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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on an awesome guest today, Michal Aviram.
Geoffrey: Michal, I wanted to bring you on because you’re on a really cool show on Netflix, called Fauda, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli perspective. It’s really interesting because you humanize all the characters, which is amazing, and it’s a gripping show. It’s in its fourth season, right?
Michal: Yes, we’re writing the fourth season now.
Geoffrey: That’s amazing. If you could give us a quick origin story of how you came onto the project to write Fauda. From what I understand, you’ve been working on it since the inception of the show.
Michal: Yes, I was there even before we got greenlit, which was nine years ago. It was a very long process because the show has two creators, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz; Lior is also the [protagonist] of the show; and they both had a very personal story [they wanted to tell]. They met during their service in the army through their unit. For people who don’t know what the show is about, it’s about a special unit of the Mista'arvim who disguise themselves as Arabs… and they go around carrying out arrests in the West Bank. [The show creators] really wanted to talk about their service and how carrying out operations [can be traumatic]. The characters are based on themselves and people they knew from their unit.
Geoffrey: Are these real stories? Are they inspired by real events, just changed slightly?
Michal: First and foremost, it’s entertainment, and our goal was to create the best action show that we can. I think [the best aspect of the show] is that it is based on real experiences, but we obviously change a lot of things so that it works better on television. For example, an operation that would take a month in real-life can happen on the show in three hours. The strong parts in Fauda are definitely the parts that came from [Avi and Lior’s] stories, their deep understanding of the situation, and what it takes to be a soldier in a unit like that. A lot of times, when you talk to broadcasters, they want you to make [a show] that’s very broad or ‘American.’ We truly believe that the more specific you make the story and the closer it is to you, the better it is.
Geoffrey: Passionate and authentic is what I’m getting from you, which comes through in the story, so I totally agree. This show is fascinating because this unit is undercover and working in dangerous environments, so to have a first-person perspective as a resource that you can use to write the show had to be overwhelming, at certain points, because you’re getting inundated with so much information. Did you have to struggle with trying to stay true to these guys’ story while still trying to make it a fantastic action-thriller show that would inevitably end up on Netflix?
Michal: There are two sides of the Fauda story, there’s the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. What we knew from the get-go was that we wanted to have a 50-50 Arabic and Hebrew [language representation] on the show. At the start, it was only for an Israeli broadcaster, so it was very bold to have a show with so much Arabic in it. It wasn’t something you see every day.
Geoffrey: It was groundbreaking.
Michal: Absolutely. The broadcaster was super brave and understanding because the main theme of the show is identity. [The main characters] are “enemies” not because [of their personal relationship, but because of who they each serve]. It was super important for us to show the [main characters’] inner conflict. Most of these guys grew up in Jewish-Israeli houses where they spoke Arabic. Culturally, they’re very close to the West Bank, so everything is super complicated. There are a lot of layers in terms of identity. We knew we wanted to have it half Hebrew and half Arabic, but we also knew we could never take the responsibility of being Israeli and Jewish; everybody who wrote the show is Jewish-Israeli; we could never authentically represent the Palestinian side and we never tried to. We could only tell our side of the story. It was very important to us, because it is a television show and the broadcasters want it to be successful, but with such delicate matter as the Hebrew [side of the story] it was important that when we show the Palestinian side, we show them as people with families and as people you can relate to. On the Palestinian side…dramatically, they are amazing characters because their fight never ends. Doron [the protagonist] goes back home and, while he has a lot of emotional issues, he’s back home safely. But for the Palestinian side, their fight is never over. It made everything intense for the Palestinian characters, which helps Israelis watching the show connect with the Palestinian characters better. Not to give away any spoilers, but there’s a specific Palestinian character who died, and everybody in Israel talked about it [because they were so upset by his death]. Even my sister didn’t want to talk to me, she said, “Why would you do that? Why would you kill them?!” For Americans looking at our country and this conflict from the outside, but for us, we have people who are involved so to have people in Israel who really like these characters, it was a big deal.
Geoffrey: That’s incredible. It’s difficult but yet incredibly powerful to weave a story like that where you can tell it from a certain perspective but still honor both sides, which is impressive. When it came do developing the show, it started with the characters, which is brilliant because the characters are the sole of a story for television. It’s different for features, where we work on concepts first. For television, we start with the characters and develop layers around them that you can slowly unravel over multiple seasons. How long did that process take where you started developing these plotlines and mysteries that you could unravel and build upon to give a show legs? It’s very easy to write yourself into a corner in a show, so I have to think you were putting in a ton of work.
Michal: It took forever! For the first season, we worked for a year with writers’ room meetings 2-3 times a week, four hours at a time. It’s all about finding the story and the characters.
Geoffrey: And that’s before you’ve even touched the pilot. You developed for a year and then did the pilot. People need to know that because writers will just jump into a pilot.
Michal: I like to jump into the pilot, not with this show, but when I’m working on my other shows, I will write the pilot, even though no one will probably read it. It definitely won’t make it to the screen, and what does get to the screen will be considerably different [from the original pilot]. But for me, just to feel out the story and the characters, and to not be staring at a blank page; it gives you something to start with to gauge the look and feel of the show. It’s just a process I use. If we go back to Fauda, the right process is to talk about the characters [first], especially if you’re working with other writers, have a conversation about the theme of the show. What is it you want to talk about? That will guide you towards the types of plots you can create. My process is to think about the characters; there’s usually 2-3 depending on the show; then I develop the initial incident, the end of the first episode, and the end of the season. That way I know [where I’m headed].
Geoffrey: You use the inciting incident in episode one…
Michal: Inciting? You say inciting? I always call it the initial incident.
Geoffrey: Yeah, we tend to call it the inciting incident.
Michal: I think there’s a difference between how I spell and pronounce ‘inciting.’
Geoffrey: It’s apples and oranges. You have the cliffhanger for episode one, then you have the cliffhanger for the season finale and those are your goal posts.
Michal: I also think the pilot creates the building blocks for the whole season. We have the characters who are living their usual lives…the inciting incident happens, then they [adapt to the new situation]. By the end of the first episode, we must care about the main character [ and their journey]. We don’t have to like them, but we know what they need and what will happen if they don’t get it.
Geoffrey: ‘What a character needs vs. what they want’ is how you drive your character forward. It’s that conflict that gives the show fuel for you to play with, in a diabolical way, as you make their life more incredibly difficult with each episode.
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Geoffrey: With a pilot, you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting because you have to introduce everything: the entire world, the central conflict, the characters, etc. After we’ve done all that heavy lifting, do you find the other episodes are easier to write? I know you’ve written several episodes this season.
Michal: For sure. Writing the scenes is pretty much the same but writing the treatment for the first episode is way harder. Everything needs to be super specific, including the introduction of the world, and you need to be careful with exposition because modern audiences can smell out [bad exposition] and have zero patience for it. I have that same issue, too, as an artist. People can’t stand it. You have to understand that the audience is smart because they know TV as much as you do, and they don’t need to be spoon-fed. They enjoy connecting the dots and you don’t need to explain everything to them. It’s okay if 100% of the audience doesn’t fully understand each and every aspect of the show. It’s all about ‘show don’t tell.’ You have to let people experience the world and become fascinated with it without having to tell them, “this is this guy, and he wants this.” [Audiences] will naturally pick up on that. At the beginning of the first episode, the audience needs to understand the world. Watching pilots is a good exercise for screenwriters because you really need to ask yourself, “At what part of the episode am I hooked?” Also ask yourself, “Were you able to predict what was going to happen by the end of the first episode, or did it surprise you?” Pilots are an important [study tool].
Geoffrey: Let’s talk about spoon-feeding and putting in twists to surprise the audience. You have to have twists and surprises, otherwise people get bored…Where in the process does that come in for you, where you start developing this trail of breadcrumbs for people to follow and lead them down the wrong path so you can have that ‘gotcha!’ moment?
Michal: The red herrings. It depends, if you’re talking about misleading people over the course of a whole season, you need to think about those early on when you’re outlining the season. With thrillers, I’ll start with the characters and where their lives are going to go. Then I’ll think about the end of the season, because if I don’t know the ending and the point of the journey, then I won’t know where the characters are going. The ending can change, and it will change when you write the whole season, but you need something to aim for. You need to hit a nerve.
Geoffrey: The stakes must be there, and they have to matter, otherwise, why are we following this guy?
Michal: Exactly. When I work on a season, I think of it more like a feature. I will have a very strong midpoint. If it’s a 12-episode season, then episode six is going to be a strong midpoint.
Geoffrey: That makes sense.
Michal: I consider the pilot (and part of the second episode) to be the first act. I look at the whole season using the structure of a film, that way I know when to put the twists in.
Geoffrey: I like the idea of using a film structure over the entire season, that’s fascinating. In the states, we have a five-act structure for a reason. When a show is on network television, each act is followed by a commercial break, which is how they pay for the show. Is it that way in Israel? You’re on streaming now, but at first, you were on local networks.
Michal: It was like cable, so there were no commercial breaks.
Geoffrey: You didn’t need cliffhangers at the end of each act, just one at the end of the episode.
Michal: Not at all. With the broadcasters here, it’s not as structured as it is in the states because they could broadcast a whole episode without commercials. It’s not that strict.
Geoffrey: That’s good to know. When you were developing this show, how many seasons were you look at, in advance? Did you only develop season one? Obviously, you didn’t develop all the seasons at once, but did you have ideas and considerations for [future seasons]?
Michal: When you create a show, to really think about the second season and not just tack on another mystery to the storyline, you really have to think about the characters’ development and what storylines have room to continue in future seasons. Unless it’s a limited series, you need more than one season [of storylines] to be commercially viable.
Geoffrey: Over here, when you create a show bible, we say to plan up to a season three in terms of where potential plotlines can go.
Michal: Sometimes when you write something, you want to leave something in. You don’t know why…you want to bring this specific thing into the show, and you can explain to yourself why. You need to be patient, take a deep breath, and say, “I don’t understand it now, but I will understand it later.” A season is a huge thing, with so many moving parts, it’s hard to describe every detail at first glance; even when you are developing the series bible. You should trust yourself; you don’t know but you will know, and there’s a part of you deep down that already knows [what the end result will look like]. It’s like a sculpture, where you have to carve it out.
Geoffrey: That makes sense. You must develop it, but don’t overdevelop it, because you still want to allow a creative process to happen.
Michal: You just asked about Fauda, but did you know I created a show that had two seasons? I’m not just a one-trick pony. It’s a show I created called Project Orpheus, the themes are about beliefs, disbelief, and faith. It’s about science vs. faith, which is one of my favorite themes.
Geoffrey: This is a sci-fi show?
Michal: Absolutely, it’s a two-season show with a funny story. The female main character was played by Gal Gadot, but then she got cast as Wonder Woman and couldn’t do the show anymore, so we brought in another amazing actress.
Geoffrey: Tell us about your website, I know you offer courses on writing for television.
Michal: I was teaching before I was a screenwriter. So after being a screenwriter for a few years, I decided to teach screenwriters, so I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms, including in Germany. Now with COVID, which I hate just like everybody else, but I do get to teach in places that probably wouldn’t have invited me for just one lecture. I did lectures for the New Orleans University this past week. I decided to move it online, as well, it’s called Write Better Scripts: https://writebetterscripts.com/. It’s full of resources and guides, both free and exclusive, with classes on how to write pilots you can sell. You can do the course at your own pace, but by the end, you will have a super awesome script. We offer growth and support for writers.
Geoffrey: That’s great, you guys can take a class from a writer who has two hit shows under her belt. I think you could do worse.
Michal: I actually have three!
Michal: Yeah, do your research! (Laughs)
Geoffrey: Oh no! (Laughs)
Geoffrey: Thanks for listening, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share in your social media, where you can tag us @thesuccessfulscreenwriter.
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