‘Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal’ Director on How They Got Unfaithful Men to Confess on Camera

“Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal” is filled with tears, confessions and betrayal.

The Netflix docuseries, which premiered on May 15, revolves around the online dating site Ashley Madison, the slogan of which was “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” It was used by millions of married people who were looking to cheat on their partners. However, in July 2015, the website was hacked, and users’ information was exposed. The hack caused marriages to explode, ruined lives — and even ended some.

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“Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal” spotlights a number of couples’ stories who were affected by the hack, but much of its screen time focuses on Sam and Nia Raden. They are a couple who became famous on YouTube for sharing their Christian beliefs and had a seemingly perfect marriage. But when the user names from Ashley Madison were leaked, Sam Raden was one of its customers.

Through “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal,” director Toby Paton wants viewers to try to understand the complexity of marriage. He chatted with Variety about some of the biggest questions from the show, including how difficult it was to find subjects for the docuseries.

What led you to want to tell this story?

I got a call about making a series for Netflix — I hadn’t followed it super closely at the time that it happened. And they talked me through the kind of characters they had, and the way they wanted to tell the story, and immediately I just thought, “Wow, what a fantastic story.” I mean, it’s kind of got everything, hasn’t it? It’s got all the kind of propulsive kind of narrative drive of a thriller with the story of the hack, and exposing the data and the investigation into who did it.

But then underlying that is an opportunity to really pull back the curtain of people’s actual relationships, and think about some of those bigger themes. Think about marriage and monogamy, and ask the questions: Why were so many people on Ashley Madison? What was leading them there? What were they looking for? What was going on in their marriages and going on at home that led them to be on an infidelity dating site?

How did you get in contact with the Christian YouTube couple, Sam and Nia Rader?

That happened before I joined the project; they’d already made contact with them. As part of the research, the first thing you do is troll the media and see: Who can you find publicly who was affected by the hack?

Of course, Sam or Nia would have come up pretty quickly in that search, and the development team reached out to them. I think it was a fairly lengthy conversation with them about whether or not they wanted to take part, and whether or not they wanted to tell their story. In the end, they felt like it was the right time. I think Sam in particular felt like it was the right time for him to really finally come clean and really confess the full truth of what had gone on. Because he says things in the series that he’s not really told anyone before — or certainly not spoken publicly about before.

Was it challenging to get Sam and Nia to open up as much as they did?

Yeah, it was, although they came in wanting to tell their story, and wanting to be completely warts and all, and open themselves up in a way that they haven’t before. The actual reality of sitting in the interview chair when the cameras are on — and you’re aware of the fact that what you say is going to end up being broadcast worldwide on Netflix — of course that creates a lot of anxiety. There is work required to win trust initially. Then, within the context of the interview, those interviews can get tense — and they can get tense as you’re probing, and trying to encourage people to open up and talk about things that they feel ashamed of — and that are obviously difficult and uncomfortable to talk about.

Why was it important for the show to focus on them as much as it did?

I just felt they were such a great couple with such a great story. What I really like about their story is how relatable it is. When Sam explains the reasons for his infidelities, why he was on Ashley Madison, and what he was looking for — although you might hear him tell that story and be quite rightly sure that you wouldn’t do the same thing in his situation — I think a lot of the feelings he’s talking about are actually quite relatable. There’s something quite universal in some of those issues that people find, when you’re married, you’ve got kids, you’ve got a demanding job. And relationships do get hard; anyone who’s been through that knows that’s hard.

I think that Sam and Nia’s story speaks to some of those difficulties, and to some things about marriage and monogamy which are kind of universal issues that we can all relate to. I like the fact that their story ends in quite an unexpected way. A lot of relationships we were aware of being affected by the hack, for obvious reasons, ended up in their marriages ending. And that’s maybe what you’d expect to happen in that situation, but I think there’s something really fascinating about the fact that their relationship didn’t end.

Sam recently spoke publicly about how he’s nervous for this show to come out. Are you nervous?

I personally am really looking forward to the show coming out. Having worked a long time on it, you just really want to show people, and see how people are going to react to it.

But I could definitely see why Sam’s nervous, because, as I say, I think a lot of the issues Sam was struggling with are super relatable. To Sam’s credit, there’s no doubt that he deeply regrets what he did, and I think that’s why Nia took him back. If she felt there was any sense that he didn’t really completely, 100% regret what he’d done then obviously that marriage wouldn’t have survived.

But at the same time, there’s no doubt that for a lot of viewers, they’re going to find it hard to get past the reality of what took place, and they are going to find some of those stories are difficult to listen to.

There’s a tragic scene in the show when Christi finds her husband, John, after he commits suicide. How did she join the docuseries?

Christi really wanted to be part of the series, and wanted to tell her story, because she was drawn to the fact that we weren’t making a series that was all about how awful people who cheat are. Because although her husband was on Ashley Madison, and her husband cheated on her in different ways, many times over the course of their marriage, that’s not what she feels is the most important thing to say here.

The thing I think she wanted to more talk about was the importance of forgiveness and how we should try and understand the struggles and difficulties that people are going through. Because she feels that the reason why John tragically took his life wasn’t because he was cheating, per se, but it was because he was exposed as someone on Ashley Madison in an extremely toxic, moralizing, judgmental environment where people were really keen to expose and shame anyone who was exposed in the hack without really knowing anything about them or the wider context of their lives.

That was a point she wanted to make: how toxic and damaging that kind of public moralizing can be.

After working on the show and hearing people share their stories, do you now have more empathy for the customers who were involved in Ashley Madison?

That is a really good way of putting it, because one of the things that really struck me is speaking to the people in the series — but also we spoke to a lot of people who didn’t want to be in the series. But they did share their stories with us behind the scenes and off camera. And one of the things that really strikes you is that almost everyone who was on the site was really struggling in one way or another. These are people who weren’t happy in their lives, who weren’t happy in their marriages — people whose emotional lives were going wrong. And they felt they were lacking something, and that lack was really quite difficult for them to cope with.

As I say, we might find a better way of dealing with those issues. But the issues they were dealing with were real. So yeah, I think empathy for those people is a good way of putting it.

Did you have any pushback from Netflix to create this series?

Yeah, definitely. It was a long journey for me to get the green light. Because one of the big issues was they said right from the start, “We don’t want the users to be anonymous. We don’t want any, like, silhouetted faces, masks or AI disguising people’s identities. If people are going to be in this series, they have to be sitting in the chair as themselves loud and proud.”

That did present a really big challenge for the development team, and it took a long time. At that point, they probably had a lot of people lined up, who immediately were like, “We’re not gonna do it in that case.”

It took a long time searching, and finding the right cast of characters who were prepared to be involved and to come on camera as themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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