By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Sundance Channel’s documentary “The Staircase” unfolds slowly and deceptively.
In the opening scenes, novelist Michael Peterson takes the cameras through his Durham, N.C., house as he matter-of-factly re-creates the last evening of his wife’s life, before he found her bleeding and unconscious, having seemingly fallen down the stairs. But by the end of the first of eight 45-minute episodes, prosecutors are talking about their belief that Mr. Peterson bludgeoned his wife to death.
Subsequent installments quickly reveal more twists and turns: Mr. Peterson’s hidden gay sexual encounters; a close family friend who died 17 years earlier after an eerily similar fall; a possible murder weapon, at first missing, that turns up to seemingly undermine the prosecution’s claims.
The Peabody committee called the controversial murder case “merely the backdrop for the intimate, grippingly constructed eight-chapter documentary in which director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade explores a complex defendant, his divided family and his spare-no-expense defense.”
The program, which is the first Peabody Award winner for Sundance Channel, had its own convoluted route to air. Producer Denis Poncet, 57, and Mr. de Lestrade, 42, partners in Maha Productions, were fresh off their HBO documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” which won an Oscar in 2002, and scouting for another crime story for HBO. They knew of Mr. Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf from an earlier trial, and when they were tipped off to the Peterson case just a few weeks after Mrs. Peterson’s death in December 2001, they requested a meeting, Mr. Poncet said.
Mr. Rudolf was a fan of “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” and Mr. Peterson agreed to allow complete access because Mr. Poncet and Mr. de Lestrade were filmmakers, not journalists, Mr. Poncet said. The judge and prosecution also agreed to allow access, although prosecutors later reneged.
The filmmakers suspected going in that the prosecution was going to play up the gay angle, but they didn’t anticipate the many twists that surfaced later in the case, Mr. Poncet said.
Meanwhile, even as the story they were telling just got better and better, the original deal to do a two-hour film for HBO and France2 fell apart midstream. ABC News and Canal Plus quickly stepped into the breach.
While ABC ended up airing a two-hour “Primetime” version of the film, it was also the network that suggested the filmmakers expand the story into a longer series. When ABC in the end couldn’t find the eight hours to air the longer program, it allowed Maha to find another U.S. cable outlet.
Sundance executives first saw the film in fall 2004. The initial concern was not about marketing the lengthy film to viewers but a fear that, given the coverage on Court TV, ABC and NBC’s “Dateline,” “Everybody would already know how it would turn out,” said Larry Aidem, the channel’s president and CEO. But in the end, he said, “The storytelling is probably more important than the outcome.”
For Sundance, which is 10 years old this year, the series generated valuable buzz. “The following this series developed was unlike anything Sundance Channel presented before, much of it based on ravenous word of mouth,” Mr. Aidem said.
Mike Nichols, for one, saw the documentary before it premiered and the director told numerous mover-and-shaker friends in the entertainment business about it. “I told him, ‘Whatever we spent on marketing-$2 million, $3 million-it was nothing compared to what you did.’ I kissed his ring,” Mr. Aidem said.
For average viewers, Mr. Aidem said, the channel pitched the film with a “conventional sales hook: ‘Is this a coldblooded murder or a guy being falsely accused?’ Once someone saw the first episode, they were hooked.” An estimated 5 percent to 8 percent of the ad-free channel’s audience watched the film, which premiered in April 2005, “a staggering number for a network like us,” Mr. Aidem said.
No one in the past has gone “as deep into a story as we did,” Mr. Poncet said. “I think it’s a tragedy in front of you as it unfolds,” with a Shakespearean aspect similar to “King Lear.” “It’s the rise and fall of a family,” he said. While the jury found Mr. Peterson guilty, Mr. Poncet said, “I know about this story 10 to 20 times more than the jury, and I still don’t know what happened.”
Sundance and Maha are now talking about another project. In addition, Mr. Poncet said, he and Mr. de Lestrade are working on three fiction films, a PBS project on Ernest Hemingway and other series. Mr. Poncet, who is based in Paris, said he is contemplating a move to the United States.