Antonio Campos’ portrayal of documentarians Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet in HBO Max’s The Staircase has sparked a public dispute over their portrayal in the miniseries adaptation. But now the real main subject of both series – Michael Peterson – has his say in an exclusive series of emails diversity.
Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, was found dead at the bottom of the steps of their North Carolina home in 2001. Authorities determined that Peterson, who identifies as bisexual, had had sexual relations with men. He was charged with the murder of his wife and convicted in 2003. He is now free after a retrial reduced the charges to manslaughter.
Peterson allowed a camera crew to film him and his family while he awaited the trial, which became an expanded documentary series that premiered in 2004 (it streams on Netflix). While Peterson isn’t happy with Campos’ HBO series, he’s furious with de Lestrade.
“I’ve 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 like Jean pimped us – sold OUR story to Campos for money – what word other than ‘pimped’ describes what he did?”
De Lestrade produced and directed the documentaries. In addition to an honorarium, he received a co-executive producer credit for the adaptation starring Colin Firth as Peterson.
“He gave his archives to Campos, who then created a fictionalized account of events, most of which ruined me (which I really don’t care) and my kids — which is really important to me,” says Peterson. “There is egregious falsification and distortion of the truth in the HBO series that goes far beyond what could be considered ‘artistic’ license.”
One of the revelations of the case is that Peterson knew a second acquaintance, a neighbor in Germany, who also died from falling down stairs.
De Lestrade suggests that Campos would have made the miniseries without his involvement. He says that when he met with Campos over a decade ago to discuss fictionalizing The Staircase, the eventual showrunner made it clear to him that Peterson and his case were public domain. Back then, Fox Searchlight was attached to make the story an indie film. Ultimately, de Lestrade decided to sell Campos the rights to his materials, the actual amount of which is disputed by de Lestrade and Peterson.
“Knowing that Antonio wanted to tell the story of Michael and the documentary, I thought it would be better to work together and be involved in the process than to be completely out there as a stranger,” says de Lestrade. “In a way, I thought I was protecting Michael and his family by getting involved, but I was wrong.”
In conversation with diversityde Lestrade says he never looked at Campos’ scripts and did not participate in the HBO Max production, despite his credit as the series’ producer.
“Antonio and I have talked a lot over the years and I really thought he got the story right,” says de Lestrade. “So when they started writing, writers were in the same room with a lot of ideas and they were working long hours. I could not be involved in this process from Paris. Since I really trusted Antonio, I didn’t ask about the script either. I know it’s hard to understand but I now know I can’t trust anyone in this business. I should have asked. It’s my fault.”
Campos did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Peterson’s statements about the miniseries, which aired its finale on June 9. HBO Max has not commented on the dispute surrounding the fictional series. Each episode includes a disclaimer that it is “a fact-based dramatization.”
In his email to diversity, Peterson states that de Lestrade never informed him that he had sold materials to Campos. De Lestrade denies this and says he told the Peterson family in and around 2008 that Campos wanted to make a feature film about the docuseries. De Lestrade can’t remember if he informed Peterson about the HBO Max series.
“If not, I should have,” admits de Lestrade.
While de Lestrade claims he was only paid €7,500 ($9,370) for the materials he sold to Campos, Peterson claims the director should have been cautious and concerned about the Peterson family given the deal. He also claims that the filmmaker received significantly more than that amount.
“Jean should have known that if you sell your ass/property you run the risk of getting fucked/betrayed,” says Peterson. “Every whore knows that. So he was cheated/fucked. Why should he be surprised? He was compensated – paid off. But we didn’t sell Campos our story – we weren’t even consulted or informed that Jean had done so. We are the ones who have been betrayed, falsely portrayed as fighting among themselves (which NEVER happened) and with fabricated storylines that denigrate us all in the eyes of millions.”
Campos’ dramatization portrays de Lestrade and Brunet as documentary film directors and editors who are ethically compromised. Shortly after the premiere of the first episode of “The Staircase” on May 5, de Lestrade and Brunet Campos and co-showrunner Maggie Cohn publicly accused of taking their artistic license too far. But Peterson feels no sympathy for de Lestrade.
“It is disingenuous and hypocritical of Jean to speak about the questioning of his integrity when he sold himself to Campos and failed to show integrity or accountability to us,” says Peterson.
Peterson continues, “He’s the person responsible for what happened to us, and while I’m deeply mad at Campos for all the liberties he’s taken with the truth (and for breaking my book “Behind the Staircase” – the only source for his prison scenes, for which I was of course not compensated), I’m angrier at Jean, who should have had our interests in mind when he sold our story. I have no sympathy for him, nor for a hooker who contracted an STD after peddling her ass. Sounds harsh – but look at the result for our family to see what he did.”
De Lestrade feels empathy for Peterson. “I work in France and I do a big drama show,” he says. “I don’t have to sell the rights [‘The Staircase’] Earn money. But 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 a lot of respect for Michael and all his kids.”
Peterson claims that de Lestrade received $75,000 for the sale of the rights to the documentary materials and cites his knowledge of previous deals to adapt the project, but the filmmaker firmly denies this, stating that the production company may have a larger one amount than he received. From Peterson’s point of view, even this controversially higher sum was too small a sum for the damage the miniseries was doing to his family.
“I like and respect Jean, but no matter how he tries to shoot it, he was paid about $75,000 for our story, a paltry sum, certainly given the horrific damage my family has suffered,” says Peterson. “And he didn’t mention how he made his entire archive of footage of us available to Antonio.”
Peterson told Variety that he plans to be in New York this weekend for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Subject, a documentary that explores the issue of ethics in documentaries. Peterson’s daughter Margaret Ratliff, herself a documentary filmmaker, is involved, as is her father.
Peterson writes, “I intend to address the issue of the ethics of documentarians when they sell their documentary to others who might exploit it, as Antonio and HBO did to us.”
Here is Peterson’s first email to diversity:
Dear Ms Morfoot,
These are my first public statements about HBO Max and the French documentary Staircase. Warning: profanity follows. Blame my daughter Margaret – she gave me your email address.
I’ve read about Jean de Lastrade’s sense of betrayal by Antonio Campos and HBO Max’s presentation of Staircase, but what has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family.
We have a feeling that Jean pimped us – sold OUR story to Campos for money – what word other than pimped describes what he did? He gave his archive to Campos, who then created a fictionalized account of events, most of which destroyed me (which I really don’t care) and my kids – which I really care about. There are egregious inventions and distortions of truth in the HBO series that go far beyond what can be considered “artistic” license.
Jean should have known that if you sell your ass/property you run the risk of getting fucked/betrayed. Every hooker knows that. So he was cheated/fucked. Why should he be surprised? He was compensated – paid off.
But we didn’t sell Campos our story – we weren’t even consulted or informed that Jean had done so. We are the ones who have been betrayed, misrepresented as fighting among themselves (which NEVER happened) and with fabricated storylines that denigrate us all in the eyes of millions.
It is disingenuous and hypocritical of Jean to speak of the fact that his integrity was challenged when he sold himself to Campos and failed to show integrity and accountability to us. He’s the person responsible for what happened to us and while I’m very mad 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 was of course not compensated), I’m angrier at Jean, who should have kept our interests in mind when selling our story. I have no sympathy for him, nor for a hooker who contracted an STD after peddling her ass.
Sounds harsh – but look at the outcome for our family of what he’s done.
Kind regards and best wishes, Michael Peterson