‘The Staircase’: Antonio Campos digs up new drama from the highly publicized true-crime
June 11, 2022
The infamous death in the limited TV series The Staircase occurred over 21 years ago. It has spawned several books, documentaries and podcasts all examining the supposed murder of a woman by a struggling fiction crime writer. What makes this case particularly interesting is how the prosecution fought to bring Michael Peterson to justice, how his defense refuted every piece of evidence, and the ripple it sent through the family and the world at the time.
For creator Antonio Campos, this has been a story he has been working on since 2008, back when Peterson was still in prison for the murder. With so much content surrounding the crime, the case and the eventual freedom of Peterson, there hardly seems to be a reason to tell this story as a narrative-limited series.
But when you take into account the multiple perspectives spread across 16 years and focus on those who hurt, helped, and took interest in the case, suddenly a dramatization works.
Campos, who had been working on The Staircase in some form or another for 14 years, was familiar with the characters in the story as it had become an obsession once he started diving into the details. However, over the years more and more aspects to the story developed and it simply became too big for a feature film.
“When I had first seen the documentary, it was sent to me to consider adapting as a feature. I spent about 4-5 years on and off trying to write it. I wrote a few drafts of it and ultimately decided it was a series,” Campos shares. He continues, “When I came on I realized that the documentary filmmakers were part of the story; they were embedded there and gave us a Greek chorus to play with who could speak out about the things we were thinking as an audience and ask the questions we were asking.”
This element felt new to Campos and it was something he hadn’t seen before in a true-crime story. He shares that the series is more inspired by the events than based on them and took creative liberties throughout the story.
Before The Staircase
The filmmaking bug bit Campos when he was young when he and his family watched movies together. His first steps into the industry started when he was just 13 years old and was walking with his older brother in a New York City subway station. That’s when he spotted a poster for the New York Film Academy that stated you could learn how to make a movie in six weeks. He jumped at the opportunity.
He was afraid the program wouldn’t allow a 13-year-old though, so he lied about his age. The admissions person suggested he claim to be 16 because there was another student that age in the program. So, he did. Campos recalls the amazing experience of shooting on 16mm and editing on a Steenbeck.
Campos states that one of the most defining moments as a filmmaker was working on his thesis project. It was a script he wrote titled Puberty.
“At 13, that’s all I really knew about. The film was about a boy going through puberty,” says Campos. When he submitted it to his directing teacher, he was told he should write something more relevant for a 16-year-old (he didn’t know he was 13). So, he wrote another short and submitted it to his writing teacher.
“She read both and said, ‘I don’t know what this other script is but you clearly have a lot of love in this Puberty script.’ I told her what the directing teacher said and she said you should do Puberty because you care about this one.”
He did. The film was presented to an audience and Campos was so nervous that he stayed in the projection booth for its duration.
Campos continues, “I came out into the theater when it was over, and the lights came up and I saw my father. He had his arms open and he was crying. It was one of the most moving moments of my life. It meant so much that I got that reaction from my parents. It encouraged me.”
He recognizes the value of validation and encouragement.
The Staircase was brought to Campos after he made his first feature film in 2008. Part of the reason the producers were interested in Campos developing the script had to do with this first film in which part of the storyline featured a character making a movie within the movie, similar to the documentary filmmakers in The Staircase.
From the beginning, Campos had a blank slate to build the story and so he started on treatment.
No right or wrong writing process
Campos doesn’t have a specific writing process. It changes with every project he works on. For The Staircase, he was happy being in a writer’s room where he could take little nuggets of wisdom from other writers and add them to his toolkit.
“My process tends to be to consume as much information and research as I can and then start a process of getting every idea into one master document,” Campos says. He adds, “Then once it feels like I run out of ideas or the process is slowing, I start to go through that document and put each idea into a category.”
For example, he will add ideas under “theme,” “piece of dialogue,” “character detail,” “scene,” etc. Then he steps back and looks for where the patterns and structure are and starts breaking it up into acts.
With The Staircase though, he had so many years invested into the project and had written four different scripts from four specific angles — the challenge was determining how to make it into a series.
“A lot of my ideas come when I’m running and listening to music,” Campos shares. He had a eureka moment one day when running and listening to Enya that set up the first shot of the film. From there, he felt he could determine the scope of the season and how the various time periods would interact.
Campos enjoyed the writer’s room experience. He had been with this ever-evolving story for so long that it felt cathartic to get it all out and have his team become as obsessed about it as he was. From there, they discussed what themes they wanted to cover, references within the series such as film, music, and books, and allow for the writers to have the space to inject their own personal experiences into the story and characters.
How to write a narrative based on a true story
First off, according to Campos, when dramatizing a true story, it’s important to know why you want to do it.
“Life is complicated so you have to focus it and understand what you’re trying to say and exploring,” Campos states. “What can you add to this by dramatizing this?”
He also believes that writers must personalize it and add their own voices and personal experiences to it because, ultimately, it’s a drama, not a documentary. Plus, the more specific the story feels, the more universal it becomes. Campos encourages people to tell their stories even if they’re in the process of telling someone else’s.
Where to begin a writing career
“Short films were a great way for me to sharpen my teeth and make mistakes. One of the things I learned in film school is the ability to make mistakes. As you get further into your career, I always feel like you should take risks and swing for the fences,” Campos suggests noting that the margin for error is smaller and smaller as projects get bigger because there are so many more people and money involved.
Creating short films allows writers to find a group of people they like to work with and make mistakes, try things and be radical.
Screenwriters will either write to direct or want to write to collaborate with a director. The short film route allows writers to meet with directors and producers and find the ones they work well with. It also gives them the ability to learn how to take notes, debate which ones they agree and disagree with, and rewrite accordingly. Campos recognizes that is the reality of a professional writer’s life.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.