If there is a series preceding the recent tidal wave of audiovisual ‘true crime’, that is the seminal ‘The stairs’created in 2004 by the director Jean Xavier De Lestrade and with reverberations in the form of additional episodes until 2018. The title staircase is the place where, on December 9, 2001, the lifeless body of Kathleen Peterson, victim of a spectacular fall according to her husband and the beating of said husband according to the jury of the (first) trial. From the beginning, nothing seemed to fit completely in any version of the facts, and there was even speculation about the possibility that the murderer was… An owl.
For example, there was no clear motive for the writer Michael Peterson to kill his wife. The police and district attorney thought they found him in the suspect’s bisexuality, who had secretly contacted a prostitute and kept gay porn on his computer. Did Kathleen discover the truth about her husband and the storm came? According to Michael, she knew that truth all too well. There was also no conclusive evidence to the contrary.
The case is a host of uncertainties, not to say improbable twists, which we will not reveal here in case someone comes to the new ‘The staircase’ with no prior knowledge of the Michael Peterson case. After eighteen documentary episodes, now comes (HBO Max, from Friday, the 6th) the dramatized version of the case, stylized and disturbing immersion in the nightmare of an extended North Carolina family.
The simplest thing to do when hearing a premiere like this is to say, “Oh, okay, we’re still out of ideas. After all, this crime is so famous that it’s like a brand.” Then you know who is behind the project and you measure your words. the brilliant director Anthony Fieldsan expert explorer of the ambiguities of evil in films like ‘Simon Killer’ and ‘The Devil at All Hours’, began thinking about ‘The Staircase’ in 2008, and has managed to make it a reality in partnership with co-showrunner Maggie Cohnproducer of the memorable ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’.
Be that as it may, the question (the doubt) is there: was this series necessary, given the exhaustive nature of De Lestrade’s work? As Campos himself explains, “no matter how much you could extract from that documentary work, there were still many aspects to explore. In fact, the most difficult thing was not finding new inspiration, but deciding what to include and what not.” Her partner Cohn was interested above all in “understanding Kathleen Peterson: who is she?” By understanding Kathleen (incredible Toni Collette in the series), “you better understand all the characters in the story.” On the other hand, fiction gave them freedom to go where the documentary did not. “We told,” Cohn explains, “everything that happened before the crew of that series arrived. And we also wondered what happened when those cameras left”.
If you ask them how they thought about standing out among the ‘true crime’ oversupply, they are quite blunt: “We didn’t even think about it,” says Campos. “We just focused on telling the story we wanted to tell. For example, we thought a lot about the procedures [de la investigación]. Which ones did we want to show? Which not? The ones we were interested in had a human component; they were related to family and personal dynamics. By focusing on this and not so much on evidence, or what people think of as evidence, we set ourselves apart from other similar series.” Cohn: “We use ‘true crime’ as a starting point to go to family drama. A crime is not just a victim and a culprit. It happens to a family”.
Haunting Colin Firth
Campos introduces us to this family nightmare without much hesitation: ‘The staircase’ starts with an impressive sequence shot that details, in real time, how one of the family’s children, Todd (patrick schwarzenegger), returned home ready to melt into the pillow after a night out and found a tragic scene. Campos: “It seemed like the right way to introduce the viewer to the story. Immerse him in the experience of that night. The sequence shot scheme already appeared in the script. Interestingly, for a long time we thought we were going to use the fifth or sixth take, but a month before we realized that our favorite was the first one.”
In the role of believably desperate Michael Peterson, we find a Colin Firth willing to blur his usual air of affability. “For us it was an advantage to have an actor with a pleasant presence,” explains Campos. From my experience, if you want to create a complicated character, it’s more interesting if the viewer has good feelings towards him from the start. It was exciting for me to have someone like Firth playing Peterson.“.
Campos says he is satisfied with the final conclusions, although they are not, by far, clear and explanatory. “It’s just that we didn’t want to solve the case either,” says Cohn. “In fact, there was a time when we thought we had solved it, and it’s not like we celebrated it either.” Campos: “When you do a puzzle, the least interesting thing is to finish it, to have the puzzle in front of you. The best thing is the search, the questions”.