Michael Peterson, whose life story serves as the inspiration for HBO’s The Staircase, is upset at the series’ portrayal of events, saying it goes beyond artistic license. The miniseries shares the same name as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary that brought Peterson’s case to national attention and became a staple of the true-crime genre. The miniseries stars Colin Firth, Toni Colette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sophie Turner, and Juliette Binoche.
The Staircase follows Peterson’s legal battle after he’s accused of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001, as well as the making of de Lestrade’s documentary. Peterson was convicted in 2003 and served eight years before submitting an Alford plea reducing the charge to manslaughter in 2017. The Staircase has already been criticized by de Lestrade and editor Sophie Brunet for their depictions, leading HBO to put a disclaimer at the top of every episode saying the series is a dramatization.
In an email exchange with Variety, Peterson blasts the series for its dramatization, but reserves his heaviest criticism for de Lestrade, saying he sold all the footage he shot for the documentary to Antonio Campos (director of HBO’s Staircase) without his permission. He claims that Campos’ account distorts the truth and trashes him and his children in a way that goes beyond the artistic license. He specifically says the scenes that depict the family’s infighting during the legal battle never happened at all. Read an excerpt from Peterson below:
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. 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.
With the amount of attention The Staircase is getting for its performances and direction, Peterson calls out de Lestrade for unethically profiting off of the family’s experience. He accuses de Lestrade of hypocrisy for criticizing the series’ depiction of him while still receiving compensation for his archive that inspired Campos’ writing of the series. Peterson also accuses Campos of stealing from his book Behind the Staircase in depicting his time in prison.
A big theme in The Staircase is how unreliable people can be in remembering what’s true and what gets lost in the noise. Peterson and de Lestrade’s criticism gives the series a meta-textual layer that shows that even with hundreds of hours of camera footage, what’s real and what’s fiction remains elusive and vague. With The Staircase, the Peterson case became legendary among true-crime aficionados, and there’s no shortage of speculation and theorizing over what happened throughout the timeline, with Campos’ series once again proving how difficult it is to get a handle on events. In the end, Peterson’s response to The Staircase is not surprising and proves how delicate artistic license can be.