Last week, Awards Radar interviewed the co-creator of true-crime miniseries The Staircase, Maggie Cohn. The miniseries is based on the docu-series The Staircase, directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. On December 9th, 2001, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Colette) was found dead at the bottom of her home’s main staircase in Durham, NC. The police, prosecutors, and some of Kathleen’s family believe her husband, charismatic novelist Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), bludgeoned her to death. However, most of Michael’s family supports him. They even stand by the author when he is found guilty by a jury of his peers.
A French filmmaking team led by Jean-Xavier (Vincent Vermignon) documents Michael’s journey through the United States Justice System. Cohn described the series as follows, “The Staircase is an investigation. The miniseries is an exploration of the idea of truth and storytelling. To develop that story, we are using one of the seminal documentaries of the same name as a starting point to a fictional story.”
Q: What about The Staircase docu-series inspired you to co-create the miniseries?
Cohn: Many years ago, I watched The Staircase documentary on the Sundance channel. When it came out, I was studying a lot of documentaries in school. I found the docu-series to be an incredible combination of television and the pursuit of telling a factual story. It was like this beautiful combination of exploring family, tragedy, the prosecution, and the impact of all of this on the adult children’s lives. The docu-series had this An American Family sort of style of filmmaking where it embedded with the family. It’s like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, even though it wasn’t trying to exonerate anybody.
Then you have Shoah (a documentary about the Holocaust), which was six hours long. When I saw The Staircase, it was like, wow, this is a new way of filmmaking. It’s a new way of storytelling. So, it always stuck in my mind as this seminal piece of work. Now that twenty years have passed, and true crime media has found a following in this docu format, we’re taking it to a fictional level. It seems like the perfect opportunity to use a seminal true-crime documentary to investigate the genre. Also, to explore the idea that we are all telling stories. When you tell a narrative, you can never avoid bringing some form of bias into the process. I thought that this was an excellent opportunity to do that while creating this hopefully satisfying narrative.
Q: Can you talk about the casting process of The Staircase miniseries?
Cohn: In hindsight, the casting could never have been anything but this. But of course, there was a moment when it wasn’t set in stone. We wanted to cast somebody to play Michael Peterson, who walked the line of being able to play a character that was innocent and guilty at the same time. When we looked at Colin Firth’s lengthy and reputable performances, it became apparent that this is somebody with goodwill surrounding him. Somebody who can manipulate people using his charm to fit the need of the story.
You have a movie like A Single Man and what’s astonishing about that is it’s a beautiful, unfortunate story about love and loss. It’s also about a man who has a secret and hides it from people for a whole day. It’s that idea that Colin as an actor, could have a secret but then continue to interact with other actors and not have them pick up on it. Even though they all know about the secret, you can believe that they don’t know that he’s thinking of ending his life. We felt it was essential to have an actor with a secret that doesn’t consume the performance. We thought Colin could do it. Upon looking at his performance, there was no other choice.
And then, with somebody like Kathleen Peterson, we needed an actor who could embody somebody defined as a victim of an accident or a murder. Still, she needed to bring this woman to life and make people forget her fate. We needed somebody who could feel very much alive even while experiencing low lows. No one was better suited for that than Toni Colette. Then we have incredible performers like Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Olivia DeJonge, along with the rest of the actors who played the adult children. The miniseries was perfect alchemy of everyone being on board and sharing the goal of exploring this event in a novel way.
Q: What kind of research did you do outside of studying The Staircase docu-series?
Cohn: We researched the way that other people studied it. Since I’ve worked on many nonfiction stories, what I find interesting is that reputable sources often contradict one another. You begin to understand very quickly that history is in the eyes of the beholder. So really, what’s interesting about it is trying to figure out why someone would have that perspective on something, as opposed to just limiting your research to what that perspective is.
We cast a broad net because it wasn’t just research. It was understanding why this research happened. Who was completing the investigation, and further, what prejudices were we bringing to it when we researched? Because it wasn’t about denying or trying to overcome prejudice. We tried to make the bias transparent. We were as critical of what we were bringing to The Staircase story from our backgrounds. How was it going to impact how we wrote or perceived this miniseries?
Q: How did you and the other writers decide to capture the documentary team?
Cohn: In terms of capturing the documentary team, it’s a way to reflect on my contribution to storytelling. We’re writing a story about storytellers, but I am the storyteller. So to say that I’m not writing it about myself would be disingenuous. Using the documentary team was such a great visual and narrative example to show how a story’s constructed. I wouldn’t even limit it to the documentary team; I would include how the prosecution builds their story and how the defense team produces their narrative about what happened that night.
For example, you have the blood spatter on the staircase. And for each person, the blood spatter means something different. We’re showing how those other stories are constructed. We’re hoping that the viewer will extrapolate from that and ask themselves, how are Antonio Campos (the other co-creator of The Staircase) and myself, the cast, the cinematographers, and others on our team creating the story they’re telling us? And why are they making these choices? Rather than thinking, we didn’t have options. I want the viewers to be critical of those choices.
The Staircase brings up a question about the subjective nature of the truth. How do we create stories about our own lives? If you have not had the chance watch the first seven episodes of The Staircase on HBO MAX before the finale this Thursday, June 9th! Let us know what you think of the interview and the miniseries in the comments below.