Paris — French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's riveting eight-part documentary, "The Staircase" -- which debuted to rave reviews in April on the Sundance Channel, where it is airing in its entirety tonight -- follows the trial of novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, in North Carolina in 2001. With its polished production values, emotional cello score and lack of voice-over narration, some viewers have wondered if "The Staircase" is simply too well-acted, perfectly cast and bizarrely suspenseful to be true.
"I made a documentary in the form of a drama," De Lestrade said during a recent interview that included his producing partner, Denis Poncet, in their modest office on a busy street in the 11th arrondissement. "I can't go farther than that, or I will be breaking the rules."
With a promise not to show any footage until after the trial ended, the filmmakers had unprecedented access to Peterson's $1-million defense team, and carte blanche to film Peterson at home with his dogs and the four of his five children who stood behind him throughout the trial. It would have been impossible to make such a documentary in France, said De Lestrade, where people are "more suspicious of the camera" and filming is not allowed in courtrooms.
Poncet noted that American subjects come across on film as "actors in their own lives -- characters who become practically movie characters."
"It can have a perverse effect," added De Lestrade, who said it took six months of the 20-month shoot to get people to stop playing for the camera.
Once they did, De Lestrade meticulously shot almost 700 hours of footage, elegantly crafting it into a mesmerizing six-hour film that has all the moral complexity of a tragic play set in the cultural context of a deeply divided America.
Courts under a microscope
This is not the first time that De Lestrade, 41, and Poncet, 56, a former foreign correspondent who covered Watergate during five years in Washington, D.C., have taken on an explosive American subject since founding Maha Films in 1999. "Murder on a Sunday Morning," their 2001 documentary about a black teenager falsely accused of killing a white tourist in Florida, won an Academy Award. For their next project, they set out to find someone "white, rich, who has the means to defend himself, and to see how the American justice system functioned," De Lestrade said.
After reviewing dozens of cases, they settled on the Peterson affair when De Lestrade, unsure of the novelist's innocence or guilt, nevertheless had "the profound sentiment that Michael Peterson was prosecuted for the values he represented." A Vietnam vet, Peterson wrote novels about the war and newspaper columns denouncing local corruption, and despite his being by all accounts happily married, the police discovered that he paid men for sex on the side.
"For the white establishment, he's a traitor," said the tall, handsome De Lestrade, who speaks in a gentle voice and gives thoughtful, two-part answers. "In my opinion, he was prosecuted for being a danger to the values defended by the prosecution, which match up more or less with the values defended by Bush -- very conservative, religious, a narrow vision of life. I think the prosecution tried to present a sensible scenario that makes people think that life is simple, that makes them feel secure: She discovers he's gay, gets angry, they fight and he kills her, because he was the bad guy and she was the nice one."
Unable to produce a motive, a murder weapon or a single witness to testify that the Peterson marriage was anything less than idyllic, the prosecution painted Peterson as a pervert and a liar. "I think for the prosecution team, it was unimaginable that a relationship like that could function," said De Lestrade, "so it must end in an act of violence. If you say they were a happy couple drinking Champagne by the pool, she decides to go to bed and falls down the stairs and he finds her having bled to death -- that's something that in my opinion makes people profoundly uncomfortable, because it shows how fragile life can be."
While the documentary focuses chiefly on the defense's every backstage move, De Lestrade said that is only because the other side closed the door. "Jim Hardin and Freda Black are really narrow-minded," he said of the prosecution team, adding that the first time he met Hardin, the stone-faced Southern prosecutor "had a hard time even saying the word 'homosexual.' "
"They're used to dealing with journalists who do a minute or two on the news at night, not people filming all the time," he continued. "It must have scared them, because it would have been difficult to control us. But the defense agreed to play the game knowing that if they trusted us and showed us what they had, the film might serve them in the end."