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'Homeland's' Israeli Creator Gideon Raff Talks Taboos, Budgets and Big Success (Q&A)

Gideon Raff - P 2012
Gideon Raff

Raff opens up to THR about the early concerns he had about telling a story about prisoners of war and the surprising reception the series has received.

Gideon Raff not only created the Israeli template on which Homeland is loosely based but also single-handedly wrote and directed every episode.

That effort, Hatufim (translated as Prisoners of War), centers on three Israeli soldiers who were captured 17 years earlier. After years of negotiation, two of them -- Nimrod Klein and Uri Zach -- come back alive, while the remains of the third, Amiel Ben-Horin, comes home in a coffin. The series' first season explores Nimrod and Uri's complicated reintegration into society, much as Homeland does Brody's (Damian Lewis) return. 

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Raff translated the series into English for Homeland co-creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon and has remained involved in the U.S. iteration. The Israeli born, AFI-educated screenwriter sat down with The Hollywood Reporter prior to Homeland's Emmy sweep to discuss the bold choice to launch the contorversial series, the differences between the two show and the most gratifying parts of both efforts' success.

THR: Take us back to the beginning. How did Hatufim (Prisoners of War) come about?

Raff: I don’t know how I thought of the idea, but I know that once I did, it was shocking to me that nobody had done this before in Israel, where it’s such a touchy subject. We are constantly fighting to bring our boys back home in Israel. We go out to the streets for it; we campaign for it; the government and the people pay a very high price for it. But then when they do come home, nobody cares to hear about them anymore. The show is about what happens to them the day after they come back. In that version, it was two prisoners of war who come back alive, and the third is presumed dead, whereas in Homeland, it’s only one that comes back alive.

I had been living in Los Angeles for so long, every time I went back to Israel it felt a little strange. So I had this emotional connection to feeling in exile. My idea was what if these people come back and it’s hard to be reintroduced to Israeli society and to your families but also what if when they do it’s unclear what side they’re on. I gave it to Avi, who didn’t say anything at the time. He flew back to Israel that night, and called the next day and said, "Start writing." So I did. I actually wrote the show in Hebrew at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove.

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THR: Was your plan all along to adapt it for U.S. audiences?

Raff: Not really, no. I was looking for a way back home [to Israel]. I mean, I called one of my lead characters Nimrod, which I definitely wouldn’t have done if I thought this would be read by Americans. [laughs] Truthfully, I had thought that this could be a good American feature.

THR: You’ve said this is a taboo topic to discuss in Israel. What kind of concerns did you have early on? 

Raff: I was really curious about why we don’t talk about these people after they come back. There are about 1,500 former prisoners of war who live in Israel. I started meeting with them and their families, their psychologists, their kids, and I realized that there’s a lot of guilt associated with being a prisoner of war and so they want anonymity. And as a society, we want a happy ending. We don’t want to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder or hear stories of their time in captivity. But coming home can be the beginning of the journey, not the end of it.

THR: And the reactions?

Raff: Every Saturday after the show aired, these former prisoners of war would call me, and they'd tell me that they suddenly had the nerve to talk to their families about their experiences, and the families had the nerve to ask their fathers about their time in captivity. The issues in the show were being discussed, which was incredible. The show has had a real impact on the TV industry there, too. It’s definitely not the first format to sell from Israel, but given the success of Homeland, it certainly put a huge focus on the Israeli industry and many more shows have sold and many more doors have opened to Israeli creators.

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THR: Unlike a lot of format creators, you have been involved in the U.S. iteration. Walk us through how that has worked, particularly since you're still writing and directing the original?

Raff: I came back to the States and {Gansa, Gordon and I] wrote the pilot together. They developed it together – what to bring in, what to leave out, how to structure it -- and then I came back and we started writing. I wrote the pilot with them as I wrote the second season of Hatufim. And then I remember I’d come back home after 15 hours of shooting the second season of Hatufim in Israel, open my computer and look at the drafts and dailies of Homeland. It got confusing there for a while. But we shot the beginning of Homeland in Israel this season with the same crew, so we’ve all become one big, happy family.

THR: The series took off stateside. Was there a moment at which you realized just how big the show is here?

Raff: Every time I look at my cell phone and it says Howard Gordon on it! I’m still a fan. There were a few moments too. I remember sitting at the premiere of Homeland, and suddenly there’s this guy sitting next to me talking and I almost shushed him. I'm so glad that I didn't because it was Paul McCartney. And then the Golden Globes were really exciting. I remember sitting there and, I swear to God, my tie had just hit a piece of chocolate cake. It got all over my white shirt, and all I could think was, "we can’t win," because I can’t go up there looking like this. And then they said, Homeland, and we all jumped up and ran to the stage. If you look at me, I’m up there trying to hide the stain the whole time. But the success of both shows has been great. Hatufim turned out to be the highest-rated drama in Israel ever.

THR: How closely is Homeland sticking to the Hatufim template in season two?

Raff: No, it’s actually getting a little farther away from the original show this season. On the Israeli show, the first season ended with this big reveal that the third prisoner of war, Walker, that we thought was dead is really alive. And not only is he alive, he’s alive and living as a Muslim. Those elements were incorporated into Brody's character, but with Homeland it was revealed in the seventh episode. So a lot of the elements are the same, but they're organized differently. On this season of Prisoners of War, the show deals with this guy that we thought was dead. We’re trying to figure out what side he’s on; whereas on Homeland, the heart of the show is really Carrie and her investigation.

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THR: You have single-handedly written and directed every episode of Hatufim. How typical is that and will it continue?

Raff: This project has become so personal to me and I know their voices so well that bringing in more people would actually be hard for me to do. But it's definiely not typical in Israel, and I definitely want to have more people involved in the next project that I do. [laughs]

THR: Do you ever get frustrated at the discrepancy in budgets between Hatufim and Homeland when you're working on the former?

Raff: You know, Homeland’s pilot cost as much as two seasons of Hatufim. More than that even. [Hatufim reportedly costs $200,000 per episode.] It’s so different in that way; and at the same time, it’s somehow always the same problems: not enough money and not enough time. 

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose