Gideon Raff, the Emmy-award winning creator of “Homeland” and its Israeli predecessor “Hatufim” (Prisoners of War), has, by anyone’s account, become a big name in Hollywod. But in his hometown of Jerusalem, which he returned to this week to attend a conference on innovation in television, he is known as simply Gidi.
“Most of my friends are not in the industry,” he says of his life in Los Angeles, where he currently lives with his partner of 14 years. “I never go to the parties. It’s not that I’m better than those people, but it’s work… I’m not a big partyer. I tend to find myself standing on the side with a Diet Coke, talking to the bartender.”
After awards shows like the Emmys, Raff says, when most of Hollywood’s glitterati head off to champagne-drenched, self-congratulatory fetes, he and his friends prefer to head to Cantor’s, the legendary Hollywood Jewish deli, grab a booth and order off the menu.
Raff, who got his start in show business writing and directing feature films, first teamed up with Keshet Media, an Israeli media group and maker of TV programming, when he attempted to pitch a comedy series to Keshet CEO Avi Nir. They passed on the idea, but decided later on to take a risk on “Hatufim,” about captured Israeli soldiers struggling to integrate back into Israeli society. After two beloved seasons and the wildfire success of the American adaptation of “Homeland,” a third season is currently in the works.
Raff’s newest project, a TV pilot directed by David Yates and called “Tyrant,” recently wrapped filming in Morocco. It follows an American family drawn into the chaos and seductive power of the Middle East after the heir to an imaginary Middle Eastern dynasty dies and his American son must take the nation’s reins.
“It’s kind of like a Shakespearean, fairytale-like world in the Arab world,” he explains over coffee during a break at the Keshet-sponsored INTV conference on the future on television, which ends Tuesday in Jerusalem. “This Western family is going to take over the country, with everything that means. You’ll see what power does to you, how it corrupts your soul. And we’re setting [the show] in a world that we read about in The New York Times every day.”
Power and fame, however, have not corrupted Raff’s soul. Speaking yesterday in an INTV panel about the films that influenced his life (“Eastern Promises” and “The Sound of Music” topped the list, and he also lists “Die Hard” as a favorite), he made sure to tell the assembled audience of global studio executives and executives that his parents were in the audience and cheering him on. At home in Los Angeles, Raff says, he doesn’t decompress well, but likes to focus his energy in his free time on issues of animal rights, which is a cause incredibly close to his heart.
“When we were shooting ‘Tyrant’ just now in Morocco, we saved three dogs and three kittens,” he says. “I’m still paying for the vet bills now.”
A strict vegan, Raff shares a 10-year-old pitbull named Tilly with his partner, and he makes it a point to champion animal rights causes in Israel, including those that rally against testing on animals.
And while he knows that living in LA is the right choice for him and his career at the moment, he says he hopes to one day find so much success that he can work from anywhere. When that day comes, he says, he will head straight back to Israel and settle in Tel Aviv for good.
“I feel so much at home here,” he says of Israel. “I love the industry here, I love our small budgets, and the crews, and the actors and the amount of talent that there is in Israel.”
This year’s INTV conference is further proof of Israel television’s major renaissance, in which Raff has played a major role. Joining the speakers at this year’s two-day event were Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC; Alex Kruglov, head of content acquisition for Hulu; and Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of the Huffington Post, who on Tuesday morning engaged veteran Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan in a rousing tete-a-tete on the future of journalism. Industry opinion has long held, however, that part of the secret of Israeli television genius lies in its rock-bottom budgets, which have forced creators like Raff to dig deep and focus on storylines.
Asked if he thinks the industry runs a risk of growing too fast and thus losing his edge, Raff says he does think there is a hazard. “The danger, I think, is that creators with an appetite for Hollywood would start creating universally-themed shows here,” he says. “And I don’t think our advantage is in creating a ‘Law and Order.’ Our advantage is in creating our own stories.”