Tag Archives: Maria Feldman

Fresh territory

Co-creator Maria Feldman and stars Mélanie Thierry and James Purefoy speak to DQ about how No Man’s Land, an eight-part thriller set against the backdrop of the Syrian War, offers a new perspective of the conflict.

War in the Middle East and the rise of Isis has proven to be fertile ground for drama writers in recent years, with Sweden’s Kalifat (Caliphate) and the UK’s The State among those to focus in particular on the war in Syria.

Another series set in the same arena is No Man’s Land, an eight-parter that follows the conflict through the eyes of Antoine, a young Frenchman in search of his estranged, presumed-dead sister.

While unravelling the mystery, he joins forces with a unit of Kurdish female fighters and travels with them into Isis-controlled territory, bringing him into contact with anarchists, spies and innocent victims in a series that provides a fresh look at events in the country.

The French-Israeli drama comes from co-creators Maria Feldman (False Flag), Eitan Mansuri (When Heroes Fly), Amit Cohen (False Flag) and Ron Leshem (False Flag), with Cohen and Leshem writing alongside Xabi Molia. Oded Ruskin (False Flag) directs.

The inspiration for No Man’s Land came to Feldman when she was watching a news report about events in Syria, when Isis was at its peak. She saw two young female fighters making a lot of noise and wearing brightly coloured clothing – not the best camouflage for battle.

Maria Feldman
(photo: Ronen Akerman)

“The reporter explained the reason for this unusual scene is that Isis fighters are not afraid to die in battle, unless they’re killed by a woman,” she explains. “So hearing those sounds and seeing those headscarves, they know women are shooting at them and they totally freak out. Sometimes they just drop their weapons and run away. That’s why battalions of female fighters were playing such an important role in defeating Isis in Syria. I got really fascinated by this phenomenon – they’re very young and beautiful and they’re fighting evil.”

Feldman also became intrigued by the number of Western volunteers arriving in Syria from all over Europe and the US, not only those joining Isis but also those aiding the Kurdish side.

“I decided we needed a Western character to bring us into the region because I wanted it to be a really international show,” she continues. “So we start with Antoine, a young Frenchman from the Parisian bourgeois, whose sister died in a terrorist attack two years earlier in Cairo.

“We start with him two years later and he’s in a fertility clinic with his beautiful wife. All of a sudden, something draws his mind to the TV. There is a news report from Syria and then there’s an explosion. He sees a woman running towards the explosion to help the wounded. He can’t see her face, it’s very blurry. But he’s sure that it’s his sister. He knows it can’t be true, but he can’t take this woman out of his mind and he decides he needs to find out who this woman is, even if it’s not his sister.

“Very quickly, he finds himself in Syria in the middle of the war with the Kurdish female fighters, and through him we explore this side of the story.

“Another side of the story is about three British childhood friends who come to join Isis for various reasons. We tell this small story of friendship and betrayal, rather than the story of Isis, because one of them is going to betray the others.”

French actor Mélanie Thierry (La Douleur) plays Anna, the supposed dead sister of Antoine (Félix Moati, The French Dispatch). She’s not giving away any spoilers as to her character’s fate, however, explaining only that viewers will meet her through flashbacks and family videos.

Félix Moati plays Antoine, who goes in search of his presumed-dead sister

“What we see is this young archeology student living in Paris in a warm family. Because of a terrible loss and after a betrayal, she has to quit,” Thierry says. “She doesn’t believe in her family anymore and she has to start with a blank slate and create her own family with a new identity. She’s going to be mixed up with some good and bad people; she’s an easy target, she’s vulnerable, and she’s going to make some courageous choices.”

Feldman adds: “At some point, we will also see what really happened to Anna – we have an episode that tells Anna’s story. But I can’t tell you if she’s alive or if this woman in the video is her or not.”

No Man’s Land, which had the working title Fertile Crescent, marks Thierry’s first TV role. The actor describes her experience as “very interesting, challenging and demanding,” adding: “It was a melting pot of all these cultures, all these languages and English actors, French actors and Kurdish actors. It was nice to work in Morocco for several months.

“The flashbacks give an idea of who Anna is. She’s a human-rights activist and she helps people and falls in love with a refugee in Paris, and we can feel she has to confront something very painful. It will drive her to something. What I liked was working with an Israeli director, some French and English actors and having to play in English and Kurdish sometimes.”

Meanwhile, James Purefoy (The Following, Altered Carbon) also stars as a character who represents Western interests in the Syrian conflict. “I play a guy called Stanley – or is he? He works for a humanitarian organisation – or does he? He works for MI6 – or does he? He’s a slightly shadowy figure,” the British actor teases.

Mélanie Thierry as Antoine’s sister Anna, whose fate is unknown

What is certain is Stanley works with the intelligence services and uses all his skills of manipulation to turn events in his favour, coming into contact with Antoine, Anna and the three London friends through the series.

“He has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies,” Purefoy says. “He’s really interesting and it’s a really incredible story.” Is he honourable? “That depends where you’re coming from. I played a CIA agent in an Amazon series last year and somebody said to me, ‘So you’re the good guy.’ Well, if you’re American, I’m the good guy. But often one country’s interests in other countries might not make you quite so friendly to the people of those places. But to your own country, maybe you are. It’s very complicated and ambitious and grey, and that’s always the best area to be in. They’re not what they seem.”

The actor also notes similarities in playing a spy and a psychopath, having played a killer in three seasons of Fox drama The Following. “There is something similar between them in terms of manipulation, acting and getting people to do the things you want them to do,” he explains. “It’s very much in the script – he shifts and changes. You think he’s one thing, you think he’s gay at one point. We still don’t know. Has he got a family somewhere else? Or is he just using that as a way to be very unthreatening? There are a lot of stories and he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.”

Feldman jokes that she thought the CIA were going to knock on her door at one point during development, with the writer’s web searches including such terms as ‘How to join Isis’ and ‘beheading.’ But as with all fact-based drama, research has been key throughout the project to ensure as much authenticity as possible.

“We all did a lot of research and we tried to be a real as we could. It was very important for us,” she says. “We had Kurdish and Syrian coaches on set to make sure people spoke and acted correctly and we had the right rituals. We even had British accent coaches, so we get the West London authenticity too.”

James Purefoy plays another mysterious character, whose name may or may not be Stanley

Purefoy says it’s important for everyone involved to feel no “bumps” in the story. “You feel these people have done their homework and what you’re watching is absolutely believable. You don’t look at it and question anything, because the only thing you want to be watching is emotion, character and story,” he says. “You don’t want to feel, ‘Oh they got that wrong,’ because that just takes you out, even if it’s just a brief moment.”

Feldman and Mansuri originally devised the Isis storyline, before the former inserted the French family dynamic. Then they brought Cohen and Leshem on board to write the scripts. “We all live in different cities and continents, so it was a bit challenging – a lot of Skype and a lot of note writing but a lot of discussions,” Feldman says.

Feldman’s Masha Productions and Mansuri and Jonathan Doweck’s Spiro Films then connected with French producer Haut et Court (Les Revenants) to produce the series, which was named best project when it was first pitched to international partners at Series Mania in 2017. Fremantle joined as distributor, with French network Arte and US streamer Hulu commissioning the series.

Filming took place in Belgium and France, while sections set in Turkey and parts of the Middle East – Syria, Egypt and Iran – were shot in Morocco.

“The shoot was very challenging; the international nature of it was challenging,” Feldman explains. “We had crew and actors from more than 15 countries because we’re trying to keep it authentic and we were shooting Belgium and France and Morocco with one director who did the whole thing.

The series looks at the Syria conflict from multiple perspectives

“It’s a big thing that happened that affects the whole world, and it will keep on affecting the world for a long time. Our show takes a very different perspective, with the Kurdish female fighters, European involvement and Western intelligence involvement in the conflict. It’s very different, but the war in Syria is not a local conflict – it affects the world.”

Featuring family secrets and drama, love affairs and betrayal, No Man’s Land goes far beyond the arena that serves as the backdrop to the series, with every character being cheated or double-crossed at some point.

“It’s a show about betrayal and identity and who you really are – French, British, Israeli? I think it will appeal to a lot of people because we’re dealing with very universal themes,” Feldman says, revealing that her thoughts have already turned to a second season before season one airs later this year.

Purefoy adds: “It also dramatises things we are aware of in the news but which I have not seen in a drama. I have not seen a story about three West London lads who go out and join Isis. I’ve read about those stories, but I haven’t seen that and been able to think what that might be like for them and how they deal with that, or the character Melanie plays. There’s lots of fresh stuff in this show we haven’t seen before.”

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Repeat offenders

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.

Maria Feldman

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.”

False Flag focuses on a group of ordinary people who find themselves accused of a major crime

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 show’s second season features a new cast and storyline

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!”

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Back from the dead

After working together on Israeli spy drama False Flag, executive producers Maria Feldman and Oded Ruskin reunited for Absentia.

Castle alum Stana Katic plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who has been missing, presumed dead, for six years. In her absence, her husband remarried and his new wife is raising Emily’s child. But when she’s found alive, she doesn’t remember anything and must live in this new reality. As the show progresses, evidence emerges that suggests she’s not as innocent as she seems.

The series, which is airing on Sony Pictures Television Networks-owned AXN channels around the world, mixes thriller, horror and mystery elements but at its base is a family drama.

In this DQTV interview, Ruskin describes his directing style and how he works with actors to get the best performances on screen, while Feldman recalls the rapid speed at which the production came together.

Absentia is produced and distributed by Sony Pictures Television.

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Raising the Flag

Five ordinary people are accused of a high-stakes kidnapping in False Flag, the latest hit series to come out of Israel. As the thriller is rolled out around the world, DQ chats to producer Maria Feldman and writer Amit Cohen about weaving this tangled web of secrets and lies.

It was in October 2015 that Fox Networks Group (FNG) secured a landmark deal for the latest buzzworthy show to come out of Israel, a drama called Kfulmin (False Flag).

That agreement with distributor Keshet International afforded Fox global rights to the eight-part series across 127 countries around the world.

Maria Feldman

It marked the first ever Israeli drama to be picked up by FNG and, in fact, was the first time FNG had ever acquired a non-English-language series on a global scale.

Now, almost two years later, the series is finally being rolled out around the world. It debuts on Fox UK on July 31.

The gripping espionage thriller opens as breaking-news broadcasts screen CCTV footage of the Iranian minister of defence being abducted from his hotel room during a secret visit to Moscow. The identities of the five kidnappers are also made public – Israelis with dual nationalities who are reportedly part of the country’s intelligence agency, Mossad.

The seemingly ordinary citizens accused of being the kidnappers are stunned to find themselves named in the daring plot, and their attempts at denial are all in vain as the publicity turns their lives upside down and sweeps them up a wave of public attention.

The daring series is inspired by the true events surrounding the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, in Dubai in 2010. Producer Maria Feldman had been thinking about creating a show about Mossad when newspaper coverage of al-Mabhouh’s death was accompanied by the passport photos of Mossad agents linked to the incident.

“Then I said, ‘What if those people were not Mossad agents but just real people who got up one morning and were being accused of being Mossad agents?’” she recalls. “So that’s how it started.”

Angel Bonanni plays Sean Tilson in the drama about a group of people accused of a high-profile kidnapping

To develop the story, Feldman partnered with journalist Amit Cohen and together they took their idea to Israeli broadcaster Keshet. This first meeting took place in 2010, not long after the real assassination and five years before the long-gestating series would finally air.

“It was a long project,” Cohen admits. “I was a journalist at the time as the Palestinian correspondent for a big newspaper in Israel and I covered the assassination as part of my work. When Maria approached me with [the idea for False Flag], I admit I didn’t see the drama in it . Only after talking to her and understanding what she had in mind did I start to see the potential.”

Development progressed once they decided to use the kidnapping as the starting point of the story, rather than the story itself, and Cohen wrote every episode himself.

“The writing was the easy part,” he jokes. “Maria and I sat together for meeting after meeting to break the story and to make sure we had completely written characters that made an ensemble. Each one acts differently but is part of a bigger puzzle, and at some point the director [Oded Raskin] came in to give his input. We took our time to make sure we were completely happy with it. The director said at the end that this was a show he would want to watch, and that’s how we treated it. We wanted to do something we would love to sit in the living room and watch, even if someone else made it.”

Amit Cohen

From the outset, False Flag was a story about characters, and Cohen recalls delivering an eight-page outline to the broadcaster that largely focused on the ensemble cast. Throughout the development process, they and the story remained the same as the writer set out their motivations and desires, with each one reflecting a different strand of Israeli society.

“We wanted to talk about aspects of our society,” Cohen explains. “But when it came to adding the thriller elements, we didn’t want it to feel extravagant – this is why it takes some time before people die or before we see a gun in the show. Keshet bought into the story right from the beginning but they wanted to make sure we had enough [story for the series]. They thought we had a great starting point but wanted to see if we could hold the audience and have three revelations in each episode, not necessarily related to the plot.

“We had things we thought could leave until the end but Keshet said, ‘No, you have to reveal it in episode three or episode one.’ You need a very quick sale or viewers will get bored, and it improved the show because it forced us to find more secrets or make our mechanism more efficient. It really helped.”

Beyond the central plot, Cohen was keen to ensure the concept of a ‘false flag’ – a modern term describing a covert action carried out to appear as if other groups or individuals were responsible – ran throughout the series.

“We use this intelligence jargon as a theme where you see something but you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is right,” he explains, pointing to a scene at the start of episode one when a man and boy are playing with guns. “You think are they assassins but no, they’re father and son and the son is going to the army. So we played with this theme throughout the show – you think you know something, you think you know someone and then we change it. It was how we built secrets during the show. It’s an important part of the show’s DNA. We didn’t want the secrets to be too exaggerated. We wanted it to be ordinary secrets, like someone having an affair. The first part was to find the secrets, and then we had to figure out how to reveal them along the show.”

Ania Bukstein’s role in False Flag led to a part in Game of Thrones

The revelations come thick and fast during the series, produced by Tender Productions, as the audience is left on edge wondering how the events will play out and whether the central characters really are just ordinary citizens or whether there’s more to their involvement in the kidnapping plot than it appears at first.

“The audience follows our lead in uncovering who is innocent and who is not, and they get a pay-off in each episode when we reveal certain things that are true,” Cohen says. “We were really nervous about it, I have to admit, because there was a question about whether the audience would follow something with so many characters and so many secrets, not only for the plot but emotionally as well. But Keshet decided to go all the way with it.”

From a production point of view, Feldman says the biggest challenge was telling a story from five different perspectives, with the number of locations and additional characters associated with the main ensemble.

Cohen interjects: “In many cases, the writer wants to write whatever he wants and then the producer and the director tell him he can’t do it, particularly in Israel with the low production budgets we have. But on False Flag it was the other way around. I tried to be economic; I tried to write scenes that weren’t expensive. In one scene we have an explosion, so I wrote that it happens on the horizon and we see it from a distance. But they said, ‘Don’t write it cheaply, write it the way you want.’ Shooting at the airport is expensive and I asked if we could do it. They just said, ‘Write it how you want it and we’ll find a way’ – and Maria found a way. All of us were really emotionally invested in the story and the way it looked.”

Magi Azarzar plays a character caught up in the drama on her wedding day

Casting did present another challenge, however, as Feldman and Cohen sought to avoid hiring big-name talent in order to keep the series grounded. The five central characters comprise Ishai Golan as Ben Rephael, a chemist and family man; Magi Azarzar as Natalie Alfassia, a bride-to-be who sees her face on the news just hours before her wedding; Ania Bukstein as kindergarten teacher Asia Brinditch, the one alleged kidnapper who revels in the immediate media attention; Angel Bonanni as Sean Tilson, who is flying home from a trip to India when he is informed of his new-found notoriety, leading to a suspicious mid-flight haircut; and Orna Salinger as Emma Lipman, a Briton who has just gained Israeli citizenship and has a link to Raphael.

“Almost all the actors who weren’t big names became really famous after the show, and Ania has now been in Game of Thrones [playing priestess Kinvara in season six],” reveals Feldman, describing casting as a “complicated” task. “We had to find the best actor for each role and then we needed to see that they could work as an ensemble. It was a very difficult process but the ensemble works great.”

Two years since False Flag aired to record viewing numbers on Keshet in Israel, Feldman says development on a second season featuring the same investigators hunting new suspects is well underway. Shooting is set to begin soon for an early 2018 release.

With its debut on Fox around the world imminent, the series looks set to become the next global hit from a country that has previously launched Hatufim (Prisoners of War, later adapted as Homeland), BeTipul (In Treatment), Fauda and Hostages to critical and popular acclaim.

Feldman puts the global success of Israeli drama down to their focus on stories and characters, while Cohen adds: “They feel very realistic and very grounded – this is something the Israeli audience demands. They want to see themselves and their families, so it forces writers, producers and directors to do something that appeals to most people. The fact we can’t use a lot of action or car chases [because of low budgets] forces us to put our focus on characters, stories and plot.”

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