When the Personal Becomes Public

The new TV series about a fictional prime minister's family isn't meant to be an Israel version of 'The West Wing,' say its creators, who include the granddaughter of Yitzhak Rabin.

Even before a single minute of the show had been aired, it had already received a respectable helping of attention, beginning back when the production was approved at the Hot cable company, continuing through work on the scripts and the days of filming - all of which has been covered assiduously by the curious media - up to the series' debut this past Tuesday.

The new drama series "The Prime Minister's Children," whose subject is stated explicitly in its title, is produced and broadcast by Hot 3. Its story line, which begins on the day prime minister Shaul Agmon (Rami Heuberger ) is sworn in, sounds like an intriguing bit of voyeuristic fluff, certainly in this era of increased reportage on the most prosaic of details about the life of the Netanyahu family. But this was not the only reason for the attention: One of the series' two writers (together with Shahar Magen ) is Noa Rotman (nee Ben Artzi-Pelossof), Yitzhak Rabin's granddaughter. The large, well-lit room on the second floor of a luxurious villa in Herzliya Pituah, where much of the series was filmed, was faithfully redecorated as a living room from the 1950s, of the sort the Rabins had. Some of the furniture and accessories, whisper the production people, were brought or copied from Leah Rabin's home. Next to that living room there is a sunny, fully equipped kitchen containing, among much else, a set of dishes with the state seal stamped on them.

Rami Heuberger
Igal Amar

One floor down is the set of the dimly lit Prime Minister's Bureau. On the top of the heavy desk sit papers marked with the state's official menorah symbol, on which "Prime Minister" Agmon has doodled. The attention to small details continues with the expensive leather armchairs, the inevitable decorative Judaica and pictures of the fictional prime ministerial family.

"The Prime Minister's Children" is a family drama much more than it is "The West Wing." "This is a series about a family," says Heuberger a few minutes before filming begins on a scene. Heuberger is sitting in the makeup chair and gray coloring has been added to his hair, to make him look older than his actual 48 years. "This isn't a series about a government, about a country, about security or about economics. It just so happens that this family is the prime minister's family, and that is what is interesting about it. As in every family, the relationships cause each of the members to behave the way he does. What this series is here to tell is that there is no difference, just the relationship."

Meaning what?

"When the prime minister is irritated, he may make an unwise decision that has a bad effect on the country. Here it really is a family and the only thing touching on politics is the question of 'How do we present this to the media?' How is this family presented attractively, in a way that the government will benefit from the exposure?"

Just drinking coffee

Heuberger-Agmon's wife, Diti, is played by actress Michaela Eshet. Her relationship with their daughter, Libi, played by Alona Tal, is central to the plot. Li Biran appears as the prime minister's young son and Gila Almagor plays his elderly mother, one of the builders of the country.

According to head screenwriter Magen, the decision to focus on the familial story rather than politics or power stemmed from personal acquaintance: "I knew someone who was connected to one of those families who wanted to escape from it. This is where the idea was born - the thought about the extent to which a person can want to cut himself off from his family and can't, especially when it's an extreme situation like this one. By chance, a while later I read an interview with Noa Rotman, who said that sometimes she just feels like drinking coffee and not being representative of anything." (Rotman entered the public eye in 1995, when she spoke at her grandfather's funeral, and the following year published a memoir about him.)

Magen and Rotman met and decided to work together on the script. Very quickly, and unusually for Israel, they received a green light from the cable company. Even more unusually, a second season was commissioned from them before work on the first was completed. They have already completed writing four episodes of season two, which is to be directed by Nir Bergman (Alon Benari directed season one ).

In contrast to the swift approval, the actual writing took two and a half years. "We wanted to shape precise characters, to write in a way that doesn't say everything, but rather leaves room for thought," says Magen. "We didn't want to explain everything, but rather to start from the middle. During the research we met many 'children of.' We were at [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's swearing-in, for example, and we had a lot of meetings - all of them off the record. We attended a lot of political events."

And what emerged from the research?

"The interesting thing is that for everyone we spoke with about that period, it seemed to be the most exciting period in their life. They spoke with eyes glowing and with adrenaline."

Naturally, the series is going to elicit a lot of guessing: Where does the truth end and the fiction begin?

"The thing is that it's not a series about politics, but rather mainly about a woman of 50 and her family, which happens to be in this situation. This is an entirely fictional series and we chose actors who can't be equated with any politician or any member of a politician's family. They aren't the Olmerts, the Rabins, Barak or Netanyahu. At some stage you have to leave the research and start inventing."

But director Alon Benari relates that he looked at archival material in order to learn about the ways of the premier's bureau and its staff. "It was important, even technically, to understand when the prime minister wears a suit and when he wears a turtleneck, when the bodyguards are in a short-sleeved shirt and when they're in a suit," says Benari. "When the prime minister visits a school he wants to look at ease and like he's your average Joe, and when he visits soldiers along the border he needs his leather jacket. We are walking the line here between a fictional world for which we've invented the rules - a prime minister and his family written for dramatic ends - and the reality, to which we are nevertheless tied."

So does someone who watches the series get an idea about the way things really work?

"A sapper friend of mine watched 'The Hurt Locker' [2008 film about a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq] and complained that nothing was accurate. I thought it was a very effective film. In the end, if a bodyguard tells us that the third extra stood at the wrong angle, we can live with it. The idea is to build a world and be faithful to reality, within reason.

"We work with a personal-security adviser and with people who have been in and have worked in bureaus and homes. It's important to know how things worked, how the documents look. Our bottom line is that the drama should work and the story should get told, but we also have an opportunity to show what happened behind the scenes in a world that isn't [generally] visible."

What happens, for example, when the prime minister's wife quarrels with her husband and wants to sleep in the living room but she can't because the living room is watched by security guards and cameras? Benari observes that "there is blurring between the individual and the national and everything that is taken for granted by a private citizen, the personal things, the family and the quarrels and the occasional disputes - everything becomes public. There is always someone watching, there is always a camera nearby, a journalist who heard by chance or the staff gossiping about you. It's all in public view."

Alona Tal, waiting on the set for one of her scenes, wonders aloud whether to choose a conservative red blouse or a conservative blue blouse. "Libi has come back to Israel [from studies in London] to give her support and she enlists in the family effort," she says. "She's one of those people who really want their parents' approval and for them to say they are proud of her. There's a scene in which it emerges that she has wanted to be a thousand and one different things but she isn't focused and she doesn't know what she wants from herself. She enjoys belonging. The problem is that this world isn't lilies and roses."

The prime minister's family is usually perceived more as a symbol and less as real people. Has this affected your work?

Tal: "I know children of leaders and I met with them before the series. The prime minister's son wasn't born the son of the prime minister. That's also what I am trying to get across here - how this girl who becomes the prime minister's daughter copes with this change. And what happens to an ordinary person when he receives a status like this, which doesn't go on forever. It comes for a few years and then it goes. Every person in a public position has his public life and his private life, where he can let loose. The character radiates something different outwardly to the public and inwardly with the family."

Gila Almagor, who plays the prime minister's mother, is heavily made up as an ailing old woman. Her hair is white and gathered in a bun at the nape of her neck, she is wearing a faded sweater and she is sitting in a wheelchair. As she talks about her character, Heuberger arrives and calls out to her enthusiastically. She replies calmly: "Rami, no hug?"

As they hug, he affectionately calls her "Mother," almost clinging to her. She explains, "He's the salt of the earth, from Kfar Yehoshua. Her whole life is this son who now has become the prime minister. She comes to the Prime Minister's Residence, gives orders and meddles in everything. She is a difficult and tough woman."

Is there anyone you have in mind?

"Something maybe like Rachel, Rabin's sister. As I read, I thought to myself: That's the woman. She has remnants of beauty, something she doesn't enhance with cosmetics, she doesn't dye her hair and the wrinkles do what they do, but she maintains the majesty of long ago."

Heuberger adds: "Ever since there has been government, people have been looking at the ruler's family. Our sensationalist interest has always been there. The effect of the painting of the perfect family in this residence influences the public. When he is an honest family man who loves his wife and children and they love him, it affects everything. Noa said to me during one of the rehearsals: 'When you're born into this kind of family you can't be free. People are looking at you.' This is something that affects you in general and certainly within the family."

When you were preparing for the role did you examine people in this "role" now and who were the past? Did you try to learn the behavior and the speech, the way they move?

Heuberger: "I hope people aren't going to try to figure out which prime minister I'm playing. I've looked at them all but I am also trying to disengage. I'm trying to connect and not to judge him or to depict him in a positive or negative light. I understand Bibi better today, however hard that is for me."