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. They remained in touch for many years.
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 respected his freedom as an author, creator, and filmmaker. De Lestrade explains that he never requested to see the episodes before they were aired because he was very confident.
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. The documentary follows Peterson, played by Colin Firth ), and his family. There is also a second storyline that portrays de Lestrade (played Vincent Vermignon )) and his crew. 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 epi