Making a worldwide drama out of Israel TV

Our lips are sealed: Hostages stars Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette

Our lips are sealed: Hostages stars Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette

It is just over 20 years since, armed with a degree in film and television studies from Tel Aviv University, a fresh-faced Alon Aranya landed in California, determined to make his mark. Many other young Israelis followed the same path, but for Aranya it really paid off. Now 42 and splitting his time between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, the writer and producer is enjoying a double whammy — the screening of the American version of Israeli thriller series, Hostages, on Channel 4, and the BBC acquisition of the original Israeli production, Bnei Aruba, for broadcast later this year. And on the line from Tel Aviv, Aranya justifiably sounds like the cat who got the cream.

“I pretty much grew up in the US as well as Israel,” he says, “because we went wherever my father was teaching in business school. Besides that, I spent three months in the US every summer, so I grew up watching repeats of American TV shows.”

So he is well versed in the genre of TV in both cultures (and he went on to do a film studies master’s degree at New York University). But, ruefully, Aranya acknowledges the truth outlined by Gideon Raff, one of the devisers of Homeland, another Israeli show given a big bucks American makeover. Israel is simply too small — and too poor — to capitalise on the creative juices of so many of its writers, producers and actors. “The reality is that in Israel there are just five buyers for scripted TV dramas,” he points out. “If five people say no to you, you’re done.”

The only way, therefore, is out. Inspired by the success of shows such as the Emmy-winning Homeland, Prisoners of War and In Treatment — based on Israel’s Betipul — scripts are flooding into Israeli broadcasters in the hope that the formula can be sold on abroad.

Alon Aranya

Alon Aranya

In LA, Aranya set up his own company, Scripted World, travelling regularly back to Israel to see if anything could be developed from its TV output. Three years ago he thought he had a winner on his hands when he sold an Israeli show, The Naked Truth, to US broadcasting giant HBO (Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones).

Though the Americans did not eventually make The Naked Truth, Aranya was undeterred. He asked Israel’s Channel 10 if it had anything else on the stocks and was shown a pitch by two unknown young writers, Omri Givon and Rotem Shamir. Channel 10 told him: “We don’t really know what to do with this. It seems to us to be a very American show.” The pitch was the basic plot of Hostages, in which a woman surgeon, scheduled to operate on her country’s leader — the Israeli prime minister or the US president — is under threat from terrorists who say they will kill her family unless she ensures the politician dies on the operating table.

“I was blown away by this idea,” Aranya recalls. “I loved the power of the concept.” He succeeded in not only selling Hostages to Warner Brothers but co-wrote the pilot episode with Jeffrey Nachmanoff. After winning a bidding war with Fox, CBS commissioned the series and it was only at that stage that Israeli TV decided to proceed with its version — the first time, he adds laughing, “that a remake got made and screened before the original”.

The two shows are markedly different. The American adaptation is 15 hour-long episodes, starring Australian actress Toni Collette as the terrified but tough woman surgeon, and well-known US film and TV actor Dylan McDermott as the chief terrorist. All the characters have strong back stories which unfold throughout the series — the doctor’s husband’s affair with his assistant, the teenage daughter’s pregnancy and the teenage son’s burgeoning cannabis dealing business were all trailed in the opener, shown here at the weekend. And, most powerfully, what motivates the kidnappers’ leader, a rogue FBI agent.

In the Israeli series — for which the BBC is yet to confirm a transmission date — the surgeon and terrorist are portrayed by actors who have tasted Hollywood success; Ayelet Zurer and Jonah Lotan (the latter has featured in 24 and Homeland). There are just 10 shorter episodes and almost all the drama is psychological and intimate — reflecting both cultural differences and financial restraints, Aranya says. “The two versions were pretty much the same coming out of the gate, but after the first couple of episodes they began to feel very different.”

Aranya also wrote episode seven of the American version and is evidently passionate about the character of the surgeon, Ellen Sanders. “Here’s a woman with a great career who has paid a price for it. When we meet her, her marriage seems to be on the rocks and she is challenged to choose between her family and her career.”

Although “one of the hottest pilots of the season”, Hostages did not achieve high ratings in the States, which Aranya attributes in part to being up against a ratings-busting reality show. He is confident that the format can sustain a second season — albeit probably not in Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel’s panoply of “you’ll never believe this” stories continues to be a rich seam for him to mine. He is currently working on a series purchased by US cable station TNT. Inspired by the coma of Ariel Sharon, President X ponders what would have happened if Sharon had emerged from it. For America, “the idea is that a US president is attacked and left for dead. He is put into an artificial coma and wakes up with the aim of finding out who tried to kill him”. Warner Brothers will again be producing the show.

Hostages is on C4 at 9pm on Saturday

Last updated: 12:19pm, January 16 2014