By Dan Williams
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - The Israeli co-creator of hit spy thriller television series "Homeland" believes his native country should become a prime location for U.S. television shows about the Middle East and is working hard to make this happen.
Writer-director Gideon Raff is at the helm of Fox drama "Tyrant" and NBCUniversal archeological mystery "The Dig", two U.S. productions under way simultaneously in Israel - a first for the country's small but active entertainment industry.
Until a decade ago, Israel was shunned by foreign studios for fear of suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising. But with the violence now abated and many neighboring Arab states riven by strife, Israeli facilities enjoy a new appeal.
"To concoct the Middle East in Los Angeles you have to spend a lot of money. You need to get the cars, the attire and the faces right," Raff said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office, its walls festooned with actors' headshots and storyboards.
"The Middle East is not just a desert, and Americans are increasingly sophisticated and expect a show set outside the United States to have been shot outside of the United States."
He gave, as an example, the experience of filming in Jaffa, an Arab district of Tel Aviv, where "the moment you set up, everything you get on camera is worth millions of dollars".
Raff said Israel, as a Middle East location, faced brisk competition from Jordan and Morocco, where filming can be cheaper. Israel does not offer significant tax breaks to foreign productions and its television crews charge close to U.S. rates.
But the 42-year-old Raff, who has a second home in California, said his American colleagues were drawn by the after-hours attractions of liberal Tel Aviv and "freewheeling Israeli creativity, which helps a lot in getting the job done".
"Tyrant", which airs in the United States next month, portrays the Americanized son of an Arab dictator who, while visiting his family, finds himself in the midst of an uprising.
The drama's pilot was shot in Morocco and the remaining 10 episodes of the first season are being filmed, well away from public view, in a custom-built studio complex outside the Israeli town of Kfar Sava, as well as exterior locations.
Raff denied an Israeli newspaper report that "Tyrant", set in the fictional country of "Abu Din", drew inspiration from Syria's civil war-racked Assad dynasty. He described the show as a broader examination of a revolutionary epoch in the region.
"It aspires to bring the Arab world, the Middle East, to American society and American screens for the first time."
Raff's partner in the $30 million project is U.S. producer Howard Gordon, with whom he collaborated on "Homeland", an Emmy award-winning Showtime series about a CIA officer chasing a Marine POW turned al Qaeda sleeper agent.
That show, now in its fourth season, was based on an Israeli television drama created by Raff, "Hatufim", and used several locations and actors in Israel.
Raff said the success of "Homeland" could prove a double-edged sword for Israel, raising the profile of local professionals but leading many to secure jobs abroad.
"So what I tried to do was to help the industry here by bringing productions here," he said.
His Hollywood credentials helped Raff launch "The Dig", two of whose six episodes he will direct when filming gets under way in Jerusalem next month. He describes that show, which is being co-produced by Israeli entertainment firm Keshet and is scheduled for broadcast by USA Network at year's end, as "a kind of 'Da Vinci Code' set in the world's holiest city".
"The Dig", whose hero is an FBI attache to Israel caught up in a murder mystery, is set partly in a archeological site in Arab East Jerusalem. Palestinians claim the territory as their own and worry that the show might validate Israel's hold on it.
"Such a production will legitimize the annexation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the authenticity and character of the occupied city," PLO negotiator Hanan Ashrawi said in December.
Raff said that, though locations were still being sought, there were no plans to film in the East Jerusalem hot-spots.
"We are not doing anything to be provocative," he said. "This is not a show about the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict."
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)