Tag Archives: Hagai Levi

How we made Our Boys

The co-creators, writers and directors behind HBO’s Israeli drama Our Boys talk about the complex and delicate journey they undertook to dramatise and examine the tragic real-life events that led to war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.

In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel – were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas militants, sending shockwaves across Israel. The burned body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, was later found in a forest, leading to weeks of riots in the city.

These events, which left Jewish and Arab communities alike shaken and furious and led to the outbreak of war in Gaza, have now been dramatised in HBO limited series Our Boys. The 10-part drama follows the investigation into Khdeir’s murder, led by Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), an agent from the internal terror division of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency), while the parents of the slain teenager begin their long and anguished journey toward justice and consolation.

A coproduction between HBO and Keshet Studios, Our Boys is produced by Movie Plus and distributed globally by Keshet International. It was created by Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment), Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) and Tawfik Abu Wael (Thirst), who all also write and direct.

Apart from Simon, all the characters featured in the series are based on real people involved in the events.

Here, Levi, Cedar, Wael and lead actor Elkabetz take DQ into the development, writing and production of the series, detailing how they pulled the story together for television and the challenges they faced along the way.

L-R: Joseph Cedar, Shlomi Elkabetz, Hagai Levi, Tawfik Abu Wael and Keshet Media Group CEO Avi Nir line up at HBO’s Television Critics Association presentation

Why was this a story that you wanted to tell on television?
Hagai Levi
: I remember the summer of 2014 very well. It was a historic summer. For two-and-a-half weeks, I, like everyone, believed that perhaps the boys would be found alive. I remember where I was when their bodies were found. On July 2, the morning of my birthday (which, as usual, I try to ignore), word quickly spread about an Arab teenager from Shoafat whose body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest. Moments after the shock, another rumour spreads: the boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was murdered by his family because he was a homosexual. The force of my repression arises again: I am amazed at how readily I accept this theory, the extent to which I refuse to believe that the murder could be at the hands of Jews.
From here on, everything happened so fast: sweeping Palestinian riots in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, rockets fired at southern Israel, the bombing of Gaza. Within a week, all the boys were almost forgotten because the war began. I felt that what happened that summer was a story that had to be told. We are artists who make artistic choices but, in this specific case, I found it far more interesting to delve into my own self and not what had been done to me; to dig deep inside in hopes of finding answers that were not too upsetting.

Our Boys tells the real-life story of the murders that sparked war in Gaza in 2014

How was the series developed with HBO?
Joseph Cedar: In the spring of 2016, Hagai invited me to join him on this show he had already begun developing with Noah Stollman. The mandate from HBO was to find a story that captures the essence of what had happened in Israel in the dramatic and violent summer of 2014.

Tell us how you developed the story.
Cedar: After months of research, we finally agreed on the story we felt had the potential to touch – if not fully capture – the endlessly complicated chain of events that led to a full-blown war in the Gaza Strip, one that still reverberates today on many levels in Israeli and Palestinian society. The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, told from the separate perspectives of all the key real-life characters involved, was that story.
Shlomi Elkabetz: While Hagai, Joseph and Tawfik were writing Simon, we were talking about him on a daily basis for a few months before we shot the series. What really struck me was that this guy is hunting for the truth. He knows that what he’s looking for is something he will not like, and I was fascinated by this conflict – of somebody who knows that what he finds will designate his own end. In that sense, he is looking for his own death. The reality of the story and the truth he is going to find is something that is going to define him as a murderer, in a way. Because finding the people who killed Muhammad Abu Khdeir means to find the murderer within yourself, and that is something very challenging in acting and storytelling. The process was absolutely fascinating.

How did you represent both sides?
Cedar: It quickly became evident we needed a Palestinian partner to tell the Palestinian side of the story. Both Hagai and I are acutely sensitive to external storytelling that tends to become culturally exotic or sensational. Tawfik Abu Wael was the first and only Palestinian partner we considered. Ever since his first film, Atash (Thirst), I have felt Tawfik’s work combines a rare poetic sensibility with an unflinching look at harsh realities. This precise blend also defines our ambition for this show.
Tawfik Abu Wael: Joseph and Hagai wanted to give a significant voice to the Palestinian story so reached out to me to write and direct the Palestinian part of the series. Working with them was fascinating and challenging. They’re like two scientists, brilliant and thorough. As an artist from the margins of society, I had to re-invent myself within the demands of the job. It was a profound and infinite creative process, diving into all the layers of the story, with all the tension and difficulty it creates, where they ‘represent’ the Israeli side of the story and I represent the Palestinian side. Eventually, our loyalties were always towards what was more human and towards the artistic truth of the story. That was the common basis of our work.

Elkabetz stars as Simon, an agent from the internal terror division of Shin Bet

Why did you choose to mix documentary and dramatisation?
Levi: It was very clear from the beginning this was going to be our style. The idea was to create a unifying world where you don’t reveal what is documentary and what isn’t. It was also important for us that the abducted kids and their families would not be characters in the series. That was a decision we made, perhaps because we were too close to them and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.
Cedar: We are reminding the audience that this is all real. In that sense, Our Boys is not at all like other Israeli shows, such as Fauda. When the riots broke out in Jerusalem after the bodies of the three Jewish teenagers were found, there were tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating on the streets, but there was no way for us to put this on the screen without using this kind of documentary footage that says, ‘This is real.’ We had some obligation to put that on screen.

Episode one begins with the three Israeli teenagers being kidnapped, but the rest of the series focuses on the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and subsequent investigation and trial. Why did you make that decision?
Levi: This is a big issue and we discussed it at length. We were drawn to understanding the perpetrators of this murder more than we were interested in understanding the victimhood of our side, and there are two reasons for this. One is that we are on this wheel, where one act causes another. This has been going for years; this is our life. You can stop this wheel anywhere and it’s pretty much the same story. It’s a story of pain turning into revenge.
For us, both dramatically and politically, understanding the aggression is crucial. Understanding the victimhood is not uninteresting, but it’s easier to automatically sympathise with characters who are feeling pain. Focusing on the victimhood creates more acts of revenge. Focusing on the aggression, at least as I see it, speaks to trying to stop it. If you watch further into the series, you’ll find out the perpetrators of this horrible act are so far from anything that anyone would expect.
Cedar: It’s easy to say they were extremists, but they’re not. They are just like us. So we tried to understand how this could happen – could it be us? Could it be our children? This is what interests us.

The HBO and Keshet Studios coproduction is distributed by Keshet International

How would you describe the writing and directing process?
Levi: I have been a showrunner for many years, so I’m used to cooperating and collaborating with others and then taking the best you can get, and dealing with all of the fights. For [Cedar and Wael], this was their first television experience.
Cedar: We argued out every tiny detail as if it were the heart of the show and as if our entire personal and professional identities were resting on the outcome of every argument. Nothing was too small to fight over. But by fighting over ideas, abstract notions and vague opinions tend to crystallise and become distinct.
Wael: I reinvented myself into this different process of working, of working with other people. I needed to argue all the time to defend and fight for things I believed. The good thing is that we all had the patience to listen to each other, to fight but not to hit each other. And, like they say in football, everything stayed on the field.
Cedar: Tawfik wrote and directed the Palestinian line of this series. I directed the Jewish line of this series. Some scenes had both Palestinian and Jewish characters on set, so it was a bit like a boxing ring – I would coach my Jewish actors on one side of the ring, he would coach his actors on his side. Then they would meet in the middle, and nothing would work!

What were the key elements of the story you wanted to include?
Levi: It was very important to us to not make this conflict entertainment. It was also important to us to be responsible and not to use people who are still living with this tragedy – it’s still very fresh, it was only five years ago – to make something fun. The main facts around the crime itself are always true. We invented some personal stories, but not the main story.
Wael: It’s a true story; we did a lot of research, but it is a personal interpretation of that truth. Yes, I invented a few things for the drama. The main conflict is that you want to write a good story for all the world to enjoy but, on the other hand, you want to retain the dignity of the people concerned.

How did you overcome challenges in production?
Wael: What made it all possible was those people behind the series – its creators who knew how to contain the story’s complexity; the producer who knew how to run everything smoothly, professionally and with endless humanity; the actors who played complex roles and who each gave their time and talent to the series; the cinematographer and two editors who knew how to maintain a distilled form of art while working with three different directors in a charged political story; and all the chiefs and technical crew who worked very hard to make this series what it turned out to be.

What are your ambitions for the series and what do you hope viewers take away from the story?
Levi: As a writer, I want to deal with issues that are close to me – issues of introspection. That summer was very shocking to me personally. Something about that time had a great effect on me; it broke and disturbed me. As a former Orthodox Jew, I think that doing soul-searching is something that is really typical of us, and when I write and create a story, there is a certain ethic to which I am committed. I hope the series sparks the right kind of debate.

tagged in: , , , , , , ,

Hagai heads home

Hagai Levi, creator of Israeli drama Be Tipul (In Treatment) and co-creator of US drama The Affair, tells DQ about his latest project, his approach to storytelling and returning “home” to HBO.

It has been 10 years since HBO first launched In Treatment, the psychotherapy drama based on the much-adapted Israeli format Be Tipul (pictured above).

The original series, which ran between 2005 and 2008 on cable platform HOT, has spawned copycats around the world and was among the pioneers in the ongoing wave of interest in Israeli drama that has made original dramas such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War), False Flag and Fauda household names.

It’s fitting, then, that a decade on, Be Tipul creator Hagai Levi is relishing the opportunity to return “home” to HBO for his latest project.

The 10-episode, as-yet-untitled series is based on a true story and follows the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants. Two days later, the burned body of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem is found in a forest on the outskirts of the city.

Hagai Levi

In the days that follow, an agent of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency) investigates the murder, while the parents of the slain teenager begin their quest for justice and consolation.

HBO has partnered with Keshet International for the series, which Levi created with filmmaker Joseph Cedar plus Tawfik Abu Wael and Noah Stollman (Pillars of Smoke). Cedar and Abu Wael also direct, with filming on location in Jerusalem due to be completed in September.

Retelling the events that led to the outbreak of war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the drama follows the investigation into Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder and tells the story of all those involved, Jews and Arabs alike.

“We are focusing on the investigation of this story, which was quite shocking, but it should be said that it’s rare,” Levi explains, noting that the story is told from three points of view – the family, one of the killers and the investigator. “We know Palestinian terror, it’s obvious. They are fighting for their state. But Jewish terror, or these kinds of hate crimes, are much more rare. So it was quite shocking for the Jewish population. We are following the investigation, the interrogation, the courtroom, everything.

“But of course, it’s not a courtroom drama. It exposes a lot of layers in Israeli society and it’s also about understanding the nature of hate crime – you see it everywhere, not just in Israel, and what are the necessary conditions? There are so many layers needed to create hate crime. So we are showing the Palestinian side, the Israeli side and, in the middle, Shin Bet are investigating the whole thing.”

The series has been developed over the past three years, with Levi linking up with Oscar-nominated director Cedar (Beaufort, Footnote) and Palestinian partner Abu Wael, who writes and directs the Arab-set elements.

“It’s very interesting, but the partnership means it just takes time,” Levi admits. “Basically I’m in charge as a kind of showrunner. We have some other writers writing the scripts, and Joseph is a director-showrunner. We’re assembling material together, rewriting it ourselves. It’s complicated.”

Gabriel Byrne in the US version of In Be Tipul, titled In Treatment

From the beginning, however, it has been an HBO show, with former head of programming Michael Lombardo taking the initial lead on the Hebrew-language drama, which together with Italian series My Brilliant Friend notes a shift in the US premium cablenet’s appetite for foreign-language drama.

“They’re trying to do these things, which is great,” Levi says. “Instead of remaking them, just show it. People seem more open to watching foreign languages and are more used to seeing subtitles. So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse; it was the best of both worlds. We have a nice budget compared to Israeli budgets, but a very low budget compared to US series. But for us it’s great, and I can do it in my own language with my own sensitivities. Since In Treatment, HBO has been a home for me. It’s the best place I know.”

In the US, Golden Globe winner Levi is arguably best known as the co-creator of Showtime drama The Affair, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson and now into its fourth season. Before The Affair, however, he was an executive producer on HBO’s remake of Be Tipul. Another 16 versions of the series have been produced in countries including Canada, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.

“The best thing about In Treatment is the option of the word ‘remake’ didn’t exist, it never happened in Israel,” Levi reveals. “So I was just doing my thing, and because we have very low budgets, we had to make something where the budget wasn’t an issue. The worst thing is when you have a low budget and you try to make a big thing, and then it looks rubbish. But the nice thing about In Treatment is it’s been shot the same everywhere. That’s my taste as a writer and director; I like two people talking.

“Whenever I have more than two people in the room, I’m nervous,” he says, emphasising his preference for dialogue and the relationships and moral dilemmas that characterise both Be Tipul and The Affair. “If you think about In Treatment, the main story is a therapist who’s in love with their patient, and vice versa. In The Affair, it’s about betrayal. So it’s always like that. I don’t see anything more interesting in the world than that.

The Affair’s fifth season on Showtime will be its last

“I remember watching House of Cards, just one episode. I couldn’t watch more – I hated it. But the main problem was they didn’t have any moral issues because they are not moral to start with. They’re cynical, bad people so where is the conflict? Where is the drama?”

Levi is now developing two more projects. The first is a remake of Scenes from a Marriage, the 1973 Swedish miniseries that starred Ingmar Bergman. Produced by Filmlance International and Media Res, it’s the first time a Bergman property has ever been remade. “That was the most influential piece of my career – that was the inspiration for In Treatment and a lot of things I did,” Levi says of the original show. “When I did The Affair, we watched it again. So when the family of Bergman approached me a couple of years ago and asked me to do the remake, it’s complicated, it’s hard, it’s very dangerous and frightening, but that’s my next project.”

The writer/director will also pick up a movie he has written, The Girl Who Learned How to Kneel, based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish author whose diaries recounted the persecution of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.

Before then, his Summer 2014 Project, to give it its working title, has the best of both worlds – Israeli creativity fuelled by a US premium cable channel – though Levi admits he hasn’t got the same budget as other HBO series like Game of Thrones or Westworld.

But Israel is well known for producing drama on a shoestring budget, building a reputation for original concepts and unexpected twists and turns.

“The equation is quite simple. If you have less money, you have more time,” Levi says. “In the US, you have to write a whole season in half a year. That’s fast, much too fast. You cannot write 13 or 15 episodes in half a year. It’s crazy. But in Israel, no one pays, so you can take the time.

“Then if you are very successful, you don’t make money. The limit is very low. You still have to struggle to pay the rent, so you better do what you want, what comes from your heart. It’s not a business. You’re more creative, you’re more personal. You’re more innovative. You work more as an artist than as a business.”

The success of Israeli drama internationally has led some to ditch this successful formula, though. “I see people trying to make something in order to sell,” Levi says. “They think about it while they’re writing and it’s not a great thing. It could spoil the industry.”

tagged in: , , ,

Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Keeping the faith: Sarah Treem spills the beans on The Affair

The stress of Sarah Treem’s first major project almost led her to quit television. Now, as showrunner on The Affair and following a stint on House of Cards, she couldn’t be happier. So what changed?

If there’s such a thing as a perfect marriage in television, it might be between Showtime and its Golden Globe-winning drama The Affair.

The US premium cable network is best known as the home of political thriller Homeland, period piece Masters of Sex, and medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie.

The second season of The Affair is due to air in October
The second season of The Affair is due to air on Showtime in October

But it seems there was something missing from its schedule until network president David Nevins invited Sarah Treem (main image) and Hagai Levi to pitch a new series about the emotional fall-out that takes place when Noah, a teacher, and waitress Alison begin an affair. Uniquely, the show is told from the viewpoint of both Noah, played by Dominic West, and Ruth Wilson’s Alison.

The Affair debuted on Showtime in October 2014 and, just three months later in January 2015, Treem was on stage to collect the Golden Globe for best drama ahead of fellow nominees Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, and House of Cards. Wilson also won best actress in a drama series, while West was nominated for best actor.

A second run of the show was ordered halfway through the first 10-episode season. Production began in May, with The Affair due to return to screens this October.

Co-creator and showrunner Treem recalls: “We ended up pitching it to them and Nevins just kind of bought it in the room. He said he’d been looking for something in this world for a long time and he liked the concept.

“He had wanted to do something about marriage and thought this was a really great twist. We pitched it as a show about what makes a relationship work or fail, but within the guise of an affair, so it was a right-place, right-time scenario.”

Treem says The Affair aims to be honest in its storytelling, setting aside the plot twists and supernatural elements that have become common motifs in modern television drama and instead creating a plot more relevant to the lives of its audience.

And it was something of a surprise that the first season was then rewarded with the Golden Globe for best drama. “We had just premiered a couple of months earlier so it was really quick and quite a shock,” Treem admits. “Story-wise, the second season, in terms of complexity and skill, is better than the first, so I’m excited to tell the story on a richer level.

“I would absolutely love it if we won another Golden Globe, but if we don’t, that’s OK too. The fact we get to do the show again and keep going with the story is its own reward. That means more to me than having a medal for it.”

The Affair’s team of writers reconvened in LA earlier this year to break down the season two story arc. They discussed each of the 12 episodes in detail and, specifically, considered what happens to each character. They then talked over the first seven episodes further before the writers separated to pen their scripts.

Treem explains: “Our method is to sit around in a room for a couple of days and really go through what each episode is about and what the journey of the individual characters needs to be. Then we break them up into beats and come up with a rough outline in the room, and an individual writer will take the outline and write it up. We’ll give comments on it and it will go to the network for approval. And then that writer will write the episode.

“We’re dividing up the stories so it’s not just Noah and Alison’s perspectives for the second season. We’re bringing in some new perspectives, which give the season a more prismatic feel and make the storytelling more complex, which I really like.”

Treems TV break came with In Treatment
Treem’s TV break came with HBO’s In Treatment

The Affair marks Treem’s first foray into showrunning. Her TV break came as a writer on all three seasons of In Treatment for HBO, where under an overall deal she also wrote and produced How to Make It in America. She then wrote and co-executive produced on the first season of Netflix’s breakout original drama House of Cards.

“I love the job. But it’s been a really steep learning curve,” the California-based writer says. “The process this year is a lot smoother than it was last year. Showrunning is basically good management. It’s about leading people and guiding people toward a common vision but not in a way that squelches their instincts and makes them feel like they’re just cogs in a wheel.

“What I found challenging in the first season was the act of creating something brand new out of nothing. Birthing a show is a very different skill from managing people. It takes a certain amount of solecism and, frankly, a narcissistic focus, which doesn’t let other people in that easily.

“I think the reason everyone says the second season is easier than the first is that in the second you have the blueprint: everybody knows what the show is and everyone is familiar with the characters and their psychologies, so you can be more open and let go of the reins a lot because you know where you stand. It’s just easier. I’ve really enjoyed the process this year.”

Treem’s rise to become showrunner of an award-winning drama after working on just three other TV shows might be considered meteoric, but she doesn’t see it that way. Writing stage plays from an early age, Treem had graduated from the Yale School of Drama when one of her scripts was passed to HBO, which sent it on to Rodrigo Garcia, the showrunner of the first season of In Treatment. The series was adapted from the Israeli format BeTipul, about a psychologist and his weekly sessions with patients.

“I got really lucky,” Treem admits. “Rodrigo read this play that was kind of wild and he loved it and hired me sight unseen. He just called me up and offered me the job.”

After writing the character of Sophie, played by Mia Wasikowska, Treem returned to teaching in Maine, but was later called to LA to become the on-set writer for In Treatment – a role that almost led her to quit television.

“It was so hard that first year,” she says. “It was crazy because that year we were doing 54 episodes, and I was the only on-set writer. I was 26 or 27, I’d never been to Hollywood, I knew nothing about television production and I was really out of my element, exhausted and under a tremendous amount of stress.

“So I thought maybe this was not for me. After that season, I flew back to New York and told my agents to never put me up for television again. They told me to take a vacation.”

Treem changed her mind, however, when HBO offered her an overall deal, and she continued writing on In Treatment for two more years. During the off-season, she also worked on comedy-drama How to Make It in America, about two entrepreneurs trying to find success in New York City’s fashion scene.

After Treem’s HBO deal ran out, Beau Willimon, who she had met when she was a 19-year-old theatre intern, invited her to join a new series called House of Cards. Treem worked on the show during its first season.

The first season of House of Cards was 'like the Wild West'
Treem says the first season of House of Cards was ‘like the Wild West’

The first year of House of Cards, she says, was “like the Wild West. There were no creative executives at Netflix, so nobody was giving us notes. There was so much money, so much talent, and the rules were getting broken and rewritten all over the place.

“We kept joking that if we were really good, we were going to win a Webby (the awards that honour excellence on the internet), because we didn’t know if anyone would watch the show, and then it just blew up beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”

While House of Cards was shooting its first season, Treem was already looking towards her next project, The Affair, which was co-created with Hagai Levi, the creator of BeTipul and a producer on In Treatment. Expecting her first child, she wanted to set up a project after the birth and so wrote the pilot on nights and weekends, and then pitched it to Showtime when she was seven months pregnant.

“We felt that was a pretty natural evolution out of In Treatment, which is where we met,” Treem says of The Affair’s creation with Levi. “In Treatment is about perspective and how having to explain yourself to somebody else is so very difficult. Everyone is trapped in their own consciousness. As writers, that idea appealed to us on a thematic level, and then Hagai said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about an affair but from two perspectives so we can double-down on that idea?’

“We spent some time coming up with the characters and figuring out the worlds, and it grew really organically. We wrote the script on spec; we didn’t develop it with any particular network, so we really had a chance to let it incubate on its own.”

It’s that freedom that Treem attributes, in part, to the success of Netflix and the growth of original drama on other VoD platforms, and an increasing number of cable channels.

“Netflix exploded the marketplace in this way that has reinvigorated the creativity of writers,” she says. “There are now so many places your show can get made that you don’t have to think, ‘I need to write the type of show AMC or another network is going to buy,’ which was the mentality we had for a while. Now you just write the show – write whatever the heck you want – and someone will probably be interested in it if it’s good. It’s really freeing.”

The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story
The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story

Despite the fact season two of The Affair is still in the relatively early stages of production, Treem is already plotting the storyline for season three.

“I have a pretty clear idea for season three,” she reveals. “My concept for season four is a little vaguer. When we pitched it, we pitched a three-season arc. So we’ve always known pretty clearly how the show goes through the third season. How it evolves beyond that remains to be seen.”

As one of a growing number of female showrunners working in television, Treem says it feels “like a real watershed year for women in television,” and describes the emergence of limited-episode event series as network television’s answer to cable channels’ hugely successful slow-burn, narrative-driven dramas.

And having started in television writing on the adaptation of an Israeli series, she says remakes can work when people take the concept and inspiration of a show and make it their own. “Where people get into trouble is when they copy something from another culture word for word and shot for shot. There’s a lot that’s lost in translation.”

Looking back on her career so far, Treem adds: “I got lucky that my first job was In Treatment, which was a very niche show, but it was incredibly prestigious and we had a tremendous amount of freedom in the writing. It was a writers’ show because there was one person writing each character, so I got very close to the actors and actresses I was writing for and it really became a team effort.”

tagged in: , , , , , ,