The opening scene in “Losing Alice,” the latest Israeli television export to wow international audiences, is an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic thriller “Strangers on a Train.”
It was the image of an encounter between two female characters – one, a middle-aged film director called Alice Ginor (played by Ayelet Zurer) suffering from writer’s block, and the other a young, overenthusiastic fan of her work named Sophie (Lihi Kornowski), bursting with ambition and creative energy – that lit the spark in Sigal Avin to begin her deep dive into the darker sides of the female psyche.
The show is garnering rave reviews globally since debuting on Apple TV+ last week, after first airing on Israel’s Hot cable channel last summer.
Israeli dramas have increasingly become a streaming staple for audiences open to foreign language and subtitles. But from “Fauda” to “Shtisel,” the big Israeli hits have traditionally featured male leads, with women reduced to peripheral roles.
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“Losing Alice,” then, is a groundbreaking local effort in many ways: It’s a noir thriller with two female protagonists and also offers a complex portrait of a female auteur.
“The first image I had in my head was the opening scene: the older woman and the younger woman on the train,” says Avin, 47, whose father took her to see Hitchcock classics at a young age. She was also a fan of the erotic thrillers that dominated screens in the 1980s and ’90s.
“It was an image which for me connected to fear of getting older, the fear of being irrelevant,” she tells Haaretz. “So I had the image of these two women on the train, and I started exploring who those two characters are. Once that scene on the train was written, there was no question that it was film noir. The whole way the train scene came out when I wrote it in my notebook, it was immediately clear that it was the psychological thriller, the film noir I’ve been dreaming of,” Avin adds.
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It certainly strikes a radically different tone to the TV comedy-dramas Avin has built a successful career on. Two of them, “Mythological Ex” and “Irreversible,” were successful enough for Hollywood to come calling. She was also involved in the remakes, but “The Ex List” was canceled after one season and “Irreversible” never made it past the pilot stage in America.
“Losing Alice” unabashedly draws on Avin’s own life as it explores the challenges of keeping one’s creative spirit alive amid the compromises and routine of motherhood – especially the guilt female artists are burdened with and the price they pay as society judges them for getting absorbed in their work. “Artists are lucky that the things they do are different each time,” Avin notes. “Each time there’s something new – a new playground in every project – and that’s always amazing to me.
“When I’m in a project, I let go of my life and there’s this process where I slowly, slowly go into the world that I’m working on. And then once I’m in that world, it’s very hard for everybody around me. And because I direct as well as write, it’s a pretty intense and long process in which I’m not in the ‘other world,’ the real world. But I need that. I wouldn’t be able to exist without being able to go into that other world. So I think with ‘Alice,’ I drew from the fear of not being able to have that place.”
The intriguing young screenwriter Sophie brings a stifled Alice back to that place, despite the red flags regarding the young woman’s history, motivation and goals. Avin suggests the older woman is striking a Faustian bargain as the two become more entangled and fascinated with each other.
In classic film noir, Avin says, “we see the male gaze on the femme fatale, and I really wanted to show the female gaze. I feel like the older I get, the older a woman gets … suddenly you start gazing at other women, and they become so much more interesting.”
The part of Alice seems to be tailor-made for Zurer, whose detailed performance is garnering appreciative reviews. However, she was actually cast at a relatively late stage in the process.
Like Avin, Zurer’s career straddles both Israel and the United States (she’s based in Los Angeles). A successful actress from a young age in her native land, she moved to America after her breakthrough role as the hero’s wife in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005). Until Gal Gadot came along, she was undeniably Israel’s most successful Hollywood export, starring opposite Tom Hanks in “Angels & Demons,” and portraying Superman’s mother in 2013’s “Man of Steel.”
But the pivotal role of Alice is a far cry from those parts, or even her meatier roles in Israeli dramas, that include the original “In Treatment” and the first season of “Shtisel.”
Zurer, 51 and the mother of a teenage son, says she can relate to the kind of obsession Avin experiences when she sinks into a project.
“I think it happens to people who are very passionate about what they do – like me. When I’m sent something that’s worth my absolute all, I become very much like her in the sense that I get tunnel vision and I increasingly disappear into it.
“That’s a natural thing for an actress,” she says, “but I think as a director and a writer, it’s even more intense because you’re responsible for so many aspects of the creation.”
When she was given the opening scene on the train to prepare for her audition, Zurer recounts that she was “very intrigued, I thought it was really well written. Sigal is a very good writer, with a lot of humor and a lot of truth that I recognized. And I thought: yummy. But I didn’t have any clue what it was or where it was going. She was very secretive; she said she didn’t want to tell me anything, she wanted me just to read.”
As the project continued, Avin withheld some of the subsequent plot twists from her leading actress. “So I had a journey of revelation with the character that’s maybe very close to the one the audience takes,” Zurer says.
Lihi Kornowski, 28, who plays the sexually uninhibited and mysterious Sophie, tells Haaretz that she pushed Avin harder to reveal the developments in a story that hinges on the question of whether her character is a victim or a monster.
“At the beginning, she didn’t want to show me the whole script – she didn’t want to show me the end,” Kornowski recounts. “I told her that I had to read the whole script because Sophie is such a lunatic character; I couldn’t just play her as some joyful, sexually open young woman. I needed to know what her baggage was, where she was scarred, in order to play the layers of the character.”
Avin encouraged Kornowski and Zurer to watch all of David Lynch’s work and films like Roman Polanski’s 1992 erotic thriller “Bitter Moon,” to give them the sense of the dark, foreboding mood she was aiming for.
Kornowski says it wasn’t difficult to play the obsessive admiration her character has for Alice given her own regard for Zurer. “I so admired her and I was so thrilled to work with her that my stomach literally hurt when I shot the film,” she says. “But Ayelet was very smart and she set clear boundaries between me and her when we were shooting, so we could play the tension between the two characters.”
Avin and Zurer, on the other hand, developed the kind of symbiosis one might expect when an actress is playing a director based on the woman who is directing her.
“It was such a mindf*** at some point, and got more so the longer we went,” is how Avin puts it. “By mid-production, Ayelet had already spent a lot of time with me, so she was really taking my movements and mimicking them. There was a scene when we were shooting episode seven when I was with the earphones looking into the monitor, directing the scene where Alice was wearing her earphones looking into the monitor.”
With all three women being interviewed on Zoom in lockdown – Zurer in Los Angeles, and Avin and Kornowski in Tel Aviv – all three confessed that it felt surreal and somewhat painful to be deprived of the usual joys of unveiling a project like “Losing Alice” to the world. While they appreciated reading the positive reviews on their computer screens, they missed the high-profile launch events and red carpets that would normally surround the global release of such a series.
“I feel like I’m losing the chance to see people’s faces, to feel how they’re reacting to the show,” Zurer says. “Sigal and I cried on each other’s shoulders that we’re missing it. There’s no glasses of wine and no fancy dresses, no heels – which is also great in some ways, but for one night, you know, it could be really nice!”
Instead, she says, she was doing her press interviews for the series “on Zoom, on my bed, with my bedroom door closed, my son Zoom schooling in the room next door and my husband Zooming in yet another room.”
Zurer was able to work during the pandemic after being cast in season 3 of the Netflix hit “You,” but is currently debating her next move. She was offered part in another Netflix show, “but it films in Europe and I’m really hesitant about traveling and leaving the family. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it,” she says.
Kornowski, meanwhile, had a traumatic experience at the start of the coronavirus pandemic: she was preparing for a dramatic role as a cancer patient last March when the announcement came through that the production had been postponed.
“What a mess,” she recalls. “I had just shaved my head completely, I was totally bald – and the lockdown happened. Nobody knew what was going on ... so I had shaved all my hair off for nothing. I was freaking out.”
Luckily, the project was revived and shot last June – which meant that, after having grown her hair out into a pixie cut, she had to shave it all off again and become bald once more.
As for Avin, like her fictional counterpart Alice Ginor, she’s juggling home and career, caring for her two daughters while preparing to fulfill her next artistic vision through writing and Zoom production meetings.
Unlike Alice, though, she doesn’t have to worry about writer’s block – sustaining creative energy isn’t a problem for her. “If anything, I have too many ideas in my head,” she says. “I don’t know how I’ll get to all of the projects I want to make.”
“Losing Alice” is out now on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping every Friday until February 26.