The Truth About HBO's The Staircase

When it comes to Michael Peterson's life story, truth is stranger than fiction. In 2003, despite multiple inconsistencies in the prosecution's case, Peterson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. He was set to die behind bars after exhausting all appeals. In 2018, Netflix re-released the 2004 docuseries "The Staircase." Filmed over 15 years, it covered Peterson's trial and had more twists and turns than a giant pretzel. It became an instant smash hit even though viewers were left still not knowing what really happened to Peterson's wife. Did he kill her or not?  

Meanwhile, everything changed after it was discovered one of the prosecution's key witnesses had lied during multiple testimonies, which meant Peterson's conviction was now in question. Rather than the tribulation of a new trial, Peterson reluctantly entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter, per Forbes. He still maintained his innocence and finally ended the 16-year legal battle.

It was inevitable Peterson's story would be dramatized. HBO released an eight-part series on May 5, 2022. "Inspired by a true story, 'The Staircase' explores the life of Michael Peterson ([Colin] Firth) his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson ([Toni] Collette)," their press release announced. The show ended up being every bit as confounding and controversial as the original docuseries. There's been legal threats and mud-slinging. Complaints about casting choices and the reality of character portrayals. Feuds, fights, and fallouts. Allegations of manipulations, mistruths, falsehoods, betrayals, and deceit. So, what's the truth about HBO's "The Staircase"?

Michael Peterson claims HBO's The Staircase exploited his family's tragedy for profit

Michael Peterson is furious at Antonio Campos, who created HBO's "The Staircase," and docuseries filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Peterson claims he didn't know de Lestrade sold the story rights, and he wasn't "consulted or informed" about the series being made. "We feel that Jean pimped us out — sold OUR story ... for money — what word other than pimped describes what he did?" Peterson asked Variety. De Lestrade insisted the trial information was already in the "public domain," and he only earned $9,370.

Peterson claimed the series exploited his family tragedy for profit and vowed never to see it. He said he couldn't even manage to get through the trailer. "I turned it off after one minute. And I said, 'What family is this? Where did this come from?' So, I did not watch anymore," he told Variety. "I was there when [Kathleen] died," Peterson explained on "This Morning," adding, "[I don't] want to watch a fictionalized account seeing her die three times."

Peterson's daughter, Margaret Ratliff, told Vanity Fair that she'll never watch the show because her sister was so "traumatized" by the trailer. Peterson claimed the series "destroyed my family" and was full of "fabrications." Meanwhile, he told Variety he's considering legal action against HBO and Campos for not obtaining "signed releases" from his family for use of the footage. He said they "falsely depicted" events, and the show's "gratuitous sex scenes" were "wrong and salacious" and "disgustingly homophobic."

Michael Peterson thinks Brad Pitt should have played him

Michael Peterson has a bone to pick with HBO's casting choices. He thinks Brad Pitt would have been a better choice to play him. "I will forever be known as Colin Firth," he lamented to Variety. Michael gave Firth props for mastering his distinctive voice but complained that "he didn't capture my energy or my humor." Antonio Campos told Entertainment Weekly that Harrison Ford had actually been their first choice, but he had an existing commitment. However, despite looking nothing like Michael, Campos told Motion Pictures that Firth totally nailed his "essence."

Michael was unhappy Firth didn't contact him. "You don't want to talk to the real person because this might interfere with your fictional creation?" he grumbled to Vanity Fair. Meanwhile, Firth told E! News he struggled to understand who Michael actually was and thought studying his speech patterns and mannerisms might help. However, the actor admitted that truly comprehending the novelist was "unfathomable."

Michael was also unhappy about Dane DeHaan's casting as Clayton Peterson. He told Variety DeHaan's "bags under his eyes" made his son look "like a drugged out individual." Michael even complained about Toni Collette's portrayal of Kathleen Peterson. He claimed "she would be appalled" at being depicted as a "screaming shrew." Sophie Brunet, the documentary's editor, is also angry at Campos. Not for casting Juliette Binoche in her role, but for herself being a role in the first place. Per Vanity Fair, Brunet insists she "explicitly requested" to be excluded from the show.

The Staircase cast is divided over Michael Peterson's guilt

"The Staircase" cast is as divided over Michael Peterson as everybody else. Only two people knew the truth about Michael and Kathleen Peterson's marriage — and one is dead. Michael has maintained his innocence regarding Kathleen's death, so it just comes down to opinion and speculation from everybody else.

"During the shoot, we changed our minds every second day, and that's part of the retelling of it," Toni Collette, who portrayed Kathleen, told Variety. "We can only guess. You can gravitate towards whatever certainty," Colin Firth, who starred as Michael, said. "You go up and down the staircase and think, Is he guilty? Is he innocent? Did he do it? Did he?" Parker Posey, who played prosecutor Freda Black, told The New Yorker that everybody was divided as they went back and forth.

"Is it possible for somebody to be guilty and innocent at the same time?" co-showrunner Antonio Campos asked The Wrap. "Ultimately, justice isn't necessarily black and white," co-showrunner Maggie Cohn told Variety. However, Patrick Schwarzenegger, who played Todd Peterson, isn't sitting on the fence. "Clearly, this was him. There's no way this happened to someone from falling down the stairs," he told Variety's Marc Malkin. "There's no way it happens to two people over two years."

Documentary makers claim they were falsely portrayed as biased

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade claims HBO's "The Staircase" made the filmmakers look biased. He insisted they remained neutral and said he felt "betrayed" by Antonio Campos. "I couldn't believe it; it was so inaccurate," de Lestrade told The Sunday Times of an episode where they're seen editing footage to help Michael Peterson with future appeals. De Lestrade said they didn't know if the documentary would be released before an appeal — or if Peterson was even innocent. "You can't know what happened that night; it is totally impossible," he said. 

"I understand if you dramatize. But when you attack the credibility of my work, that's really not acceptable to me," de Lestrade told Vanity Fair. The Oscar winner said he had to "protect" his credibility, and Campos' depiction was "really damaging." Editor Sophie Gerard said the narrative of her relationship with Peterson was totally false, insisting they became involved only after she'd finished editing. "I never, ever cut anything out that would be damaging for him," Gerard vowed to Vanity Fair. "I have too big an opinion of my job to be even remotely tempted to do anything like that." Lestrade and Brunet told Indiewire it was "a work of garbled fiction."

Meanwhile, Campos insists they wrote the script with "as much care" as possible. "I have nothing but a deep respect and admiration for Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and for Sophie and for everyone involved in this documentary," he told The Wrap.

HBO and filmmakers disagree on what The Staircase is really about

The "owl theory" is as divisive as believing in Michael Peterson's innocence. It was ridiculed by police, but since gained traction. Michael's neighbor introduced the astounding new theory that a barred owl attacked Kathleen Peterson, digging its razor-sharp talons into her scalp and causing the mysterious lacerations, per Vulture. Barred owls are known to randomly attack, and many lived near the Petersons' home. It wasn't included in the documentary, although Netflix later produced a special covering the theory (seen above).

It played a significant role in HBO's "The Staircase," introducing another twist into the already twisty twirly "Did he? Didn't he?" narrative. Anthony Campos told SlashFilm why it was essential to include it in the series. "With all these unsolved cases [you do find there's] that outlier freak theory, that answers the things that have been unanswerable," he explained. However, Vincent Vermignon, who plays Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, told Newsweek it had left him even "more confused than before" about Michael's culpability.

"The importance of The Staircase is not whether an owl was involved in some way in Kathleen Peterson's death," Michael's attorney David Rudolf wrote on his website. "I believe the importance of the documentary lies in exposing the flaws of the criminal justice system in general and junk science in particular." De Lestrade agrees, telling Vulture, "The purpose of the film was to follow the legal process ... I decided not to talk about that theory. It's really a mystery, the way she died."