Gideon Raff Dreams of Building 'Jollywood' in His Homeland

Israeli TV series creator - the brains behind 'Homeland,’ 'Tyrant’ and 'Dig’ - explains why it's important to shoot big-budget U.S. shows in Israel.

Noah Smith
Noah Smith
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Gideon Raff, creator of 'Hatufim' and now 'Tyrant' and 'Dig.'
Gideon Raff, creator of 'Hatufim' and now 'Tyrant' and 'Dig.'Credit: Reuters
Noah Smith
Noah Smith

In Hollywood today, Israeli television formats are more popular than any other country’s TV show concepts. Yet, until this summer, no show had been shot entirely in Israel for a U.S. audience. There are currently two in production, though, and Gideon Raff (“Hatufim” and “Homeland”) created them both.

“These are a completely different type of collaboration compared to the past,” says Raff, in an exclusive interview with Haaretz. “It’s a mixture of Hollywood and the Israeli industry working together to create big American TV shows. ‘Dig’ and ‘Tyrant’ are original U.S. shows that I created for American studios, from the beginning.

“This is the first time the majority of a show is shooting in Israel,” he notes proudly. “For ‘Dig’ we are shooting completely in Israel, and for ‘Tyrant,’ except for the pilot it will all be in Israel. With ‘Dig,’ we are shooting Israel as Israel. The story is not set in Beirut or Afghanistan, so we’re shooting Jerusalem for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for Tel Aviv and showcasing the country,” he adds.

The subject matter of “Dig” and “Tyrant” both reflect Raff’s affinity for the Middle East. “Dig” (for the USA Network) is about an FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem who, while investigating a murder of a young female archaeologist, “uncovers a conspiracy 2000 years in the making,” according to the press notes. FX’s “Tyrant,” meanwhile, follows an “unassuming American family drawn into the workings of a turbulent Middle Eastern nation.”

Currently in the midst of preproduction for “Dig,” Raff says bringing TV and film production to Israel is a personal mission for him. “The easiest thing would be to pack a bag, move to Hollywood and make a career for myself there, and that’s it,” he admits. “But there is something about bringing them [TV shows] back here that helps the whole industry, not just myself as the creator.

“I wanted to support the industry here as much as possible and also, of course, to be home, but nobody would’ve moved production to Israel just because ‘Oh, Gideon wants to be home!’ Between ‘Dig’ and ‘Tyrant,’ we are employing hundreds of Israelis, dozens of actors, bringing tens of millions of dollars to Israel, and ... also the look fits the shows,” he adds.

“It’s a win-win for everyone involved, including the American audience,” Raff believes. “We are bringing a world that’s new to them. The American audience is getting more sophisticated. They don’t want shows shot on a backlot in Burbank. More and more shows are shooting outside of the United States, in order to bring authenticity.”

As well as wanting to bring work to his homeland, Raff also hopes to correct some U.S. perceptions of Israel. “I think there is a misconception about Israel,” he notes. “Now that I’ve lived in the States for years, I can tell you that everybody has an opinion about Israel. But unless you’re on the ground living in Israel, you don’t really understand the situation and the complexity, how small and mixed it all is.”

Raff was born in Jerusalem and spent some of his early years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Israel. He eventually served in an elite paratrooper combat unit and studied at Tel Aviv University, before doing a second degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

“I don’t write shows with a political agenda,” he declares. “If anything, I believe in humanizing and creating a dialogue. I’m more interested in the human story than the political, but of course everything you do is political, so I can just say that I love this place [Israel] with its complexities – the whole place, the whole region. I’m fascinated by it, and that’s why I write close to home.”

Starting with “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”) in 2009 – remade by Showtime as “Homeland” in 2011, winning eight Emmys and five Golden Globes to date – Raff has worked with Avi Nir, the CEO of Keshet, an Israeli production company that has seven shows currently being remade for U.S. television. Still, despite the growth of the industry and the inherent appeal of the nation’s landmarks, topography, infrastructure and talent base, the Israeli government has yet to offer the kinds of financial incentives and programs that would make Israel a more competitive filming location for international productions.

“Israel supports high-tech in a very big way, and I think they should start supporting productions in a similar way,” argues Raff. “We worked on bringing the production here because the extras look more authentic, the places look more authentic, and because it’s hard to build these places. But Israel has to have an edge in addition to that.

“We have fierce competitors around us – Jordan, Morocco – and all these places are offering cheaper production facilities and crews that are very professional, so Israel needs to be more competitive,” he adds.

David Siegel, the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, backs Raff’s stance. “Bringing more TV and film production is a major priority. We think it is extremely important, in terms of the economic ripple effects, helping local talent, local productions and exposing Hollywood to better sides of Israel,” says Siegel.

“We are working on longer-term tools to encourage these kinds of productions – related to tax incentives, insurance packages, creating some kind of film authority that would shepherd projects from beginning to end,” he continues, “and a bigger international presence for Israel at trade shows where countries compete for productions.

“Tax incentives, of course, are essential to this,” continues Siegel. “It takes time, but there is more and more awareness about this in Israel, and we are in active conversations with ministries and also private businesses,” he says, adding that Raff is playing a central role in these developments.

“Gidi Raff, due to his status in the industry and his talent, is becoming a central hub for TV productions relating to Israel and in bringing these productions to Israel. His two shows shooting in Israel are a revolution. It’s incredibly important. We also know of other networks that are now planning on coming to Israel,” reveals Siegel. “Slowly but surely, Israel is positioning itself as a major Middle Eastern venue for TV and film production.”

Though production on both shows has gone smoothly, controversy arose last month, as reported by Haaretz, when a Fox executive was quoted as saying, “Israel is a third-world country without clear regulations.”

The comment came after “Dig” was awarded up to 22 million shekels ($6.3 million) by various government agencies, while Fox’s application for “Tyrant” was denied (FX is owned by the Fox network).

Raff says he hasn’t heard the quote, but responds to the underlying issue. “As the creator of both shows, I can tell you ‘Dig’ got the benefit from the Jerusalem Fund because it’s a Jerusalem show, shot in Jerusalem, about Jerusalem. ‘Tyrant’ was not eligible. Whoever said that was completely wrong,” he says.

Having created shows in both the United States and Israel, Raff is in a unique position to compare working in both countries. These experiences have validated his desire to make Israel more of a destination for production, since he feels confident in the country’s ability to facilitate the creation of high-quality content.

“A lot of people – film graduates and others – think nowadays that the film industry in Israel is a jumping off point to Hollywood. My sincere opinion is that this is absolutely false. Working here in Israel and working there is exciting in the same way,” he notes. “I know it’s going to sound like schmaltz, but I’m being completely sincere. I don’t feel like I made it – thank God – because I want to continue working and telling stories … if anything, I felt like I made it when I did ‘Hatufim.’ I felt the exact same amount of excitement with ‘Homeland’ and now with ‘Dig,’ and am as happy as when I was doing ‘Hatufim.’ I was extremely proud of that show,” he says.

“I don’t feel that ‘Hatufim’ was a lab experiment for ‘Homeland’ or ‘Tyrant’ or ‘Dig,’ and I don’t think I’m done working in the Israeli industry. It’s a thing on its own and they [U.S. and Israeli shows] are both equal in their quality,” he adds.

“Of course, when you have bigger budgets, you have a less limiting way to tell a story than in Israel, but that limitation in Israel allows you to be extremely creative … I think it’s important to understand that the result is less important than the process.”

Raff also believes this creativity-from-necessity explains Israel’s ability to punch above its weight internationally. “It takes a success for Hollywood to notice. The door was open before [with HBO’s ‘In Treatment,’ a remake of ‘Betipul’) but ‘Homeland’ kind of did this in a wider way. Now, many execs are looking to see what’s coming out of Israel,” he observes. “Israel is a small market, with very low budgets, and yet a very sophisticated audience. Now, U.S. shows are competing with Israeli shows, and viewers can choose with their remote which one to watch, so Israeli shows have to be extremely creative in how they’re told in order to capture an audience’s attention. I think Hollywood is noticing that creativity and those special ideas.”

In considering future moves – Los Angeles or Israel, film or TV – Raff said he wants “to do it all, and continue telling stories in both markets.” For now, though, he is more than happy to be working on his newest shows at home. “‘Dig’ and ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Homeland’ are all very exciting and exhilarating, and it’s going to be a hot summer in Israel!”

“Tyrant” will be broadcast on FX in the United States starting on June 24, while “Dig” will air on USA Network in the fall.

A scene from 'Tyrant.'Credit: FX

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