Surrogacy storytelling

Surrogacy storytelling

By Michael Pickard
March 16, 2023

The Writers Room

Goof Shilishi (A Body That Works) writers Shira Hadad and Dror Mishani reflect on writing their first series together – one that tackles issues surrounding surrogacy as a couple seek help to become parents.

Literary editors Shira Hadad and Dror Mishani have created several television shows together during their 15-year partnership, with shared credits including Preso No1 and Wisdom of the Crowd, which were later sold and produced in Mexico and the US, respectively.

Now, with Goof Shilishi (A Body That Works), they have developed and written every episode of a series together for the first time. Telling the story of a childless couple and their increasingly complicated relationship with their surrogate, the show’s recent launch on Israel’s Keshet 12 marked the end of a six-year project inspired by Hadad’s real-life experiences of surrogacy.

Rotem Sela and Yehuda Levi star as Ellie and Ido, whose attempts to conceive naturally and numerous rounds of IVF have all been unsuccessful. When surrogacy becomes their only option, they turn to disillusioned call-centre worker and single mother Chen (Gal Malka) to help them start the family they’ve always wanted.

Shira Hadad

However, over the course of eight episodes, Ellie and Ido’s relationship is turned upside down as they are confronted by challenges they hadn’t anticipated, while events bring Chen and Ido closer together. Matters become further tangled by editor Ellie’s strengthening connection to her new client, actor, director and aspiring writer Tomer (Lior Raz).

From there, “everything gets complicated,” Hadad jokes. “But basically, it’s a relationship drama about this triangle between the couple and their surrogate, which at some point becomes a square when a fourth character enters into the story. It’s about the four of them, and everything becomes complicated.”

Though the series is based on her own surrogacy, it’s a relief to hear that Hadad’s experience wasn’t nearly as dramatic. “But as I went through it, I did realise the dramatic potential in this story because these are people – Ellie and Chen – who normally wouldn’t meet each other.

“Then when they do meet, the two women reflect everything each of them doesn’t have. The haves and the have-nots of this story are very powerful. They come from different backgrounds. Even though my own story was rather boring, I saw the great story embedded in it. Dror and I were already colleagues and good friends at that point. He heard about it, we started talking about it a couple of years after my son was born, and now we’re here.”

Discussion of Hadad’s own surrogacy was just the starting point for the series, which also focuses on relationships and parenthood, and features themes of love, jealousy, desire and selflessness. The show is produced by Kuma Studios and distributed by Keshet International.

“The point of departure was very clear,” says Mishani of moving beyond Hadad’s story. “I haven’t been through the process that Shira had, so I needed, for example, to find other personal entry points into the story. Then very early on, we understood that it’s also a story about parenthood. What does it mean to become a parent? What are the prices you are willing to pay in order to become a parent? How far will you go if you want to be a parent? This is an example of the discussions we had, trying to figure out what exactly we are telling, beside or beyond the story of the surrogacy.”

A Body That Works stars Rotem Sela and Yehuda Levi as Ellie and Ido

When viewers first meet Ido and Ellie, they are already worn down by the years of emotional toil from trying to become parents – yet they themselves are unaware of just how strained their relationship has become. It has also led to a different dynamic between them. They are no longer simply a loving couple but, as Hadad explains, have formed more of a father-daughter bond through Ido seeking to protect and support Ellie as she went through multiple procedures and miscarriages.

“He becomes a surrogate parent to her, a father to hold her and to make sure she doesn’t fall apart,” she says. “And he does that really well; he’s very good at it. But for their relationship as a couple, it’s not a good thing. This is something they will both find out throughout the season, and it is a big part of what makes them go into this dramatic whirlwind.”

At one stage, the series was due to comprise nine episodes – one for each month of a pregnancy – but eight episodes was found to be the perfect length, says Hadad, who notes that this was one project she would never have sold for another writer to pick up.

“That was never an option,” she says. “But you never know exactly how something, especially a TV series, will be written until you finish writing it. It’s something we also learned as we did it.”

Dror Mishani

Initially, Hadad worked with film director Mor Kaplansky (Café Naglar) to start shaping the series, before she and Mishani built a literary writers room with two friends and authors, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen and Yonatan Sagiv, to develop it further. In fact, it was their own literary background that led them to make Ellie a part of that world.

“Shira was wondering for months and months what occupation she should give Ellie. She had many jobs until she thought, ‘Well, why not a literary editor?’ It enabled us in a way to write about our lives and our experiences as writers and editors through the characters of Ellie and Tomen and the relationship between them,” Mishani says.

“We were very careful and meticulous in writing the dialogue. I know other television writers where they say, ‘The dialogue’s important but anyway the actors are going to shape the language of the characters as the scenes are being shot.’ But we were choosing every word as if it were really going to be on screen, which more or less happened. The episodes are more or less what we wrote.”

When it came to developing the characters’ viewpoints through the series, the writers would roleplay each one to understand their different perspectives first-hand and fuse them into the story. “We had a lot of quarrels that were almost identical through the quarrels they were having on screen,” Mishani jokes.

They were also able to lean on their own experience as book editors, writing and editing the series together as they went along.

“In some ways, being an editor as well as a writer holds you back,” Hadad notes. “But then in other stages of writing, it’s a good thing. At some point, we were wondering if we should work with an actual script editor. And when we realised we were editing each other, we didn’t need that.”

When co-creator and series director Shay Capon (The Writer) then came on board, he further discussed and rewrote the episodes with them. “He’s also a script editor, so there were many editors involved in this writing process,” Hadad says.

Fauda’s Lior Raz plays Tomen in the Keshet 12 series

But at a certain stage of the writing process, when Hadad and Mishani are ready to start penning the scripts, they “close the door” to outside voices and set about writing alone.

“We both feel that the actual action of writing, we can’t do that together with another person in the room. That’s when we each go to a room, and mostly I did the first draft and then I sent it to Dror and we started passing it back and forth.”

On screen, A Body That Works boasts a star-studded Israeli cast, bringing together Sela (The Baker & the Beauty), Levi (Fire Dance), Malka (Dismissed) and Fauda star Raz to play the characters who make up the “square” at the centre of the story.

While writers don’t often admit to writing roles with specific actors in mind, Hadad says Raz was in her thoughts from the beginning: “Lior is actually the only actor we did have in mind all along because the character of Tomen was loosely based on him. Then we said he probably wouldn’t be played by Lior, but eventually it happened. So that was really, really cool. This is a character who was supposed to have a much smaller part, but we just fell in love with him. They’re all very wounded people, but he’s the most wholesome character of them all.”

Malka came to mind for both of them when, one night, they were separately watching TV and spotted her in another series. Mishani recalls: “We texted each other immediately and said, ‘Isn’t she Chen?’” That moment came very early in the writing process, and they didn’t give it much more thought. But in a touch of fate, the actor later auditioned in front of Capon and won the role.

“With Yehuda and Rotem, we got such a dream team. It’s sort of unbelievable,” Hadad continues. “We both imagined this as a very small, intimate show. We were very lucky because Yehuda and Rotem are both phenomenal actors. I am obviously not very objective about this show, but they really understand Ellie and Ido in such deep ways that I couldn’t dream of when I wrote them.”

The drama has sparked national debate around surrogacy in Israel

As is the case for most productions in Israel, the production team faced a race against time to get filming completed – a process that was helped by minimal rewrites once the cameras were rolling. In fact, the main challenges came during the writing, when Mishani says the writers had “some very heated arguments.”

“Maybe that was because of Shira’s biographical connection to where the story came from,” he continues, “so there were certain things she was very sure about that were going to happen in the story or were not going to happen in the story. And sometimes I wanted to challenge those.

“How is this couple going to end? Are they going to end up together after the baby’s born? Maybe they’re going to separate. We had a lot of discussion over that, and also about whether there will be a relationship between the surrogate and the father. We really had a lot of arguments about that, and I won’t tell you what we decided. I’ll leave it as a surprise.”

Since its launch earlier this year, A Body That Works has attracted more than 440,000 viewers in Israel, averaging a 25% audience share, while consolidated figures take viewing numbers beyond 550,000. The series has also created debate around issues of surrogacy, fertility, family and bodily autonomy – and the writers now hope to create more discussion when the show has its international premiere at French television festival Series Mania.

“There seems to be a huge and very emotional response to the show. We’re both overwhelmed with it,” Hadad says. “Obviously surrogacy is quite a rare thing, but those women and men are striving and fighting to become parents and suffering to make this dream come true.

“It has ignited a heated discussion about surrogacy and whether it is ethical. This is a very heated topic as it is, and it really exploded with this show. There was a huge response and social media reaction to this show. I didn’t see it coming.”

“What I really like about the responses is I get the word ‘real’ in them a lot,” adds Mishani. “[The series] shows the real difficulties of becoming a parent. A lot of people have told me how series about parenthood are idealised sometimes and how real this show, the characters and the emotions feel to them. This is why it has been so engaging to the Israeli public.”

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