‘The Affair’ co-creator Sarah Treem: ‘We wanted to tell a story about two good people’

The premise of Showtime”s “The Affair” – in which Dominic West and Ruth Wilson get together, cheating on, respectively, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson – didn”t much interest me when I heard about it, even when those actors were involved. Then I heard that Sarah Treem was one of the creators and the lead writer, and my tune started to change.

Treem, a playwright turned screenwriter, was on staff for all three seasons of HBO”s great “In Treatment” – she was, in fact, the only writer to be with the show for all three years – and helped craft the episodes involving three of my favorite characters: Sophie the gymnast, April the cancer patient and Jesse the teen in search of his birth parents. (As the youngest writer on the show, she inevitably got assigned the youngest characters.)

As it turns out, I really liked the pilot for “The Affair,” which Treem created with Hagai Levi, whose Israeli series was the inspiration for “In Treatment.” Back in the summer at press tour, we spoke about the series” origins, how she intends to use the two structural devices – alternating between West and Wilson”s points of view, and telling the whole story via their interviews with a police detective several years in the future – going forward.

I”m curious about the genesis of the idea. (Showtime boss) David Nevins is on record saying he wanted to do a show about marriage, and you wanted to do something a little different.

Sarah Treem: I don”t actually know what David intended to do in the first place. But when “In Treatment” was over, Hagai Levi and I had become really good friends. So he wanted to do something about a relationship told from two sides I think. It”s a little hard to remember right now, but he asked me to come to Tel Aviv to talk about it. I don”t think he actually expected me to show up but I came. We were interested in doing “Rashomon” in a love story. And we decided to do it about an affair, because we thought that that was the sort of extreme version of the love story, in that you were never privy to what your lover is doing when you”re not around them – that your lover literally has a whole other life. The truth is that in any love story, you”re not really privy to what your lover is thinking when you”re not around them or even when you are around them. But an affair is an extreme manifestation of that theme. So we ended up thinking through that idea, and then we wrote the script on spec and then brought it into Nevins ready to go with an idea for the first season.

I”ll be blunt: when I first heard the notion – even with you attached, even with these actors attached – I said to myself, “I don”t need to see that.”

Sarah Treem: Interesting. I think a lot of people have that reaction.

So why do you think people have that reaction?

Sarah Treem: It”s close to home I think for a lot of people. It”s the thing that you hope isn”t gonna happen to your marriage. Or if it did happen to your marriage, it”s very painful. So to relive it is doesn”t sound like that much fun. I understand that.

It does often seem like sort of stories about infidelity wind up glamorizing it in a way.

Sarah Treem: Oh yeah. I think that probably is true too. And that”s not the intention here.

Because why would you ever cheat on Maura Tierney? That”s just…

Sarah Treem: That”s why we cast her.

Cheating on her seems so stupid.

Sarah Treem: We wanted to tell a story about two good people. Who were committed to their marriages. This is not the story about people who are serial philanderers, people who are looking to commit adultery, somebody who”s just not a nice person. The idea was that you”re in a marriage, you love your wife, she”s a good woman, you”re a good man. You have kids and then you meet somebody by chance who you think is your soul mate. What do you do? And I think everybody gets to that time. You”re vulnerable, you”re in a long term relationship. At some point in your marriage, you meet somebody else and you”re just like, “I think I can be happier with this person.” And then you”ve got a choice to make. We really wanted it from the very beginning to be clear that these were good moral people. Who weren”t looking for this to happen and really were caught in a true crisis.

You brought up the “Rashomon” of it. I”ve only seen the first episode so far, and it doesn”t spend too much time reshowing us scenes from her perspective, but we get enough of it to make it clear that they”re seeing it differently. How do you figure out what the balance of that is?

Sarah Treem: You only want to show scenes from either perspective if it”s somehow gonna inform the story. You”re not just doing it for the sake of doing it. I think Nevins was instrumental in that idea; he was like, “I don”t want to see too much on repeat.” And we felt that it was important to see some on repeat because in the minute execution of the idea, the concept is that two people can be in the same conversation and have radically different experiences. And the memory is tricky, right, that you remember things through that your own prism. So we really want to play around with that idea. But I think you kind of feel it. In some episodes, there”s almost no interactions whatsoever in the memories. And some episodes there”s more.

Structurally, is it similar week-to-week: half of it is him, half of it is her and he goes first and she goes second?

Sarah Treem: No. They didn”t just rotate back and forth.

So in addition to that structure you also have whatever the framing device with the police detective is about. What can you tell me about that at this stage?

Sarah Treem: There”s a crime that happens about three or four years in the future. And it”s gonna take a while for the past to catch up to the present. So the way I was thinking about it when I first started talking about it is a story structure where you start in the middle, you go back to the beginning and then you carry all the way through to the end. So what you”re seeing in the present day is the middle. And at some point the past is gonna crash into the present and we”ll keep going forward.

Not that this is any other way resembles “True Detective,” but it”s interesting that you”ve got multiple time periods and the characters being interviewed in the future. This is the thing that”s happening right now.

Sarah Treem: I know. It”s funny how sometimes like the idea just catches on with everybody at the same time.

Obviously, some affairs go on for years and years and years, but when you hear the premise it seems like the sort of thing that would be a good limited series. But clearly that is not the plan here.

Sarah Treem: No.

So do you and Hagai have a plan for how the show works once we get past this initial summer on Long Island?

Sarah Treem: Yes. We think of it as a show where the title “The Affair” will ultimately become somewhat ironic. And what we”re, I think, interested in is we”re interested in fidelity, we”re really interested in marriage. And how you do or do not stay in one. So I don”t want to tell you more than that.

You”re telling a story with these two marriages that are then cross-pollinated, but at least right now it is from the perspective of Dominic and Ruth. It”s not from the perspective of Maura or Joshua Jackson. Is there a way to provide that perspective, or is that outside the confines?

Sarah Treem: Not in the first season. The first season, we”re gonna stick to just these two perspectives. In the second season maybe. It”s an idea.

Other than “Rashomon,” what are some things you guys looked at as templates?

Sarah Treem: “ Scenes From A Marriage.” We looked at some Truffaut. We looked at “Unfaithful.” I love that movie. I think those were our big touchstones. We looked at a lot of sex scenes.

Getting back to “In Treatment” for a second, each season you wound up with the youngest patient. How did that happen under three different showrunners?

Sarah Treem: Well, I was the youngest writer. So the first season I got the job to write the Sophie character off of a play – because I”d just come out of Yale drama school – about screwed up teenagers. And then in the second season, the April character was basically my age, so that seemed like a good fit. And then the third season I actually wanted to write – I”m forgetting Debra Winger”s character”s name now. Because I felt like I understood that character really well but Danny (Futterman) and Anya (Epstein) were like, “No, no, you”re so good at writing children – you can write Dane (Dehaan)”s character.”

What is it like moving on from a show that is so rigidly formal – even though you were able to play with it from time to time in structure – to something that could go anywhere in theory?

Sarah Treem: I am a big believer in format. Hagai thinks of himself as not so much as a writer but more as like a creator, an inventor of television formats. He”s not quite as interested in the minutiae of what happens every episode. He”s more interested in how the machine operates. And I do think that if you have a format that is somewhat rigid, your creativity can explode within it. I think where shows get into trouble is they don”t necessarily have (a format) – the show can literally go anywhere. And then the human relationships start to dilute. So our show actually is pretty rigidly formatted. It”s two sides, so you”re only in those two perspectives. I think the fear is, “Well, is that just gonna get boring for people?” And really, it doesn”t. We”re only doing ten episodes the first season, and I had asked for that, because I knew that I had ten episodes of really great story and then beyond that I was gonna start reaching. And so it”s riveting and it just clips along.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com