Hagai Levi, the co-creator of The Affair, gave a master class last April in Paris at the Festival Séries Mania.
At the end of May, ILTVSW was lucky enough to set a skype meeting with him when the second season started shooting and talk universality, craft and literature from Tel Aviv to Paris.
ILTVSW. In your writing you always explore universal issues but also always do it through the prism of intimacy, why that ?
Hagai Levi. I am always interested in very universal themes but they are always very personal for me. It’s not like if I decided to address some very important philosophical or whatever issues but things that are very important for me at this moment in my life. Whenever you deal with something that is very universal you have to be very very specific and in a way original in the way you handle it because it has been handled so many times in every other TV show or book or film… Usually it takes me a lot of time to find the right way, the right form to deal with it. Usually it is not about the story but about a concept. How will I do it ? What is the right form for this issue ?
ILTVSW. So for your latest show The Affair, the form of the storytelling was more important at the beginning than the subject ?
Hagai Levi. The idea that the story was going to look at the whole thing backwards was really there at the beginning because I wanted to say something about an affair or about marriage, something which was quite ironic, the fact that you can run away from your marriage but you can’t run away from yourself. You can find yourself living married with a new one and get to the exact same point. That was there from the beginning as was the idea of the perspectives. In the very initial core of the work.
I don’t take myself seriously, I take life seriously
ILTVSW. You say that you write drama because you take life very seriously. Would say it is the definition of drama ? How would you define it ? Mad Men is ending this week and Matthew Weiner is also taking this whole thing very seriously…
Hagai Levi. Although, the ending of the show itself is quite cynical wouldn’t you say? The commercial and the meditating, right ? I am an optimistic person myself but it was a very sad ending for me. I see the world of commercials as a very cynical and corrupted world so for me the idea that after all this journey this is only thing Don Draper can do is very devastating. You can interpret it in many ways but it’s a very specific smile wouldn’t you say ? Anyway. It is a good definition I have to think about it much more to say that this is the definition of drama. I am a very non cynical person, you know. And I hate cynicism. I think it’s awful. And I think sometimes people who make comedies are very cynical as people. Sometimes they can make amazing shows but they pay a price. It is like living beside life in a way. And not taking anything seriously. In drama it can be very ridiculous how people take their life seriously but when I have to choose between two options yes, I don’t take myself seriously, I take life seriously. It’s different.
ILTVSW. How would you define cynicism ?
Hagai Levi. Cynicism for me is denying the good, the soul in a person’s life. Denying it and laughing about it. Meaning there is no something which is more than interest. House of cards is I think the most cynical show I have ever seen and that’s why I stopped watching it after two episodes. For me, by the way, these kind of shows are missing something because this very basic conflict between the good and the bad is missing. It’s simplistic and superficial and although it is not very interesting because if you don’t have this battle inside of you then I am not interested and I cannot identify. Anyway. This is cynicism for me. It’s denying this almost divine part in yourself. I wouldn’t want to sound new age or religious or something but for me as a person trying something that is bigger and better than myself is the essence of life. Mocking this is for me being cynical. Sometimes you need cynicism in your life. I loved Seinfeld which is again probably the most cynical show ever. Louis CK is not cynical. His writing is very honest and very sincere as opposed to Seinfeld for instance. So you can be very funny but still with a lot of heart. You should always laugh about either yourself or very powerful institutions but if you mock the normal life then you miss something in your life.
ILTVSW. In drama writing schools they teach that conflit is between obstacle and will. But in your writing conflict seems to be between morality and desire. A more spiritual form of conflict as opposed to a mechanical one…
Hagai Levi. I didn’t think about it this way but I think you are right. This is life for me. This is all my life. This is what I am dealing with and trying to understand. It is very natural. There is another definition which is usually used which is I really look for internal and inherent conflict in a character. When you say there is this mobster who has panic attacks, you can put a whole series on this conflict but it is not something technical. If you want to feed five seasons you need something that is much more deep than just an obstacle. Something inside the main character so inherent in him that this conflict can carry so many episodes. When you have a detective who is so sensitive that he cannot tolerate death then you know you have something. Like in True Detective. Like in Homicide in which the detectives collapsed again and again because they couldn’t handle these tragedies. Again this is what I am looking for. For me it is always a moral battle. It is so much more interesting than someone who wants something and can’t get it, right ? And then, what ? You could say about The Affair that it’s a guy who has this will about this woman and that there is this obstacle because he is married and she is married. But for me the most interesting point is when he has her. Now it is becoming interesting (laughs).
When you use archetypes it is really a lot of work to break them
ILTVSW. You use archetypes, yet you manage never making them stereotypes ?
Hagai Levi. I usually go for very universal themes and sometimes, yes, in the beginning you have archetypes or you could say stereotypes characters in In Treatment or in The Affair whatever. From this point there is a very long way to reach my main goal which is to avoid stereotypes. So it is really about work, you know. A lot of time a character would be expected to do this or that and you choose to make him or her go another way. When you use archetypes it is really a lot of work to break them. I am very very aware of the archetypical nature of these characters and from this point it is just work.
ILTVSW. This awareness you have it because you studied psychology ?
Hagai Levi. Well, it helps. Because then you have more tools to play with. But again it should be important. In a lot of places in the American TV industry stereotypes are OK. There are so many stereotypes out there and since it is an industry, they say whatever. It is good if it works. If you look at 99 % of the shows in the networks they are based on stereotypes. So first you need to want to break them and then you can do it, you know. Sometimes I think it has something to do with my ego. I really hate to do something that has been done (laughs). Either it is a character, a form or a theme.
ILTVSW. Do you believe that ultimately writing is about the writer himself and has to be. That it is the only way it can be true and feel authentic. Or craft can do the trick ?
Hagai Levi. I think craft is overrated. There are so many shows on television that people refer to as great shows and all you can see is that they are very well done but I don’t see any personal point of view behind them or personal statement or whatever. So for me, craft is not very important. You can do amazing things with craft but why should I waste my time with something which is only well done. I have much better things to do. True Detective (talking about season 1) is a good example. It is really well done. But is there anything new in its theme ? I don’t think so.
ILTVSW. Yet, Nic Pizzolatto puts a lot of himself in his writing…
Hagai Levi. It’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Listen, I really like True Detective so I don’t want to say bad things about it. When it comes down to the last episodes, to the solution of the whole thing, again it was about another crazy serial killer. You had a lot of moments that were really true in the show but in the end it was a bit disappointing. I thought I was going to learn something new about good and bad, the religious nature of the South which is so relevant to current politics, or the American soul.
ILTVSW. Which shows do much more than just being well crafted ?
Hagai Levi. The bar is always The Wire. With The Wire, which wasn’t so well done by the way when you watch it today which I did, I watched it only two years ago and it is not amazingly done as other shows, you look at the world differently after watching it. And I don’t think there is enough of that in television. Mad Men was one of these shows. Like Rectify. I think the first step to do that is not to do a genre show. It is writing something else. They say it is the golden age of television. I think it is the golden age of television in the craft, for sure. It is not enough a golden age in the essence. TV is not yet in the place where literature is where there is so much variety. OK you have all these detective books but it is a very small part of literature. You have so many books about so many things. You can read a book and wow, you have this elevation, this inspiration. You do not have that enough on television.
ILTVSW. You are working on a movie about Etty Hillesum, yet evil is not an interesting matter to you. This woman had an incredible journey but died in the most devilish place you can think of, so what is going to be your take ?
Hagai Levi. First of all it is not like I am not interested in evil. The fascination for evil of some of the American shows that were interested in evil is very disturbing. It is not « let’s explore evil », it is more like « let’s make fun of it ». And this is very very wrong for me. This woman has a very specific way to deal with evil. This film is not going to be about the holocaust at all but about other things. It is about how you can be a human being in every circumstances, even in the most horrible circumstances. In a way it is about giving up, you could rebel but she has chosen an other way. Which was : I can be so autonomic and self-content in a way so I don’t care what are the circumstances. So yes there is evil but I don’t waste my energy or time on hatred or revenge or thinking of revenge. I try to build something inside me which so strong so I can live or die anything. That’s her way of coping with evil. She said again and again : evil is inside us not outside so first you have to take care of yourself, to erase the evilness inside you and then the world will be better. It doesn’t matter what is happening outside, that is the issue of this. And as you can understand it is very very hard to make a film from this idea so I am struggling.
Title : The Affair (2014 – )
Creators : Hagai Levi, Sarah Treem
Cast : Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, Joshua Jackson
Networks : Showtime, Canal Plus séries (France)
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Next week in ILTVSW, the French version.