FX's 'Tyrant': 11 Secrets From the Israeli Set

When Tyrant makes its debut on FX tonight, it will do so without a track record.

Whether a series loosely described as "The Godfather set in the Middle East" will appeal to a U.S. cable audience is not at all clear — nor is it clear that viewers regularly exposed to the grim realities of that region on the news each night will have any desire to watch a fictional drama set there.

But it's a risk FX Networks CEO John Landgraf was willing to take when he greenlighted the hourlong political family drama from Homeland producers Gideon Raff and Howard Gordon. And he has remained committed to the project, starring Adam Rayner, even as it has undergone a series of challenges behind the scenes (exhaustively covered in my June 13 cover story).

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"When somebody comes along with something that feels different and even potentially undoable, that’s when we start to get interested,” said Landgraf, “because the high-degree-of-difficulty dives are the ones that score the best if you can break the plane of the water the right way."

After spending two days on the Israeli set and conducting a few dozen interviews, I was able to glean a significant amount about the series and its often messy process. There was a botched audition, a controversial casting decision, a splashy marketing campaign and a budget north of $3 million, among other things that caught my attention. Here are those and many more:

1. Ambition doesn’t come cheap

The Arab drama costs slightly more than $3 million per episode, say sources close to the show, which puts it above many of FX’s past dramas. (Israeli dramas typically cost in the $50,000 range, making Tyrant the most expensive production to come through.) Without massive stars, what’s driving up the price tag? The lavish palace set, the ambitious shooting style, the sprawling cast, the bold-name producers and directors, and the foreign locale are among the reasons executives cite. The show spends a significant amount of time on location too, with as many as four of Tyrant’s eight-day shoots involving time away from the set. "You have to sell the opulence of the world," said an insider, "and that costs money."

2. Strawberry fields forever

As recently as January, the 130,000-square-foot property that now houses Tyrant’s two soundstages and a collection of production offices was home to strawberry fields for as far as the eye could see. In a staggering eight weeks, the fields were razed and a lavish palace set was constructed in their place. Insiders suggests the set cost around $3 million — hefty until you consider that building something similar in the U.S. likely would have cost twice as much. (It’s worth noting that FX and studio Fox 21 would have gladly considered shooting Tyrant in Los Angeles — which has both the terrain and the ethnic population from which to cast extras — if it weren’t going to tack on another $1 million or so per episode to the budget.)

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3. A struggle to cast

From inception, everyone involved with Tyrant was committed to casting for authenticity. Although bigger-name stars including Dominic West were initially proposed for the lead role of Barry, the producers were dead-set on finding an actor who looked more Middle Eastern. At one point, Egyptian-American actor Omar Metwally was considered for the part, but ultimately Rayner, a blue-eyed Brit, nabbed the role at the eleventh hour. Though blue eyes are not uncommon in Middle Eastern locales such as Syria (execs involved said they did much research on the topic), they decided to cast a blue-eyed British mother (played by Alice Krige) to avoid any unwanted controversy. "Now someone may buy it or may not buy it, but what I didn’t want to do is put something in there that felt patently ridiculous," said Landgraf of the decision. (The choice has nonetheless rankled some critics.) Working in his favor: Rayner and his onscreen brother, played by Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom, bear a strong resemblance to one another.

4. An awkward audition

Rayner is still somewhat stunned he landed the part. He is neither an A-list actor nor a '40-year-old Arab family man,' as the role called for. Also: He botched his first audition. "I sent off my first tape and some wires got crossed, and I thought I was supposed to do it in Arabic," recalls the affable Brit, who was in New York filming an action flick starring Twilight’s Taylor Lautner at the time. Much to his surprise (and delight), the producers allowed him to audition again — this time without the Arabic — as the character of Barry, a Pasadena-based pediatrician who fled his native country two decades earlier.

5. Where’s the Arabic?

Speaking of Arabic, creator Raff, who is no longer involved day-to-day with the series, says he would have preferred to incorporate Arabic (with English subtitles) into the show. In fact, he says his original pilot script was roughly 30 percent in Arabic, but none of it made it to the final draft. "I wanted it to be as authentic as possible," he said, adding that he believed the executives involved felt the Middle East-set series didn’t need another barrier to entry for a U.S. audience. "I’m theorizing, but I think they felt it would be easier for the audience to get in touch with this world if the show was at least [in English]," he added. It’s a logical assumption since FX has shown little resistance to incorporating English subtitles in other series, including The Bridge and The Americans.

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6. Watching the 'other'

Tyrant is poised to test a long-held belief that domestic TV viewers aren’t interested in watching a show set elsewhere. "The easiest thing to get people to watch is themselves, and the second easiest thing to get them to watch is their idiot neighbors, who they can look down upon and judge. I think it’s much harder to get people to watch the other," said Landgraf, who, like his studio colleagues, is hopeful this series has enough entry points, particularly with an American family at its core. Gordon seemed even more hopeful, while still recognizing the uphill battle: "Television has changed, and our appetite and our literacy have changed. Look at The New York Times, the front page and the fifth page and the eighth page, every story that’s happening is Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine. History is really being made in this part of the world, and I think for a lot of people, particularly an American audience, it’s confusing. And this just felt like a great way to sort of get under the hood of this crazy engine of the Middle East that’s in such turmoil right now, and to put faces and a family saga there."

7. Luring Islamophobes and Islamophiles

FX began its fact-finding process when there was little more than a script. Via an outside firm, the network started to test the concept and logline, as it’s done with other shows in its portfolio. What they found is that those sampled broke into three similarly sized groups: "I don’t want to watch that because I don’t want to have that part of the world in my home"; "I don’t want to watch that because clearly you guys are just making another bad, bashing, Islamophobic thing"; and "That sounds really interesting, I’m open to it." Next came the test screenings in New York and Atlanta, where the results were far more positive, with even the skeptics walking away high on the project once they sat down and watched it. The takeaway: FX would need to create the kind of buzz and enticing marketing campaign to get the rest of the skeptics to show up and give the series a shot.

The key, according to Landgraf, would be the way the world was presented, which is why his marketing department went out of its way to depict the regions’ beauty, rarely seen in gritty news footage. "It has to be visually alluring because ultimately you’re going to meet a certain force of resistance instantaneously, and if you can’t penetrate that resistance, no one’s ever going to give the show a chance," he said, laying out his thesis: "If you have a preconceived notion about what the Arab world is like, and you think it’s ugly and dangerous and dirty and dusty, then the only chance I have of getting you is [the show] has to look really beautiful and compelling. And if you think it is a kind of cheesy exploitation, the only chance I have of getting you to turn around is if it looks really beautiful and you can see there’s a respect for the material."

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8. Bring on the critics

Gordon is no stranger to controversy, having been intimately involved in shows such as 24 and Homeland before Tyrant. And he knew delving back into Muslim politics would come with its set of detractors, which is why he has involved scholars and advocacy groups in the process from the beginning. He and his fellow writers, along with FX and 20th TV execs, gathered for a two-hour discussion with Middle East scholars and activists to discuss the project and the potential hurdles earlier this spring. The group assembled was skeptical given past Hollywood portrayals of the region, but professed to be pleasantly surprised by both the pilot and the discussion. "The pilot accurately captured the brutality civilians face in the Arab world when they dare rise and ask for their basic rights and freedom," noted Hiba Diewati, a Syrian-American who returned to Michigan after being detained twice in Damascus for peacefully protesting against the Assad regime's crimes. "At the end of the day it is entertainment, and all we saw was the pilot, but in those 60 minutes I noted more nuance when portraying the dictators than most major news networks have achieved in all their coverage of the Arab Spring."

9. A Palestinian on set

Gordon's team has hired a Palestinian filmmaker to serve as a consultant on the Israeli set, too. "We want to know when we’re treading in an area of sensitivity, and what I’ve learned is everything in the show we deal with treads on a level of somebody’s sensitivity," says producer-director Michael Lehmann, who suggests he and the show’s writers have had to decide what makes sense for the story. He recalled one instance in which a scene had been written where a young female character named Samira was cuddling and kissing an Islamist rebel leader. The consultant stepped in and said such a scene would never occur, as the rebel leader is religious and wouldn’t behave in that way. The scene was rewritten to have her be more aggressive and have him say, "You can’t do this."

‎10. The do-over

There's no denying Tyrant was more challenging to nail down than is typical, with a collection of writers, directors and even creator Raff no longer involved, but the fact that they did reshoots on the pilot is hardly unprecedented. In fact, FX execs suggest most of their series require — and benefit from — them. The rationale behind the reshoots is often more interesting. In this case, Gordon chose to layer in a more emotional, visceral iteration of the fight scene between the Al Fayeed brothers and a rival family, along with an additional rape scene featuring the dictator's elder son Jamal, to drive home what kind of guy he had become. Also redone: a back-and-forth between Barry and his wife, Molly (Jennifer Finnigan), to establish just how strained Barry's relationship with his father had become. There were other shots with the couple on an airplane flying to and from Abbudin, Barry's native fictional country, that were reshot, too, and those required having a portion of a plane reconstructed on the Israeli set at a cost in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the end, Gordon and his team opted to stick with the original final pilot scene rather than to replace it with the revise.

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11. A new locale

Though the pilot was shot in Morocco, it quickly became clear remaining there was not an option. "It wasn't practical," said Landgraf. "That palace is a composite of three different hotels plus digital photography." Israel was initially avoided for fear of backlash that could come with having a Jewish state standing in for an Arab one, but ultimately the execs decided on Israel as it had run out of options. Not only did Gordon have relationships there from Homeland but also there was a mature TV community as well as locales and an extras talent pool that made sense. The core cast is much happier there than it was in Morocco, where many had tremendous difficulty fitting in. Which isn't to say Israel has been easy for the actors, who have had to relocate to the other side of the world, but a couple of the actors, including Finnigan, are using that fish-out-of-water feeling to inspire them onscreen.