Tag Archives: Hagai Levi

Hagai heads home

Hagai Levi, creator of Israeli drama Be Tipul (In Treatment) and co-creator of US drama The Affair, tells DQ about his latest project, his approach to storytelling and returning “home” to HBO.

It has been 10 years since HBO first launched In Treatment, the psychotherapy drama based on the much-adapted Israeli format Be Tipul (pictured above).

The original series, which ran between 2005 and 2008 on cable platform HOT, has spawned copycats around the world and was among the pioneers in the ongoing wave of interest in Israeli drama that has made original dramas such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War), False Flag and Fauda household names.

It’s fitting, then, that a decade on, Be Tipul creator Hagai Levi is relishing the opportunity to return “home” to HBO for his latest project.

The 10-episode, as-yet-untitled series is based on a true story and follows the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants. Two days later, the burned body of a Palestinian teenager from eastern Jerusalem is found in a forest on the outskirts of the city.

Hagai Levi

In the days that follow, an agent of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency) investigates the murder, while the parents of the slain teenager begin their quest for justice and consolation.

HBO has partnered with Keshet International for the series, which Levi created with filmmaker Joseph Cedar plus Tawfik Abu Wael and Noah Stollman (Pillars of Smoke). Cedar and Abu Wael also direct, with filming on location in Jerusalem due to be completed in September.

Retelling the events that led to the outbreak of war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the drama follows the investigation into Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s murder and tells the story of all those involved, Jews and Arabs alike.

“We are focusing on the investigation of this story, which was quite shocking, but it should be said that it’s rare,” Levi explains, noting that the story is told from three points of view – the family, one of the killers and the investigator. “We know Palestinian terror, it’s obvious. They are fighting for their state. But Jewish terror, or these kinds of hate crimes, are much more rare. So it was quite shocking for the Jewish population. We are following the investigation, the interrogation, the courtroom, everything.

“But of course, it’s not a courtroom drama. It exposes a lot of layers in Israeli society and it’s also about understanding the nature of hate crime – you see it everywhere, not just in Israel, and what are the necessary conditions? There are so many layers needed to create hate crime. So we are showing the Palestinian side, the Israeli side and, in the middle, Shin Bet are investigating the whole thing.”

The series has been developed over the past three years, with Levi linking up with Oscar-nominated director Cedar (Beaufort, Footnote) and Palestinian partner Abu Wael, who writes and directs the Arab-set elements.

“It’s very interesting, but the partnership means it just takes time,” Levi admits. “Basically I’m in charge as a kind of showrunner. We have some other writers writing the scripts, and Joseph is a director-showrunner. We’re assembling material together, rewriting it ourselves. It’s complicated.”

Gabriel Byrne in the US version of In Be Tipul, titled In Treatment

From the beginning, however, it has been an HBO show, with former head of programming Michael Lombardo taking the initial lead on the Hebrew-language drama, which together with Italian series My Brilliant Friend notes a shift in the US premium cablenet’s appetite for foreign-language drama.

“They’re trying to do these things, which is great,” Levi says. “Instead of remaking them, just show it. People seem more open to watching foreign languages and are more used to seeing subtitles. So it was an offer I couldn’t refuse; it was the best of both worlds. We have a nice budget compared to Israeli budgets, but a very low budget compared to US series. But for us it’s great, and I can do it in my own language with my own sensitivities. Since In Treatment, HBO has been a home for me. It’s the best place I know.”

In the US, Golden Globe winner Levi is arguably best known as the co-creator of Showtime drama The Affair, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson and now into its fourth season. Before The Affair, however, he was an executive producer on HBO’s remake of Be Tipul. Another 16 versions of the series have been produced in countries including Canada, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.

“The best thing about In Treatment is the option of the word ‘remake’ didn’t exist, it never happened in Israel,” Levi reveals. “So I was just doing my thing, and because we have very low budgets, we had to make something where the budget wasn’t an issue. The worst thing is when you have a low budget and you try to make a big thing, and then it looks rubbish. But the nice thing about In Treatment is it’s been shot the same everywhere. That’s my taste as a writer and director; I like two people talking.

“Whenever I have more than two people in the room, I’m nervous,” he says, emphasising his preference for dialogue and the relationships and moral dilemmas that characterise both Be Tipul and The Affair. “If you think about In Treatment, the main story is a therapist who’s in love with their patient, and vice versa. In The Affair, it’s about betrayal. So it’s always like that. I don’t see anything more interesting in the world than that.

The Affair’s fifth season on Showtime will be its last

“I remember watching House of Cards, just one episode. I couldn’t watch more – I hated it. But the main problem was they didn’t have any moral issues because they are not moral to start with. They’re cynical, bad people so where is the conflict? Where is the drama?”

Levi is now developing two more projects. The first is a remake of Scenes from a Marriage, the 1973 Swedish miniseries that starred Ingmar Bergman. Produced by Filmlance International and Media Res, it’s the first time a Bergman property has ever been remade. “That was the most influential piece of my career – that was the inspiration for In Treatment and a lot of things I did,” Levi says of the original show. “When I did The Affair, we watched it again. So when the family of Bergman approached me a couple of years ago and asked me to do the remake, it’s complicated, it’s hard, it’s very dangerous and frightening, but that’s my next project.”

The writer/director will also pick up a movie he has written, The Girl Who Learned How to Kneel, based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jewish author whose diaries recounted the persecution of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the Second World War. She died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.

Before then, his Summer 2014 Project, to give it its working title, has the best of both worlds – Israeli creativity fuelled by a US premium cable channel – though Levi admits he hasn’t got the same budget as other HBO series like Game of Thrones or Westworld.

But Israel is well known for producing drama on a shoestring budget, building a reputation for original concepts and unexpected twists and turns.

“The equation is quite simple. If you have less money, you have more time,” Levi says. “In the US, you have to write a whole season in half a year. That’s fast, much too fast. You cannot write 13 or 15 episodes in half a year. It’s crazy. But in Israel, no one pays, so you can take the time.

“Then if you are very successful, you don’t make money. The limit is very low. You still have to struggle to pay the rent, so you better do what you want, what comes from your heart. It’s not a business. You’re more creative, you’re more personal. You’re more innovative. You work more as an artist than as a business.”

The success of Israeli drama internationally has led some to ditch this successful formula, though. “I see people trying to make something in order to sell,” Levi says. “They think about it while they’re writing and it’s not a great thing. It could spoil the industry.”

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Israeli and Icelandic formats crack US

Casey Bloys
HBO’s Casey Bloys

Israel’s Keshet International (KI) looks to have achieved another major breakthrough in the scripted formats sector. After In Treatment, Homeland and The A Word (all based on Keshet formats), it has now teamed up with HBO in the US on a drama about the true-life kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014.

The 10-episode series is the first project to be produced for HBO by its former boss Michael Lombardo, who has a production deal with the network. The creative team behind the show, which will be filmed in Israel, is headed by Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman.

“HBO has always been a home to me. I’m so thrilled to work with them again, and regroup with my good friends from Keshet,” said Levi, who also created hit series The Affair for Showtime.

HBO president Casey Bloys added: “We’re excited to work with Keshet and this talented and creative group led by Hagai Levi. We look forward to sharing this important story with our subscribers.”

The series centres on the disappearance and subsequent search for the three teenagers amid escalating tension and conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. It will be distributed internationally by KI. Avi Nir, the head of KI’s parent company Keshet Media Group, said: “We are thrilled to partner with HBO, the ultimate quality TV powerhouse, and to bring together Israel’s finest in TV and film, led by Hagai Levi, Noah Stollman and Joseph Cedar [the director of the as-yet-unnamed series]. We are all ready for the challenging journey on which this extraordinary story will take us.”

Iceland's Réttur is being adapted for NBC
Iceland’s Réttur is being adapted for NBC

Another interesting story on the format front is NBC’s decision to pilot Infamous, a legal drama based on a 2009 Icelandic series called Réttur. The new version is being written/executive produced by Eli Attie (House) and executive produced by the team behind This Is Us (John Requa and Glenn Ficarra).

Infamous centres on a hotshot attorney who is jailed for a murder he doesn’t remember, and believes he didn’t commit. Six years later, he’s released on a technicality and tries to juggle his day job with finding out what actually happened to put him in jail. The original, created by Sigurjón Kjartansson, ran for three seasons.

Still in the US, ABC is piloting a new series called Protect & Serve. The series centres on a city struggling to cope with the unrest that is stirred up when the police shoot an unarmed man. The show was created by Barbie Kligman and Aaron Kaplan, with Kligman and her husband Billy Malone writing the script.

This seems to be a popular theme for US TV drama at the moment, reflecting the number of high-profile incidents in which controversial police shootings have inspired riots and retaliation. Fox, for example, is working on Shots Fired, a drama that explores the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a Tennessee town.

Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu's East Los High
Dynamic Television has taken the rights to Hulu’s East Los High

Also within the ABC family, cable channel Freeform has commissioned a third season of drama series Stitchers. The show hasn’t been a huge hit for Freeform (season two averaged 387,000 per episode) but will provide some stability as Freeform’s top two shows Pretty Little Liars and Switched At Birth move inexorably towards extinction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it focuses on a female hacker who joins a government agency that investigates murders by hacking into the brains of the deceased.

Turning to Europe, UFA Fiction and ZDF began production this week on their new miniseries drama Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther (working title). Marking 500 years since the Reformation, the series tells the story of Martin Luther, the visionary reformer and one of the most important religious figures in history.

Filming commenced in Prague and the surrounding areas and will continue until early December. Executive producers Benjamin Benedict and Joachim Kosack of UFA Fiction said: “The radical perspective on those early days of the Reformation that Heaven & Hell – Martin Luther enables us to portray human inconsistencies, depths and conflicts. This is a story of a group of people alive 500 years ago whose internal convictions led them to forge a new path – one that ultimately changed the world.”

The show is the latest in a line of big-budget coproductions that have tackled pre-20th century European historical subjects. Others include Borgia, Versailles, 1864, Victoria, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, Medici: Masters of Florence and the BBC’s literary adaptations such as Wolf Hall and War & Peace (and the in-development Les Miserables and A Place of Greater Safety) . The new Martin Luther project will be distributed by FremantleMedia International.

Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK
Black-ish will air on E4 in the UK

There has also been a lot of movement in drama acquisition and distribution business this week. Channel 4 in the UK, for example, has acquired the rights to ABC comedy Black-ish for its digital channel E4.

Dynamic Television, meanwhile, has acquired the global rights to Hulu original series East Los High, which tells the story of a group of inner-city high-school students in LA. Dynamic managing partner Daniel March said: “The series is a game-changer that has completely shattered the bar in the genre. This is a high-powered, emotional drama that speaks to the most sought-after youth audience by tackling everyday challenges.”

Also this week, German, UK and French on-demand services have picked up 12-part Norwegian drama Young & Promising from Nevision-owned distributor About Premium Content. The show, which follows a group of aspirational young urban women, will be streamed on ARD/ZDF-owned Funk in Germany, Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK and CanalPlay in France.

Laurent Boissel, joint CEO and co-founder at APC, said: “VoD platforms and broadcasters continue to look for quality drama targeted at millennials. With its strong female leads and a tone that resonates with our time, Young & Promising will appeal to this audience.”

Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services
Young & Promising has been acquired by German, UK and French on-demand services

Still in the world of streamers, US-based Acorn is partnering the BBC and All3Media International on Close to the Enemy, a Stephen Poliakoff drama set in a bomb-damaged London hotel in the aftermath of the Second World War. The drama, which Poliakoff discussed during last year’s C21 Drama Summit in London, follows an intelligence officer captain whose last task for the Army is to ensure that a captured German scientist starts working for the British RAF on developing the jet engine.

There’s also good news this week for Dori Media Group, which has licensed acclaimed series El Marginal to French pay TV channel Canal+. Nadav Palti, CEO of Dori Media, said: “Canal+ is a premium pay TV channel that provides its subscribers with access to the highest-quality content. The sale of El Marginal is, therefore, a ringing endorsement of the quality of the show.”

The series focuses on the story of Miguel Dimarco, an ex-cop who enters the San Onofre prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have organised the kidnapping of a judge’s daughter. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.

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Keeping the faith: Sarah Treem spills the beans on The Affair

The stress of Sarah Treem’s first major project almost led her to quit television. Now, as showrunner on The Affair and following a stint on House of Cards, she couldn’t be happier. So what changed?

If there’s such a thing as a perfect marriage in television, it might be between Showtime and its Golden Globe-winning drama The Affair.

The US premium cable network is best known as the home of political thriller Homeland, period piece Masters of Sex, and medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie.

The second season of The Affair is due to air in October
The second season of The Affair is due to air on Showtime in October

But it seems there was something missing from its schedule until network president David Nevins invited Sarah Treem (main image) and Hagai Levi to pitch a new series about the emotional fall-out that takes place when Noah, a teacher, and waitress Alison begin an affair. Uniquely, the show is told from the viewpoint of both Noah, played by Dominic West, and Ruth Wilson’s Alison.

The Affair debuted on Showtime in October 2014 and, just three months later in January 2015, Treem was on stage to collect the Golden Globe for best drama ahead of fellow nominees Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, and House of Cards. Wilson also won best actress in a drama series, while West was nominated for best actor.

A second run of the show was ordered halfway through the first 10-episode season. Production began in May, with The Affair due to return to screens this October.

Co-creator and showrunner Treem recalls: “We ended up pitching it to them and Nevins just kind of bought it in the room. He said he’d been looking for something in this world for a long time and he liked the concept.

“He had wanted to do something about marriage and thought this was a really great twist. We pitched it as a show about what makes a relationship work or fail, but within the guise of an affair, so it was a right-place, right-time scenario.”

Treem says The Affair aims to be honest in its storytelling, setting aside the plot twists and supernatural elements that have become common motifs in modern television drama and instead creating a plot more relevant to the lives of its audience.

And it was something of a surprise that the first season was then rewarded with the Golden Globe for best drama. “We had just premiered a couple of months earlier so it was really quick and quite a shock,” Treem admits. “Story-wise, the second season, in terms of complexity and skill, is better than the first, so I’m excited to tell the story on a richer level.

“I would absolutely love it if we won another Golden Globe, but if we don’t, that’s OK too. The fact we get to do the show again and keep going with the story is its own reward. That means more to me than having a medal for it.”

The Affair’s team of writers reconvened in LA earlier this year to break down the season two story arc. They discussed each of the 12 episodes in detail and, specifically, considered what happens to each character. They then talked over the first seven episodes further before the writers separated to pen their scripts.

Treem explains: “Our method is to sit around in a room for a couple of days and really go through what each episode is about and what the journey of the individual characters needs to be. Then we break them up into beats and come up with a rough outline in the room, and an individual writer will take the outline and write it up. We’ll give comments on it and it will go to the network for approval. And then that writer will write the episode.

“We’re dividing up the stories so it’s not just Noah and Alison’s perspectives for the second season. We’re bringing in some new perspectives, which give the season a more prismatic feel and make the storytelling more complex, which I really like.”

Treems TV break came with In Treatment
Treem’s TV break came with HBO’s In Treatment

The Affair marks Treem’s first foray into showrunning. Her TV break came as a writer on all three seasons of In Treatment for HBO, where under an overall deal she also wrote and produced How to Make It in America. She then wrote and co-executive produced on the first season of Netflix’s breakout original drama House of Cards.

“I love the job. But it’s been a really steep learning curve,” the California-based writer says. “The process this year is a lot smoother than it was last year. Showrunning is basically good management. It’s about leading people and guiding people toward a common vision but not in a way that squelches their instincts and makes them feel like they’re just cogs in a wheel.

“What I found challenging in the first season was the act of creating something brand new out of nothing. Birthing a show is a very different skill from managing people. It takes a certain amount of solecism and, frankly, a narcissistic focus, which doesn’t let other people in that easily.

“I think the reason everyone says the second season is easier than the first is that in the second you have the blueprint: everybody knows what the show is and everyone is familiar with the characters and their psychologies, so you can be more open and let go of the reins a lot because you know where you stand. It’s just easier. I’ve really enjoyed the process this year.”

Treem’s rise to become showrunner of an award-winning drama after working on just three other TV shows might be considered meteoric, but she doesn’t see it that way. Writing stage plays from an early age, Treem had graduated from the Yale School of Drama when one of her scripts was passed to HBO, which sent it on to Rodrigo Garcia, the showrunner of the first season of In Treatment. The series was adapted from the Israeli format BeTipul, about a psychologist and his weekly sessions with patients.

“I got really lucky,” Treem admits. “Rodrigo read this play that was kind of wild and he loved it and hired me sight unseen. He just called me up and offered me the job.”

After writing the character of Sophie, played by Mia Wasikowska, Treem returned to teaching in Maine, but was later called to LA to become the on-set writer for In Treatment – a role that almost led her to quit television.

“It was so hard that first year,” she says. “It was crazy because that year we were doing 54 episodes, and I was the only on-set writer. I was 26 or 27, I’d never been to Hollywood, I knew nothing about television production and I was really out of my element, exhausted and under a tremendous amount of stress.

“So I thought maybe this was not for me. After that season, I flew back to New York and told my agents to never put me up for television again. They told me to take a vacation.”

Treem changed her mind, however, when HBO offered her an overall deal, and she continued writing on In Treatment for two more years. During the off-season, she also worked on comedy-drama How to Make It in America, about two entrepreneurs trying to find success in New York City’s fashion scene.

After Treem’s HBO deal ran out, Beau Willimon, who she had met when she was a 19-year-old theatre intern, invited her to join a new series called House of Cards. Treem worked on the show during its first season.

The first season of House of Cards was 'like the Wild West'
Treem says the first season of House of Cards was ‘like the Wild West’

The first year of House of Cards, she says, was “like the Wild West. There were no creative executives at Netflix, so nobody was giving us notes. There was so much money, so much talent, and the rules were getting broken and rewritten all over the place.

“We kept joking that if we were really good, we were going to win a Webby (the awards that honour excellence on the internet), because we didn’t know if anyone would watch the show, and then it just blew up beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”

While House of Cards was shooting its first season, Treem was already looking towards her next project, The Affair, which was co-created with Hagai Levi, the creator of BeTipul and a producer on In Treatment. Expecting her first child, she wanted to set up a project after the birth and so wrote the pilot on nights and weekends, and then pitched it to Showtime when she was seven months pregnant.

“We felt that was a pretty natural evolution out of In Treatment, which is where we met,” Treem says of The Affair’s creation with Levi. “In Treatment is about perspective and how having to explain yourself to somebody else is so very difficult. Everyone is trapped in their own consciousness. As writers, that idea appealed to us on a thematic level, and then Hagai said, ‘Why don’t we do a show about an affair but from two perspectives so we can double-down on that idea?’

“We spent some time coming up with the characters and figuring out the worlds, and it grew really organically. We wrote the script on spec; we didn’t develop it with any particular network, so we really had a chance to let it incubate on its own.”

It’s that freedom that Treem attributes, in part, to the success of Netflix and the growth of original drama on other VoD platforms, and an increasing number of cable channels.

“Netflix exploded the marketplace in this way that has reinvigorated the creativity of writers,” she says. “There are now so many places your show can get made that you don’t have to think, ‘I need to write the type of show AMC or another network is going to buy,’ which was the mentality we had for a while. Now you just write the show – write whatever the heck you want – and someone will probably be interested in it if it’s good. It’s really freeing.”

The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story
The second season of The Affair promises to bring additional perspectives to the story

Despite the fact season two of The Affair is still in the relatively early stages of production, Treem is already plotting the storyline for season three.

“I have a pretty clear idea for season three,” she reveals. “My concept for season four is a little vaguer. When we pitched it, we pitched a three-season arc. So we’ve always known pretty clearly how the show goes through the third season. How it evolves beyond that remains to be seen.”

As one of a growing number of female showrunners working in television, Treem says it feels “like a real watershed year for women in television,” and describes the emergence of limited-episode event series as network television’s answer to cable channels’ hugely successful slow-burn, narrative-driven dramas.

And having started in television writing on the adaptation of an Israeli series, she says remakes can work when people take the concept and inspiration of a show and make it their own. “Where people get into trouble is when they copy something from another culture word for word and shot for shot. There’s a lot that’s lost in translation.”

Looking back on her career so far, Treem adds: “I got lucky that my first job was In Treatment, which was a very niche show, but it was incredibly prestigious and we had a tremendous amount of freedom in the writing. It was a writers’ show because there was one person writing each character, so I got very close to the actors and actresses I was writing for and it really became a team effort.”

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