HBO Max’s adaptation of The Staircase introduces two very meta characters in the second episode: French filmmakers Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and Denis Poncet (Frank Feys)

In real life, it was de Lestrade and Poncet who first sniffed out the dramatic potential of Michael Peterson’s murder trial in Durham, North Carolina. 

They embedded themselves with Peterson for about two years and created 2004’s original The Staircase, one of the first and all-time-great true-crime docuseries.

With it, they also indelibly shaped how the world still sees Peterson even two decades after he was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen. 

In the HBO Max adaptation, which premieres its first three episodes Thursday, the filming of the documentary becomes a fascinating story line—raising questions about truth and perspective, giving fresh dimension to an old story, and revealing further stranger-than-fiction plot twists. 

Antonio Campos, who created the HBO Max miniseries with showrunner Maggie Cohn, tells Vanity Fair that he decided to incorporate the meta filmmaker thread after learning that the real de Lestrade and Poncet left Durham with different opinions about Michael.

“They’re these two French guys in Durham, North Carolina, post 9/11…and it just felt like this really interesting contrast,” he says. “So it really started with the idea of, ‘Who are these filmmakers? What did they think? What was their relationship like with Michael?’”

Campos has long been intrigued by the original docuseries. He began work on an adaptation about 13 years ago, attended Peterson’s second trial as a spectator, and built a relationship with the real de Lestrade.