Sarah Timberman
Sarah Timberman. Photo by Daniel Tchechik
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Prashant Gupta / FX
Timothy Olyphant playing a U.S. Marshal in Timberman’s hit show 'Justified.' Photo by Prashant Gupta / FX

Veteran American television producer Sarah Timberman, who visited Israel last week and participated in a master class sponsored by the Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Film and Television Partnership, is no stranger to the business.

She's gone from a childhood of attending movie premiers to a stint as president of an award-winning production company to her current role, as co-owner of another production outfit.

Timberman counts her mother, who was one of the first females to get work on the other side of the camera, as her role model.

Timberman remembers herself as a little girl being embarrassed at the premier screening of "The Godfather" when her mother blocked her eyes during the movie's more violent scenes.

Her mother was also a veteran of the publishing industry and worked as a copywriter in a New York ad agency in the 1960s. According to her daughter, Timberman's mother lived in a world very similar to that depicted in the award-winning series "Mad Men."

"Her stories could easily become plotlines for the show," Timberman says.

Not only was her mother the only woman among the copywriters, but also the only Jew.

When she asked to bring her Jewish boyfriend along on a short vacation to her boss's hunting lodge in Connecticut, her boss refused.

While her boss did not say religion was the reason he refused, it was implied, and so her mother refused the invitation.

As the story goes, when she returned to work on Monday, she discovered a dead partridge on the wall of her office, apparently hunted that same weekend.

The story not only goes to show how the world has changed, but also Timberman's ability to identify and present a good story, one of the demands of her job.

Today she owns Timberman-Beverly Productions, which produced this year's "Justified," lauded by American television critics, some of whom ranked it as the best new show.

The drama, broadcast on the FX cable network (and which has not yet been acquired for broadcast in Israel ), brings Elmore Leonard's rich text to the screen; the hero is a tough U.S. Marshal named Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant ).

His attempts to deal with lawbreakers, and the carefully-preserved ironic tone of Leonard's novels are the show's hallmarks.

"Finishing each episode is like closing up a really great, gritty, little crime novel," the Internet journal Slant gushed.

In the past, as president of Universal Network Television, Timberman was in charge of all its comedy, drama, daily and reality series, including "Law and Order," "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," "Just Shoot Me," "American Dream" and others.

She was also responsible for bringing young adult series such as "Dawson's Creek" and "Party of Five" to the screen.

During her term at Universal, she bought the rights to Ricky Gervais' brilliant mockumentary comedy, "The Office," which has become a long-running hit in the U.S.

Brainstorming and therapy

Timberman led the master class at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque at the initiative of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation.

This is the 12th time the workshops have been held, during which well-known names in American television meet with a chosen group of young artists from Israel and the U.S. She absorbs quite a lot from these encounters, Timberman says.

"When you work in a senior position in American television, you're hungry for innovation, but sometimes feel that you are hearing the same ideas again and again," she said. "Here everything is original. It is a new industry, a new community; everyone I've spoken to here is passionate."

In the workshop, Timberman gave a short course on the structure of American television.

Like many other executives, she is surprised by the large gap between funding and the time devoted to work on Israeli series as compared to American ones.

"The budget for one episode of an American series is that of an entire season of an Israeli show," she said, and the time taken to record one Israeli episode is half that devoted to one episode in the U.S.

The most prominent difference, she thinks, is the absence of what is known as a writers' room.

"Here, the voice of one writer is heard in every series. In American series, perhaps with the exception of David Kelly [the creator of "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," among others, who likes to write every word of his shows], there is a writers' room. For six to eight weeks, eight hours a day, even before starting to write the series, they sit with the manager [called a show runner] and talk."

According to Timberman, much like on "30 Rock," the writers not only brainstorm, but they "talk, often making confessions and telling personal stories. In the case of series we worked on such as 'Dawson's Creek' and 'Party of Five,' the writers actually brought up love stories, shared their relations with their families, a lot of therapy."

Timberman says she thinks that this is the most important stage in the creative process. She explains that for an average show, there are eight layers of writers, with the series creators overseeing them and guiding the tone.

In shows that are more formulaic - she emphasizes that "Law and Order" is "a formula in the best sense of the word" - there is no need for a writers' room.

"On this kind of series," which will soon end after 20 years onscreen, one knows in advance, according to Timberman, "that you don't tell long stories. Each screenwriter writes alone and keeps in touch with the show runner. They write drafts and he organizes them at the end. It is part of a system. The stories on 'Law and Order' are told very well and have a loyal audience which knows what to expect." But most series, she says, need cross fertilization among the writers.

Sex and fairy tales

After working as an executive at Universal, Timberman decided to become an independent producer. Her new series, which are in the development stage, are varied. One, aimed at the cable networks, is based on the sex therapists Masters and Johnson and their role in the American sexual revolution.

Another project is film noir adaptation of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. "Like 'The Wire,' which dealt with the city of Baltimore via a different municipal structure each season, we plan to treat each story via a different fairy tale. What happened to Little Red Riding Hood in the forest, for example," she said.

Together with her husband Ed Redlich (the lead producer of "Without a Trace" ) - whom she met as a young woman at a Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire - she is developing a series currently titled "The Rememberer." It is based on a short story by J. Robert Lennon, in which a female New York police detective remembers every detail of the previous 25 years, a quality very helpful to her work but a curse on her personal life.

The decision to leave her executive position at Universal and open her own company "allows me more flexibility, and as a mother I needed more control of my daily schedule," Timberman said.

But there is another reason: "As a producer you can advance projects connected to your own taste, things you yourself would like to watch."