The details of what happened on December 9, 2001, in the Durham, North Carolina home of crime novelist Michael Peterson and his wife Kathleen remain shrouded in mystery. The result is that she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their mansion. Questions as to how she got there remain largely unanswered though many have their varying theories.
Kathleen’s death is the basis for two mesmerizing series. There is the 13-episode documentary series streaming on Netflix
There’s also the eight-episode scripted version streaming on HBO Max starring Toni Collette as Kathleen alongside Colin Firth as Michael. The limited series, written and executive-produced by showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn also follows as Michael becomes the prime and only suspect in his wife’s death but also aims to show things from Kathleen’s perspective. Michael was convicted of her murder in 2003 but many wonder if an innocent man was sent to prison.
In an interview with Cohn, who co-executive produced Narcos and won a Golden Globe for her work on American Crime Story: Versace, it’s made clear that the goal with The Staircase was not an attempt to unravel this mystery for the viewer.
“We weren’t trying to solve anything,” she explained. “What we realized is that there are multiple truths that can exist at the same time. There’s not a single truth and there’s no way to fully know anything.”
Rather, she says, this is more of a Rorschach test. The limited series offers up three plausible theories as to what happened to Kathleen that night. In one scenario she falls tragically to her death, in another Michael murdered her, and in yet another, that sounds completely implausible but makes sense when it’s laid out, she was attacked by an owl.
“What do you as the viewer see?” Cohn asks. “Any of these options could’ve happened in theory and having multiple versions allowed us to empower the viewer. We wanted to make sure all felt equally plausible. This was done in a way to emphasize that we are never going to truly know what happened that night. We give three viable depictions that make you lean into that and what you lean towards might have to do with the backstory of your life. What am I bringing to this staircase? And why does this single staircase tell so many stories?”
In the first scenario, Kathleen slips and falls twice. “We see that suffering,” says Cohn. In the second scenario, Michael murders Kathleen following an argument. “We wanted to show how an incident like that could happen but in our version, it was not premeditated and no object like a blow poke was used.”
The third scenario was that Kathleen was attacked by an owl. “We wanted to embrace this theory and the idea that something we hadn’t thought of before could’ve been the thing that happened. This series falls into the true-crime genre but we wanted to ask if a crime even occurred.”
The casting, acting, cinematography and editing are exceptional as is the recreation of the Peterson home. Cohn tells me that the exterior is a home in Atlanta, GA, and the interior is a two-story house they built on a soundstage-slash-converted warehouse. She credits production designer Michael Shaw and set decorator Edward McLoughlin for leaving no detail overlooked.
“The house was the epicenter for so much and it’s also a character within the show,” Cohn explains. They aimed to embody the feel of the house and a significant part of their research was the original police footage from that night. “The house, while beautiful, is also crumbling. It was a bit dirty. There were a lot of things everywhere. We thought it represented a bit of turmoil, something that was in transition. It felt a bit tense like there was too much stuff and items were not where they were supposed to be.”
Many questions remain about Michael and Kathleen. Firth and Collette’s magnificent performances give the viewer insight into their lives at the time. For Cohn and Campos, it was important to give Kathleen agency via this character as the documentary focuses on her in the past tense and with this series, we get to see what she was like in life and not just in death.
Cohn points out that many couples have secrets. In this case, Michael had his which included his bisexuality and infidelity. Did Kathleen know as he adamantly stated early on in the investigation? “By the end, he was adamant that she didn’t. For us, that was his grand lie but we also wanted to interrogate his perception of the truth. It was important for us to show that maybe she did know or she didn’t but he doesn’t get to tell us what she knew. He just gets to tell us what he thinks she knew.”
This part of the mystery may never come to light but for Cohn, Kathleen’s death holds an important message. “With the abrupt ending she faced, we wanted at a minimum to show there was more going on with her than anyone knew.”
Also starring are Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Guinee, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Vincent Vermignon, Odessa Young and Parker Posey.