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People of the film
David Brinn
24/04/2008
Hollywood development gurus are looking to Israel as a source of ideas.
 
Fade in to fantasy sequence at a conference room, somewhere in Los Angeles Props: Evian water, cellphones. A group of TV executives from an anonymous network are sitting around an oval table. "What are we going to do? We're last in the ratings. If we don't come up with a hit series, I'm going to wind up back at my uncle's used car lot," says a nervous, young male to his counterparts. "Yeah, all of the ideas we're getting are so stale, it seems like nobody's coming up with original concepts anymore," adds one of his equally harried female colleagues. "Don't worry, my friends," interrupts a third executive, leaning back and folding her arms behind her head. "I've got us covered. My cousin Hemi, from Tel Aviv, is sending me DVDs of some great Israeli shows which are going to put us back on top." Audible sighs of relief are heard all around, and the executives end the meeting early to attend a spinning class. Dissolve to opening credits In the beginning there was B'tipul. Everyone loved the daily half-hour drama on Channel 2 starring Assi Dayan as a 50-something psychotherapist who treats a different regular patient each day of the week (and, it transpires, is having some mid-life issues of his own, when he sees his own therapist). The show became a television and social water cooler phenomenon, sweeping the Israeli Academy Awards for best drama series, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best actress, and attracting a rabid audience who sat on the edge of their seats awaiting each episode. How innovative was the concept? Created by Hagai Levy, Keshet TV's drama department head, B'tipul last year became the first Israeli drama series to be bought by US television - snapped up by HBO for 45 episodes and rejigged as In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest. Any visible Israeli connection has been modified in the American version. But as The Jerusalem Post's correspondent Michal Lando pointed out last month, the characters on In Treatment still possess that "in your face," no personal space or boundaries style that Israelis have made their own - to the extent that American viewers are often scratching their heads trying to figure out in which cross-cultural environment the show is taking place. Despite the overhaul, the show couldn't have flown up the flagpole during HBO executive meetings if it hadn't been for the Israeli original. Explaining its attraction, Eva Madjiboj, Keshet's vice president of business development, said, "It's an amazing and unique concept, and HBO realized it." "I think the bluntness of the relations and dialogue in Israeli film and TV - as exemplified by B'tipul - can be appealing. This direct talk, our way, creates a lot of interest," explained Katriel Schoury, since 1999 executive director of the Israel Film Fund. Very nice, you might think: Israeli abrasiveness is finally being seen as a positive quality. And on top of that, even if it does show us to be on the neurotic, needy and insecure side, an Israeli program has actually been adapted for the American screen. Maybe a boost for Zionist pride, but surely it's a "once in a..." type of occurrence. After all, outside of fantasy sequences, when would high-powered LA TV producers need Israeli ideas? Well, it turns out that not only the American TV industry, but the Hollywood film world is increasingly becoming enamored with the scripts, films, TV formats and ideas coming out of our homegrown entertainment scene. In Treatment may have been first and the most "high-concept" but a slew of other Israeli-made productions are in various stages of developments in American studios. IF DEALS are finalized, the Hollywood writers don't go back on strike, production money is found, the pilots are picked up and the Evian water supply holds, a future American TV and movie guide could feature shows and films like this, all based on Israeli productions: • CBS - Mythological X, about a 30-plus single woman who goes to a psychic and is told she's already met the love of her life. In each episode, she searches out an ex-boyfriend to determine if he was the one that got away. • USA FOX - Loaded, based on Mesudarim, about four hi-tech friends who sell their startup to an American corporation for oodles of money and live it up with the new-found wealth. • HBO - Touch Away, based on Merhak Negi'a, about a Russian immigrant family living next door to a haredi family in Bnei Brak, and the romance that develops between the children. • TNT - The Ten Commandments, a 10-part docudrama based on the Lord's greatest hits as it relates to today's world. For example: "honor your mother and father" focuses on a soldier who killed his father who was beating his mother; "Thou shalt not murder" is based on a terminally ill patient asking to be removed from life support. • MOVIES OF THE WEEK: - Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi, a 2003 Shemi Zarhin comedy being remade as Diego Ascending, by actress Salma Hayek's production company about an underappreciated 16-year-old boy charged with taking care of his eccentric family. - Wristcutters, the 2006 film adaption by director Goran Dukic of Etgar Keret's short story "Kneller's Happy Campers." - Colombian Love, a 2004 comedy by Shai Kannot about modern romance, acquired by a Hollywood production company that intends to remake it in an American setting. - A Tale of Love and Darkness, an adaptation of Amos Oz's memoir, to be directed this year by Natalie Portman. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as Israeli TV and film insiders continue to pitch their wares to their Hollywood counterparts in unprecedented numbers. While that's been taking place for years, what has changed in the scenario is the regular "no thank yous" and closed doors; Hollywood has opened its arms, and has not only given young upstart Israel a pat on the back, but has embraced it with a bear hug. A number of theories abound as to the cause of this surge of interest in Israeli-made dramas, comedies, reality shows and films - a drastic upswing in quality material being produced here, a feeling in the air that for at least the time being, Israel is being perceived as "in," American studios increasingly relying on foreign adaptations as a cost-saving measure. Or most likely, it could be a combination of all three. Whatever the reasons, Hollywood entertainment development gurus, as never before, are looking to Israel as a source of ideas for their shows and films. And back home, the Israeli content developers are beginning to order supplies of Evian water. Dissolve to Tel Aviv scene, a walkup office on Dizengoff "I graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts," said Tzafrir Kochanovsky, in a Queen's English somewhat reminiscent of Abba Eban. Kochanovsky, the founder and president of TTV Productions, is reminiscing from behind his desk at the company's downtown Tel Aviv headquarters. The office's pleasant, but somewhat austere environs belie the fact that TTV, since it opened in 1990, has produced dozens of programs, series and documentaries for all the commercial channels here. Kochanovsky, who successfully acted in London, returned in the mid-'80s after being refused a work permit renewal. Back home, he found it tough going in the acting trade. "In those days, there was no cable TV or commercial channels, only Channel 1. And when an American or European film company occasionally decided to film in Israel, they were always looking for the dark-skinned proto-terrorist," laughed the fair-complexioned producer. "So, there wasn't a lot of work." Fortuitously, a friend was involved with staffing the then-fledgling Channel 2 and asked Kochanovsky to help put together television shows. Before he knew it, he was a producer and show creator. Today, Kochanovsky is eagerly anticipating finalizing a coup for the company - he's in the latter stages of a deal with HBO to produce Touch Away, an American version of his Channel 2 romantic comedy Merhak Negi'a which won eight Israeli Emmys last year. "It's about a Russian family immigrating to Israel. The son had previously come as a lone soldier, and he's trying to find his parents a cheap apartment, and he winds up in Bnei Brak living next to a very haredi family. And he falls in love with the daughter - it's a Romeo and Juliet story," explained Kochanovsky. A Bnei Brak love story obviously won't play so well in Peoria, so the HBO producers are planning on making some changes. And Kochanovsky, as an executive producer of the show, will be involved to some extent in the how the finished American version will look. "We've talked about all kinds of options - a Hispanic girl and a Muslim guy, but in the end, it might turn out to be very much like the original story, with variations. The Americans feel there is something very interesting about being the same religion, yet being totally different from each other," said Kochanovsky. "I will be involved, but on the other hand I don't think we can teach the Americans how to make good television." Kochanovsky is among those who credits the success of In Treatment as softening the attitude toward Israeli productions in Hollywood - that and a friendship with In Treatment broker, actress Noa Tishby, who made some introductions for him at HBO. But he says that's not the only reason he was able to sell HBO on Touch Away. "Generally speaking, there's a buzz in Hollywood around Israeli talent and Israeli films that wasn't there before," he said. "Last June, I was in Los Angeles for two weeks, and you could feel there was a different attitude." Dissolve to Los Angeles headquarters of CBS Entertainment Nina Tassler is a very busy woman. As president of CBS Entertainment, the veteran television executive oversees the development and all creative aspects of the American network's prime-time schedule. Yet, when approached by a daily newspaper 16,000 kilometers away from Los Angeles to discuss the increasing number of TV formats and feature films from Israel that are being optioned out for Hollywood adaptations, her response is, "I'd love to." Tassler is enamored with the creative results coming out of Israel, and explains that she first realized that something special was happening here last year when she participated in a master class for Israeli writers and producers in Los Angeles sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. "I hosted a seminar at CBS for them, and I was so impressed by the caliber of talent and the nature of the questions asked - it was a real heimish group," she said in a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post from her Los Angeles office, as she theoretically kept George Clooney and Jack Nicholson waiting in the reception area. "I think the success of shows like In Treatment has opened everyone's eyes. And now the American TV and film industry is showing a real willingness to embrace Israel for more than a flash in the pan trend, but a legitimate source of ideas and shows. We're seeing a country whose film and TV development have come of age," she said. "There are very good stories that are being developed that, to me, seem to highlight the amount of similarities between Israeli and American culture. Especially with the issue of personal relationships between family members or single people in the dating world, I think it shows that we all have the same problems and share the experience of the triumph of the individual." Tassler isn't just paying lip service here. She's paying money too, by developing an adaptation of the popular Keshet-developed Channel 2 comedy/drama series Mythological X. "I was pitched a one liner over the phone and I bought it on the spot," said Tassler. "I think maybe the litmus test for me was watching an episode - in Hebrew with English subtitles. It was so funny and relevant and enjoyable. I thought if I can enjoy it from reading subtitles, imagine how appealing it's going to be in English." Tassler is putting some heavyweight talent behind the project, hiring writer Diane Ruggiero (Veronica Mars), and executive producer Jonathan Levin (Charmed) to "Americanize" the series, which is now in casting, with shooting expected to begin soon. Dissolve to split screen with Keshet offices, Tel Aviv The offices of Keshet, one of the two franchisees, along with Reshet, responsible for all programming on Channel 2, are indicative of the flourishing of the Israeli TV industry. Located in a jewel of a building in the tony Ramat Hahayal neighborhood, landmarked by a colorful Keshet logo on the side of the building, the Keshet offices transmit a sense of both taste and efficiency. Hardwood floors, white, spacious rooms with angular metallic furniture make it a place where you imagine a telenovella could be filmed about a TV network filled with young, energetic, creative urban go-getters. But while they may be copying the detached professionalism of their Hollywood counterparts in the décor, some of the ideas coming out of the office are entirely original. For Keshet's vice president of business development Eva Madjiboj, who oversees the company's format deals abroad, the Keshet-CBS-Mythological X package is just one more concrete example of how Israeli productions are being taken seriously by American studios and networks as a source of quality material. "The last year has changed everything, with the success of In Treatment and The Successor," she said, referring to the Keshet-developed Uri Geller-hosted reality show which was optioned to NBC last year as Phenomenon, as well as to Germany and Holland. "I don't think there's a situation where an American producer goes, 'I need a new TV show, let's call Keshet', but absolutely, Keshet is well known," said Madjiboj, who together with Keren Shachar runs the company's international distribution arm, Keshet Formats. Madjiboj said that at the October MIPCOM (the international TV industry's largest audiovisual content trade show held annually in Cannes) she noticed a marked difference in the reception Keshet received. "Once I needed to ask for meetings, now it's them asking. When you say 'Keshet,' they now know what you're talking about," she said. Tel Aviv film producer Eitan Even, whose Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi is being adapted for the American screen, said that same recognition factor has also permeated his business. "In the last few years, it's gotten so much easier to be from Israel in the film industry. If I went to Cannes or Berlin five or six years ago and wanted to arrange meetings with producers or distributors, I'd have to send 20 faxes and manage to get maybe two meetings. I came back from Berlin this last time and I think I had something like 40 meetings," he said. "People return your calls now." Dissolve to hotel room, somewhere in Paris The love affair with Israeli film is global. A quick recap of 2007's superlatives: The Band's Visit (the Jury Coup de Coeur award at Cannes and the Grand Prix award at Tokyo); Jellyfish (the Camera d'Or award at Cannes); My Father, My Lord (Narrative Feature Award at Tribeca); Sweet Mud (Grand Jury Prize at Sundance); Noodle (Special Jury Grand Prix at Montreal ) and Beaufort, the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, and, of course, an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film - the first time in 24 years that an Israeli film is competing in this category. But not only are Israeli films being recognized for their quality, they're also getting the adaptation treatment - from remakes of Israeli films to screen adaptations of Israeli books or short stories. According to popular iconoclast author Etgar Keret, who along with his wife Shira Geffen co-directed Jellyfish, there are completely different reasons which explain how Israeli film adaptations and TV adaptations end up on American screens. "The decision to take a film, a story or a screenplay and adapt it to for a new film is done primarily by writers and directors, whereas the decision to take B'tipul to the American TV screens is taken by TV executives, a different breed entirely," said Keret from Paris where he was attending the Paris Book Fair. A TV show like B'tipul wasn't bought necessarily because of its amazing quality of writing, but because of its format - which is both original and cost effective, explained Keret, who added that those are both qualities TV executives are looking for. "When it comes to Israeli film, it's the story and exposure which are the main factors. One reason why Israeli productions are more popular now is that in the independent film industry today, a lot of the directors are coming from Europe and they're more exposed to Israeli films and directors," said Keret, whose short story "Kneller's Happy Campers" was made into the well-received film Wristcutters by Yugoslavian director Goran Dukic in 2006. "I had a reading in a Los Angeles bookstore in 2001, and Goran showed up there with a book to be autographed. He told me: 'Your stories would work beautifully on film,'" remembered Keret. A couple years later Dukic presented Keret with an unsolicited finished screenplay, and the author was so impressed he sold Dukic the film rights. "It wasn't necessarily the way I imagined how my story would appear on screen, but it was how a person who went through the Yugoslavian war and was living in LA would interpret the story," said Keret of the film. "He didn't make an Israeli film, but he did capture the material that made me - an Israeli - write it. You can't expect anything more than that. If a film adaptation was exactly like the book, there would be no sense in making it." Dissolve back to Tel Aviv Producer Eitan Even is elated. American director Rodrigo Garcia, most noted for his work on Big Love, Six Feet Under and Carnivale, is set to direct the upcoming film Diego Ascending, a remake of the Even-produced, Shemi Zarhin-directed affable 2003 comedy Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi. Actress Salma Hayek is producing this film, which instead of a Jewish guy in Tel Aviv is based on a Latino teenager who must choose between pursuing his academic interests and taking care of his family. Even has been an integral part of the local film industry for the better part of three decades, ever since he studied film in London in the early 1970s. Among his most notable productions are 1988's Avia's Summer, 2006's Aviva My Love, and 2007's The Debt. But Shlomi is his first American breakthrough. "I screened the film in 2004 at the Los Angeles Film Festival," he said during a break from his busy work day. "An American producer named Tom Kuhn saw it by chance and loved it. He traced my telephone in Israel and called me to ask if the remake rights were available. That started a long process of phone calls and negotiations, which ended with me giving him the option for the film." Kuhn then had to go shopping to find the money to finance the production. He made his way to Hayek's company and both she and director Garcia loved the film and signed on. "I've seen the completed first draft and they hardly changed anything," said Even, who's going to receive co-producer billing. "Of course it's been adapted mentally and culturally. It's not going to be a Hollywood film, it's a Latino film, so the characters have changed a bit and the sense of humor is different. But the main, basic elements are intact." Even thinks that while Shlomi was a clearly a "local" film that could only have taken place in Israel, the story behind it could have happened anywhere. "It's a matter of identifying with the character. Everyone has a family, and things happen in the family. All of this makes it one small universe," he said. Shlomi isn't Even's only Hollywood hopeful. Plans are currently being finalized with Marv Films which has a first-look deal with Sony Pictures for a remake of The Debt, a thriller which starred Gila Almagor. "We've finished the negotiations, now it's with the lawyers, so you never know how long it's going to take with American lawyers," laughed Even. Dissolve to interlude dream sequence with roundtable of directors, writers and producers How did Israeli entertainment arrive at this hallowed state - was it a confluence of unrelated circumstances, or a realization that, like in hi-tech or defense, when Israelis put their minds to something, they tend to excel? According to most industry insiders, Israel is the fortunate recipient of a trend among Hollywood TV and film producers to look for foreign formats and concepts to adapt, rather than come up with their own original ideas. "The success of foreign formats is nothing new - well before The Office and Ugly Betty, you can go all the way back to All in the Family," said CBS's Tassler. "It's not a new concept, but Israel has staked its claim to be a part of it." "The reactions I get all the time now are that our production values in Israel are very high, and low budget compared to what American producers are used to," added Keshet's Madjiboj. "Look, we're Israeli, we know how to get things done. In TV, we have to deal with the most impatient audience - with an audience that is tense all the time, and the TV industry here has learned to provide creative shows with low budgets." But's not just cost-cutting measures which are attracting producers to Israeli scripts. It's also the scripts themselves. "I think the main thing is that the outside world has woken up to the fact that we have many stories to tell in Israel," said Madjiboj. According to the Israel Film Fund's Schoury, the stories being told in films and TV were for many years focused on Tel Aviv and on the main homogeneous population, when in reality, Israel is anything but homogeneous. "Finally, the stories left Tel Aviv, and began taking place and being made by people from different parts of the country - not only geographically, but ethnic groups. All of a sudden, we see this very turbulent multicultural society in Israel coming out and the filmmakers are going back to their roots in a way," he said. While the subject matter has broadened, so has the ability of local writers to tell their tales, according to filmmaker Dror Shaul, who last year directed the award-winning Sweet Mud. "I'm not surprised that Israeli productions are being adapted for the international screens. I think that once the quality of the product reaches a higher standard, the American market does what it has always been doing, finding original material abroad," he said. "There's simply better story telling now - the Israeli industry has blossomed and is blooming now. It's a world of voices, and in Israeli society there are many voices." TTV's Tzafrir Kochanovsky believes that as long as those voices ring true, local productions will received warmly abroad, despite the cultural differences in the characters. "I believe that good films have truth, and if you can portray truth and convey it to the audience, they get it, no matter where they are. The Band's Visit is a unique story, it can happen only in Israel. But at the same time, it's universal. For me watching that film was so exciting. I didn't watch it as an Israeli film, I just watched it as a great film. I think the attitude of creators and producers is now more on this level these days - not making things that are 'good, for coming from Israel,' but just good." Concluded director Shaul, "Israelis have become more courageous to allow deeper personal themes into their work. Everything is universal if you tell it in an honest way, even if you're making a film about aliens." Dissolve to patio of Jerusalem Cinematheque Props, double espresso While Israeli screenwriters and creative talents are spread all over the place in such diverse areas as reality shows and game shows, feature films, telenovellas, documentaries and comedy and drama series, all agree that their talents have been developed thanks to a common source: commercial television. "For many years, we were all here with one TV station," said the Israel Film Fund's Schoury, sipping coffee on the terrace at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. "Channel 1 never believed in developing dramas, preferring to concentrate on news, current affairs and sports, and documentaries. And there was a tremendous frustration, for filmmakers - perhaps 30 hours a year available for dramas or mini-series." When cable and commercial TV were introduced in the early 1990s, the opportunities exploded to the extent that today there's almost 400 hours annually being produced locally of telenovellas, soaps, reality shows and mini-series. "All these writers who were sitting at home frustrated had a chance to go back to work and master their writing, and especially, work on the dialogue," said Schoury. "With the introduction of commercial TV, the writer had, and still has a great training ground, which spills over into Israeli cinema." Etgar Keret, who knows his way around a Hebrew phrase, believes that another obstacle which has taken years for Israeli film and TV writers to overcome is developing a style of writing dialogue in Hebrew. "I think writers had difficulty in treating Hebrew as if it's not sacred, and many times with dialogue it felt like you were watching a book. This generation of writers, with opportunities in commercial TV and local productions, has been trained to profane the language enough for screenplays to work a lot better," he said. According to Renen Schorr, a producer and director (1987's Late Summer Blues) and the founder-director of the Sam Spiegel School of Film in Jerusalem, Israeli scriptwriters in the past never had a dialogue with their audience, they wrote for their families and friends. "A big change that we initiated with our students was teaching them that we wanted to make films that have a dialogue with the audience, films that make an audience laugh or cry. We ask our students from day one - would your film be understood in Helsinki or in London?" he said. "Israeli film now is the best ambassador for Israel - it shows the world a people and a place they haven't seen before, or have only seen through the conflict on CNN. When we watch films, we are tourists - or even voyeurs. We want to get to know new people and places. Through the day-to-day of Israeli life, even with the background of bombings, the world sees Israelis as human beings, not just political beings." For film and TV veterans like Schorr and the film fund's Schoury, the recognition of Israeli talent by Hollywood is a vindication of their belief that the industry has been worth developing all these years. And that each victory can only help the industry as a whole. "I really believe that every success pulls more success along with it," said Schoury. "I think the buzz around Israel helped In Treatment get made just as the success of In Treatment will help Israeli films get seen. There's definitely a synergy. "Right now, Israel is part of the most interesting cinema and TV being produced. But we have to be very careful - it's a pendulum, and we never know how long it will last. Five or six years ago, Iranian cinema was at its peak. At the moment, we and the Romanians are in. I don't know how long it will be, but we have to seize the moment." In the halls, offices, studios and screening rooms of Keshet, TTV, film schools, independent producers and countless other breeding grounds where stories are being developed into TV shows and films, that moment is being seized in earnest. And to some, it's a revolution in the making. "We used to be known as the People of the Book," said producer Eitan Even. "Maybe now that's translating into People of the Film." Fade to blue and white.
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