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

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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