‘Homeland’ producer Howard Gordon takes on new projects, challenges

While he may feel stuck, as so many of us do these days, he is moving forward professionally.

HOWARD GORDON – unapologetic Zionist. (photo credit: BRIGITTE SIRE)
HOWARD GORDON – unapologetic Zionist.
(photo credit: BRIGITTE SIRE)
“I’m stuck in my bubble,” said Howard Gordon, the producer best known for Homeland and 24, about how he is getting through the coronavirus crisis.
Gordon is taking part in the online “Meet the Masters” series of the Ma’aleh School of Film and Television, which features conversations with producers such as Gordon, Galyn Susman of Pixar, screenwriters David Shore (House) and Ron Leshem (Valley of Tears) and actress Ayelet Zurer. “I wish I could be there in person,” said Gordon, who has visited many times. “I haven’t been to Israel in a year and half.”
But while he may feel stuck, as so many of us do these days, he is moving forward professionally, and it was recently announced that he is adapting the novel by Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, into a television series. The novel, which Deadline described as “a spy thriller in the vein of Homeland and The Night Manager,” tells the story of an idealistic Israeli spy who ends up an unknown prisoner in a cell in the Negev, as well as the Palestinians with whom he was involved and a comatose Israeli leader.
Gordon is collaborating on the screenplay with his frequent writing/producing partner, Alex Gansa. Sameh Zoabi will be directing. Zoabi made the very funny, offbeat Tel Aviv on Fire, about an unlikely alliance between a Palestinian man writing a soap opera and an Israeli officer who is crazy about soaps.
“We’re at the very beginning of the writing process,” Gordon said. “Sameh was part of the team that brought the book to our attention. We went from supervising someone else writing it to writing it ourselves.” But working on a new project means “there are a lot of false starts and we make a lot of false turns. It traverses two different time frames. We’ve started and thrown out three different drafts. These are birth pangs.”
He describes Englander’s complex novel as a “genre mash-up. It’s not a thriller but there are thriller aspects to it.” Thrillers are certainly familiar territory for Gordon and Gansa. Referring to his two best-known series, 24, which dealt with American counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, and Homeland, about a CIA agent dedicated to foiling terrorism, Gordon said, “It’s funny. It’s like The Godfather, you know, every time you think you’re out, they keep pulling you back in.”
But Dinner at the Center of the Earth also explores certain subjects that he has not delved into deeply before. While in Homeland there were story lines about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – notably an episode where the senior CIA agent, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), visits his sister, a West Bank settler who is passionate about Greater Israel and argues about politics – here, Israel is at the center of the narrative.
“It’s a story that goes deeply into some of the things that are very close to me, which is the relationship of America, of American Jews and Israel. And it explodes that relationship and explores it. And it’s about mothers and sons, you know, the old [adage] ‘write what you know.’ Well, that felt very close to me. And Alex Gansa, my writing partner, is an honorary Jew, so he’s heard it enough from me.”
Writing this screenplay is highlighting some of the differences between the two. “Our politics are slightly different so it is a bit of a radioactive subject for us, as friends and as partners, but that’s part of the fun.” Essentially, though, “we violently agree,” on most issues, although Gordon said he views the material “through the prism of an American Jew and an unapologetic Zionist.”
As an American Jew living in Queens, “I grew up in the second wave, of the Yom Kippur War, of having gone on American Zionist youth foundation summer trips to Israel... But it is interesting, as an adult and as a critical thinker, to take those primitive assumptions and recognize them a little more soberly now and to look at how complicated at the very least it all is.”
JUST AS it was for the heroine of Homeland, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), “9/11 was a turning point for me. I was working on 24 but it took on a whole new meaning when 9/11 happened. What had been purely entertainment became a vehicle for bigger ideas.”
He widened his perspective on counterterrorism with Homeland, which took the Israeli series, Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff, about Israeli prisoners who return to Israel after being turned by their captors, and moved it to America, adding the element of a bipolar female CIA agent. The portrayal of this agent has been hailed as one of the most realistic looks at someone struggling with bipolar disorder ever dramatized.
Interestingly, Gordon and Gansa did not set out to create a bipolar character. “Carrie’s bipolarity came in many, many drafts later. We didn’t decide she was bipolar but she behaved in a whole bunch of ways and we realized that her promiscuity, her impulsivity, her hyper intelligence, I mean there were a lot of details and behaviors that turned out to be manifestations of bipolarity and we realized that she was diagnostically, clinically bipolar. We didn’t build her from the outside in, we built her from the inside out and we kind of diagnosed her by the 15th draft.”
While I had him on Zoom, I realized I had a chance to get all my lingering Homeland questions answered, but there was only time for one: What was the background of the enigmatically named Dar Adal, a malevolent but effective CIA agent played by F. Murray Abraham? It turned out that Gordon was not sure himself. Henry Bromell, one of the writers, whose father was a CIA station chief, came up with the name.
“He was meant to be Lebanese, I think,” said Gordon.
As he works on Dinner at the Center of the Earth, he said he knew that anything to do with the Israeli-Arab conflict is by nature divisive but that he was ready for whatever fallout would come his way.
Anything to do with that the conflict “is a Rorschach test for so many people,” he said. “We knew we would get a lot of scrutiny... It’s going to become a partisan thing very quickly no matter what you do, so you should probably just tell the story. Like Our Boys was a very incendiary thing for a lot of people.”
Talking about the fact that much of the criticism of Our Boys came from people – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who had never seen the series, he said he could relate. “I’ve been criticized a lot by people who have never seen my work. It’s actually stunning that people would have the audacity to tender an opinion without having actually seen something, but, boy, it doesn’t stop them.”
He was philosophical about the inevitable storm that will come his way once Dinner is released. “It’s an opportunity to hold up a mirror of sorts, even if people think it’s a distorted mirror, to promote that kind of conversation I think is actually an important thing for any culture and any society to engage in.”
To find out more about Ma’aleh’s “Meet the Masters” series, go to https://www.maale.co.il/