Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade on his 16-year obsession with ‘The Staircase,’ and what it is really like to interview Michael Peterson
Get ready for your new Netflix fixation
It is hard to know where to even begin with The Staircase.
You could start at 2:41am on the morning of December 9, 2001, the moment that Michael Peterson called 911 to report that he had found his wife Kathleen unconscious at the bottom of their stairs.
But then you’d need to mention the hours before, when Kathleen had sustained the injuries that led to her death. Plus, there are two key instances and revelations from the years and decades before that become integral, too.
Then there’s the fact that director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade has been following the investigation, trial and every other detail of the case for the last 16-years. As a result, Lestrade has created the 13-episode crime documentary epic “The Staircase,” which he filmed over three separate periods.
Or so I thought. Because when I spoke to Lestrade about “The Staircase” earlier this week I asked him what it was like to return to the documentary, only for him to insist, “I never quit ‘The Staircase’. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character.”
“It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”
The various details and uncertainties surrounding the death of Kathleen Peterson, such as the severity of her injuries and the amount of blood around her from a seemingly innocuous fall, means that there has always been a cloud of mystery over both the case and Michael Peterson.
That was something that Lestrade picked up straight away.
“I remember the first time that I met Michael Peterson. He was talking about his wife, and his love for her, and it was very convincing.”
“At the same time, though, I said, ‘OK, I am sure he loved his wife. But sometimes you could feel that there was something else. That you didn’t know all the truth or all the story.’ Of course he is a very complex character, very articulate. And very interesting to follow.”
Peterson was so interesting in fact that Lestrade immediately knew that he wouldn’t fit the story into his original 2-hour plan. Especially since Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf gave Lestrade and his team unprecedented access.
In the end, Lestrade underestimated the length of “The Staircase” by around 505 minutes, as the entire running time of all 13 episodes is 10 hours and 5 minutes long.
“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be.”
“Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a 2-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an 8-hour documentary series. But after 6 months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in 2 hours.”
“We needed to convince someone, somewhere to back us to make it longer. Because of the singularity of the character and the case. The case is a great mystery.”
“You don’t know if it is a murder. I started to be obsessed by the case itself. And the character. Because Michael Peterson is such a good character. Because he is a mystery, too.”
You can get wrapped up in the mystery of “The Staircase” when all 13 episodes, which includes 3 brand new installments, are released on Netflix on Friday June 8.