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Why 'The Staircase' Includes the Docuseries (and Owl Theory) in Its Exploration of a 'Spectrum of Innocence'

'To a certain extent, the show is like the Titanic: you know it's going to sink,' says co-showrunner Maggie Cohn.
by Danielle Turchiano — 
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Colin Firth and Toni Collette in 'The Staircase'

HBO Max

When showrunners Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn embarked upon adapting The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's 2004 docuseries, into a dramatized limited series of the same title with one clear tenant: "If you're going to do The Staircase as a drama, you have to include the documentary," Campos tells Metacritic.

The docuseries follows Michael Peterson just after he was arrested for allegedly murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson in 2001 and through the trial that saw him eventually enter an Alford plea. It features an interview with him where he recounts finding his wife at the bottom of the stairs in their home and calls 9-1-1, but it also digs into their relationship, his sexuality, the death of a family friend whose end was very similar to Kathleen's, and theories around why he might have wanted to harm his wife, as well as alternative theories of the circumstances around her death, including accidental and an infamous owl attack idea.

Campos, who also directs six of the eight episodes of The Staircase, says the story first came to him in 2008 as a potential feature film adaptation. That was already a few years after the original docuseries aired (although de Lestrade released a sequel in 2013). Immediately, he saw the potential in telling a wider story that included incorporating the documentarians as characters not only because they were such a big, important, long-term part of the Peterson family's life during the aftermath of Kathleen's death, but also because he was told that the documentarians had "very different opinions about Michael Peterson and what happened that night."

"Right there, it was like, 'Oh, wow, that's great' because you have these two very strong characters with very strong opinions observing this thing and almost acting as our Greek chorus," he explains.

Campos and Cohn's version of The Staircase stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen Peterson, respectively. It begins with the December 2001 evening Kathleen died and then moves non-linearly in time to reconstruct pivotal moments of the couple's life together, their previous relationships, infidelity accusations against Michael, and the frenzy that unfolded around their family in the wake of her death. The documentarians don't come in until mid-way through the story, but when they do, the story opens up even further.

"To a certain extent, the show is like the Titanic: you know it's going to sink. We wanted to show, why did it happen? Who did it happen to? How did it make them feel?" Cohn tells Metacritic. "We wanted to use the research and the quote-unquote facts as scaffolding for the project: It helps us to build our narrative, it helps protect the narrative, and then you take it down. So, it's intrinsic to it, but it's not the entirety of it. We wanted to show what these characters lives were like before the incident, how the incident directly impacted them, and then give a glimpse into what happened decades later after something like this occurred."

Visually, Campos and Cohn's The Staircase was inspired by the docuseries before it — especially when it comes to handheld camerawork, Campos shares, noting he actively wanted to take a similar approach to de Lestrade's use of "camera and restraint" — their show diverges from the docuseries in its purpose. And it does feature dramatized versions of everything from the 9-1-1, to Michael's first interview, and yes, even the owl theory (which Campos says they had to treat seriously because it was a very real part of the case). But it doesn't recreate the entire previous series experience.

"If I felt like I needed to put in my favorite things from a documentary, there would be the scene with the acting coach, but it just didn't fit in our story," Campos says. "It all came down to, what was the most relevant thing, thematically?"

And what was most relevant to the showrunners was going behind the scenes with the Peterson family characters, in a way. This highlights nuances in relationships and different people's truths, but it also showcases a "spectrum of innocence," Cohn says.

"The goal of true crime, and I hate to generalize, is focusing on finding the truth behind the crime. And in this one, what we wanted to do was show that there was no one, single truth," Cohn says. "Guilt is a bigger word than just what happened on that staircase. We offer three viable scenarios, and none of them are premeditated in any sense, other than all of them lead you to that outcome and you believe that it was possible. We show how justice is also story and that there is no truth in that because you have a defense and a prosecutor using the same facts to tell completely different stories."

The show includes three different depictions of Kathleen's death in order to show the possibilities of what happened that December 2001 night.

"All three show our twist on the conventionally accepted theories," Cohen explains. "The first is delivered by the defense and shows our version of the fall — how a horrible home accident could have gone wrong. The second is supported by the prosecution and demonstrates how Michael Peterson could have been responsible for her death. The third — the owl theory — is doggedly pursued by Sophie, who desperately wants to prove Michael's innocence. This theory shows how entropy, the chaos that enters any organized system, precipitated Kathleen's fall and untimely death. More specifically, this popular off-the-wall theory is a great way to suggest that the possibilities of what happened to Kathleen in her staircase are endless, and that we'll never truly know what occurred. In short, if an owl could be partially responsible, anything could have happened."


The Staircase is

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