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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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Damian Lewis in 'Homeland'
Damian Lewis in 'Homeland'

The shift in Carrie and change of focus aren't the only differences between the two shows -- how did you go about adapting the story and structure for an American audience?

It was fascinating from the very beginning with our discussions of how different American and Israeli societies are in our approach to prisoners of war. I’ve lived in the US for nine years. I have many friends here -- all of them are very educated, political and savvy. For some reason, none of them know that there’s an American prisoner of war right now whose been with the Taliban for two and a half years.

It’s just not a subject discussed on a national level. On the community level, you see yellow ribbons and all that but it’s not like in Israel. Israel is such a tight community -- everybody goes to the army and it’s such a small country and whenever something happens to a soldier we take it very personally. Here... I was writing the show during the American war in Iraq. You never saw soldiers coming back in coffins. That’s something we see every night unfortunately in Israel. So there’s a difference in how we report the subject.

We wanted to tackle subjects that are going to be very relevant for an American audience -- for example, not being able to trust your government after the Iraq War, after going under what many people thought were false pretenses into two wars. We knew that we wanted to tackle issues that are very relevant and represent the zeitgeist of the country.

"I was writing the show during the American war in Iraq. You never saw soldiers coming back in coffins."

Also there were small differences that needed change. In Israel we negotiate for the return of prisoners of war. America does not negotiate with terrorists. In ["Prisoners of War"] they were released after a long negotiation. Here we retrieved Brody in a military operation. We knew that the government’s going to want to use him as a poster boy for the war, so he had to come back kind of buff and in good shape. Definitely in better shape than the broken men I brought back in the Israeli version, because there I wanted to explore the anti-Israeli mythical strong soldier. The differences in how we approached the subject in our societies form a lot of the differences in the show.

Tell me about developing Carrie? She’s such an interesting, complicated character -- a protagonist who's brilliant but also unstable and troublingly willing to keep overstepping bounds.

I’m allowing myself to say this because her character development didn’t come from me, I’m paying props to my co-creators -- I think there’s something so brilliant about giving the show a lead character who is completely untrustworthy. Whereas in other shows you know who the bad guy is and that he needs to die or go to jail, when Carrie says that’s the bad guy you’re thinking... is she on her medication or not?

For audiences it’s interesting because it puts you in a very active position. You have to question everything and think about every clue given in the show. And I think that’s really why it’s relevant to audiences. Claire Danes is a phenomenal actress, and what she does on the show -- she’s just completely against stereotype, completely against what we think a CIA agent should be. And she’s completely vulnerable and open. I worked with her for a month in Israel when we shot the beginning of “Homeland” season two, and I sat behind the monitor with earphones and cried.

'Homeland'
'Homeland'

In the same way, another of the things that impressed me so much about “Homeland” was the complexity of its antagonists. Their motivations are not simply empty zealotry.

There’s something very subversive about the show in terms of not knowing if Brody’s bad or good. Even more than that, if he is bad, you’re not sure if that’s bad or good. You don’t know what’s bad or good anymore. There aren’t many shows that give a generous “good excuse" -- and “Homeland” does that. It’s very interesting in terms of how we question the next attack or who our enemy is or where it’s coming from.

Brody's conversion to Islam while he's in captivity was a fascinating character development. I read that that's also something that happens to a character on "Prisoners of War." 

One of the prisoners of war in the Israeli version turns to Islam and we find out he’s living in Syria as a Muslim -- the guy we thought was dead. When I wrote that scene, I remember thinking to myself, “I can’t do this to him.” A I was saying that I was like, wait a minute, even I, a left-wing liberal, think that by turning the character into a Muslim then the audience is not going to like him. That’s worth exploring.

I struggled with it a while, but I decided that it’s a question worth asking. And here, the original show takes a profound exploration in the second season with Islam. With Brody, the first time you see him you think, “Oh my God, he’s a terrorist.” After a while, it doesn’t play that way. He’s just a desperate guy clinging to religion for salvation.

'Homeland'
'Homeland'

Are the shows diverging as they go on?

The first seasons were very similar in theme. The second seasons are starting to diverge a little. They’re starting to take a different path. I never wanted them to be exactly alike, because that would be like I’m duplicating my work for years and years. And to see how from the same seed two series evolved, it’s been fascinating, a very creative and collaborative journey.

Is there any chance that we’ll see “Prisoners of War” on US TV?

I don’t know how much subtitled content you have on US TV. Preferably on Hulu, hopefully soon.

And is there anything you can tell us about season two of “Homeland” that we can look forward to?

it’s an amazing season. That’s all I can say. But really, it’s everything the first season was and a lot more.

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





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