Eli Ben-David and Héloïse Godet, the stars of Israeli drama The Attaché, discuss their collaboration in front of and behind the camera on this relationship drama set in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Paris.
In Israeli drama The Attaché, creator Eli Ben-David has drawn on his own experiences to tell the story of a couple suffering a martial crisis after they relocate from Israel to France on the same day as the largest terror attack in French history.
Ben-David, who writes and directs the series, also stars as Avshalom, a successful jazz musician who supports his wife Annabelle (Héloïse Godet) when she lands a new job as the attaché to the Israeli embassy in Paris. Having left behind his friends, family and career, his first night in Paris is marked by a series of bombings and shootings across the French capital, including the strike at the Bataclan concert hall.
Over the course of the series, he struggles to adapt to his new life while Annabelle flourishes in her high-profile job, creating a growing distance between the couple as Avshalom faces crises of immigration, masculinity and fatherhood.
Ben-David admits he has been surprised by the success of this “small, private love story,” which debuted in 2019 on Israel’s Hot and has gone on to air in Europe and Australia. Produced by Abot Hameiri and distributed by Fremantle, the 10-part series is now set to launch on streamer StarzPlay in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Latin America, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the UK this Sunday.
Like Annabelle, Ben-David’s wife took up a diplomatic role in Paris, which led him to move with her to France. Their relationship and how he was affected by the terrorist attacks of November 2015 have shaped the lives of the fictional characters in The Attaché.
“It’s about a wrinkle in a couple’s relationship in the most romantic capital city in the world,” he tells DQ. “He’s following her to not lose her, but he’s also doing everything to lose her. But the tone of the project is almost undramatic. I thought, let’s bring in some little stories from life that reflect everything – agony, sadness, joy, laughter, desire – so this is the story of a threesome: him, her and Paris.”
French actor Godet had originally auditioned for a different role, one that the casting note said would involve speaking some Hebrew. In preparation, she learned the lines phonetically with the help of an Israeli friend. But then the casting director called her back to ask her to try out for Annabelle, who speaks fluent Hebrew in the series.
“Eli called me right afterwards and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew. I was pretending,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘OK, I challenge you.’ Then it was almost three months of working intensely. They had to check I was able to learn a huge amount of Hebrew in a short time from nothing, so I got a coach and was working every morning in a café with the coach and Eli.”
Godet went further than just learning the lines, however, as she ended up rewriting Annabelle’s character alongside Ben-David.
“I got to really dig into the character and then, very quickly, I got to rewrite her because I made it more personal,” she says. “We changed my character from an Israeli talking French to a French woman talking Hebrew. We adapted it to my personal story because it’s already autobiographical from [Ben-David’s] life, but he made it very personal for my life too, bringing in the motherhood, her work challenges and trying to be honest about little failures in life.”
Those challenges facing Annabelle appear throughout the series, but at first it is Avshalom who is facing up to his new reality living in an unfamiliar city where he doesn’t speak the language.
“It’s easy for her to go back to her roots, her family, her friends,” says Godet. “But he’s lost his job and he doesn’t speak the language; he’s a fish out of water and feeling like a stranger in his own home, and he’s afraid to lose her. She’s trying to defend her dream – and she’s failing, by the way – but she’s trying very hard. She’s trying to be a good mother. She’s trying her best to help him.”
Key to the series are the central characters’ differing reactions to the terror attack, which are similarly rooted in the actors’ own experiences of that moment in time. As a Parisian, Godet and her friends could have been in the Bataclan or one of the cafés targeted that tragic evening, and the events left her suffering a “terrified immobility. I could not move from the shock,” she says.
“As a French woman, when I read the original scripts, I said, ‘This is not how I experienced it. This is not how it happened. Let me tell it my own way,’” Godet notes. “We experienced fear and racism against Arabs after the attacks but still there’s been a huge amount of solidarity and beautiful anti-racism in Paris in the same time. We’re trying to dance around these stories of prejudices for both identities.”
Similarly, Ben-David says Avshalom’s reaction to the attack is based on his own. He has previously been affected by an attack in Israel, his own father directly experiencing one such incident on a bus. He had then been in Paris only a few weeks when the terrorists struck.
“I’m not telling the story of how people in Paris reacted. I’m telling the story from an Israeli point of view, a fucked-up, traumatic, paranoid point of view,” he says. “My father was inside a terror attack in Israel so it is already in me. I’m writing a lot from my point of view with my paranoia.
“We’d just moved to Paris and my life was changed totally. My wife had become an Israeli diplomat in the embassy with all the security measures, bodyguards, security instructions on what to do and what not to do, and where to speak Hebrew and where not to speak Hebrew. My life totally changed. I’m not telling the story of what happened in Paris; I’m telling the story of what happened to me in my head in Paris. That’s the point of view and the tone of the show.”
Known for series such as Buba Shel Layla and Anachnu BaMapa, Ben-David is used to writing and directing his own work. But because The Attaché was such a personal story, he was encouraged to also take up the lead role of Avshalom.
“If somebody ever tells you to write, direct and star [in the same show], kill them!” he jokes. “Because it was my personal story, they forced me – the broadcaster, everybody –because I’m well known in Israel and they said it might be a gimmick but it would be great. Then my wife told me, ‘Maybe they’re right.’”
By then, Godet had signed on to play Annabelle and Ben-David recorded a self-tape with her. “My mistake was I then sent it to the production and they liked it,” he continues. “I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ But it was so complicated. We shot in France, Ukraine and Israel, with actors from Morocco, France, Israel, Ukraine and Canada. It was a difficult logistical operation. It took at least three years of my life.
“We were supposed to write it and then do pre-production and then shoot it. But reality has its own rhythm. I wrote most of it in advance. We were shooting in Ukraine and then I had two-and-a-half months of shooting in France, so I started to edit, and then we changed the script. I was writing, shooting, editing, acting. It was one long journey. Héloïse was participating with me and brainstorming and became a co-writer. She’s a natural French speaker so she helped me a lot with that. It was mixed-up journey until the end.”
Juggling so many roles, Ben-David would find himself running to and from the monitor between takes, while also answering numerous questions from other members of the production team. Godet describes Ben-David as an actor’s director who is very precise in what he wants and knows the direction he wants for each scene.
“From the moment we wrote together, we were diving into each scene and preparing like hell because, during shooting, we didn’t have much time,” she explains. “There were so many scenes to shoot in one day, so we prepared a lot before.”
“They will need to offer me a lot of money to do it again,” Ben-David adds. “They’re talking about a second season and I’m really conflicted about whether to do it – or I will tell them, Avshalom will die in the first five minutes and Annabelle will fall in love with someone else and that’s it.”
That second season might be set during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, revisiting the characters five years later when they are stuck in an apartment together during a lockdown, with the filmmaker explaining that he wants to “attack reality” with every project he works on.
That means the story carries many universal themes to which audiences can relate. “It’s not just about immigration or relocation, and it’s certainly not just about the attacks,” Godet says. “It’s a love story.”