Exclusive: ‘The Staircase’ showrunner on creating a show that digs into the complexity of uncertainty

hbo the staircase critics
Image via HBO

Today’s season finale of The Staircase isn’t interested in settling the now decades-long debate over whether or not Michael Peterson killed his wife, Kathleen. Instead, it focuses on how people build their own truths. We Got This Covered caught up with showrunner Maggie Cohn at the ATX TV Festival to talk about uncertainty, true crime as entertainment, and, yes, owls.

“People believe justice gives, it provides an answer….and one of our main theses was that justice is a story as well,” says Cohn, whose previous credits include The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. “And what’s really interesting about justice is that you use the same facts to tell different stories.”

The series, a fictionalized take on the 2004 docuseries of the same name, goes beyond faithful adaptation of the documentary with A-List actors. Instead, it picks apart how people make conclusions about guilt and innocence. The facts are as follows: Michael (Colin Firth) found his wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) dead from head injuries. Years earlier, he found his neighbor, Elizabeth Ratliff, dead at the bottom of a staircase from a head injury.

Though Michael maintains his innocence, he was convicted of Kathleen’s murder and later was released from prison on an Alford plea, which required him to legally admit guilt. Whether or not his version of the truth holds water has been the subject of debate since 2001, particularly after a French documentary crew followed him on and off from 2003 to 2017.

Making the series, Cohn and creator Antonio Campos went directly to the source when possible, speaking to many of the people featured in the documentary and behind the scenes. The documentarians also gave them access to their complete backlog of unedited footage. They also browsed Reddit, where true crime obsessives will argue over the case until their fingers bleed. As was shown so clearly in the recent Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial, evidence — even recorded audiovisual footage of actual events — is more open to interpretation than some of us are comfortable admitting.

The Staircase peels back the curtain on how the documentary itself was made, introducing the film crew. Sophie Brunet, an accomplished film editor whose credits include Blue Is The Warmest Color, edited both versions of the docuseries, and eventually began a romantic relationship with Peterson. Juliette Binoche takes on the role, and we see how the trial derails her life as she goes from editing the footage in her office in Paris to visiting Michael in prison, frustrated with what she considers a miscarriage of justice.

“Antonio and myself and the other writers [had] the idea of the Greek chorus,” says Cohn of Binoche’s role. “That you kind of need characters within your story who speak to perhaps more directly than others to what the viewer may be experiencing in this moment.”

One character central to The Staircase, Kathleen herself, is absent from the documentary, of course. In Cohn’s adaptation, Collette brings her to life, enacting not only her last few months, but three versions of her death: by murder, in an accidental fall, and via a predator from the sky. We’ll get to that.

Kathleen, when we meet her, is stressed about money and complicated family dynamics. There’s tension in her marriage, but also passion. You get the sense of a woman approaching her breaking point, and whether she dies by foul play, or a tragic fall after a few poolside glasses of wine, proves irrelevant to Collette’s portrait; instead of tidy conclusions, what this series offers is catharsis, a dramatic illustration of the turbulence of uncertainty.

In the penultimate episode, Collette’s and Binoche’s characters have a moment of synchronicity as both women slam their hands down on the table. Binoche’s character exclaims, “This is crazy.”

“It’s kind of the first time that we’ve heard it in the entire series, but it’s kind of what everyone’s been thinking since the first episode, that regardless of what the quote-unquote truth of the situation is, it’s always going to be crazy. Crazy in the way that it it doesn’t somehow follow the physics and the rules of life as we hope to know them to be like. We want to believe that life is kind of following this line…if you do this, this happens if you do this, this happens, and there’s some form of control. And really what The Staircase was about was the fact that there is no control.”

The so-called Owl Theory, a perspective seemingly built in a lab for the armchair detectives online, represents that chaos, laying the blame for Peterson’s death on a totally random act of nature. It’s one theory the creators of the HBO Max series are willing to rule out based on their research. Still, it’s crucial to the narrative.

Joel McKinnon Miller walks a fine line playing Larry Pollard, Peterson’s neighbor and the Owl Theory author, in providing some levity in the retelling of a very real tragedy. His determination is a foil to the absurdity of his proposal. And for Binoche’s Brunet, it’s something to cling to; she wants to believe. As for Kathleen and Michael’s blended family, they seem afraid to think critically about the events that brought two women to meet their fate on staircases, save for Kathleen’s daughter from a previous marriage, who believes he’s guilty. They’re aware and constantly reminded to keep a united front with their father, so much so that their own anguish is pushed aside.

“This is not just a story about a crime,” explains Cohn. “But it’s a story about trauma and grief and how that evolves over time.”

Still, Cohn is quick to caution against uncertainty giving way to nihilism, citing the work the Innocence Project is doing to overturn wrongful convictions as an important example of justice served.

“Hopefully, that’s the conclusion that we reach at the end — that there was an evolution in terms of how people understand story and also an evolution how people are able to talk about endings,” says Cohn. “There’s room for multiple perspectives. I think [that’s] a good goal.”

The Staircase is streaming now on HBO Max in full.