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“The Staircase," the new HBO Max dramatic series, is a dramatization of French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s docuseries of the same name — which is depicted in the new show.
The fiction series portrays de Lestrade and other members of the crew, including producer Denis Poncet and editor Sophie Brunet, as they follow novelist Michael Peterson, who was convicted of his wife Kathleen Peterson's murder.
As the series showed, the filmmakers began filming Peterson and his family shortly after he was indicted for murder in connection with Kathleen’s death. Her bloody and battered body was found at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home in 2001. Peterson has always maintained that she must have fatally injured herself in a fall.
A jury, mostly convinced by blood splatter testimony, convicted him of his murder in 2003. The docuseries began airing in 2004.
De Lestrade — portrayed by Vincent Vermignon in the new HBO Max series — and his crew resumed filming Peterson and his family in 2012 and 2013, as Peterson and his defense team fought to overturn his conviction. They filed motions asserting that former North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Duane Deaver had provided unreliable testimony; in 2011, Deavers had been fired from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation after allegedly providing false testimony at a number of trials.
A retrial was ordered for Peterson in 2011 but it became moot, as Peterson instead entered an Alford plea — a guilty plea whereby a defendant does not admit to the criminal act — to manslaughter charges in 2017 to avoid a second trial. He was released on time served. Three new episodes were then added to the series, and in 2018, Netflix added all 13 episodes to its streaming service.
De Lestrade studied journalism and law before creating his own TV news agency, Tribulations, in 1987, according to his IMDb page. He became a freelance director in 1992 and on his IMDb's biography, he said he likes to make work that “scrutinizes the mechanisms of society.”
Peterson’s case wasn’t the first American criminal case on which de Lestrade had focused. He created a documentary entitled “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” which focused on the case of Brenton Butler, a Black 15-year-old who was wrongfully accused of murder in Florida. De Lestrade won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2001 for that film, the News & Observer reports.
During the making of “The Staircase,” there was plenty of drama on the set. His editor, Brunet, reportedly fell in love with Peterson while filming the initial docuseries. They then apparently had an affair which lasted more a decade, de Lestrade told L'Express, a French newsweekly in 2018.
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