Monday night, Israeli-born, massively successful writer/producer Gideon Raff spoke to the Entertainment Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in a Q & A moderated by CAA's co-head of Television Adam Berkowitz (who also chairs the Entertainment Division).
As a huge fan of Hatufim (and Homeland, and Tyrant, and Dig, although not necessarily in that order or in the same degree), I was thrilled to be there.
Raff covered some great material - here are some highlights:
Israel's PR Problem
In a brief comment about the BDS movement, he noted that it "should just be called BS," and that "some of it is just good, old-fashioned anti-Semitism." "Israel is a far-from-perfect place," he said, "but in our neighborhood, it's heaven." He also noted that actors, whether they're Jewish or not, when they're brought to Israel, they become "great ambassadors - they all came back in love with Israel."
Hatufim (Prisoners of War, the Israeli drama that was reinvented for American TV as Homeland) happened because Raff had written a very funny book about the Israeli dot com bubble and Avi Nir from Keshet asked him for a comedy. Raff gave Nir Hatufim.
Hatufim was inspired by the story of Ron Arad, a pilot who was lost on a mission in Lebanon in 1986, was held captive and is presumed dead. "We grew up thinking about what his life would be like if he came back," Raff recalled.
While Homeland's action centers on a CIA agent and features the story of one POW, Hatufim centers on three prisoners of war and their families. "We found a world of drama no one had tapped into," he recalled. "We pay a high price for bringing back our boys - we want it to be a happy ending. But captivity is hard to come back from," he said, calling it "trauma across the board," extending the POW experience to include wives and children, citizens and community. "We are all POWs," he noted. "Unfortunately, we don't have a shortage of POWs - we all have this in our own families."
The show also provided families with the tools for conversation, Raff reported, noting that POWs finally had the nerve to open up, and their families could finally ask questions about their experience instead of being "driven into anonymity and shame."
The day that Gilad Shalit was released was the last day of filming on Hatufim Season 2 - a few months later, Raff got a call from Shalit that he had loved both Hatufim and Homeland. Raff invited him to the set of Homeland, where he got to take a picture of himself choking Abu Nazir (a terrorist character on the show). (I couldn't find that photo online, so here's one of Shalit with Claire Danes.)
They are now planning versions of Hatufim in Russia, India, Turkey, Korea, Colombia and Argentina.
Raff has the whole storyline of Hatufim Season 3 in his head, but "I'm really busy right now" (an understatement, since he's got three shows currently on three American TV networks) "and it's such a personal show that I'm not letting anyone else write it."
"As a creator, it's bad to think about how you sell it, or how you get the audience to react," Raff said, calling it "noise." As a creator, he advised that you "drown in the world of the characters, in the world you would want to explore," then the message would reach whoever it needed to reach. "There's more creative freedom in a chaotic system," he said.
Of course, there will be producers' notes, but "you have to learn to take the notes not as something critical, but as something that makes it better."
The industry in Israel is very different in terms of budgetary scale than Hollywood. To give you an idea, Raff reported that he shot two seasons of Hatufim for the same budget he had for the pilot episode of Homeland. Also, having a small budget means "you have to be creative - Israel's an open market; you have to tell the story in a unique way."
He further explained that because Israeli TV is on a tight budget, they don't shoot by linear episode order, but by location. This means that they have to know more than the whole narrative arc, they have to have the entire season ready before they start shooting. (Actors in the crowd could not wrap their brains around this.)
When asked about shooting in the Old City of Jerusalem, Raff burst out with "God, those people are crazy there. The city dictates how you shoot the show," he said, noting that you can't set up a big American style actors' area there because of the Old City residents - "when people need to go, they go." He noted that most shots had to be with a camera on someone's shoulder, either in front of or behind the actors at all times as they twisted through the narrow streets of the Old City.