Hardcore fans of the true crime genre are well aware of the unsettling story of the Petersons and the infamous staircase where patriarch Michael Peterson allegedly found his bloodied and deceased wife, Kathleen. The obvious question: did he do it? Two decades, two trials, and two miniseries later, no one really knows. The Staircase, which premiered this month on HBO Max, follows the Peterson family in a dramatized account of the events and subsequent trial starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson.
We got the chance to speak with creator Antonio Campos and executive producer Maggie Cohn about their inspiration from the initial 2004 docuseries, the creation of Kathleen Peterson from scraps of home videos, and the nature of storytelling.
In this series, we’re telling the story from a bunch of different perspectives and a couple of different timelines. How did you decide on this approach over the course of the production of this series, and what was most challenging and rewarding about it?
Antonio Campos: This approach really developed organically. I got involved in the story many years ago and was trying to adapt it as a feature. I spent a while doing that. But as I was working on it as a feature, it continued to expand…And the shape revealed itself. It only felt correct that for a story as complicated as this, and for as big of an idea that we were trying to explore, we had to take a multi-strand, multi-timeline approach to do it justice and to capture the complexity of everything.
I know this was inspired by the French documentary. I’m curious to hear from both of you, what do you think that this new series might accomplish that the older series might not have?
AC: The French documentary is the first of its kind and paved the way for all these other true crime doc series. And I think that it still stands out in its approach. It’s so restrained, and the level of access is really kind of unprecedented. We are freer to explore and to go back in time. A very simple thing is with Kathleen Peterson. Kathleen Peterson could only exist with what they had in the documentary, which were photos and some home videos where she didn’t even speak. And we have the ability to create a version of Kathleen, and to take that that person that was a big part of the documentary and to give them life in a dramatized way.
Maggie Cohn: What we saw was an opportunity to tell a more holistic version. We got to look at who the Petersons were before this event, before this tragedy occurred, we got to see how it unfolded in front of the cameras, but also what was happening out of frame when they were shooting. And then after the documentary team departs, we’re still with them. And we’re seeing what the repercussions of grief and tragedy look like for a family that’s had their pain become very public.
The original series is compelling, but you always wonder what is performance and what is not. And especially with the character of Kathleen, there’s not as much to work with in terms of what she was like, what she would seem like on screen, her little quirks. How was that developed? How was Toni Colette’s performance folded into that process?
MC: When we were creating this character, we didn’t have as much information about her…but it’s like whenever you write any TV show, you’re taking bits and pieces of a character and bringing them to life. And what we knew about her was that she was family oriented. She was the life of a party, she loved deeply, and she felt deeply, and she was committed to her job. At the same time, things were happening in her life that we depict—she had an accident in a pool, she was having trouble sleeping, there was a lot of stress at work, there was an empty nest. And it’s about combining all of those things and saying, well, who is this person? And that was ultimately such a fulfilling bit of the project, because that allowed us to give the victim agency in a way that we hadn’t seen before.
AC: A part of the story is if Kathleen knew about Michael and Michael’s sexuality. That’s a big part of the mystery. It’s interesting, because you look at her previous marriage and the fact that it ended because of infidelity. But you also understand that Kathleen was very open minded and did have a progressive outlook. You kind of knew that there was this complexity to her that we were trying to explore. Everybody thinks of Michael Peterson as a center of the story. What we found in creating our version of Kathleen was a very dynamic, complicated, and multifaceted person. I think people are going to come into the stories intrigued by Michael Peterson, but they’re going to leave equally intrigued and fascinated by Kathleen Peterson.
The Staircase does not lend itself to easy answers or assert its own truth. Even its own cast members can’t explain everything. As Odessa Young (Martha Ratliff) explains, “I think [speculating] made up like 90% of the conversations that we would end up having. It would always come back to what opinion we had of that day, because everybody’s opinions were constantly changing…But despite seven months of constantly talking, nobody got anywhere.” Young’s costar and on-screen sister Sophie Turner (Margaret Ratliff) followed up, “People ask me…what do you think happened? And I’m like, just don’t. Don’t ask me about it. I can’t speculate anymore.”
If you are still curious to know more however, The Staircase is now streaming on HBO Max. You can also check out our full interview the Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn below, our chat with Odessa Young and Sophie Turner here, as well as our review here.