By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
After “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” a portrayal of racism in a Florida murder case, won the Oscar for best feature documentary in 2002, its director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, was urged to repeat his success with a similar story. But he was reluctant to do another “crime story courtroom drama.”
“Filming a crime story never interested me,” he said. “All my films look at specific themes such as death, incest or tolerance. I like films that are like mirrors, sending back images of ourselves.”
Despite his reluctance, he asked U.S. producer Allyson Luchak to help find a case in which the defendant was accused of having killed someone he loved. What she found was the story of the wealthy, well-known author Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen. Mr. de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet made a first trip to the U.S. in January 2002 and shot a few scenes, but didn’t decide to focus on this story until they found out some important details.
“It is obvious to me that if the wealthy, famous, white writer Michael Peterson hadn’t been bisexual, the case would never have come to court,” Mr. de Lestrade said. “It appeared to me that Michael Peterson’s case could also be a story of exclusion, of segregation, but of another kind.”
Mr. Poncet noted that after a few months of shooting, they realized that they had much more than a two-hour documentary. “Because of the amazing twists in the story from day one, we decided to turn it into a series,” he said. It took six months for the Maha Films documentary crew to build trust with the Peterson family. Mr. de Lestrade recounted his struggle to determine how much distance he needed from someone who may have been a murderer.
“I made a deal with him,” Mr. de Lestrade said. “I told him, ‘All I know is that for now there is nothing in the DA’s case that shows me you committed this crime. If anything comes along to change my mind, we will have to have a talk.'”
Building trust with the other participants wasn’t as successful. Although the filmmakers were able to cover courtroom proceedings and the defense, the prosecutor eventually pulled away from providing access. “We were much closer to the family than the prosecution would have liked,” Mr. Poncet said. “They were afraid we’d leak information to the defense. I can understand their point of view, but of course we never would have done that.”
“The Staircase,” an eight-episode documentary, aims to tell a complex story without a voice-over narrative telling the viewer what to think. “I wanted the film to make the viewer think about his or her views of couples, love, desire and sexual ambiguity,” Mr. de Lestrade said.
“Although it is a real story, it is edited in such a way that you don’t know whether it’s fiction or nonfiction,” added Mr. Poncet, who noted that he and Mr. de Lestrade still “do not agree exactly” on what actually happened.
Finding a home on Sundance Channel, which is well-known for documentaries, was a natural. Laura Michalchyshyn, the channel’s executive VP of programming and marketing, said the acquisition and programming executives were immediately wowed when they saw a rough cut of the series at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
“We used ‘The Staircase’ as one of our very major launches for the year,” she said. “We treated it the way any network would treat the major launch of, say, a new Steven Bochco drama. There was a moment of hesitation, but we were convinced that this program had the pedigree. And the audience responded.”
That’s an understatement. According to Mr. Poncet, “The Staircase” has run in 42 major markets around the world. The filmmakers are now working on another courtroom-based documentary in Miami and a documentary series related to hospitals in Detroit.