Noah's Arc

Best known for turning hit Israeli novels into successful films, screenwriter Noah Stollman now has an original TV series, 'Pillars of Smoke,' on its way to America.


A month and a half ago, the U.S. network NBC acquired the production rights to the series "Pillars of Smoke" ("Timrot Ashan" ) created by screenwriter Noah Stollman and director Oded Davidoff (who also directed the TV series "Hakol Dvash" ). There was a lot of hoopla in the Israeli media over this latest successful television export, but Stollman appears to take it all in stride.

Noah Stollman - Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov

"I'm not the type to jump up and down," he says, sitting on the balcony of his Tel Aviv apartment with his sleepy dog and a few pesky buzzing wasps. "Selling foreign rights was never part of the expectations. The idea was just to create a show that's fun to watch and that has something to say about Israeli culture and society, about the Israeli experience." One of Israel's most prominent screenwriters of recent years, Stollman gained fame for his screen adaptations of books. "The Human Resources Manager," based on the book by A.B. Yehoshua, won the Ophir Prize. It was preceded by "Someone to Run With" (2006 ), based on the David Grossman book, and "Adam Resurrected" (2009 ), based on a book by Yoram Kaniuk. The latter was a star-studded Israeli-American film (the director was Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," and the cast included Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Ayelet Zurer ). Soon he will find out what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation, when his original screenplay is rewritten and adapted for an American audience.

"I'm not worried about my words, and I'm curious to see what they'll do with it," says Stollman. "The show does draw a lot from American popular culture - conspiracies, investigations, light touches of science fiction, cults - but it also has aspects of security and agriculture and the kibbutz, and Druze characters and religious characters. There's a big gap between what they liked in a show that comes from the Third World and what they're obliged to present to their viewers."

What happens if you find their adaptation dreadful?

"I can say whatever I want, but they're not obligated to listen. And I know that in order to make a show that appeals to a wide audience on a major network, something has to change."

Long incubation

Selling the rights to the Americans is another link in Stollman's climb to the top of the local television and film industry. "He's sharp and he has an edge," says Renen Schorr, director of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School, from which Stollman graduated in 1995. "He's shy, but he has a quiet charisma and a broad outlook in literature and film."

Eran Riklis, director of "The Human Resources Manager," says Stollman "brings an ideal mix of emotion, sensitivity and professionalism. It was a pleasure to work with him."

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Stollman's first film, "Someone to Run With," only came out five years ago, when he was 40. "I'm a late bloomer," admits Stollman, adding that some of the projects he worked on required a particularly long incubation period.

Stollman began working on "Pillars of Smoke," the story of kibbutzniks in the Golan Heights who disappear one day without a trace, about a decade ago. "It took a long time before the HOT cable network saw the potential in it," he says. "It's a combination of suspense, humor, drama and horror - the genres weren't always clear. I wanted the mystery of the missing people to become part of the life of the characters, for the investigation to go into the backdrop of the stories and be less dominant. But it turned out to be too abstract for a television series."

The show, which HOT says is one of the most expensive productions in Israeli television, recently returned for a second season (Tuesdays at 10:30 P.M. ). When it first went on the air three years ago, it was quite unusual: Not another series about relationships in a bourgeois Tel Aviv setting, but a suspense and mystery series set in the Golan Heights, with dream and hallucination sequences - comparable to "Twin Peaks" - whose beginning and end are not always clear.

"To me a perfect scene is one that disconnects from reality without the viewer noticing," says Stollman. "Something you see as realistic but that doesn't really add up. 'Twin Peaks' was definitely a significant television experience for me, a kind of esoteric television experiment that wasn't expected to be such a big success."

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks also dictated something of the show's tone. "In the background, on the sensory level. I was living in New York then. In the first days they didn't know how many were killed and there was talk of tens of thousands of 'missing persons.' People didn't know what to do: mourn them? Search for them? It's a type of limbo. It's something that we also experience as residents of this country. If there's a shooting incident on the border, it can have an effect in Tel Aviv and it all creates anxieties and a powerful feeling that you can't really live, but at the same time you have to live, and that's what I wanted to talk about. About the existential feelng, about the connection between people in a state of uncertainty."

He was familiar with the Golan Heights from his military service - "a dark time in my life. I didn't do anything besides accumulate material for shows and movies. I was at the line of the outposts, where there are endless spaces, and something of this microcosm seeped into 'Pillars of Smoke.' During the time I was there, the border was quiet, the region was a kind of utopia, but we knew that it wasn't really that way - after all, you're at an outpost that is guarding the border."

He invokes the word "dark" to describe his childhood, his military service and his screenplays. "I'm not a dark personality type, but I am drawn to these things," he says. "It's the thrill, the fear, not knowing where something comes from. That fellow who just killed his parents, for instance. And I read the whole indictment against the man who murdered Tair Rada. There's something about this tension, about what really happened and what will never be known. It can feed my obsession for the dark side of human nature and become material for a story. It's not my impulse to kill someone. I'm a normative person. All of literature deals with killings; all of cinema deals with death."

This tendency was already evident in his final project film at Sam Spiegel, entitled "Seeker," which depicts an IDF food base where soldiers are skewered by a serial killer. Stollman says that he deliberately chose "cheap symbolism for the military food chain: I drew from B movies, where you get a kick out of the blunt and heavy-handed symbolism, and from the knowing wink. The point of view of American culture is generally something through which I always viewed Israeli reality. Right from the start, it's clear that the base commander, who comes off as a psychopath, is connected to the killings. A military investigator shows up disguised as a kashrut inspector, and in the end the detective freezes to death in the storage freezer, and the killer isn't caught because he's more clever."

He says he wasn't using the film to settle any scores over his own military service, but rather to deal with "the myth of what it means to be an officer, to be someone who is above the law, above suspicion."

In "Pillars of Smoke," he says he went back to addressing national myths, in the guise of a detective thriller that delves into the histories of the main characters. Reviewers were smitten: "You can't take your eyes off the screen," enthused Yaron Fried in Haaretz; "This is how you tell a story," gushed Ariana Melamed on ynet. But the timing of when the series went on the air worked to its detriment: Operation Cast Lead began shortly before, and the fictitious pillars of smoke had a hard time competing with the real ones in the news.

Stollman sighs: "You can devote years of your life to making something and then in one swoop the local reality turns everything upside down. 'Someone to Run With' also came out at a difficult time, and it put a damper on things somewhat."

Now, too, with the second season on the air, war may be lurking around the corner.

"Hey, don't think I'm not worried about that."

First came drawing

Many of his projects focus on journeys and searches. In "Someone to Run With," the search is for the owner of an abandoned dog. "The Human Resources Manager" centers on a journey to the burial of a mysterious female employee who was killed in a terror attack. In "Pillars of Smoke," the police are searching for the missing kibbutzniks, and at the same time, the heroes of the series are searching for what to do with themselves. "They're searching for their place," explains Stollman. "Leah Kafka [the police detective], for example, has come from the outside into a closed world that has its own rules and its own values. At first, her estrangement from this world, and her prejudices about cults, prevent her from getting to know the local codes."

Journeys, quests, and changes of location are also a recurring theme in his own biography. Stollman was born in New Jersey, in the small city of Plainfield ("It's just as the name says - a field with nothing" ). When he was three, his parents made aliyah and the family settled in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood. "It took time for my parents to adjust. In fact, they're still trying to decipher the codes of Israeli society. They made aliyah out of ideological Zionist motives, but they didn't find the kind of ideological atmosphere here that they thought they would. My father was a young ophthalmologist and Jerusalem in the '70s was a tough place with aggressive people. The concept of manners and courtesy didn't exist."

Did their foreignness embarrass you?

"I wasn't embarrassed, but I just knew that they didn't really know what their children were going through. As a kid coming into a new reality, I didn't have their back to lean upon. They were busy trying to understand this weird world to which they'd come."

From his childhood neighborhood, Stollman recalls "old stone, middle-class buildings," and mainly "a darkness that I don't know how to describe exactly. I remember that at one end of the neighborhood there was a secret weapons factory, although to this day I'm not certain what it really was. And I remember that there were all kinds of perverts who were lurking there, lying in wait for children. They didn't harass me, but it was terrifying. It's possible that these are just stories that became etched in memory ... a kind of memory that's more literary than real."

He adapted such memories into a short story that took a top prize in the 1992 Haaretz short story contest. The story opens with the narrator, an awkward teenager, being tied to a tree. The panel of judges for the contest said the story had "cinematic flashes." Stollman wrote other stories, "but I didn't publish them," he says.

"I wasn't a popular little kid. When I was a bit older I spent a lot of time alone. I would write and draw. I wasn't living in my imagination, but I processed the reality through my imagination. When I was eight I wrote a 200-page book on my father's typewriter, about espionage and international intrigue. The day after I finished it, I threw it away because I thought it was no good, but it was fun being in it. I wanted to be a writer, and maybe I will be one day."

He was attracted to comics and tried his hand at that too. "The ability to draw - the connection between the written word and the image - that helps in writing screenplays."

He enrolled in the Bezalel Academy to study design, but withdrew after a year ("I was disappointed. I didn't find a collective brotherhood there" ) and enrolled instead in the new film school that had just opened in Jerusalem. "I went into film not because I wanted to be a screenwriter, but because I wanted to work with pictures and sound, and to tell stories," he says. "I didn't really know what filmmaking was about. I lived near the Cinematheque in Jerusalem and I saw a lot of films, but most of the time I wanted to be a painter." At Sam Spiegel, where he studied alongside Davidoff and his wife Daphna Levin ("In Treatment" ) and Dror Sabo ("Nevelot" ), he realized that "this was the place for me."

Stollman later taught at the institution, giving a course in adaptation, "but I saw that with my personality I was better off in a closed room with as little human interaction as possible," he says.

In 1995, Stollman returned to New York with his new bride, Sigal, a dancer and teacher of the Alexander method, the sister of one of the soldiers who had served with him. "All the years I lived in Israel people told me, 'What an idiot you are. If only I had an American passport.' And New York was a kind of dream," he says. "Even if you don't do anything there, there's a horizon, you're living with the promise of a future. My ambition was to break into the American market, but it's a very competitive market. Part of the time I worked as an animator for commercials and I also designed websites. I only quit that when I started selling scripts to Israel and I started to get hired as a screenwriter. I found my calling."

The international production "Adam Resurrected" was supposed to be the turning point that would jumpstart Stollman's Hollywood career. "After that movie I went around Los Angeles. I had agents there, I started projects, I met with production companies. I tried to pitch them stories, they tried to pitch to me."

But just when it seemed he might be able to get his career into a higher gear, he returned to Tel Aviv. "It's not that I wanted to raise my kids in Israel - I would actually have preferred not to, especially now. But in the last few years in Israel I made three movies and two seasons of a television series, and in Israel I had much more creative freedom than I could have achieved in America. And I also came back for personal and family reasons related to my parents."

His two children were born in New York. Zohar, 10, who was named after the Book of the Zohar ("I was drawn to it on the literary, not the spiritual, level" ) and Gavriel, 5. "We just wanted a name that could work in both Hebrew and English, which was also how our life was there. Without meaning to, I put my children through a similar process to the one I went through. When I lived in New York, I had one leg there and one leg here. When I moved here, I just switched legs. It's a little troublesome, but I live with it. It's good for art."

What will become of the projects you started in America? Of the Hollywood dream?

"Things are never completely shelved, they're just put on the back burner. A script I wrote about a mountain climber coping with depression and alcoholism is still making the rounds. I know that Robert Redford's production company has read it, but I did pretty much close the door when I moved here.

"There's something about the American movie industry that I have a hard time with. It's a stressful environment, I don't think I'm cut out for that world. Yes, I'm competitive and aware of what goes on in the industry, but I'm not really aggressive. It takes a lot of effort for me to pick up the phone. I'd rather that they call me."

No to wars

He wrote the first season of "Pillars of Smoke" in a library in Brooklyn, but he came to Israel a good number of times during the months of production. "I was back and forth a lot. It was hard, but I felt that as a partner in the production, I wanted to go through all the stages, and not just be there for the highlights. It's also one of the things that brought me back to Israel."

He wrote the second season in the study hall at Beit Ariela, "because it's a quiet place and until recently it didn't have an Internet connection either. You don't go out for coffee, you don't talk on the phone and you don't surf the Internet. And this time I was also on the set, in the editing room; I was involved in the production the entire time."

His mother tongue is English, and this is still noticeable in his Hebrew: the traces of an accent, the frequent insertion of English words and the literal translations of idioms, which he says also find their way into his screenplays.

Why don't you write the American script for "Pillars of Smoke" yourself?

"If I knew how to write a show for 20 million viewers, I would do it. I don't feel like killing myself trying to figure out what the audience of an American commercial network will want to see."

What do you miss most about New York?

"The potential, the feeling that you can go far. Here there are budgetary barriers, and here you also can't look that far ahead. There's a weight that has to do with the security situation, a sacrificing of dreams. We're chained to the patriotic, Zionist, security, religious myth, whose confines are hard to transcend, and 'Pillars of Smoke' deals with this too. What suffers in all this is the human dimension. The myth weighs a person down. This sharpens my longing for New York, where you can reinvent yourself even if you're not doing anything."

What do you miss most about Jerusalem?

"I don't miss anything about Jerusalem. And I don't know anyone who's stayed there."

His favorite directors are Lars von Trier, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sidney Lumet, as well as Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola ("Obviously," he says ). "Unfortunately, I've been seeing a lot fewer movies lately. I see the films of my colleagues, and not so many American films."

What do you like to watch on TV?

"In Israel, a lot of things don't really speak to me. It's very hard with our budgetary constraints to make TV that is up to the production level of series imported from abroad. But I liked 'Nevelot' and Rani Blair's 'Adama.'"

On the one hand, people complain that television here is boring, but then Israeli shows keep getting purchased abroad.

"Maybe because it's cheaper and the stakes are lower. Or maybe because there's more creative freedom in Israel and so you sometimes get original concepts like 'In Treatment.' And then they buy it and turn it into an American product, and you scratch your head and wonder where the originality went."

He says his specialty in adapting books for the screen came about by chance. "It started with 'Shnayim', which I worked on when I got out of school. Even though it wasn't produced, a lot of people in the industry read the script then, and then it's easy to be labeled, to be identified with a certain thing."

Weren't you nervous about taking on texts by Grossman, Kaniuk, Yehoshua - that you were supposed to trim and rewrite?

"I did feel that way, but you have to get over it. For practical reasons, first of all - a 200-300 page book has to be boiled down to 100 pages of script. Also, a novel is a text that's written from the inside out; you can use flashbacks, streams of consciousness, an inner voice. In film you don't have those aids, and you have to convey the inner meaning of the story and the characters directly, through their actions and the words they say.

"Grossman was very generous and warm with his material. He read drafts, made comments, and gave us freedom to create something new from the book. Buli [A.B. Yehoshua ] also gave us a lot of leeway. We didn't really get to know one another; we met a little at the start of the work and then later on at the screening. I was abroad while the work was done on the movie, and it was an advantage because I prefer not to meet the writers. At the start of the work, I feel like I'm destroying their book. But not really destroying because a novel and a movie are two different things, and I take responsibility to do a good job of conveying the spirit of the book. I didn't work with Kaniuk. I was afraid of him. I felt that the book was a classic and it was more uncomfortable for me to change things, even though I thought it was necessary."

"Pillars of Smoke" is the only screenplay he wrote as a television series ("Someone to Run With" was written as a miniseries that became a movie ). It's also his first project that's not based on an existing work. "I tend to think that there's not such a big difference between an original project and an adaptation, aside from the fact that I didn't make up the story," says Stollman. "My ambition is to progress as a working screenwriter and not so much to tell my own story. I don't have that impulse."

In an adaptation, the story usually remains identified with the author, and not with the screenwriter.

"It doesn't matter to me how it's perceived. Kubrick's movies are all adaptations. So is 'The Godfather.' Kubrick and Coppola also directed them, and that's why they're identified with them.

"I don't write in order to get famous, but in order to see my work come to fruition. Every movie that I make is fulfillment for me as a screenwriter. 'Apocalypse Now,' which was based on Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness,' became a masterpiece in its own medium. David Fincher's movie about Facebook [The Social Network] is also based on a book, and Aaron Sorkin received the credit he deserves for it. When I write a screenplay, even if it's derived from a book, I have to be invested in it emotionally and intellectually. It doesn't matter if it's about a Holocaust survivor or a 16-year-old girl who sings in the street. When you write, in order for the conflicts to work, you have to put yourself into what you're writing. And one could also say that nothing is really new, that every story has already been told, and that every new story is a variation on an existing story, on a biblical, mythic or classic archetype."

So "Pillars of Smoke" is a variation on what?

"It's a detective story, which is a known genre with rules of its own. Sherlock Holmes was groundbreaking in the 19th century. Today it's harder, and you have to innovate within the bounds of the genre. It's similar to an adaptation. You breathe new life into a work and make it your own."

Still, "Someone to Run With" is thought of more as a Grossman book than as a Stollman screenplay.

"You're talking about fame and recognition. That doesn't interest me. I mean, I'd be glad if it happened, but it's not something I think about. As a screenwriter you're the intermediate stage. The final result isn't only up to you."

The final result is also dependent upon the actors, the editor, the composer and, above all, the director. And the final result also has an audience and critics, who don't always distinguish among the various components.

"Negative reviews get me down," he says. "I read them all. They said 'Adam Resurrected' was a lousy movie, and I disagree because it has some wonderful things in it. I think I did a great job on the script and Paul Schrader did a great job directing. I was on the set a little bit and I met with Jeff Goldblum and worked with Schrader on rewrites. For an inexperienced screenwriter to sit across from one of the pillars of American cinema was an amazing experience. There were also things I thought the reviewers got right. But when a critic is writing about the script, it's not that he sat down and read the script, but rather he's analyzing it on the basis of the movie, and sometimes there's a gap between the two."

When you're writing, do you picture the scenes in your mind?


Then why don't you direct, too?

"At Sam Spiegel I tried directing, but I saw that my personality is better suited for being a screenwriter. I prefer interaction with fictional characters than with flesh and blood ones. I'm better off sitting in a room alone and creating new worlds and then handing it over to the person who will work with the people. Directing is a lot more than fulfilling your vision. You have to fight wars, pull people after you, make promises, manage a vast array of money and people, get into confrontations. It's creating a whole human system around your personality. A director has to be combative, especially in Israel. And I prefer not to fight if I don't have to." W