2008 that Campos had plans to make a feature film about the docuseries.
De Lestrade said: “I can really understand Michael’s position because [the series is] terrible for him and his family. But I think in the documentary I really tried to do it with huge respect for Michael, and all his children.”
“Since I knew that Antonio had in mind to tell the story of Michael and the documentary, I thought that it would be better to cooperate, and be involved in the process then to stay totally outside as a stranger. In a way I thought I was protecting Michael and his family by being involved, but I was wrong.”
The HBO series stars Colin Firth as Peterson, and has a star-studded cast which includes Juliet Binoche, Sophie Turner and Toni Colette. Every episode comes with a reminder that the show is “a dramatisation based on certain facts”.
Michael Peterson has been out of prison for five years: In 2017, after being granted a new trial, his sentence was reduced to manslaughter and he was freed due to time served.