It’s unusual for a rising star in the Israeli television industry, which is centered in Tel Aviv, to travel to Jerusalem for an interview, but that’s just one way in which Daniel Shinar, one of the creators of the new television series, Red Skies (which began running on June 19 on Reshet) stands out.
Shinar, an executive producer on Red Skies who wrote the bestselling novel of the same name on which the series is based, has a pretty unusual day job: He is the founder, managing partner and CEO of Claltech, which invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Israeli technology companies. But as we spoke, Shinar – who was raised in Jerusalem and got together with his parents en route to our interview – was firmly focused on Red Skies, a project that he is passionate about.
“It’s a story about friendship, it’s about best friends becoming enemies, and finding themselves on opposite sides of the conflict,” he said.
Set during the Second Intifada, the series tells the story of two best friends, Saar (Maor Schwitzer one of the stars of Line in the Sand and Valley of Tears), a young Israeli from a troubled family, and Ali (Amir Khoury, who starred in The Little Drummer Girl, Image of Victory and Ghosts of Beirut), who become friends as teenagers when they work together at a restaurant.
Ali comes from a warm family in the West Bank who embrace Saar in a way that he desperately needs, and the two bond over their love of video games, which they work at designing. There’s also a girl, Jenny (Annie Shapero), an American aspiring photojournalist they both love. But as they move into their early 20s and Ali, now a medical student, is about to continue his studies at Harvard, the Second Intifada erupts, and the two young men find themselves on opposite sides of a war they didn’t see coming.
The plot for Shinar’s novel was inspired by his participation in the Seeds of Peace program for Israeli and Palestinian children and teens in the mid-1990s, at the height of the euphoria over the Oslo Accords, which became a very meaningful experience for him.
“After the first few days of kind of difficult conversations, you begin to relax and you become friends, you talk about your hopes, about girls, about what you want to do with your life; and politics becomes a very small portion of it... That’s the point of a place like that, they let kids play together and become friends and the idea is that in 20 years they’ll be friends and maybe become leaders.”
One of the highlights of the program was a model peace negotiation in Jordan, hosted by no less than King Hussein, where the Israelis took the part of Palestinians and vice-versa.
Friendships between Israelis and Palestinians were not so unusual then, he noted. Shinar stayed in touch with his friends from the program, even as the peace process collapsed.
But then he went to the army and served as an intelligence officer in the elite 8200 unit, just as the Second Intifada was breaking out, finding himself “in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.”
Just 21, he was in charge of intelligence on terrorism by non-religious groups, among them the Al-Aqsa brigades.
“It’s still the biggest job I’ve ever had, an even bigger job than investing hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.
Shinar lost touch with his Seeds of Peace Friends during those years and later learned that several had been killed in demonstrations.
The plot for the novel had begun to take shape in his mind, but he put it in a virtual bottom drawer as he went on a trek to Latin America and built his tech investing career.
When his son was born, he experienced “an early mid-life crisis,” and went back to the book, which was eventually published by Yediot in 2018 and became a bestseller, as did its sequel, Pagoda House. But getting Red Skies published was not simple, because the military censors had to give their approval. Coming into a meeting, he was told, “We have good news and bad news.” The good news was that they loved the book. The bad news was that they were requiring so many changes, he wasn’t sure it could ever be published. Finally, he went back in and after many months, he emerged with a publishable manuscript.
From literature to television
NOT CONTENT to be a tech entrepreneur and a bestselling novelist, he wanted the book to be adapted for television and he sought the best collaborators he could find. In addition to Shinar, who executive produced the series, Red Skies’ creators are Ron Leshem (Euphoria, No Man’s Land), Daniel Amsel (Valley of Tears) and Amit Cohen (No Man’s Land, False Flag); and the director is Alon Zingman (Shtisel). Previous series created by these television pros have been shown on HBO, Hulu, Netflix and other international networks. Red Skies was produced by Yoav Gross (Carthago, Manayek) along with Len Blavatnik and Danny Cohen, of Access Entertainment, who serve as executive producers, and were also executive producers on the recent Cannes Grand Prix winner, Zone of Interest.
Additional writers included Ali Waked (Bethlehem), Ala Dakka (who is best known as an actor), Noa Mannheim and Tamar Key. They were able to cast some of the best actors in Israel, among them Khoury and Schwitzer, as well as Alona Sa’ar (Dismissed), Yaakov Zada-Daniel (Carthago) and dozens of others. Shinar would have been happy to spend the bulk of the interview singing the praises of his cast and behind-the-scenes collaborators.
He said that he had thought that once they all signed on, getting Red Skies onto TV screens would be smooth sailing. But even when all the stars seem to be aligned, shooting such a complex project with a cast and crew of over 140 (huge by Israeli standards), wasn’t a simple undertaking.
“When you’re making a show, every day is a sinking ship, every day is a crisis,” he said. As if to underscore this point, a cat and a dog at the outdoor café where we were sitting got into a loud, impossible-to-ignore battle, and we paused as they settled into a standoff.
Shinar went back to describing some of the crises the production faced.
“One day an editor is sick, another time, you lose a location and have to rush to find someplace else... It’s a big operation and there are so many opinions and so many people.”
The setting where Saar and Ali meet was changed from the peace camp to a hotel kitchen because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to hire a group of children, for example. The scenes in the peace camp were important to Shinar as an author, but as an executive producer, he understood why they needed to be cut.
Given the long road to bring Red Skies to the screen, the world premiere at the prestigious Series Mania competition in France in March was very moving for him.
“It was the closest thing to a wedding for me, since my wedding. It was a red carpet event, there were 2,000 people and two episodes were screened,” he said.
“I get anxious, I was watching and nobody left and then there was a huge standing ovation... Until it’s shown, you don’t know how it will travel. It was very emotional.”
The following days were gratifying, too, as he started getting emails from major streaming services and networks, and the producers are currently looking at different options for showing Red Skies abroad.
Shinar is happy that the series is now on television in Israel and looks forward to seeing how audiences react here.
“On a big project like this, you’re taking a risk, you give away control,” he said. But his tech training helped him power through.
“A startup isn’t so different from a television series,” he mused. “You need experts and funding.”
By the end of the interview, Shinar seemed to be at peace with the long, strange trip that Red Skies has taken him on. The feuding cat and dog fell asleep in the sun as he headed to his car and back to Tel Aviv.