A war of words has broken out between the filmmakers who have brought audiences two different versions, nearly two decades apart, of the real-life mystery behind The Staircase.
French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 Peabody Award-winning documentary told the story of the fortunate Peterson family who lived in a luxurious mansion in North Carolina, until Kathleen Peterson’s body was discovered at the foot of a staircase, and her husband Michael was tried for murder.
More recently, Antonio Campos has adapted the same story into an HBO Max TV drama series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette.
De Lestrade and his team enjoyed privileged access to Michael Peterson and his family during the trial and years that followed, and Campos’s drama highlights this close connection, including a romantic relationship between Michael Peterson and the documentary’s editor Sophie Brunet.
The drama also depicts the documentary team exerting their editorial control in ways that, it is inferred, could have swayed legal decisions regarding the widower’s fate.
De Lestrade, who sold Campos the rights to the story and gave him access to archives, told the Times of London of his fury at how these events were depicted in the drama: “I couldn’t believe it, it was so inaccurate.”
He also told Vanity Fair: “We gave [Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man. So that’s why today I’m very uncomfortable, because I feel that I’ve been betrayed in a way.”
In the magazine, Brunet also stressed that her relationship with Peterson only began much later than depicted in the drama, finished before she had finished editing the film and that her editorial decisions at the time of making the documentary weren’t compromised.
According to Vanity Fair, de Lestrade and fellow producer Matthieu Belghiti have now sent a letter to Campos demanding that “the offending allegations be removed from episode five before it airs publicly” or that the series have a disclaimer added to each episode, emphasising that the story is “inspired” by the real-life events. Campos had not responded to the magazine by time of publication.