Interview: Gideon Raff on the Making of 'Prisoners of War'

"Prisoners of War" tells the story of three Israeli soldiers who were held captive for 17 years following their kidnapping while on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. Israeli film and television director, screenwriter and producer Gideon Raff created both "Prisoners of War," the program upon which “Homeland” is based, and the latter American counterpart as well as the recent FX series, “Tyrant.” The U.S. television broadcast premiere of "Prisoners of War" is Monday, October 24 at 10:00 p.m. on KCET. 

Michael Schneider, the executive editor of Indiewire and editor at large for Variety, sat down with creator Gideon Raff to discuss the critically acclaimed Israeli television show.


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Michael Schneider: How did you come up with the idea for "Prisoners of War"?

Raff, Gideon
Gideon Raff 

Gideon Raff: I don’t quite know how I came up with it. What I do know is that once I thought of the idea, I was shocked that nobody had done this before, and that there was a world of drama that hasn't been tapped into. Israel is such a small country, and the issue of prisoners of war is such a raw subject that I was sure that probably somebody did it. Israelis are used to the return of prisoners of war being the happy ending, the end of the show, the end of the story, but I wanted to do it as the beginning and see what happens to these prisoners of war upon their arrival home.

MS: Was there a particular P.O.W. experience that inspired you in doing sort of early research?

GR: Unfortunately there’s always a prisoner of war in our history. Ron Arad, who was a navigator, fell captive in 1985 and nobody knows what happened to him since, and we grew up talking about what his life would look like if he came back suddenly 20, 25 years after he fell captive. When I started writing the show there were three prisoners of war, [Ehud] Goldwasser and [Eldad] Regev, who unfortunately came back in bodybags, and Gilad Shalit, who was captive with Hamas. The last day of shooting the second season was the day that the Gilad Shalit’s deal to come back home was signed.

MS: You chose 17 years for the gap between these P.O.W.s being captured and being released. How did you choose that amount of time and how did that sort of inspire the drama behind that first season?

GR: One of the reasons why I chose 17 years is because it’s almost unfathomable to come back after such a long time. It’s a lifetime, so if you fell captive and you had a baby, when you come back you have an adult at home, an adult that lived his or her whole life with this absence, of the father figure being gone, and suddenly there’s somebody at home. It’s also a lifetime of sacrifices, that’s why I wanted one prisoner of war's wife spearheading the campaign for his return, and for 17 years she didn’t date and was this kind of model citizen that Israeli society expects from these wives, and the other [wife], in order to continue living, had to move on and fell in love with somebody else.

MS: What did you take from talking to real life prisoners of war and their families? How did you apply it to these characters?

GR: There are about 1,500 ex-prisoners of war who live in Israel, people who sat for between a few months or a few years in captivity either in Egypt or Syria, some of them with terrorist organizations. I’ve met many of them, their families, their wives, their children, the psychologists and doctors that take care of them. It’s really about the whole community and maybe the whole country, the story of these women left behind, and the story of these kids who are looked under a microscope because their fathers are missing. I wanted to have them as part of the story as well.


Of the two prisoners of war who come back alive, one of them comes back and finds out that his wife has been waiting for him and that he’s got two kids that he doesn't know and he needs to find his way into being the man of the house again, which is very hard after his wife suddenly became center stage and met with world leaders advocating for his release, so they need to work on their relationship and they need to find the right equilibrium. 

The other prisoner of war comes back after years thinking about the love of his life, waiting to see her again, only to realize that she married his brother. He’s devastated by that and he’s also a very different character from the other prisoner of war, he's very introverted, and he moves in with his father. But these stories are all stories taken from real life, some of them embellished but there was a prisoner of war who came back and his fiancée had married somebody else and the air force asked her to pretend that she didn't so that for the first few days he will have a smooth entry into society, and that's what we did on the show.

MS: What kind of reaction did you get from P.O.W.s about the show? 

GR: The reaction in Israel in general was astonishing. It was a very controversial show in the beginning because we still had prisoners of war and we were waiting for their return and then once it aired suddenly you couldn't open the paper in Israel or turn on the radio or the T.V. without hearing a story of a prisoner of war. Many of them I am still close with and they were the biggest supporters of the show. I think it gave them a voice for the first time. It gave them the nerve to tell their families about their experiences. It gave their kids the possibility to ask them for the first time: “Is this true? Did this happen to you? Did this not happen to you?” I think it opened a discourse in Israel that was very raw and taboo before.

MS: Were you expecting that dialogue or was that sort of an unintended benefit of doing the show?

GR: It was an unintended benefit. I was focused so much on the drama, telling the story, making the best TV show I can, and the reaction was just astonishing. The two leads, Yoram Toledano and Ishai Golan, are not as known in T.V. and film -- they're big theater actors -- but I wanted faces that are not known in a national way, and they suddenly couldn't cross the street without people wanting to hug them.

MS: You wrote and directed every episode -- this was clearly a labor of love. Talk about that and the amount of work that went into creating this whole world and doing it pretty much all yourself.

GR: I had an amazing crew around me, so once I got to sit, I was not alone. But it was a labor of love and it was a real passion project, and the more I learned about what happens to prisoners of war when they come back home, the more I realized that the first day home is not the happy ending that they all wish for, but actually the beginning of a very hard journey to reintegrate into society. I learned that very few people really do come back from captivity, even if physically they're back. I felt a sense of responsibility and I wanted to tell the story in a very personal way, and that's why I wrote and directed every episode.

torture pow
Still from "Prisoners of War"

MS: There are a lot of really intense flashback scenes where you really depict torture in great detail. That must have been difficult to film and that must have been difficult for the actors as well to reenact.

GR: It’s very difficult for the actors to get to that state of mind. Being a prisoner of war is so horrific and very different from being a prisoner in jail where you have a very set schedule. When you're a prisoner of war, you're thrown into that hole in the ground and the door closes and you have no idea if that door is ever going to open again, if your family knows you're alive, if the country knows you're alive, if anybody is fighting for your return. You have no idea if you are going to eat again, if you are going to see light again. There is no schedule, you lose completely any kind of control over your life. That’s why the experience is so horrific and that’s why you see the same kind of characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder in groups of prisoners of war around the world and it’s different from other PTSD.

These men come back home completely broken, and in order for our actors to be able to portray that, first of all, I put them together with the real prisoners of war so we can talk about the experiences. Many people think that torture is the hardest thing about being a prisoner of war, but Hezi Shai, who was with the Abu Jibril organization for about five years, was tied to a radiator in an apartment in Beirut. Nobody knew he was alive. He was sold from one organization to the other for interrogations. He told me something that made me realize that the physical torture was nothing for them, it's the psychological torture that really broke most of these people. The door is shut and you have no idea if it's ever going to open again. 

He told me that once it did open and he was pulled out and even though he knew he’s going to be tortured and he’s going to be electrocuted and he’s going to have his nails pulled out, he felt nothing but joy because of the human interaction, and that’s something that I really wanted to bring to the Israeli screen.

MS: Something that you really explore is the relationship between the prisoners of war and their captors. Talk about that and the importance of depicting what that world is like.

GR: Because these men are broken completely, once you show them a little bit of kindness, it’s very easy to manipulate them. The human need for a connection makes some of them not resent their captors, but actually come back saying, 'this guy hurt me but he didn’t want to and we got to talk about my daughter and his daughter.' So they create real strong bonds between them.



MS: “Prisoners of War” spawned “Homeland” and created this new wave of Israeli T.V. being adapted in the United States and around the world. What's it like on the edge of this new programming revolution coming out of Israel?

GR: One of the things I’m proud of the most with “Prisoners of War” is that I created the show for a small market in Israel for very few shekels, and suddenly it’s shown in over 40 territories around the world, in Hebrew with subtitles or dubbed. The format was suddenly sold and we did “Homeland” in America, and we’re doing an Indian version, we did a Russian version, a South Korean version, a Turkish version in the making, and an Argentinean version, so the story seems to have touched many people around the world. What happened in Hollywood is the minute “Homeland” became such a success, suddenly Hollywood looked into the Israeli market to find out what else is hiding there and what else they can import.

MS: What has the show meant to you and your career?

GR: In terms of my career it meant everything. I mean it really did open every door. In Hollywood, I’ve since created a show called “Tyrant” and then a show called “Dig” and I’m in development on many other projects. I’ve managed to bring both “Dig” and “Tyrant” to Israel so that we employed between the two shows 600 people from the Israeli industry. So it really had a big effect on my life, my career, and the Israeli industry.

adi pow
Still from "Prisoners of War"

MS: How did the show change Israeli television and the direction of narrative storytelling? Were there more shows that sort of aspired to be like "Prisoners of War?"

GR: It did a little bit. There’s a cliché that because the budgets are so small, many of the shows were coffee shop shows, where people sit in coffee shops and talk about their feelings. I think "Prisoners of War" is a very deep exploration of character but also a psychological thriller and I think it opened up the executives’ eyes in Israel, that we can also look at shows like that and since then you’ve seen many more shows that have that kind of adrenaline in it.

MS: You brought it to the U.S. as "Homeland" and that ended up being a different kind of show. How are these shows adapted for different territories?

GR: The big thing with bringing a show to America and the first word that I learned in trying to adapt it into "Homeland" was the word “franchise,” and how do we continue this once the story is done. In Israel and in many places around the world, you tell the story as long as the story lives and then it’s done. So you don't need that kind of engine.

MS: Why do you think this show has such relevance across the globe?

GR: Unfortunately Israel is not the only place where conflict exists, and I think the experiences that the soldiers go through can relate to an American, or if you’re from China, if you're from Japan, wherever you are from, it’s kind of the same experience. It's the idea of somebody coming back home after a very long time and not knowing if it's the same person or not. I think it's a very relatable issue. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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