He Can Handle the Suspense: An Interview With Alon Aranya

Having sold 'Hostages' to CBS, the producer-screenwriter talks about tough competition in television and what projects he has in the works.

With the staggering success of “Homeland,” based on the Israel’s own “Hatufim” created by Gideon Raff, Israeli television has come to international prominence. Last month, “Hostages,” based on an Israeli show of the same name (“Bnei Aruba”), debuted on CBS. Counterintuitively, the American version debuted three weeks before the Israeli original, which debuted earlier this week.

The plots of both versions are very similar: A family is taken hostage by masked kidnappers and the mother, a surgeon scheduled to operate on the Israeli prime minister/American president, is ordered by her kidnappers to kill the leader on the operating table. The Israeli series stars two Israelis who have made it big in Hollywood: The surgeon is played by Ayelet Zurer (“Angels & Demons,” “Man of Steel”) and the kidnappers’ ringleader is Jonah Lotan (“24,” “CSI: NY,” “Homeland”). In the American series, Toni Collette (“United States of Tara”) is the physician and Dylan McDermott (“The Practice”) is the chief kidnapper.

The pilot for the American “Hostages” was co-written by Alon Aranya and Jeffrey Nachmanoff. They based the episode on a Hebrew screenplay by Omri Givon and Rotem Shamir, and, in doing so, brought the Israeli series to Hollywood. In a telephone conversation from his Los Angeles home, Israeli producer-screenwriter Aranya tells Haaretz about the unusual sale to Hollywood of an Israeli series that wasn’t yet on television.

Nabbing “Hostages”

Aranya, 42, a native of Tel Aviv, studied Film and Television at Tel Aviv University and, in the mid-1990s, traveled to Los Angeles. After a short spell there, he received a scholarship from New York University, where he did an MFA in screenwriting.

“Three years ago,” he says, “I sold the Barabash brothers’ and Channel 10’s ‘The Naked Truth’ to Lions Gate and HBO. It was produced by Haim Sharir, who also produced the Israeli version of ‘Hostages.’” Ultimately, the show was never broadcast; however, it wasn’t a dead end. “On another visit to Israel, I again turned to Channel 10, asking to see their screenplays. Karni Ziv, Channel 10’s vice president of content at the time, told me about ‘Hostages’ and I became very interested.”

Ziv, who until recently was Keshet Broadcasting’s head of dramatic and comedy programming, explains that she thought the screenplay would interest Aranya because “it was very well written, but it also had things that were very American – plenty of action, plenty of conspiracy. We didn’t know whether we could produce such a series in Israel. I told Alon, ‘Read this; it might be suitable.’”

Aranya decided to move forward with the “Hostages” screenplay. “I met with Sharir and the series’ Israeli creators,” he says. “I developed together with them the overall concept and, at a certain point, they continued with the Israeli development and I went on with the American version and the writing of the pilot. Two years ago, it was sold to Jerry Bruckheimer’s production company and Warner Bros.”

Last summer Nachmanoff entered the picture; he directed the pilot with Aranya. “There was a battle of proposals between CBS and Fox,” he recalls. “CBS really liked the idea and promised a pilot, which opened the door for all the wonderful things that have happened to the series since, such as Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott joining the cast.”

There are several prominent differences between the Israeli and American versions in terms of budget and screenplay. “What takes us five episodes to show,” says Aranya, “they do in two. Also, an episode in the American series costs 33 times as much as one in the Israeli version. They have 15, we have 10; they move faster and go further.”

Gal Zaid, responsible for drama content at Channel 10, supports Aranya’s words: “The Israeli version is more involved with psychological drama. The creators came up with a story they didn’t know how to solve. We looked for emotional solutions touching the conspiracy’s deepest level.” According to Aranya, the parallel development of both series created a fascinating interaction from the creative standpoint as a result of the mutual influence.

“Homeland” opened the door

There are no shortages of challenges. The American version of the show is suffering from low ratings that continue to drop. “The series took on a tough competitor,” explains Aranya. “‘The Voice,’ NBC’s highly-rated reality program, which is aired before the competing series, ‘The Blacklist,’ hurts CBS’s Monday programming. Although ratings for the series in America are less than we had expected, the data on the recording devices has improved the situation. Unfortunately, the market is crazy.” He points out that huge hits like “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” both started with small audiences. “The networks are showing more patience lately, at least on certain things, because the rules of the game have changed drastically,” he says. “Although ‘Hostages’ has low ratings in the U.S., those viewers like the show very much. Right now, the ninth episode is being filmed and Warner Bros. has committed to filming all 15. There’s no question that this’ll happen.”

Did “Homeland” open the door?

“Absolutely. All the Israeli momentum has opened the door for us, and I’m thinking especially of ‘Homeland.’ ‘Hostages’ was sold to the Americans purely by chance, right after ‘Homeland’ won 4 Emmys. Two days after the Emmy Awards, we presented our series at the studios. We didn’t plan it that way, but this is how things worked out. Just as ‘Homeland’ opened the door for us, ‘Hostages’ will open the door for other Israeli suspense series.”

Scripted World, a company owned by Aranya and Rob Golenberg, is working on another series: “Betrayal,” an American version of the stunning Dutch series “Overspel;” it began to be broadcast this fall on ABC. Israeli TV shows continue to find American audiences. Last week, it was learned that TNT has bought the format for the drama series “President X” (“Hitorerut” in Israel). It is based on the medical condition of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who, following a stroke several years ago, is still in a coma. The American series, to be produced by Warner Bros., was created by Aranya, Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv.

Itiel Zion
David Giesbrecht / CBS
Haaretz