Antonio Campos’ portrayal of documentary filmmakers Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet in HBO Max’s “The Staircase” has led to a public dispute over their portrayal in the miniseries. But now, the real-life main subject of both series – Michael Peterson – speaks in an exclusive series of emails to diverse.
Peterson’s wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of their North Carolina home in 2001. Authorities discovered that Peterson, who is known to be bisexual, had been having sexual relations with men. He was charged with the murder of his wife and convicted in 2003. He is now at large after the charges turned to manslaughter in a retrial.
Peterson allowed the camera crew to film him and his family while he awaited trial, which became an extended documentary series that premiered in 2004 (broadcasting on Netflix). While Peterson wasn’t happy with the HBO series Campos, he was angry with de Lestrade.
“I’ve read about Jean de Lestrade feeling betrayed by Antonio Campos and the HBO Max show of ‘The Staircase,’ but what has been forgotten, overlooked, or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family,” he says. “We feel that Jane pimped – he sold our story to Campos for money – what word other than pimped would describe what he did?”
De Lestrade has produced and directed documentaries. In addition to the fees, he received co-executive producer credit on the adaptation starring Colin Firth as Peterson.
“He released his archive to Campos who then created a fictional account of events, most of which (which I don’t really care about) broke me and my children – which really matters to me,” Peterson says. “There are egregious inaccuracies and distortions of truth in the HBO series, far beyond what would be considered an ‘artistic’ license.”
One of the revelations of the case was that Peterson knew a second acquaintance, a neighbor in Germany, who also died by falling down a staircase.
De Lestrade suggests that Campos would have made the mini-series without his participation. He says that when he met Campos more than a decade ago to discuss imagining the “staircase,” the ultimate bidder made it clear to him that Peterson and his case were in the public domain. At the time, Fox Searchlight was attached to turn the story into a standalone movie. Ultimately, de Lestrade decided to sell the rights to his materials to Campos, which de Lestrade and Peterson disputed over the actual amount.
“Since I knew Antonio was meant to tell Michael’s story and the documentary, I thought it would be better to cooperate and be involved in the process and then just stay outside as an outsider,” says de Lestrade. “Somehow I thought I was protecting Michael and his family by getting involved, but I was wrong.”
In an interview with diverseDe Lestrade says he has never looked at Campos’ scripts and hasn’t co-produced HBO Max despite being credited with producing the series.
“I’ve talked to Antonio a lot over the years, and I really thought he got the story right,” says de Lestrade. “So when they started the writing process, there were writers in the same room who had many ideas and worked many hours. I can’t take part in this process from Paris. Also, since I already trusted Antonio, I didn’t ask for the script. I know it’s hard to understand, But now I 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 on Peterson’s comments about the series, which aired its finale on June 9. HBO Max had no comment on the controversies surrounding the fantasy series. Each episode contains a disclaimer that it is “a play based on certain facts”.
In his email to diversePeterson stated that de Lestrade never told him he had sold items to Campos. De Lestrade disputes this, saying that he told the Peterson family in and around 2008 that Campos wanted to make a feature film on documentaries. De Lestrade can’t remember if he reported Peterson on the HBO Max series.
“If I didn’t, I should have,” admits de Lestrade.
While de Lestrade maintains that he only received €7,500 (US$9,370) for items he sold to Campos, Peterson asserts that the manager should have been wary of the deal and worried about the Peterson family. He also claims that the director received much more than this amount.
“Jane should have known that when you sell your ass/property, you run the risk of being exploited/betrayed,” Peterson says. “Every bitch knows this. So he cheated/fucked. Why is he surprised? He was compensated – paid off. But we didn’t sell our story to Campos – we weren’t even consulted or told that Jean did. We who were betrayed, were falsely portrayed as A fight amongst us (which never happened), and with a made-up story that tarnishes our reputations all in the eyes of millions.”
Campos Dramatic Photography portrays de Lestrade and Brunet as an ethically edited documentary director. Shortly after the May 5 premiere of the first episode of “The Staircase,” De Lestrade and Brunet publicly accused Campos, as well as co-host Maggie Cohn, of taking their art license too far. But Peterson has no sympathy for de Lestrade.
“It is disingenuous and hypocritical for Jan to speak of challenging his integrity when he sold himself to Campos and showed us no integrity or sense of responsibility,” Peterson says.
Peterson continues, “He’s the one responsible for what happened to us, and while I’m furiously angry in Campos for all the liberties he’s taken with the truth (and for the theft of my ‘Behind the Stairs’—the only source of his prison scenes, for which I, of course, got no compensation), I’m even more angry than 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 prostitute who contracted an STD after selling her ass. Sounds cruel — but look at the result for our family for what he did.”
De Lestrade feels sympathy for Peterson. “I work in France and do a big drama show,” he says. ‘I don’t need to sell the rights to [‘The Staircase’] to gain money. But I can really understand Michael’s position because [the series is] Terrible for him and his family. But I think I tried to do that in the documentary with great respect for Michael and all of his children.”
Peterson asserts that De Lestrade received $75,000 to sell the rights to the documentary series, citing his knowledge of previous deals to adapt the project, but the director vehemently refutes this, suggesting that the production company may have received a larger sum from him. In Peterson’s view, even this disputed higher figure was a very small amount of the damage the miniseries had inflicted on his family.
“I love and respect Jane, but no matter how he tries to spin it, he gets somewhere around $75,000 for our story, which is a tiny amount, certainly given the horrific damage my family has suffered,” Peterson says. “And he didn’t mention how Antonio opened his entire archive of his footage to us.”
Peterson told Variety that he plans to be in New York this weekend for the premiere of “The Subject” at the Tribeca Film Festival, a documentary that explores the topic of morality in documentaries. Peterson’s daughter Margaret Ratliff, who is a documentary filmmaker, was involved in the film as well as her father.
Peterson writes: “It is my intention to raise the issue of the ethics of documentaries selling their documentary to others who might take advantage of them, as Antonio and HBO have done for us.”
This is Peterson’s initial email to diverse:
Dear Mrs. Morfoot,
This is my first public comment on HBO Max and the French documentary Staircase. Warning: follow obscenity. Blame it on my daughter Margaret – she gave me your email address.
I’ve read about Jean de Lastride feeling betrayed by Antonio Campos and the HBO Max show of the Staircase, but what has been forgotten, overlooked, or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family.
We feel Jean pimped us – he sold our story to Campos for money – what word other than pimped would describe what he did? He released his archive to Campos who then created a fictional account of events, most of which broke me (which I don’t really care about) and my children – which really matters to me. There are inaccuracies and egregious distortions of the truth in the HBO series, well beyond what might be considered an “artistic” license.
Jane should have known that when you sell your ass/property, you take the risk of being exploited/betrayed. Every bitch knows this. So he was cheated/fucked. Why is he surprised? Reimbursed – reimbursed.
But we didn’t sell our story to Campos – we weren’t even consulted or told that Jean did. We are the ones who have been betrayed, falsely portrayed as fighting amongst ourselves (which never happened), and with a made-up story that tarnishes our reputations all in the eyes of millions.
It is disingenuous and hypocritical for Jean to speak of challenging his integrity when he sold himself to Campos, showing us no integrity or a sense of responsibility. He is the one responsible for what happened to us, and while I was furiously angry in Campos for all the liberties he was taken with the truth (and for stealing my book Behind the Stairs – the only source of his prison scenes, for which of course I did not get compensation), I am even more angry than Jean who should have That puts our interests in mind when he sold our story. I have no sympathy for him, any more than I would for a prostitute who contracted an STD after selling her ass.
Sounds cruel – but look at the score for our family for what he did.
Sincerely, and best wishes, Michael Peterson