‘The Affair’ Creator Sarah Treem on Constructing the ‘Rashomon’ of Relationship Dramas

'The Affair' Creator Sarah Treem on Constructing the 'Rashomon' of Relationship Dramas

During your time on stage, I found it really interesting how quickly the questions turned to whether the show is drawn from your personal life. This can’t be the first time you’ve gotten that in response to this show. Or is it?

Well, it is. No one has ever asked me about my sex life before. People have been pretty respectful. [“Affair” director] Jeff Reiner had a good point in that we have, in the company, been really talking to each other about our past experiences in order to lend some authenticity. Truth is stranger than fiction, and I do think that there’s so much when people talk about affairs that is theoretical and metaphorical, and when you really get people to drill down about their experiences having affairs or being cheated on it’s much more nuanced. We kind of all sat around and told each other what happened to see how we could use it.


It sounds similar to how they would break stories on “Six Feet Under.”

One of my writers, Kate Robin, was on “Six Feet Under,” so she has been really helpful.

Is there something about getting those questions that feels gendered? I mean, do you feel like a male creator of a show called “The Affair” would get the same questions?

Oh no! Male creators of shows don’t get anything. It’s not that they don’t get a lot of shit, of course they get shit, but there’s a whole world of differences in the way people think of creators and what that role means. It is traditionally thought of as a masculine job, so I think to be a female creator is challenging for all sorts of reasons. But one thing I will say is that Showtime now has half female showrunners, which is amazing. I don’t know any other network that has something like that. It’s cool.

READ MORE: Watch: Showtime’s ‘The Affair’ Premiere Now Available Online

You’ve worked with Showtime, HBO and Netflix. What was the biggest difference from those experiences, especially between Showtime and Netflix?

Radically different. When I first started on “House of Cards” there were basically no creative executives at Netflix, so there was no oversight whatsoever. There was just a lot of money and some radically talented people and nobody checking, which initially seemed like a great idea but then became difficult for the reasons you can probably imagine. But we pulled a fantastic show out of it.

Showtime is much more old school, it’s been around for a long time, they have opinions and an established brand. I love working with this network. They work really close with you. I’m talking to David Nevins all the time and for all aspects of the show. They have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who they bring on, it’s like, “We believe in this show. Do whatever you want.” And they’re just kind of classy. A lot of times you’ll find writers talking about the notes behind the notes, where you’ll get a note from somebody from the executive and you’re left wondering what that means, but at Showtime they are so straightforward that you know exactly what they mean when they give you a note. And if you don’t agree with it, you can have an argument about it, but you’re not always dodging and weaving around notes and wondering what it is they really want you to do. It’s really refreshing


There’s that classic writer’s adage about you listen to the problem and not the solution suggested. Is that what you mean?

Yes, but even more so in that you’ll have a relationship with an executive who is giving you a note from somebody else, so they themselves may not agree with the note but they have to give it to you because that’s their job. So when you’re trying to have a conversation about it with them, they can’t defend it because they don’t know what it really means. That doesn’t happen at Showtime.

What came first for you as a writer — the multiple points of view or the fact that it is an extended flashback?

That’s a really good question. I can’t even remember. I think the intention behind it was always to do both parts of that. My partner [Hagai Levi], who created “In Treatment” in Israel, thinks of himself as an inventor of television formats. He’s not so interested in the minutiae of the script as he is in the overall framework. I’m pretty sure we first talked about a “Rashomon” structure first, where there were two perspectives, but it was always that they were telling the story to somebody sometime in the future. And the characters then came out of that.

When you put it that way, it does seem that both ideas are sort of married to each other.

Yeah, exactly.

How much are you prepared for the general public to know before the show premieres? In terms of the story being told in flashbacks and the multiple points of view.


I guess it would great if people went into it having no idea of what they are going to get, because I think it’s going to be shocking if you’re going into it thinking you’re about to see a story from one perspective. There are some people who are a little put off by the Alison character in the first half because she is such a sexpot, but then when her side comes up it’s like, “Whoa! I get it now.” And if all viewers could get that experience it would be great, but I don’t really care because I’ve been living with it for so long. It’s not about the reveal anymore for me, it’s about the story within.

How intense are the discussions about how you go about selling the show?

They have been very intense. I think Showtime is really aiming on the side of “less is more,” which I think is really great. And I’m not even so sure it’s to prevent people from understanding how the show is structured, I think it’s because it’s a hard show to market and a hard show to reduce because it just gets more complicated. We talked a lot about how it was important to me that we don’t market the show in a way that judges either character, because we’ve worked so hard in the writing not to do that, same thing in the acting and in the filmmaking. I think they did a really good job.

How important is the cast also in selling it?

Well, the cast kind of just sells themselves. The love that people have for all four members of the cast is extraordinary, and in different demographics too. “The Wire” fans are not the “Dawson’s Creek” fans who are not the “ER” fans who are not Ruth’s incredibly rounded theater fans, so it’s such a good cast. We got really lucky. People are always like, “What did we do to deserve the four of you?”


How did you decide, especially early on in the run, when to change the rules of the framing device you’ve created?

Well, we will break format this season at some point. Something will happen in the structure that you didn’t expect. In terms of breaking the rules, you have to set up something really well first before you can even think about messing around with it. If you’re going to mess around with it, then you better be doing it for a reason.

The framework for a show is important because if you define the world, than the creativity within it can kind of explode and go anywhere and be anything. The characters get diluted when you’re changing everything so much, so by sticking to the framework you get good drama. If and when we break away from what we’ve created, we’ll do it and we’ll do it small and we’ll do it for a very specific reason.

And how far ahead have you planned?

I’ve planned three seasons in outline format. And then I have a vague idea of what a fourth or fifth season could look like. When I pitched it to them, I pitched it in three seasons. I think David Nevins wants it to go longer, but three seasons was enough for him to greenlight the show.

Why do you start with Noah’s perspective first? Because as you mentioned, in the pilot you do judge Alison a bit, because we aren’t getting her perspective.

Well that switches from episode to episode. It’s not always Noah first. We don’t consistently switch it, but we didn’t want it to be a thing where he always goes first and she always goes second. And it’s interesting because some people read it as he must be right and she must be wrong since he goes first, but others say she goes second and that makes her the corrective, so she’s actually right. How people come to it is so interesting and so personal, it’s kind of like a Rorschach test. I feel like the way people react to it says a lot about them.

The show is so intimate — by keeping it so zoomed in, does that help it become something universal?

Yeah. And I think that’s basically good writing. The more specific you can get, the more universal your work becomes. It’s the weird paradox of writing, and it has a lot to do with the fact that human experiences are universal.

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