“The Staircase” Making of: Writing, Casting and Score HBO Max Drama

HBO Max’s “The Staircase” takes a unique approach to the true crime genre: all dramatization of the case against Michael Peterson – who is accused of killing his second wife Kathleen after she died at the bottom of the stairs at their North home Carolina was found – would have to acknowledge that Miscellaneous Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s acclaimed 2004 documentary film that brought the Peterson trial to a worldwide audience. But this one incorporates the making of this documentary into its narrative. With Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Colette (in flashbacks) as Kathleen, the series moves back and forth in time as the secrets of the Peterson family are slowly revealed, along with a portrayal of the French documentary crew who have followed Michael’s story and eventually became an integral part of it. The result is a crime thriller that’s less about solving crimes and more about exploring the complexities of the human heart.

In the videos that follow, writers Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn, casting director Douglas Aibel, and composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans discuss their approach to balancing the different strands of narrative and honoring the entire ensemble by telling a compelling story, when the true story remains open-ended and respectful of the real people and events while serving the needs of the drama.




Writing “The Staircase”

Central to the original documentary is the question of whether or not Michael killed Kathleen. Campos and Cohn knew from the start that their scripted series needed to tackle something equally unfamiliar: the character of Michael himself. It’s unusual for a TV lead to be this impenetrable, but as Cohn and Campos explain in the video above, they haven’t viewed as a problem to be solved, rather than an opportunity to embark on and explore.

Campo’s history with the project dates back over a decade, and the filmmaker admitted that when he watched de Lestrade’s 2017 follow-up film ‘Staircase’ – in which Peterson admits he lied when he told Kathleen he was bisexual – he found himself questioning everything he thought he knew about the man. That on-camera confession, in turn, became a suspenseful moment for Cohn and Campos, who would structure their eight-episode arc so that audiences would have the same experience that Campos had watching the documentary.

The non-linear structure of her series, which rotates between three different timelines over its 17-year history, was dictated more by Kathleen than by Michael. “You have to be able to go back before Kathleen died to get more perspective, so you can experience what life was like before she died, so you understand what could have really happened that night,” Cohn said . “We were really invested in her as a character and knew from the start that she was key to the story. Because just as we showed the three different versions of how she could have died, we had to show that each of those versions was just as possible.”


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The Casting of “The Staircase”

At the beginning of the first episode of “The Staircase” there is a scene showing the Peterson family having a celebratory dinner. Of course, the scene serves multiple purposes: it serves as an introduction to the large, knotted network of siblings and half-siblings brought together by Michael and Kathleen’s marriage, but it also shows the lines of tension and love that ran through the family’s plans Kathleen’s death (or murder) punched a hole in the middle. It’s also a showcase of Douglas Aibel’s casting priorities for the true crime miniseries.

Aibel had to find a small clan of actors who collectively looked plausibly related and who could individually express some sensitivity to the real person they were playing. Aibel was looking for actors who could be the best advocates for their characters and help The Staircase express all of the different, conflicting viewpoints they have about what happened to Kathleen. “As I read the scripts, I felt like they were genuinely trying to be very balanced and non-caricatural, and really getting into the minds and hearts of these characters as best they could,” Aibel said. However, this presented some other challenges in finding the right people for specific roles, particularly those rooted in the court and documentary records of Michael Peterson’s murder trials.

“With Kathleen, in a way, there was more freedom because we know less about her,” Aibel said. “There was quite a rich emotional range for her character on the show, and Toni Collette was just that rare actress who could be sensitive, could be complex, could be funny, could break your heart,” but Kathleen’s sisters acted on the show with Rosemary DeWitt and Maria Dizzia had to be just as layered, even if they angered the family, who sided with Michael. “I felt like we really needed empathetic actors there. Especially with Candice she lost her sister and she believes with all her heart that this man did it and anyone would be passionate under the circumstances. So I felt it was very important that we have a world-class actress in this role.” Watch the video above as Aibel discusses the lead roles in The Staircase and the qualities he needed to find in the actors who fill them.


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The Music of “The Staircase”

“The Staircase” reunited composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans with Antonio Campos, with whom they had worked on features such as “Simon Killer”, “Christine” and “The Devil All the Time”. From the start, they were intrigued by the decision to include the documentary filmmakers in the cast of the series, as well as the touch of humor in the play. “We knew it was going to be a very deep, complex score,” said Bensi, “and very challenging. Each episode was so packed with so many aligned stories — there were all these worlds for us to explore.” The show’s open-ended quality, in which the question of Michael’s guilt is largely left up to the audience, was also part of the appeal — after the composers had overcome their initial confusion about the case. “Honestly, we didn’t really know what to make of this story,” said Bensi. “We tried to ask Antonio, ‘Why are you doing this? Is there an answer? And he said, ‘I’m not telling you. Maybe I don’t even know.’ That was really exciting because we really got stuck in the story.”

The composers chose not to emphasize the moments of comedic relief they discovered. “Antonio described it as Shakespearean tragedy, and that was helpful,” Jurriaans said. “It was our job to really point out that this was a horrific crime or a horrific accident, whatever it was. It was a moment of terror and awfulness.” “Everything is taken very seriously with the score,” added Bensi. “There is no humor. The humor shows in the whimsicality of some of the characters.”

For the theme music, intended to capture the show’s unusual blend of sounds, the composers combined modern, driving sounds with strings, intended to bring both elegance and excitement to the show. “The opening title has that classical or even a bit baroque feel that might reflect this sort of Shakespearean tragedy, but also has a driving tension,” Jurriaans said. “We had this fast move under this slow tune [that became] an overture for the entire eight episodes.”

Besides depicting the cruelty of the central situation, the other main task of the composers was to make the audience feel something for Michael. According to Jurriaans, they took their cues from the actor who plays the accused killer. “Colin Firth’s performance was so deep and nuanced that it was a pleasure to score because we didn’t have to correct his performance in any way, it just improved,” said Jurriaans. “We’re looking at the screen and really trying to make sure there’s some sort of life to this tune that connects you to the character,” Bensi said, noting that the musicians reacting to the on-screen material as they play is of the utmost importance – even if it leads to imperfections in the score. “The musicians have to be right with us and play along with all those tactile strings and a humanistic approach to how we play. All the space between the notes and the silences are very, very important and we pay close attention to that.”—Jim Hemphill, Chris O’Falt and Sarah Shachat

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https://www.indiewire.com/craft-considerations/the-staircase-making-of-writing-casting-score-1234787997/ “The Staircase” Making of: Writing, Casting and Score HBO Max Drama

Lindsay Lowe

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