Trap: Michael Peterson Blast’s HBO Series & Documentary Director

Antonio Campos’ portrayal of documentary filmmakers Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet in HBO Max’s “The Staircase” has sparked a public dispute over their portrayal in the miniseries adaptation. But now the real main subject of both series – Michael Peterson – speaks out in an exclusive series of emails to Variety

Peterson’s wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of their North Carolina home in 2001. Authorities found that Peterson, who identifies as bisexual, had sexual relations with men. He was charged with murdering his wife and convicted in 2003. He is now free, after the charges were reduced to manslaughter in a new trial.

Peterson allowed a camera crew to film him and his family while he waited for the trial, which became an extended documentary series that premiered in 2004 (it’s streaming on Netflix). While Peterson isn’t happy with Campos’ HBO series, he’s furious with de Lestrade.

“I’ve read about Jean de Lestrade’s sense of betrayal by Antonio Campos and HBO Max’s presentation of ‘The Staircase,’ but what has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family,” he says. “We feel like Jean pimped us – sold OUR story to Campos for money – what word but pimped describes what he did?”

De Lestrade produced and directed the docuseries. In addition to compensation, he received co-executive producer credit for the adaptation starring Colin Firth as Peterson.

“He released his archive to Campos, who then made a fictitious account of events, most of which destroyed me (which I really don’t care about) and my children — which I really care about,” said Peterson. “There are blatant fabrications and distortions of truth in the HBO series, well beyond what could be considered ‘artistic’ licensing.”

One of the revelations of the case is that Peterson knew a second acquaintance, a neighbor in Germany, who also died from falling down a flight of stairs.

De Lestrade suggests that Campos would have made the miniseries without his involvement. He says that when he met Campos more than a decade ago to discuss fictionalizing the “The Staircase,” the eventual showrunner made it clear to him that Peterson and his case were in the public domain. At the time, Fox Searchlight was involved in turning the story into an indie film. In the end, de Lestrade decided to sell Campos the rights to his materials, the actual amount of which is disputed by de Lestrade and Peterson.

“Knowing that Antonio wanted to tell Michael’s story and the documentary, I thought it would be better to cooperate and be involved in the process than to be left out as a stranger,” says de Lestrade. “In a way I thought I was protecting Michael and his family by being involved, but I was wrong.”

In an interview with Varietyde Lestrade says he never looked at Campos’ scripts and was not involved in the HBO Max production, despite his production credit for the series.

“Antonio and I talked a lot over the years and I really thought he got the story right,” says de Lestrade. “So when they started the writing process, there were writers in the same room with lots of ideas and they worked many hours. I couldn’t be involved in that process from Paris. Since I really trusted Antonio, I didn’t ask for the script either. I know it’s hard to understand, but I know now that I can’t trust anyone in this business. I should have asked. It is my mistake.”

Campos did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Peterson’s statements about the miniseries, whose finale aired on June 9. HBO Max had no comment on disputes swirling around the fictional series. Each episode includes a disclaimer that it is “a dramatization based on certain facts”.

In his email to VarietyAccording to Peterson, de Lestrade never informed him that he sold materials to Campos. De Lestrade disputes this, saying he told the Peterson family in and around 2008 that Campos wanted to make a feature film about the docuseries. De Lestrade can’t remember if he informed Peterson about the HBO Max series.

“If I hadn’t done it, I should have done it,” admits de Lestrade.

While de Lestrade claims he was paid only €7,500 ($9370) for the materials he sold to Campos, Peterson claims the director should have been wary of the deal and concerned about the Peterson family. He also states that the filmmaker received significantly more than that amount.

“Jean should have known that when you sell your ass/property, you risk getting fucked/betrayed,” says Peterson. “Every whore knows this. So he was betrayed/fucked. Why should he be surprised? He was compensated – paid off. But we didn’t sell our story to Campos – we were never even consulted or informed that Jean had done so. We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely portrayed as fighting among themselves (which NEVER happened), and with made-up storylines that denigrate us all in the eyes of millions.”

Campos’ dramatization shows de Lestrade and Brunet as a documentary director and editor who are ethically compromised. Shortly after the May 5 premiere of the first episode of “The Staircase,” de Lestrade and Brunet accused Campos and fellow showrunner Maggie Cohn of taking their artistic freedom too far. But Peterson feels no sympathy for de Lestrade.

“It is unfair and hypocritical of Jean to talk about his integrity which was tested when he sold himself to Campos and showed no integrity or sense of responsibility towards us,” said Peterson.

Peterson continues: “He is the person responsible for what happened to us, and while I am very angry with Campos for all the liberties he took with the truth (and for stealing my book “Behind the Staircase” – the only source for his prison scenes, and for which I received no compensation of course), I am angrier at Jean, who should have had our best interests at heart when he sold our story. I have no sympathy for him, any more than I would for a whore contracted an STD after peddling her ass Sounds harsh, but look at the result for our family for what he did.

De Lestrade feels empathy for Peterson. “I work in France for a big drama show,” he says. “I don’t have to sell the rights to [‘The Staircase’] to make money. But I can really understand Michael’s position because [the series is] terrible for him and his family. But I think I really tried to do it in the documentary with tremendous respect for Michael and all his children.”

Peterson claims that de Lestrade received $75,000 for the sale of the rights to the docuseries material, pointing to his knowledge of previous deals to modify the project, but the filmmaker vehemently refutes that, stating that the production company may received a greater amount than he. According to Peterson, even that controversial amount was too small for the damage the miniseries inflicted on his family.

“I like and respect Jean, but no matter how he tries to spin it, he received somewhere around $75,000 for our story, a paltry sum, especially in light of the horrific damage my family has suffered,” said Peterson. “And he failed to mention how he opened his entire archive of images about us to Antonio.”

Peterson told Variety that he plans to be in New York this weekend for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “Subject,” a documentary that explores the topic of ethics in documentaries. Peterson’s daughter Margaret Ratliff, herself a documentary maker, is taking part, as is her father.

Peterson writes, “I intend to bring up the ethics of documentary filmmakers in selling their documentary to others who could exploit them, as Antonio and HBO did with us.”

Here’s Peterson’s first email to: Variety

Dear Ms Morfoot,

These are my first public comments on the HBO Max and the French documentary Staircase. Warning: Follow obscenities. Blame my daughter Margaret – she gave me your email address.

I’ve read about Jean de Lastrade’s sense of betrayal by Antonio Campos and HBO Max’s presentation of Staircase, but what has been forgotten or overlooked or simply ignored is his betrayal of me and my family.

We feel like Jean pimped us – sold OUR story to Campos for money – what word but pimped describes what he did? He released his archive to Campos, who then made a fictional account of events, most of which destroyed me (which I really don’t care about) and my children – which I really care about. There are blatant fabrications and distortions of truth in the HBO series, well beyond what might be considered “artistic” licensing.

Jean should have known that when you sell your ass/property you risk getting fucked/betrayed. Every whore knows this. So he was betrayed/fucked. Why should he be surprised? He was compensated – paid off.

But we didn’t sell our story to Campos – we were never even consulted or informed that Jean had done so. We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely portrayed as fighting among themselves (which NEVER happened), and with made-up storylines that denigrate us all in the eyes of millions.

It is unfair and hypocritical of Jean to talk about his integrity which was tested when he sold himself to Campos and showed no integrity or sense of responsibility towards us. He is the person responsible for what happened to us, and although I am very angry with Campos for all the liberties he took with the truth (and for stealing my book Behind the Staircase – the only source for his prison scenes , and for which I received no compensation of course), I am angrier at Jean who should have had our best interests in mind when he sold our story. I have no sympathy for him any more than I would for a whore who contracted an STD after sucking her ass.

Sounds harsh – but look at the result for our family for what he did.

Best regards and best wishes, Michael Peterson

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