Producer Maria Feldman and writer Leora Kamenetzky reveal how they tackled the unenviable task of following up the first season of Israeli thriller False Flag, in which a group of ordinary people are thrust into the limelight when they are accused of committing a high-profile crime.
How do you follow the success of False Flag? The Israeli drama was an undeniable hit when the first season launched in 2015 following a world premiere at Berlinale and a prize-winning appearance France’s Series Mania festival, receiving critical and popular acclaim.
The Hebrew-language thriller then scored a distribution deal with Fox International Channels (FIC), taking the series into more than 200 countries around the world. The deal with distributor Keshet International marked the first time FIC had acquired a non-English-language drama for its global networks.
The eight-parter, produced by Tender Productions for Keshet Broadcasting, followed five ordinary people who wake up one morning to see themselves on TV, falsely accused of kidnapping a high-ranking Iranian minister.
In February, False Flag returned to Berlin for the international premiere of its second season, which debuted in Israel last year and is now airing on Fox channels across Europe and Africa. Hulu in the US and France’s Canal+ have also picked up streaming rights to both seasons.
Adopting an anthology format, the follow-up introduces a completely new story with new characters. When an explosion during a ceremony to mark the first oil pipeline connecting Israel and Turkey is labelled as a terrorist attack by the media, three citizens who were present but disappeared around the time of the blast are named as key suspects. The ensuing investigation and media attention then throws their friends and family into the eye of the story as unexpected connections and surprising alliances begin to emerge, paving the way for mistrust and no assurances that solving the mystery will return their lives to normal.
“Only the two main characters from the investigating team are the same, so it’s a little bit like True Detective,” says writer Leora Kamenetzky, likening the format to HBO’s crime drama.
Kamenetzky came on board to write season two with producer Maria Feldman, who co-created False Flag with Amit Cohen. Feldman’s Masha TV produces season two, with Oded Ruskin returning from season one to direct all 10 episodes.
Key to the writer’s approach, however, was understanding what made season one work so well. “When Maria talked to me about writing the series, I watched the entire first season and I came up with a page describing the DNA of False Flag,” she says. “So I invented a whole new story with the same DNA. It was a success not just because of that DNA but the original story. Everybody has something to hide and we can all feel guilt about some part of our life. There are secrets we don’t want anybody to know. Then you’re blamed for something and you’re not guilty, but you’re afraid that, through the investigations, something you want to hide is going to emerge. So immediately you feel you have to do something about it.”
Another thing that makes False Flag stand out from other dramas is the pace of the storytelling. “It’s very fast and there are multiple points of view. It’s not told just from the point of view of the investigator,” Kamenetzky continues. “We also cut to the people who are the suspects and, in a way, the spectator is put in the position of the person who knows more sometimes than the investigators themselves. They’re in this position of, ‘Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s her.’ Because of the multiple points of view, the pace is crazy and it’s a hard show to write.”
Feldman, who has also produced AXN thriller Absentia, says most Israeli series don’t make it to season two, which meant her initial thoughts were on making season one the best it could be, rather than developing a multi-season arc.
“It started with a mystery that has to end at the end of the series. You can’t keep it open, so we didn’t,” she explains. “Keshet really wanted to know if there was a season two and we said we could spread the mystery into a few seasons and delay some part of it. They said, ‘No, no, no, this story has to be told and closed.’ But if our main characters are people who have secrets and then they tell their secrets, we can’t continue with them in the second season. So that was a big challenge.”
Feldman believes that makes the series special is that the main characters are just normal people, not police officers or investigators. Season two goes further in this respect by focusing on the main suspects’ family members, who begin to question who they are living with and who they might be about to marry.
“Also, in the first season, people are suspected of being Mossad agents [working for the Israeli national intelligence agency], which is in Israel very heroic,” Kamenetzky says. “In the second season, they are suspected of being terrorists. There’s nothing to be proud of. If you’re 12 years old and your mother is suspected of being a terrorist, it doesn’t make any sense. You don’t know who you are anymore. So that was new.”
The danger of anthology series is that despite inserting a new story and new characters, they might only serve as window dressing on a show that is essentially a repeat of the first season. It’s a problem Feldman recognised, and one that also informed the decision to focus more on the families and friends standing beside the accused.
The producer says her creative partnership with Kamenetzky was very similar to the way she worked with Cohen on season one. They talked together for several months and, once they had a story in place and started working on the treatments, Kamenetzky would begin writing the scripts.
She went on to pen every script, despite attempts to bring other writers into the fold. “It’s complicated because it’s not a normal drama. It has to be fast-paced, where almost every scene from the beginning to the end changes your entire perspective. It becomes something else,” the writer says. “You must have the story moving forward all the time and also be true to the characters. It’s difficult. I got one script from one writer that was really good, but it wasn’t False Flag. It was great but it wasn’t the show.”
“It’s a very difficult series to write,” Feldman agrees. “When a person gets it and understands it, only then can they write it. If we had an American budget, we would have writers with us from the beginning breaking the story and then going and writing. But we don’t have those budgets. It’s not a series where you can give a treatment to a writer and say, ‘Go and write it.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
The international interest in a second season didn’t affect the story, writing process or production, claim Feldman and Kamenetzky, noting that the characters are “so Israeli.” But when it comes to finding locations, Feldman admits there is a perception in Israel that the show has a bigger budget than reality reflects. “People think this is such an international success, we must have more money, which isn’t the case.”
With filming completed on a Russian remake of False Flag for local broadcaster NTV, a third season of the original Israeli series has also been confirmed, with filming due to take place next year. But the co-creators of season two are already primed to overcome the biggest challenge they faced last time around.
“If we had an idea or a solution, we would say we did that in season one,” Feldman adds. “So we didn’t do it again. Everything is new in season two. But we’re going into season three and it will be like, ‘We did that in season one; we did that in season two.’ We have to do the whole thing all over again!”