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‘Tyrant’: Fusing and Fictionalizing Current Events for the FX Series

If you’re a fan of Homeland (isn’t everyone?), you’ll be counting the days until June 24, when Tyrant begins its 10-episode first season run on FX. That’s because Tyrant is the brainchild of executive producer Gideon Raff, the man behind the Israeli series Prisoners of War, on which Homeland was based. Other key figures on Tyrant are executive producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24) and showrunner Craig Wright (Dirty Sexy Money). Produced by Fox 21 and FX Productions, Tyrant is, like Homeland, a story that intertwines the drama of individual lives in the cauldron of realistic (albeit fictionalized) current events.

(From left) Ashraf Barhom as Jamal, Adam Rayner as Barry, Jennifer Finnegan as Molly, Anne Winters as Emma, Noah Silver as Sammy. Photo by Patrick Harbron/FX.

In Tyrant, an unassuming American family is drawn into the politics of Baladi, a fictional Middle Eastern country. Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed (played by Adam Rayner), the younger son of the dictator of a war-torn nation, ends a self-imposed 20-year exile to return to his homeland for his nephew’s wedding, accompanied by his American wife (Jennifer Finnigan) and two teenaged children. That’s when the complications begin.

Tyrant executive producer Michael Lehmann, who directed the first two episodes, spoke about the production of the series, on location in Israel. (Tyrant’s other executive producers are Gordon, Raff, Wright, Glenn Gordon Caron, David Yates, Peter Noah and Avi Nir.) “The story is so different and we’re getting great footage,” he says. “I have every expectation we’re making a show that people will want to see.”

The pilot—directed by David Yates and written by Raff—was shot in Morocco, says Lehmann, but it was an easy decision to take the production to Israel once the show went to series. “Where in the world can you shoot a show that has to feel like it’s in a fictional Middle Eastern country?” Lehmann asks. “You can’t go to New Mexico; you wouldn’t find the right architecture and people. In Israel, you have Middle Eastern landscapes, towns and neighborhoods that look like they could exist anywhere in the Middle East, as well as both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians for extras.”

Another reason to shoot in Israel is the thriving TV production community there. “We got beautiful stuff in Morocco,” says Lehmann, who’s been living in Israel since February, “but I don’t know if you could mount an entire TV show there without bringing in nearly everyone.”

Tyrant

executive producer Michael Lehmann, who directed the show’s first two episodes. Photo by Vered Adir/FX.

Quite a few crucial crew positions on Tyrant are staffed with Israelis, including cinematographer Itai Ne’eman, who was a camera operator on Homeland and shot A FilmUnfinished, which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens. “He’s a huge discovery,” says Lehmann. “He’s very good as an operator, he’s a great guy and really experienced. His work looks terrific.”

“We have American lst ADs, an American production designer who mounted location coordination and set build for the first few episodes, and an American construction coordinator,” says Lehmann. “Other than that, it’s Israeli: wardrobe, hair, makeup, lighting, sound and 2nd ADs (except for one). Israel isn’t like Hollywood, but it’s not virgin territory.”

Tyrant is shot, with ARRI Alexas and Cooke prime lenses, on soundstages and on location. “The sets are big and beautiful and look great,” he says. “Then we find locations as close to Tel Aviv as we can that look like Middle Eastern villages, cities or landscapes.” The production also shot on a beach in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. “We’ve found amazing stuff,” he says. “We’re holding certain places in our back pocket. But we haven’t yet had to do a big desert scene, which would require us to overnight the crew.”

Just as Tyrant portrays the culture clash between an American family and the Middle Eastern culture, so the production has had its own culture clashes as an American production shooting in the Middle East. “We’re bringing in people from the States, the U.K. and different parts of the Middle East who work out of London,” Lehmann says. “We also have terrific Israeli Jewish and Arab actors, mostly from Israel. Once we get everyone together, we’ve got English, Hebrew and Arabic, and it can be hard to communicate.”

(From left) Adam Rayner as Barry, Alice Krige as Amira, Nasser Faris as Khaled. Photo by Patrick Harbron/FX.

Nowhere has that been more obvious than in the scenes requiring extras. “We have an extras coordinator who’s Arab and has great relationships with the local Arab communities,” says Lehmann. “He’d gather people in buses and bring them in. They’re not professional extras, so wrangling them was difficult. Then we’d call ‘background action,’ but nobody would move. They don’t understand the English being spoken and it’s hard to get basic communication across. We need trilingual coordinators. By the time we’d done our third scene outside, we had people fluent and capable in all three languages making sure everyone knew what they were supposed to do.”

Another culture clash has been the introduction of U.S. production techniques and standards to another culture. “They don’t always shoot things the way we do them,” says Lehmann. “The work ethic is good; that isn’t the issue. The crews work longer hours than anyone outside entertainment, but they work shorter hours than we do in the States.”

“They’re not used to working on bigger budget shows,” he continues. “They work with smaller crews and they’re used to making do with what they’ve got, and we don’t want that. We expect attention to detail and thoroughness, and they don’t ordinarily have the luxury for that. They’re used to stretching their dollars, but it also means they’re used to settling because they don’t have a choice. It’s a weird adjustment. It’s the difference between what we consider good enough and what they consider good enough if they’re working in fast moving, low budget productions.”

Because of religious considerations, the schedule is also different. “The work week is Sunday through Thursday, and Fridays and Saturdays are off days,” says Lehmann, who notes that the mayor of Tel Aviv has been helpful. “That sometimes makes it a bit strange coordinating things in the U.S. We’ve worked a couple of Fridays, but you can’t just tell everyone they have to come in on that day. It was a friendly negotiation, but we had to clear it with everyone and make sure that everyone was willing to do so.”

Ashraf Barhom as Jamal, Adam Rayner as Barry. Photo by Patrick Harbron/FX.

Postproduction is done in Los Angeles; offline is at Howard Gordon’s offices. “All our directors are L.A.-based, so they go back to L.A. to do the director’s cut there,” he says. After trying a few different ways of delivering video between Los Angeles and Israel, the production team now relies on sending an Avid output through Skype. “In my living room, I get the feed directly off the Avid and mirror what’s on Skype on a big screen,” Lehmann says. “We look at takes and cuts and go through it.” He isn’t certain how they’ll finesse doing “the real detail work,” but he’s “amazed at how good Skype has been.”

“There have been some unexpected challenges,” concludes Lehmann. “It is sometimes crazy to get the right creative people together, and it can be hard sometimes to work efficiently.”

“But the international cast and locations give Tyrant a big scope,” he adds. “There’s a lot of the drama around the politics of a country and an American family in the midst of this. The culture clash is strong, and it’s not what you’re used to seeing.”

Given the track record of Homeland’s adaptation from an Israeli series, odds are good that audiences will embrace the culture clashes that are the core of Tyrant’s storyline.  

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