The Staircase feud
True Crime

The Staircase: The real life feud between the directors of the Netflix series and the HBO dramatisation

Both series follow the investigation into the death of Kathleen Peterson

The Staircase on HBO relives the traumatic death of Kathleen Peterson, and the subsequent investigation into her death – and behind the scenes lies a bitter, real life feud.

The glossy dramatisation of Kathleen’s death has had its fair share of critics

And, crucially, they include some of those involved in the original Netflix documentary of the same name.

So why are they feuding, and who’s to blame?

Here’s everything you need to know…

The Staircase with Colin Firth looking tense as Michael Peterson
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, and Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet in The Staircase dramatisation (Credit: HBO)

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What is The Staircase feud all about?

French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made the true crime documentary The Staircase.

Now 58, he gained extraordinary access to the trial, the family and all the events surrounding it.

The Staircase was first released in 2004 with eight episodes, before new episodes were added in 2013 and 2018.

It remains in the Netflix Top 10, and features interviews with many of the people at the heart of the tragedy.

Crucially, prime suspect Michael Peterson talks directly to the camera in the footage.

Understandably, the series won several prestigious awards.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade subsequently gave fellow director – and someone he considered a friend – Antonio Campos access to his archive of thousands of hours of footage of the Peterson case.

He also sold him the story rights.

This is how Antonio Campos was able to dramatise the story behind The Staircase.

However, the pair have since fallen out.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and the documentary team gave taken serious issue with the HBO miniseries’ depiction of their work.

Why doesn’t Jean-Xavier de Lestrade like the HBO dramatisation of The Staircase?

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made a factual film which has now been adapted into a hit drama of the same name.

But he feels betrayed by how the documentary makers have been depicted in the HBO drama.

The Sky Atlantic and Now TV series raises ethical questions about de Lestrade and his film crew – which the director strongly denies.

The drama suggests that Peterson had an affair with Sophie Brunet, an editor on the original documentary.

Brunet did start a personal correspondence with Peterson, de Lestrade admits, but not until after she had left the documentary project – a few weeks before the verdict of the trial was announced.

Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson wrote to each while he was in prison.

However, they only met and began a relationship after his release in 2011.

Michael Peterson in the Netflix series The Staircase
Michael Peterson in the true crime documentary series The Staircase (Credit: Netflix)

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Antonio Campus versus Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in The Staircase feud

Perhaps more damaging, episode five shows de Lestrade and his team editing footage to try to sway the outcome of an appeal in 2006 against Peterson’s life sentence.

De Lestrade told The Times he was furious when he saw the episode.

He said: “I couldn’t believe it, it was so inaccurate.”

However, Antonio Campos says: “Once I started to look at the documentary and see the unused footage and endless amounts of research that had been done over the years, it was very clear that there was more than there was on screen.”

De Lestrade says that when they were editing the footage they had no idea whether the documentary would be released before Peterson’s appeal.

It implies that de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet advocated for Peterson to be portrayed sympathetically in the series, aiding Peterson’s appeal.

He adds that he didn’t know whether Michael Peterson was guilty at the time of making his film, and is no clearer today.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade says that perhaps the biggest injustice in the dramatisation is the reimagining of the story as a family drama, where warring, angry children take centre stage.

That is not how he remembers it.

“They were exceptionally close,” he says.

De Lestrade also believes Campos should put a disclaimer on the beginning of the series, making it clear that the portrayal is only “inspired” by real-life events.

Furthermore, De Lestrade says: “A series on HBO like this will get huge attention.

“And if people think what they’re watching is true, that’s really damaging for us.”

He continues: “I understand if you dramatise.

“But when you attack the credibility of my work, that’s really not acceptable to me.

“It’s alleged that we cut the documentary series in a way to help Peterson’s appeal, which is not true.”

Why is The Staircase lawyer angry with the HBO series The Staircase?

Meanwhile attorney David Rudolf has accused the HBO series The Staircase of inaccuracies.

In addition to a few significant omissions, the show made one major alteration.

In the series, the prosecution points out attorney David Rudolf during the grand jury hearing.

However, Rudolf told the Charlotte Observer: “I was not in the grand jury, because defence lawyers are not allowed in a grand jury room.

“Anybody who knows anything about the criminal justice system will look at that scene and say ‘that’s bullshit’.

“So, that’s just stupidity.”

David, who served as Michael Peterson’s lawyer during his murder trial, has since accused the HBO series of “turning truth into fiction”.

He has called for “HBO to have the humility to apologise and post a disclaimer about the truthfulness of its portrayal of the people who made the documentary”.

Juliet Binoche plays Sophie in The Staircase (Credit: HBO)

The Staircase feud: Sophie Brunet is unhappy with her depiction

In real life, documentary editor Sophie Brunet did have a relationship with Michael Peterson.

The romance wasn’t a secret.

Michael Peterson even wrote about the relationship in his 2019 book, Behind the Staircase.

But, unlike the HBO series implies, Sophie says she did not begin corresponding with Michael until after she left the documentary to edit another project.

Sophie Brunet says that her romantic engagements with Michael Peterson had no effect on the editing process.

Furthermore, she insists that her work on the original series was finished by the time she and Peterson became romantically involved.

After watching HBO Max’s The Staircase, Sophie admits she was disturbed.

She said: “I was shocked to watch Kathleen endlessly dying…

“So my thoughts go to the family – I mean both Michael’s and Kathleen’s family – that they don’t watch it.”

Adding to The Staircase feud, she said: “I know that in the series, Sophie pushes Michael to take the Alford plea in order to start a new life.

“This is disturbing to me: I would never have done this.

“First because what was at stake was too serious for me to give any advice.

“I was not the one who could end up in jail for the rest of my life.

“And second because I felt, on the contrary, that Michael could and should fight to prove his innocence.

“I did not try and influence him this way either.”

Sophie and Michael dated for 13 years, but had a “dignified” end according to his book.

New episodes of HBO’s The Staircase drop on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Thursdays. The true crime documentary series of the same name is available to watch on Netflix.

Are you a fan of The Staircase on HBO or do you prefer the Netflix documentary? Leave us a comment on our Facebook page @EntertainmentDailyFix.