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Gideon Raff on How the 'Open Wound' of Israeli POWs Led to 'Homeland'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire July 11, 2012 at 1:34PM

Gideon Raff grew up in Israel but studied film in Los Angeles, a stay that was intended to be for two years but turned into nine after he got a job as Doug Liman’s assistant on "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." He made two features in the US -- 2007's "The Killing Floor" and the 2008 Thora Birch-led thriller "Train" -- before making his way back to his native country, where he created a TV series called "Prisoners of War" (in Hebrew, "Hatufim") about Israeli soldiers returning home from 17 years of captivity about being caught while on an intelligence mission in Lebanon. It caught the attention of "24" producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon -- "and that show immediately drew me back here with 'Homeland,'" Raff points out.
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Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in 'Homeland'
Kent Smith/Showtime Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in 'Homeland'

Gideon Raff grew up in Israel but studied film in Los Angeles, a stay that was intended to be for two years but turned into nine after he got a job as Doug Liman’s assistant on "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." He made two features in the US -- 2007's "The Killing Floor" and the 2008 Thora Birch-led thriller "Train" -- before making his way back to his native country, where he created a TV series called "Prisoners of War" (in Hebrew, "Hatufim") about Israeli soldiers returning home from 17 years of captivity about being caught while on an intelligence mission in Lebanon. It caught the attention of "24" producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon -- "and that show immediately drew me back here with 'Homeland,'" Raff points out.

In keeping with Raff's continent- and culture-spanning career, the writer/director/producer has been simultaenously working on the second seasons of both the Israeli version of the show he created and the American incarnation, which stars Claire Danes as CIA agent Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis as returned POW Nicholas Brody and has become a huge critical hit as well a Golden Globe winner for Showtime. While Raff has been more tied up in the day-to-day of "Prisoners of War," he's also still involved with "Homeland" -- and sometimes the two series intersect, as when in May Danes and co-star Mandy Patinkin were in Israel shooting scenes for their upcoming season, premiering September 30. Indiewire caught up with Raff while he was in L.A., and talked about the differences between the two dramas.

Gideon Raff
Gideon Raff

You started off in film. Can you tell me about the move to television? What was it like make that shift to longer form and more episodic storytelling?

There were two things that happened simultaneously. One was when I started researching the subject of prisoners of war, I discovered a whole world of drama that wasn’t tapped into. I realized that an hour and a half or two hours was very, very limiting. This story had a lot of possibility and potential -- focusing down to two hours would be a shame.

The other thing was that cool stuff has been done on TV recently -- really, the most creative minds are working in TV even more so than film. Those two things made me want to do this on television.

What was it about prisoners of war in Israel that seemed such a rich topic, and one unexplored before?

It’s an open wound in Israeli society. We as a society really struggle to bring back our boys. We go out to the streets, we fight for them. Israelis take it to heart and sometimes for years campaign for the release of prisoners of war. Then once they’re back, we don’t want to hear about them anymore.

That was one of the things that I researched, and I realized that after paying such a high price, we needed a happy ending. We didn’t want to start dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. We don’t want to hear that coming back home is just the beginning of their journey. And for some of them, it’s even harsher than being captive. We don’t want to hear about secret investigations against them or if they’ve been turned, if they’re endangering Israeli security. All that.

'Prisoners of War'
'Prisoners of War'

Also, the prisoners of war themselves carry such a heavy burden and guilt on their shoulders that they don’t want to be exposed. So I thought that this was a great premise. Usually, in Israel, the coming home is the happy ending. I thought that was the starting point for the show.

Before the original show even aired, it had attracted a bit of controversy. Now it's highly acclaimed and back for a second season. Has that faded away?

The controversy started when people learned that we are making a show about prisoners of war. At the time we had three prisoners of war in Israel: Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser and Gilad Shalit. Regev and Goldwasser unfortunately later came back in body bags, and Shalit was still in captivity when the show started airing. When people saw the trailers, they were horrified by how real it seemed. There was this whole discussion about whether we’re even allowed to talk about the subject, which I thought was a ridiculous argument to begin with.

Once the show aired and people saw that we were dealing with this in the most sensitive way, that discussion subsided. That objection to the show never came from former prisoners of war. 1500 live in Israel and they were actually very supportive of the show, and they saw that their voices were finally heard.

I wasn't able to see "Prisoners of War" [which hasn't been aired in the US], but from what I've read I got the impression the focus is more as a drama than as a thriller in the way that "Homeland" is -- is that correct?

'Prisoners of War'
'Prisoners of War'

There’s a lot more exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder and being reintroduced and reintegrated into Israeli society. But there’s also a thriller element. There’s an investigation to see who these prisoners of war are and what they really want. In the original show it’s two that come back alive -- one prisoner’s dead. In “Homeland,” it’s one that comes back alive and one prisoner’s dead.

Rather than saying that there’s more drama in the Israeli one, it’s more accurate to say that there is more investigation in the American one. Because a lot of the suspense in the Israeli version is this woman who's fighting to have her husband back and finding herself in the house with a complete stranger who’s unpredictable, who beats her at night because he has weird nightmares, who yells in Arabic. That’s dramatic, but it’s also very suspenseful -- and a deeper exploration of the family drama.

Is there also an equivalent to Carrie Mathison, the CIA agent played by Claire Danes in “Homeland”?

There’s a character called Iris -- an investigator working with the Israeli government. She strikes up a relationship undercover with one of the prisoners of war to get information from him about what happened in captivity. She’s working for a Saul-like character named Haim, and he’s very cerebral and she’s very emotional. So that relationship does exist, but in “Homeland” it was developed as the center of the show -- in Israel it’s not.

I think one of the main differences is if you ask what the Israeli show was about, the answer would be the prisoners of war, whereas in “Homeland” the answer would be that it's about Carrie. There was definitely a development of her character and the focus was put on her. She is the emphasis of the American show. She’s also bipolar whereas my original character wasn’t.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Showtime, Homeland, Gideon Raff






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