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the staircase

The Staircase director on how he made a definitive true crime documentary

The pioneering series defined the genre – 15 years later, it still incites wonder, frustration, and horror

Long before Steven Avery and Adnan Syed, we had Michael Peterson. An affluent writer and Vietnam war veteran, Peterson was accused and convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2003. Kathleen was found cut, bruised, and bloody at the bottom of a staircase at their shared North Carolina home in 2001. The major question of the sprawling, aptly named documentary series The Staircase, covering her murder and his trial, is how Kathleen came to be there. Police believed Michael pushed her, the prosecution claimed he beat her with a fireplace poker, while his defence asserted that it was a gruesome accidental fall. 

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade’s eight part documentary first aired on HBO in 2004, charting a series of maddening, caustic twists and turns – from his secret bisexuality, affairs IRL and URL with men made weapons for a straight-laced, deeply southern prosecution, to a female friend in Germany similarly found dead at the bottom of a staircase years before. New proceedings and a trial in 2012 warranted several follow-up episodes, and now that the documentary has landed on Netflix, a further three have been added. 

Across 15 years, we witness the fascinating character of Peterson’s amorphous path: as a charismatic man defending his life choices and facing a hulking prison sentence for a heinous crime, to a frail figure in prison, and a tentative person feeling his way back into the real world with newfound freedom and a bargaining plea. LeStrade, then an Oscar winner for his stunning documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, has unbridled access to the man and his murky case, straining between getting close to Peterson – at one point he emerges from behind the camera to hug him – and telling a nuanced, honest story. He asserts neither are mutually exclusive. In the later day episodes, Peterson commands an Amazon Alexa to play Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, an attempt to steer the room’s tone with a solemn tune about systemic injustices – a move unsurprising for the character. 

Released into a world of late night cable shows with cheesy murder reenactments and mail-order whodunnit VHS tapes, The Staircase offers no solution or answer on Peterson’s innocence or guilt, but a deep dive into the first truly absorbing and urgent true crime series precursing Making a Murderer and the 10-second ‘next episode’ countdown. Here, we speak to LeStrade about the theory too wild for his original docuseries, breaking true crime genre boundaries, and his enduring fascination with Michael Peterson.

Why choose Michael Peterson – a person of extreme privilege and access – to be the protagonist of a true crime documentary? It feels miles different than Murder on a Sunday Morning. 

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: Well, that’s exactly why. Murder on a Sunday Morning was about a black teenager who came from a poor family. I told HBO I wanted to do a diptych of stories, the next being a complete opposite. It's very difficult to find something when you have it in mind, though. That perfect person and story. It took several months and we had to review more than 350 different cases.

We found Michael Peterson, and there were two decisive moments for me: first, when I met Michael – he was so convincing, and very sincere when he spoke about Kathleen. I believed his love for her, but that there was some kind of mystery about him, and a complexity to his character. Then the day after, I met with the prosecution team and Freda Black. They said, plainly: ‘Michael Peterson is evil’. I thought they were trying to get a conviction against him in anyway. Then weeks later I heard about the search warrant, the pornography they found, uncovering his bisexuality. I realised they were really going after him.

It’s a true crime documentary, but it also feels like a really deep look into some very complex, complicated relationships and personality traits.

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: We didn’t know if he was a murderer or not, and from the beginning I was so incredibly interested in Michael Peterson as a person – besides the mystery of the murder, he is a mystery all by himself. He always has answers, and it’s difficult to access his deep feelings. He's a writer, so he knows how to tell stories.

Did you find it difficult being objective and an observer at times?

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: Yes, it can be so difficult to keep the right distance from your subject. You’re with someone who is trying to gain your confidence, like ‘OK, let’s share a good bottle of wine’, and we would talk about politics, sports, everything. He is very open-minded, and a very charming guy.

I had been very clear with him from the beginning that the purpose of the series or the film is not to prove innocence. It’s not a takedown of the legal process either or critique of the justice system. I always told him that if something happened in the course of the shooting that proved he was involved in Kathleen’s death, that I would be there, and it would be in the film. I said to his face that after sixteen years doing this, I still was sure of nothing. 

Do you find how the prosecution smeared him with his bisexuality and use of pornography at all jarring to look back on? 

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: 15 years ago may seem far away, but I don’t believe we have changed our way of seeing and considering enough. Of course, this is in the same country that elected Donald Trump. It really shocked me how they were trying to really exploit Michael’s bisexuality to the jury: the pictures, the way they read the email exchange. But then if you go into these small southern towns, it’s much the same.

With this new fanbase there comes new theories and interests, like the ‘Owl theory’.

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: When I first heard this (Owl) theory I laughed. It seemed so stupid. Then I met with Michael Peterson’s neighbour and lawyer Larry Pollard. For three years, he was totally obsessed with that theory – a serious, smart guy. It made me take it more seriously, and I thought of it as something that could have been worth exploring.

The Staircase is a precursor to a lot of popular true crime media happening today – where you aware how much you were shaping the genre when you first started? 

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: Following a true case for many years in the volume that we did wasn’t done like this before. When we first started it was only meant to be a two hour film, but I couldn’t do it, it was impossible with the material. following a case, following a story for many years. HBO told me an audience couldn’t hang on to a story like this for eight hours. This was the first model of it’s kind that you see now with Making a Murderer.

A criticism of true crime stories has been the sidelining of the victim’s story and personhood, as happened with Making a Murderer. What could this genre do better?

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: The huge danger would be that true crime series become entertainment and only entertainment. That would not be right – this story is a tragedy. It’s a danger because everyone, every network, every streaming service wants the next new true crime series. They know the audience has huge appetite for that. But it’s very difficult to find a good that tells you about the community you are living in, about democracy, the system, justice, or that tells you about you. The most amazing thing about  The Staircase is the level and complexity of debate around it. There’s so much to the story: North Carolina, the U.S. justice system, a reflection on marriage, sexuality, relationships.

If you were to go back, is there anything you would have done differently? 

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: I watched the eight hours of series I did between 2002-2005 when we were sending it to Netflix, and decided not to change anything. It was the perspective I had at the time, and I feel it was balanced and fair.

But what keeps you up at night about this case?

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: I was obsessed for many years. I had dreams and nightmares because we spent weeks in the house where the little narrow staircase had blood splattered on the walls for two years. This tragedy was always with you. If I was ever to regret anything in the series, it's that there is a lack of presence of Kathleen –  the kind of person that she is, a very wonderful person. Thinking of the way she died, alone, and if Michael did kill her it’s horribly barbaric. That’s tough. I think about how she must have lay in that staircase alone, losing blood. She was a smart woman, an engineer, full of joy and trying to make everyone happy in her family. She was really wonderful, and dying like that…

You talk like you knew her, but I’m sure having been so involved in this case it felt like you did.

Jean-Xavier de LeStrade: Yes, absolutely. I have this image of her in my head from a particular photo but it seems very real, as does the tragedy whatever the circumstance was.

The Staircase is available to watch on Netflix now