While “The Staircase,” HBO Max’s dramatized re-telling of the 2004 true crime documentary, isn’t exactly a recreation, it’s easy to get confused between the fact and fiction of the two while watching them back-to-back.
David Rudolf — the real-life North Carolina defense lawyer who represented Michael Peterson after he was accused of killing his wife Kathleen — knows this, and he isn’t happy about it.
“I get it,” Rudolf told Variety. “And that’s the problem.”
The new series takes a bird’s-eye-view of the case, and includes the documentarians as characters in the story. Following the premiere of the new series on May 5, in a lengthy May 13 story in Vanity Fair, Rudolf and the documentary’s original filmmakers — director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, producers Allyson Luchak and Matthieu Belghiti, and editors Scott Stevenson and Sophie Brunet — accused the new show’s creator, writer and director Antonio Campos, as well as co-showrunner Maggie Cohn, of blurring fact and fiction, with de Lestrade saying he felt “betrayed” after allowing HBO Max unmitigated access to his archives.
Rudolf’s complaints vary in severity: He takes issue with his character (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) meeting Peterson (Colin Firth) over a pastrami sandwich (“We could have put a little blimp over my head saying, ‘Jewish lawyer from New York.’”), but is also concerned by scenes in the series that imply his client hid information from him, and that they regularly became angry with one another. In Episode 3, Sonya Pfeiffer, a reporter who covered the case and eventually married Rudolf (in real life as well as the new series) tells Peterson’s adopted daughters, “Don’t worry, David’s a good friend. I swear I’ll make it painless,” before conducting an on-air interview with them. Rudolf says it’s inaccurate that they were friends, although he says he was “‘friendly’ with everyone who covered the trial.”
“My practice was (and still is, as you can attest) to be available for all members of the media (except Nancy Grace),” Rudolf wrote in an email. “Sonya’s reporting was not ‘friendly’ to the defense or to Michael Peterson … To the extent that scene is meant to suggest I assisted her with any interviews, that would be as much fiction as it is that a criminal defense lawyer is allowed in a Grand Jury proceeding, or that I met Michael Peterson for the first time in a diner eating a pastrami sandwich.”
In the new series, Brunet (Juliette Binoche) is seen corresponding with Peterson while he is in prison, and developing a romantic relationship with him and eventually dating (that part is undisputed). But HBO Max shows Brunet editing courtroom footage of the first eight episodes at the same time, and Brunet told Vanity Fair she did not begin a relationship with Michael until she completed the first eight episodes, and that she never touched courtroom footage (although she said she did edit later episodes while they were involved, and completed the final ones after they had broken up.) The other filmmakers also take issue with lines that depict them butting heads over their opinions on Peterson’s culpability.
“I understand if you dramatize. But when you attack the credibility of my work, that’s really not acceptable to me,” de Lestrade told Vanity Fair.
HBO Max declined to comment, and representatives for Campos and Cohn didn’t respond to a request for comment when Variety contacted them about this story. None of the three commented on the filmmakers’ claims to Vanity Fair.
After the first five (of eight) episodes of “The Staircase” had gone up on HBO Max, Variety spoke with Rudolf to discuss his thoughts about the new series, some of which he’s been sharing in a column for the Charlotte Observer, what he believes they get right and wrong, and how he really felt when he found out his client was dating the editor of the documentary.
You’ve said that you haven’t spoken to the filmmakers of the new series since it began airing, but I did interview Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays you, and he said that he spent a significant amount of time with you.
Oh, absolutely. That’s true.
What were those conversations like on your end?
Michael was very gracious and very interested in talking to me. He came to my office, he came to my house. He met my family. He borrowed the glasses I wore during the trial so he would wear them during his filming. We spoke at great length about all kinds of things. Why I became a criminal defense lawyer, what criminal defense lawyers do, why we do it, how we do it. He was interested in all of it and he was taking notes. So he’s a serious actor. He did his level best to get it right. Part of the problem was there were a couple of scenes that were written for him that were just wildly inaccurate. I don’t think that’s the actor’s fault. That’s the director’s fault and the writers’ fault and the showrunners’ fault. But I have no complaints about Michael. He played me as best he could. Whether he nailed me or not, I can’t tell. But I have no complaints about Michael at all.
And what was your perspective on the show then? Had he talked to you about what was going to be in the show and did you have thoughts about it?
No, he didn’t. He hadn’t even seen the script at that point. I had had a number of interchanges with Antonio over the years. It wasn’t a matter of, “Let me tell you my side of the story.” It was, “Listen, all of these films get the courtroom stuff wrong. And when that happens, people who really understand courtroom stuff immediately get turned off.” It’s like, if you can’t get that right, then why am I bothering watching this thing? And I said to him, “Listen, I’d like you to get it right. Because if you get it wrong, it’s going to undermine the credibility of everything else you do.” And he would not engage with me on that. What he said was, “HBO doesn’t want you to have anything to do with this movie.” That made me anxious, because it’s like, why? I can’t remember if he said this or if I just inferred it, but it was sort of like, “They don’t want to be tainted by having you have anything to do with this movie.” So I gave him the name and contact information of a lawyer in Atlanta, a really prominent criminal defense lawyer, and I said, “If you don’t want to use me, this guy knows what he’s doing. Run the stuff by him.” To my knowledge, they never called him. Now, I don’t know whether they had some other consultant, but if they did, he was abysmal because he approved things that just don’t ever happen.
What stands out to you in these first five episodes from a legal or factual perspective that you feel that they’re getting wrong?
I never asked [medical examiner] Deborah Radisch and never would ask Deborah Radisch, “Did Jim Harden coach you to say that?” I mean, it’s a stupid question. It makes me look stupid. There’s the scene where Bill Peterson is allegedly selling the furniture to write checks to the lawyers doing the appeal, namely us. Is that meant to sort of send the message? “Oh, the greedy lawyers, even after their client’s convicted, they’re still forcing him to sell everything he owns to do an appeal.” I don’t know if that’s the point, but the reality was that we never charged Michael a penny after the trial. I covered the expenses myself because I wanted to get it undone. They have Michael telling me about Germany. There’s a little thing — “four weeks before trial.” No, the body got dug up four weeks before trial because the prosecution waited that long. But they’re basically implying that Michael hid this from me for a year and a half. That’s not only wrong, it’s unfair to Michael. Whatever you think about him, whether you think he is guilty or not guilty, he didn’t hide anything from me.
When did you find out about Michael Peterson’s romantic relationship with Sophie Brunet, one of the editors of the documentary?
Not for several years. I first found out about it, I can’t tell you when, but it was much, much after the fact. I had no idea. I probably found out about it around the time of the post-trial hearing in 2011. But I can’t be certain of that.
And what was your reaction at the time to that?
My reaction was, that’s really strange. Believe it or not, there are women in this world who become pen pals with inmates and form these relationships, and they’ve always struck me as being weird and being women who were incredibly needy, and it sort of being a form of an abusive relationship one way or the other. It just never seemed — I don’t know what the right word is — normal to me. But Sophie was an intelligent, independent woman. So when I found out about it, it was strange to me. But then, if you think about how much time she spent editing footage of the family, of Michael relating to the kids, of Michael relating to his brother, of Michael relating to Patty. I guess, putting in that context, I could see where somebody would become attracted to somebody in a way that you would get to know somebody if you were dating them. So I sort of put it in that context. I started out feeling like this is strange, and then I thought to myself, “OK, maybe it’s not as strange as all those other situations where somebody just writes a letter, has never seen or talked to the person, and all of a sudden they’re boyfriend-girlfriend.”
Did you have concerns at the time about that affecting the integrity of the documentary?
No, because the eight episodes had come out in 2005 on Sundance. Those were the episodes. And at the time, Netflix wasn’t involved. I didn’t know that there were going to be additional episodes. So it was more of a curiosity to me. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, what’s this going to do to our Netflix deal five years from now?” It was, “OK, that’s weird.” Now I understand it. I thought about it, but no, the doc was done years earlier.
What was your reaction when the initial docuseries premiered?
It was very difficult for me to watch because I had lost the trial. I went to Paris and I spent two days, 4 hours each day watching the episodes. And it was among the most depressing two days that I can remember, because keep in mind, at that point, Michael was doing life in prison. So I’m watching this, and I’m having trouble believing that my client is doing life in prison. I watched it and it brought me right back to that moment when the jury came in. After I finished watching it, they were going to their wrap party or whatever you do when you finish editing a film. They invited me and I said, “Guys, I appreciate it. I can’t go.” I go back to my hotel room and go to sleep. So does that answer your question? I didn’t think it was tilted one way or the other. There were some things in there that I didn’t like, but there weren’t things in there that I thought were unfair. Those are editorial choices. And I didn’t feel like I had any right to try to dictate what scenes were in and what scenes were not at all. All I wanted to make sure of is that there was nothing in there that was going to be misleading to anyone. I didn’t think there was.
In the HBO Max series, there’s a scene where you and Peterson have an argument about the news that Elizabeth Ratliff, his adopted daughters’ birth mother, also died at the bottom of a flight of stairs in Germany. You-via-Michael Stuhllbarg say, “You found another woman at the bottom of the stairs? … What the fuck, Mike? We’re four weeks out! How could you not tell me?” How accurate is that interaction?
Zero. I mean, how do you just make that up? Especially when in the documentary it shows us going to Germany to investigate. If you watched the documentary, there’s an entire episode where [investigator] Ron [Guerette] and I were in Germany talking to the prosecutor, going to the house, talking to Patty, watching the parade. How do you then claim that Michael didn’t tell us when you absolutely know for a fact that we were there a year earlier? Why would you twist that fact? Unless you were trying to create a false impression of Michael to further your narrative or your motive or your storyline, and I don’t think that comes within creative license.
There’s a scene in Episode 5 in which Peterson calls you from prison angry because he’s found out that he lost his appeal on the news, and you have a conversation.
Never happened. Michael found out about the denial of the appeal on the news, because by that point I had moved to Charlotte, or at least I was commuting to Charlotte and he was in a prison. So I’m sure I didn’t know it was coming out. Did Michael ever talk to me in an angry tone or be mad at me? Never, ever, ever, ever. And that’s extraordinary because there he is, sitting in prison, doing a life sentence, and I can’t tell you the percentage of cases where that happens, where immediately the client turns on their lawyer and alleges the lawyer was ineffective and that’s their way to try to get out of prison. Michael never did that. Michael understood that I’m not perfect, but I worked as hard and thought as hard about that case as a human being could. But, no, never, ever did Michael ever raise his voice at me or call me upset.
And vice versa? There are some scenes where you’re sort of getting angry at him, too, in the end here.
A lot of people don’t like Michael. He’s a little bit odd. I get that. But we shared a similar view of humanity, so Michael and I got along really well. Now, there were times when I would say to him, “Michael, what are you thinking about?” But never in an angry way. And we talked through everything. The whole thing about him testifying, I mean, that was a group decision. We had like eight people around the table. Everybody got to say their piece. There was never any tension between us.
What, if anything, do you think the current series is doing correctly?
I never saw Michael and Kathleen in real life interacting with people, but we must have talked to 10 or 12 couples who socialized with them on a frequent basis. Every single one of them described their relationship in the same way, which was things like they would finish each other’s sentences, they would tease each other. They had a great sense of humor. They were sarcastic. In those first couple of episodes, that is captured pretty well. The other thing they got absolutely true was the tunnel vision that the police and the prosecutors had right from the start. Those scenes at the beginning where they’re really focusing on the confirmation bias and the tunnel vision of the D.A. and the police were very accurate.
Are there any performances throughout the series that you’re particularly impressed by or unimpressed by?
Well, I thought Colin Firth did a pretty good job with Michael Peterson, to be honest. I don’t know if Michael would agree with that, but I thought it was pretty good. I can’t can’t comment on Toni Collette because I never met Kathleen. Oh, Parker Posey did a very good Freda Black. When they get it right, that’s a really nice thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.