“If the Truth is Completely Elusive, I’m Happy to Live in Uncertainty”: Antonio Campos and Sofia Subercaseaux on the HBO Max Original Series, The Staircase
On their very first date in 2013, Antonio Campos pitched The Staircase to Sofía Subercaseaux. It would be years before the now married team officially began work on the project. In the interim, their collaborations have included Christine (Sundance 2016), written and directed by Campos and edited by Subercaseaux, and Piercing (Sundance 2018), produced by Campos and edited by Subercaseaux.
Campos became known for his acclaimed independent work with production company Borderline Films (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer, James White). After directing episodes of The Punisher and The Sinner (the latter of which he also executive produced), he makes his first outing as a creator, writer and co-showrunner in the TV system with The Staircase. For Subercaseaux, who is most experienced with editing narrative and documentary features (Nasty Baby, Tyrel, Dina), The Staircase marks her first co-producer credit. Subercaseaux—who edited two of the eight episodes of the miniseries, now streaming on HBO Max—said the project “feels like it’s been absorbing our lives for as long as we’ve been together. And many years before that for Antonio.”
For Campos, the project began in 2008 when he received a DVD rip of a documentary playing on the Sundance Channel. Also called The Staircase and directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the six-hour story centered around the murder investigation of Michael Peterson after his wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of their stairs. Resulting in one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, the crime continued to attract public scrutiny after Peterson was convicted in 2003 and throughout his unsuccessful appeals in 2006 and 2007 and denied motion for a new trial in 2009. Returning to Durham to film with the Peterson family for a retrial hearing in 2011, de Lestrade directed a follow-up feature-length documentary that premiered at IDFA in 2012. Filming continued, and the entire story—from de Lestrade’s original documentary through Peterson’s final trial in 2016—dropped on Netflix as a 13-part true crime series in 2018.
Dramatized by Campos and starring Colin Firth in a commanding performance as Michael Peterson, this iteration of The Staircase eschews traditional linear storytelling by weaving together snapshots that span nearly 20 years, beginning before the death of Kathleen (played here by Toni Collette). (An executive producer of the series, de Lestrade has publicly contested the depiction of his documentary team’s filmmaking process, and Michael Peterson has denounced de Lestrade for his involvement in the show.) Directing six episodes and running the writers’ room, Campos tracks the impact of the trial on the family and, by including the documentarians as characters, explores a complex set of narrative arcs to reflect on the nature of storytelling.
Filmmaker: Werner Herzog has spoken philosophically about his quest to access a deeper truth in his filmmaking, a “kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual,” an “ecstatic truth.” The Staircase deals with a contested truth and how that contested truth was explored through the lens of documentary filmmaking. How do you describe the parameters of what truth was for you in this process?
Campos: The series starts off with the question: what is truth? It was always my intention to tell the audience that the idea of truth is quite elusive, that they will not know the truth by the end of each episode [or] by the end of the series. In my journey with this story, I had started off thinking that I could solve the case. I think a lot of people have the feeling that they’re going to solve it: they’re going to spend more time with it, put the pieces together in a way that someone else hasn’t and see something that someone else hasn’t and eventually the truth will reveal itself. Over the years, in the making of this show, I’ve learned how to live in the not-knowing. For me, the pursuit of the truth is a very noble and rewarding journey, but ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that if the truth is completely elusive, I’m happy to live in uncertainty. That’s actually much more comfortable for me.
Filmmaker: The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel said, “I’ve always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it.”
Campos: I completely agree with that. People have arguments about this case, and I just sit back and watch because I find both sides to be a little bit blind. I love the questions. What I love about film and storytelling is the mystery, and how long you can keep the mystery going because the answer, ultimately, is maybe not as interesting as what you’d imagine it to be. We’ve hopefully allowed the audience to come into the series with a clear sense that it isn’t necessarily going to present you with “the Truth,” but rather a lot of potentially truthful moments. I think the most you can do as a filmmaker or a storyteller is create moments that feel truthful.
Filmmaker: In developing those moments, how is the approach different when you’re dealing with characters based on real people?
Campos: The approach has been the same with everything I’ve ever done: I try to create characters or versions of real people who are not one thing or another but who are complicated. I never want anyone to feel like a villain. What was so fascinating to me about Michael Peterson was that he felt like the ultimate challenge. As a character, he’s kind of a maze you can get lost inside, in a way that I hadn’t experienced with anyone else.
Filmmaker: A lot of your work deals with characters who have hidden or unexamined darkness.
Campos: There is this perception that I tell dark stories with dark characters who do dark things. But I always have tried my best to create dynamic, complex people who are doing things not because they know they are bad or want to cause pain, but because they believe that what they’re doing in that moment is the best thing to do—not just for themselves, but for other people. Sometimes it’s selfless, and sometimes they think it’s selfless, but it’s not.
Filmmaker: Before The Staircase was a TV series, you were working on it as a feature. As it was evolving over the years, when and why did you decide to include the documentarians?
Campos: I was really struck when I first watched the docuseries that the filmmakers were embedded with [the Petersons] for that whole time in that house, following every different aspect of the story. So, there was an opportunity to look at a story through the eyes of not just documentarians but outsiders. It’s not really talked about in the docuseries, but Kathleen died just a few months after 9/11, and the world the trial took place in was post-9/11. These French filmmakers were there during the whole “freedom fries” time, when there was a real fear of the unknown and the “outside.” In some ways, that fear was in the air and playing a part in not just the experience of the filmmakers but also maybe the way that the jury and the public, especially down in Durham, were seeing Michael Peterson and this case. There was this guy who they thought they knew, and [their] perception of [him] turned out to be completely wrong. That he was living this other life, I think, scared a lot of people down there, and I think it had an effect on how the deliberations went.
Filmmaker: Sofía, when I interviewed you for Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces list in 2017, you talked about dreaming of the characters from scenes you’re cutting. In this series, we see an editor become completely absorbed with the life of her subject. How did it feel to be cutting scenes about an editor cutting scenes?
Subercaseaux: It was very meta. The fact that we got to show the behind-the-scenes of filmmakers working—to nerd out about what a Final Cut 7 timeline looked like in 2012—and to put a spotlight on the work of an editor was really fun and satisfying, particularly because I don’t think people necessarily understand what editors do.
Filmmaker: In the series, it’s hard to pin down the rhythm of the time jumps, but you also never feel lost in terms of the narrative chronology. Did you develop any internal rules together about the time jumping?
Campos: We didn’t have a hard and fast rule, and because of that we felt free to allow the episodes to move the way they wanted to move. But a lot was decided in the writing. We were looking for emotional beats to transition off of instead of just a character’s look to send you back or forward. We were interested in the parallel action of the past, present and future all happening at the same time, and we wanted to avoid the sense that any of it was coming from someone’s memory.
Subercaseaux: And we wanted the audience to make their own connections and not feel guided by any one person’s perspective. Even though a lot was figured out in the writing, there was reshuffling of the timelines in the edit of some episodes. In some, the Kathleen storyline needed to be balanced out so that you could feel her presence throughout the episode.
Campos: Kathleen was a great indicator. If you saw Kathleen, you knew right away that it had to be the past.
Filmmaker: By choosing to feature Kathleen in the series, you’ve made memories of her the center of the story. Was that your initial conceit going in, or did that evolve throughout the years as you were developing the project?
Campos: I had explored Kathleen as a character in different versions of the project when it was a feature, but I had never really made her a big part of the story until it became a TV series and I started writing the pilot. As a series, there was room to make Kathleen a real character, a fully fleshed out person. In the docuseries, she’s always being talked about and you’re constantly reminded of her presence with photos and clips, and you can feel the specter of her. In this series, she’s so alive that when she’s not there, you really feel the shift in energy. You feel her absence.
Filmmaker: In episode four, there’s an intense confrontation between Kathleen and Michael in their kitchen, and the scene is simply one two-and-a-half-minute wide two-shot. Was that decision to play the scene in the master an edit decision or your choice on set?
Campos: We had a good schedule, but it wasn’t luxurious like we had all the time in the world, which is great because then you have to make choices. In the case of this fight, I chose to shoot it in one—I didn’t want to protect ourselves with coverage. It was very exciting for the actors; it became like theater. You rarely see a shot of two people in an argument sustained for that long on TV. It helps things feel more real when you allow something to unfold in real time. It makes you feel like you’re listening to something that you’re not supposed to, this private moment you’re not necessarily meant to see.
Filmmaker: In the show, there are rooms where we see various characters’ attempts at organizing the story we’re actually watching. For example, the dining room of the Peterson house is covered with notes of the case all over the walls. Then, there’s the edit room in Paris, which is covered in note cards and still images from the trial and Mike’s life at home. Going behind the scenes to your workspace, what did organizing the timeline of the show look like for you and your team?
Campos: Years ago, at our old apartment, before I had written the pilot, we didn’t have a big wall to put up cards. So, Sofía and I cut up this big cardboard box, laid it on the floor and started to write out all the beats just to get our heads around it in a visual way. The structure really hit for me when I did a week-long residency at the Jacob Burns Film Center. I went on a run, was listening to Enya, and somehow the idea of cutting from Michael waking up and tying his tie to setting up the crime scene in the past cracked the jump from the future to the past and helped everything fall into place for the rest of the episode. Then, when we got into the writer’s room, we were working virtually, so we didn’t have one big wall. The thing that really became our map was a Miro board, which is basically a virtual bulletin board, and it was fantastic.
Filmmaker: How did you run the writers’ room?
Campos: One person, the writers’ assistant, was taking all the notes. Then one person would be on this live typing app that everybody could see and had the ability to edit in real time. Another person would be creating note cards. So, we had this system in place that allowed us to all be on the same page. We created one arc for the series, one for each episode, then did an exercise that was really helpful—each writer went off with four characters and put together a timeline of where they were in each episode in the past, present and future. While a lot of it didn’t necessarily happen on camera, we knew where they were, what they were going through in their lives, and were basically able to walk through the past, present and future of every character in every episode.
Filmmaker: Sofía, how did you visualize the timeline of the show with the other editors?
Subercaseaux: At first, we were four editors working remotely, and we each had two episodes, our own cards and our own boards in our houses. Later, once we were all in New York, we moved into a post-production company, and there wasn’t a wall big enough to visualize the entire show. But we had an entire floor at [post-production house] Company Three, so we kept going in and out of each other’s rooms to look at each other’s work and see what made sense.
Campos: Everybody had an eye on everyone else’s episode, and there was an open dialogue, so nobody got territorial about their episodes. We would move note cards around from one room to the other, and it was a great collaboration. Everybody was so invested in not just their episode but the whole series working.
Filmmaker: How do you know when you’re done playing with a scene in the edit? Does it ever feel finished to you, that you’ve done all you can do?
Subercaseaux: Certain scenes barely changed since the assembly, then others we just kept going back to a million times. In TV, there’s more of a “pencils down” timeline that we’re not necessarily used to because in film—or at least when we’ve worked on movies together—we’ve always done screenings and then taken some time before revisiting. But with The Staircase, we needed to make decisions. I found that very refreshing. For me as an editor, the best way to know if something’s working or not is to show it to someone in the room, and you feel it in your stomach. It’s either working or not working, and you’re either excited or embarrassed, and those are the only two ways to feel about it. I can watch it alone and not know exactly how I feel, but when someone sits next to me and watches it with me, I immediately know how I feel.
Campos: We were on a really hard deadline because of the air date being locked in stone.
Subercaseaux: We finished shooting by Christmas, and by the beginning of May, all eight episodes needed to be delivered.
Filmmaker: Antonio, you rose up with a creative network, including Josh Mond and Sean Durkin, that ultimately became Borderline Films. Sofía, you have a longtime collaboration with Sebastián Silva, who was a writer and story editor on this series. How have these relationships informed your creative approach on bigger projects?
Subercaseaux: I came up as an editor working with Sebastián, who is a close friend, and with Antonio, who I’m married to, so this has never felt like a job where I sit in front of a computer that I can turn off at the end of each day. It feels like something that we carry through our lives. As an editor, the process didn’t feel that different from how it’s been when we’ve made movies together.
Campos: With a production as big as The Staircase, it still feels the way it did when I was making movies with Sean and Josh—that I’m working with my close friends and family, and we’re all just working together to think about the scene in front of us. Early on in your career, when you’re making your film and people come to you with their ideas, you might bristle and feel like someone’s trying to take something away from you, or they’re telling you your idea is bad by suggesting something else. And when you get to the place where you can listen to everyone’s ideas and be open to what’s actually the best idea, it’s great. Ultimately, what everyone wants to feel when they come onto a film set is that their presence has a purpose. To me, this is the whole point of making movies—it’s a collaborative effort, and everybody’s input and work is necessary. To nail a shot, the camera operator has to be in right place, the actor has to hit their mark for the light and say the line in the right way to hit the emotion, the dolly grip has to push the dolly at the right speed, the sound mixer has to capture the quality of voice in the right way. The fact that all of those things have to happen—that everybody has to hit the right mark, and the fact that that happens so many times a day on a film set—is a pretty remarkable thing. There’s a lot of conversation to get there, but in the moment it’s a silent dance that you’re all doing with each other.