Maggie Cohn Interview: The Staircase

HBO Max’s The Staircase recounts the mysterious loss of life of Kathleen Peterson, of which her husband, Michael Peterson was convicted. In 2001, Michael known as the police, claiming he had discovered his spouse useless on the backside of a staircase within the couple’s dwelling. What ensued was a complete homicide investigation and trial surrounding Michael. The Staircase is predicated on Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary of the identical title, which could be discovered on Netflix.

As a dramatic portrayal of Kathleen’s life, loss of life, and the shockwave inflicted upon the household within the wake of Michael’s trial, The Staircase affords a brand new perspective of the case. The sequence’ star-studded forged options Colin Firth and Toni Collette within the roles of Michael and Kathleen, whereas Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sophie Turner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Younger, Dane DeHaan, Olivia DeJonge, and Rosemary DeWitt all maintain supporting roles as family members and authorized workforce. Behind the scenes, Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn function co-showrunners and government producers.


Associated: Finest Colin Firth Motion pictures & TV Reveals For Followers Of The Staircase

Cohn spoke with Display screen Rant about recreating the homicide case, the stability between reality and dramatization, and the significance of storytelling within the true crime style.

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in HBO Max's The Staircase

Display screen Rant: How did you expertise Kathleen Peterson’s loss of life and Michael Peterson’s trial on the time, and the way did that affect your involvement in The Staircase a long time later?

Maggie Cohn: I do not assume I knew about it on the time. My preliminary publicity to it was via the documentary, The Staircase. It premiered on Sundance in the USA. It was via that that I used to be launched to the tragedy.

I feel my preliminary main curiosity was within the documentary itself, as a result of I studied filmmaking and I all the time thought that the documentary filmmaking course of was actually fascinating due to the idea {that a} documentary is an try to seize the reality. There are a number of ways in which you are able to do that, whether or not it is like Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall, or Errol Morris the place you may hear him asking questions, or documentaries the place you truly see the filmmakers.

I considered The Staircase nearly as a pupil, so when the chance introduced itself to then create a story across the documentary filmmaking course of — which is what we’re doing inside the context of our season — it was too good of a possibility to move up.

Are you able to inform me in regards to the means of writing and researching for this sequence? Did you communicate with any relations or individuals instantly concerned with this case? 

Maggie Cohn: The analysis course of was pretty in depth. From a lot of the TV tasks that I’ve labored on, you type of give you a group of articles, books, and different types of media — on this case a documentary — to make use of as sources whenever you’re setting up the narrative. In a perfect world, you do this earlier than the writers’ room begins, which is what we had the chance to do with The Staircase. We additionally had this unimaginable researcher who began previous to our room starting, Michael Matthews. He was in a position to exit and interview the huge array of characters that you will notice in The Staircase and we had been in a position to prep him with various kinds of questions that we needed to ask.

By way of the household and those that had been near the household, we by no means needed to bias ourselves in both course any greater than the biases that all of us deliver to any story. So, our interactions had been pretty restricted. I did have contact with a few the relations. That contact wasn’t essentially to tell character or to reply urgent questions. It was extra to get one other taste so as to add to it.

Once we had been casting this, we did not forged look-alikes, and we did not categorical a have to our actors that they must exit and speak to the true individuals. That was as much as them, as a result of we’re actually not trying to duplicate The Staircase documentary or the precise household. We’re making an attempt to embody them and do this with the intention to inform the individuals watching our present about reality and to fill out Kathleen Peterson’s character in a means that the documentary wasn’t in a position to do. 

A lot of scenes on this sequence resemble footage from the documentary. Nevertheless, you took a a lot deeper and extra private strategy to representing the case. How did you’re employed out how far to go together with dramatization vs intently adhering to info?

Maggie Cohn: It was very natural, and there have been no particular guidelines. There have been guidelines when it got here to the timeline — of which there are three: the previous, the current, and the long run. There have been guidelines when it got here to the transitions between these timelines. We needed to keep away from fabricating any of the occasions main as much as the evening of Kathleen Peterson’s loss of life that will sway you in a course of innocence or guilt. We did not need to, for instance, create some type of mishap that did not truly happen between Michael and Kathleen.

It wasn’t precisely about replicating versus presenting a reality that by no means existed until it is very apparent. The one factor in our present that we felt was essential to duplicate exactly was, we felt like, if you happen to had one factor that was precise. The additional you moved away from it, that was OK so long as you had that north star — which was the again staircase the place Kathleen handed away.

We had been in a position to get into the home. It was on the market and we had been in a position to take precise measurements of the staircase. Then, we constructed three staircases to make use of throughout manufacturing. Two of them moved out and in of our two-story set. One in all them was the staircase that had the blood spatter on it and considered one of them was the staircase that didn’t. After which we had a inexperienced staircase for our stunt work. Documentary model footage within the depiction is without doubt one of the extra apparent examples the place we truly pay homage to a digicam that does not have as a lot of a subjective perspective as an goal one, however the entire theme of the present is questioning the concept objectivity can exist within the first place. 

For us, it was extra about commenting on the spirit of documentary filmmaking, after which additionally making an attempt to not replicate, however present the those that know the case very properly that we had been conscious of all these items too. We did not put blood spatter in locations blood spatter did not exist. The timeline shifted however, for essentially the most half, we saved the dates as precise as we might   

the staircase sophie turner

I discovered it attention-grabbing how the present depicts two completely different variations of Kathleen’s loss of life — one by which it is an accident and the opposite by which Michael murders her. What went into writing these sequences?

Maggie Cohn: In complete, there can be three depictions. We needed to display 3 ways by which Kathleen’s life might have ended. The primary one, such as you stated, is predicated on the protection’s concept of two falls — which had been presumably attributable to a slight stage of intoxication, it being darkish within the staircase, and Kathleen’s basic exhaustion attributable to work and stress. That may be a depiction that’s being supplied to the viewers from the protection workforce, so we all know that the protection workforce is bringing their bias.

The second depiction is Kathleen and Michael having an argument that takes them into the staircase and straight away, a really unhealthy argument turns into a horrible tragedy that’s induced by Michael Peterson. That concept is obtainable within the context of the decision of the trial, so it is the prosecution’s concept to an extent as a result of as an alternative of utilizing a weapon — the blow poke — Michael is utilizing his arms. In order that’s our means of claiming that the prosecution received motive and intent proper, however they did not get the entire thing proper.

Then in fact, the third concept, the third depiction will occur in episode 6. That concept is without doubt one of the extra off-the-wall theories. It is the owl concept and we examine that. What we all the time considered that concept as doing was that is the speculation that almost all represents the chaos that enters into the organized system and it is the speculation that we’ll by no means know what occurred, however one thing actually unusual might have occurred that evening that none of us — not you, myself, no viewer — might actually grasp as a result of we weren’t there. We needed to have a variety of theories and depictions and we needed every of them to be as viable as the following. 

For you, what’s the significance of shining a light-weight on the extra private aspect of this case?   

Maggie Cohn: Within the true crime style, often the sufferer — the one who has met some tragic ending — is not as absolutely realized as the opposite characters they usually’re type of then outlined by no matter type of violence occurs to them. What we thought was essential was that this was a horrible tragedy that occurred in a single evening, but it surely was all of the issues main as much as it. There have been minor tragedies occurring on a regular basis and we needed to point out the viewer to benefit from residing as a result of these items can occur, they usually can occur straight away, they usually can occur with out anybody having deliberate them.

On this very distinctive case, the 2 daughters have already skilled tragedy. It’s about being the sisters and likewise Todd and Clayton Peterson and the way they evolve and cope with the absence of a really highly effective and essential drive of their life. We did trauma and grief analysis and we needed to point out that with these tragedies, not solely are we in search of justice and making an attempt to determine innocence and guilt, however we’re additionally making an attempt to grasp what occurs to the human spirit within the face of those. So it was essential to spherical out the style and discover it extra, push it extra into an intimate course, not solely about anger, however about unhappiness and the little reverberations that occur in your day-to-day life. 

I used to be intrigued by the choice to include the making of the documentary within the sequence, in addition to Michael’s relationship with considered one of its editors, Sophie Brunet. Can you are taking me via how that grew to become a part of the sequence and why you believed it was essential to characteristic this a part of the story?

Maggie Cohn: Displaying the documentary filmmaking course of was actually essential as a result of it is one of many main themes of our present — which is the development of story and the concept even within the seek for justice, it’s all about storytelling. We see the prosecution arising with their story. We see the protection arising with their story about what occurred that evening. We see the relations arising with their very own tales based mostly on the proof at hand.

To truly present the documentary filmmaking course of — which is, for lots of people, an unfamiliar course of — we get to go in and be like, “That is how an editor selects pictures” and if you happen to put this response shot subsequent to this response shot, it tells a special story. The components adjustments after which the emotion adjustments. It was essential to point out that as a result of, going again to my preliminary curiosity on this, there actually does should be — nowadays — crucial pondering is extra essential than ever. Now we have a really divisive time of proper and unsuitable, black and white. Proper now, I feel it is essential that we see that tales exist in all places, all people has them, and it could be extra about listening versus telling any individual that they are unsuitable.

With reference to exhibiting the growing relationship between the editor and Michael Peterson, we needed to incorporate the concept bias happens with out somebody even realizing it. Our editor, Sophie, had no concept that she was going to fall in love with Michael Peterson. However trying again in hindsight, it is most likely inconceivable to say, “I wasn’t falling in love with him,” so she needed to perform a little little bit of introspection of, “What was I truly doing with this documentary? Was I making an attempt to inform the ‘reality?’ Or was I making an attempt to save lots of a person’s life as a result of I believed he wasn’t responsible, as a result of how might I fall in love with any individual that would do one thing horrible?”

The documentary was a good way into exhibiting the development of narrative, however then additionally exhibiting that one of many key components of narrative is the bias that all of us deliver to every little thing. We every have a backstory and our backstory defines the best way that we view the world. It was such a literal factor as a result of it is a visible gadget.

The opposite beauty of exhibiting the documentary movie course of is that very early on, we determined that we did not need to have this be a TV present a few trial. In fact there are all the time the questions of what number of episodes you dedicate to the trial and so, as I am breaking these episodes, I am realizing we solely have a certain quantity of manufacturing days and time, and so there’s solely sufficient time to dedicate one episode to the trial.

How do you progress via months of very particular moments which might be important to educating the viewer about what occurred that evening rapidly? It is via an edit. So, if you happen to can present the edit and leap forwards and backwards between Sophie — who’s modifying in Paris — and the trial, which is concurrently taking place in Durham, you may rapidly transfer via time whereas not lacking any of the essential items of knowledge. Then, we’ve Sophie sooner or later telling us what precisely is happening as a result of she’s occurring considerably of a monologue in regards to the concept of subjectivity and justice because it’s unfolding earlier than us within the current timeline. 

Colin Firth in The Staircase.

This complete forged is incredible, particularly Colin and Toni. What was it like seeing the work these actors put in to embodying these real-life individuals?

Maggie Cohn: It is all the time a type of issues that whenever you’re writing at 2 a.m. in your pajamas, you are pondering, “Gosh, I actually hope this will get made.” [laughs] You by no means envision that it’ll be Colin Firth and Toni Collette, Odessa, Sophie, Patrick, Dane, Olivia, Rosemary — not in your wildest desires, and you may have some fairly wild desires at 2 a.m. after you have been writing for 12 hours. [laughs]

Initially, that is only a very long-winded means of claiming we felt very fortunate and honored that this unimaginable forged of actors needed to go on this journey with Antonio and myself. The opposite factor to it was we had Doug Aibel in New York serving to with casting and naturally, HBO Max, after which we had Tracy Kilpatrick as our southern casting director. So then we received this unimaginable forged of individuals that do not essentially have the title recognition, however they’ve simply as a lot expertise. So on a regular basis you bought to received to set and be like, “I can not consider that this unimaginable forged is taking these phrases, and these intentions, and these themes and bringing it to life.”

Along with that, we had essentially the most magnificent and proficient crew. Our ? division had been past phenomenal, and I do know that as a result of this was a really difficult present to make, typically talking, however then we had been making it with considerably of an abbreviated timeline and we had been making it through the time of COVID — which presents any variety of obstacles. Months after manufacturing ended, I am nonetheless in awe on the effort and the expertise that I noticed throughout my 9 months in Atlanta.                                                                             

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New episodes of The Staircase air Thursdays on HBO Max.

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