HBO Max’s “The Staircase” miniseries retells one of true crime’s most notorious cases: the death of Kathleen Peterson, through a fall from a staircase in her home. Although her husband Michael Peterson was convicted of murder in 2003, he was eventually released, and to this day nobody knows exactly how Kathleen died. So for “The Staircase,” the creators decided to commit to three reenactments to explore all the possible ways it could have happened: the solo fall, the fight and the owl theory.
“We felt a lot of pressure,” series creator, showrunner and executive producer Antonio Campos told Variety. “I remember, when something wasn’t right, we’d be like ‘it’s called the Staircase! We just need to get this right.'”
Campos was joined by executive producer and writer Maggie Cohn and actor Toni Collette, who portrayed Kathleen, for Variety’s “Making a Scene,” presented by HBO. In a conversation with Variety deputy editor Meredith Woerner, the three discussed the three depictions of Kathleen’s death that are seen over the course of the miniseries, and broke down how the sequences were staged and shot.
First, the crew had to create the staircases. After a team scouted the real staircase from the Peterson’s former house, it became clear they couldn’t exactly replicate the scene itself. After hours spent analyzing floor plans, measurements and crime scenes crew ultimately designed four staircases: a green-screen staircase for stunts, two staircases for the house set (one clean, one with blood) and the staircase built by the investigators of the case used to try and determine how it happened.
To film the sequence that imagines Kathleen falling on her own, Campos had the camera shoot from a distance, to avoid overly sensationalizing the situation. Pushing the cameras back lended a sort of surveillance look to the footage, and forced the crew not to rely on any overly emotional tight shots that could add an air of influence to the scene. “I think it was so smart and brave, of Antonio to just keep the camera back and just let it move on its own and not go in and cover the shit out of it,” Collette said. “It just happened very organically.”
Collette’s intentionally, hard-to-watch portrayal of Kathleen’s death was always going to be silent Cohn revealed. There were never going to rely on past Hollywood antics to hype up the moment. The brutality of this real woman’s passing was to be laid care with just Collette’s breathing marking her passing. “I remember being surprised and affected by what she was doing, I mean it,” Campos said. “It was very shocking to see because you can kind of suggest the sound or what kind of movement would be, but when you see an actor as good as Toni commit to an idea 150% and go for it, it’s shocking.”
The crew actually had to pad the staircase to protect Collette and the stunt actor from injuring themselves on the green screen staircase. As for Collette, her intent was to give Kathleen a voice beyond what the public already knew from previous conversations. “The documentary doesn’t really see her as much more than a victim, she’s quite objectified, so it was a bit of a responsibility to kind of create her from not very much,” Collette said, referring to the 2004 documentary series the miniseries depicts the filming of. “It’s a lot to have to do that three times. But the reality of it is worse, so I just hope I did her justice.”
As for the depiction of the possible scenario in which Michael was involved, that showed intent. When asked what justification the showrunners had to portray this particular theory Cohn responded, “The amount of lacerations on her head. It wouldn’t have been explained if you didn’t have intent and you only fell once.” But this depiction wasn’t as much about what happened on the staircase itself, rather everything in the script that lead to this decision between Michael [Colin Firth] and Kathleen.
One of the most well-known and notorious theories on what happened to Kathleen is “the Owl Theory,” which posits that an owl flew into the house and attacked Kathleen, sending her plummeting down the stairs to her death. The series features a recreation of the theory towards the end of its run. Campos shared that while on set to shoot it, a real owl, the same breed as the one believed to have killed Kathleen, swooped by, which spooked the entire cast and crew.
Reflecting on why the owl theory has become so popular, Cohn said she believes it represents all of the unpredictable and unknowable aspects of the case.
“It’s this theory that represents all of the theories of all of the things that could have possibly happened that we can’t put our finger on,” Cohn said. “There’s no way to ever fully know a person, there’s no way to ever fully know an event, or a relationship or a family. And that’s kind of what the owl theory embraces. That it could just be something that no one thought of. This case is really popular because there are so many roads to go down. And this is one of them, and this is the road that says, ‘Maybe there’s a road that we haven’t seen or thought of yet.”
“The Staircase” is streaming on HBO Max. Watch the full Making a Scene video above.
Additional reporting from Katcy Stephan.