What separates Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase from other crime documentaries is its astonishing access. While chronicling the defense strategy of Michael Peterson, the novelist who was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, in 2001, de Lestrade’s cameras recorded strategy meetings inside Peterson’s Durham, North Carolina, home—the same home where Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. De Lestrade, an Academy Award–winning documentarian, had to agree to the terms of Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf—among them, that footage would be sent to France each night before it could be subpoenaed by prosecution. But the caveats were worth it: After extraordinary reviews, The Staircase won a Peabody in 2005 and was anointed into the documentary pantheon.
So several years later, when a young filmmaker named Antonio Campos reached out to de Lestrade to express admiration for the documentary and his desire to adapt it into a dramatic series, de Lestrade paid the karmic access forward. After speaking to Campos and reviewing his previous work, de Lestrade opened his Staircase archives—sharing footage, notes, and tips on particularly interesting unused video. He says Campos even spent a few days with his Staircase crew while they filmed additional episodes in 2011. For years, they remained in contact.
This past December, when Campos and HBO Max’s team flew to Paris to film several scenes for the long-planned adaptation, The Staircase’s editor, Sophie Brunet, even opened her home to host some of the filmmakers for dinner.
“We gave [Campos] all the access he wanted, and I really trusted the man,” de Lestrade told Vanity Fair Tuesday, sounding shell-shocked. “So that’s why today I’m very uncomfortable, because I feel that I’ve been betrayed in a way.”
De Lestrade is credited on the series as a co-executive-producer, but says that the title was nominal only; he was paid for the project, but says he entrusted Campos with all creative decisions.
“Because I trust Antonio, I didn’t ask him to read the script. I was respecting his liberty as an author, as a creator, as a filmmaker. And I never asked to watch the episodes before they were shown because I was quite confident,” explains de Lestrade.
Campos’s adaptation of The Staircase premiered on HBO Max last week—dramatizing the events that unfurled in de Lestrade’s original, but with a meta twist. In addition to following Peterson (played by Colin Firth) and his family, there is a second story line depicting de Lestrade himself (played by Vincent Vermignon) and his crew as they film the documentary. De Lestrade knew about that story line, and was fine with it when he says Campos framed it to him as a means to explore “the way we approached truth.”
But according to de Lestrade and other members of the original Staircase’s team—producer Allyson Luchak, editor Scott Stevenson, and Rudolf, who appeared onscreen as Peterson’s defense attorney—the remake’s fifth episode, “The Beating Heart,” airing next week, recklessly blurs fact and fiction. In it, several scenes suggest that the eight original Staircase episodes were edited by Brunet (Juliette Binoche)—the real-life Staircase editor who opened her home to HBO Max’s production when they were shooting in Paris—while she was entangled in a romantic relationship with Peterson.
In real life, Brunet did have a relationship with Peterson. De Lestrade has been candid about this in the past, and Peterson even wrote about the relationship in his 2019 book, Behind the Staircase. But all four, and Brunet herself in an email to Vanity Fair, confirm that Brunet and Peterson did not begin corresponding until after she left the documentary as planned to edit another project, 2004’s Holy Lola. De Lestrade hadn’t expected The Staircase to yield so much footage; he wound up enlisting two other editors, Stevenson and Jean-Pierre Bloc, to cut what would end up being eight episodes total. (Years later, de Lestrade filmed an additional five episodes of The Staircase. Brunet edited all of them—the final three she says she edited after she and Peterson broke up.)
“My relationship with Michael never affected my editing,” Brunet wrote. “I never, ever cut anything out that would be damaging for him. I have too big an opinion of my job to be even remotely tempted to do anything like that. And Jean would never let it happen anyway. It is his film and I respect that greatly. And again: I had absolutely no dog in the fight for the first eight episodes. As for the following ones, I think one can notice a great empathy for Michael’s family in them. But that was Jean’s point of view as well as mine. Whatever you think or believe about Michael, you can’t deny that the situation for his children was terrible and unfair. As for the last three episodes, I could not possibly be suspected of wanting to favor Michael, since we had broken up before I finished editing.”