By Dan Williams
TEL AVIV (Reuters) - It's hard to keep up with the social and political hurly-burly of the Middle East, but U.S. TV producer Howard Gordon got a hit out of it with "Homeland" and hopes to do the same with new series "Tyrant", even if it requires last-minute tweaks.
While fellow Americans celebrated over the July 4 weekend, Gordon was back in Israel for his latest whirlwind visit to fine-tune upcoming episodes, based on feedback he has received about the series set in a Middle Eastern dictatorship buffeted by demands for change arising from the Arab Spring.
There were complaints from Muslim American groups to weigh, as well as input from Middle Eastern dissidents. They are factored in to Gordon's drive to empathize, though he wants the series to work as a universal drama divorced from actual events.
"I like to think that, as sort of amateur cultural diplomat, I create these stories as bridge-building," Gordon told Reuters.
"We are listening to our Muslim colleagues and adjusting the material as much as possible. I appreciate the sensitivities, and no one is setting out to perpetuate or exacerbate stereotype, but we are here to tell a good story, a family drama, a saga."
He likened the tale of an Arab-American doctor embroiled in the Middle East autocracy run by his father and brother to "The Sopranos" or "Sons of Anarchy" - shows about a New Jersey mob and a Californian motorcycle gang, respectively.
"Tyrant" take place in a fictional Arab country stripped of the sectarian or political labels that abound in the news.
"You will never hear Sunni or Shia or Alawite or Hashemite, because it is too complicated to render dramatically," Gordon said.
"This is at some level a totally challenging show - by definition reductive on one hand and on the other a distillation of many of the countries and people and characters we've seen."
While hearing real accounts of life under oppressive rule prompted Gordon to rewrite episodes 2 and 3, he said he sought to preserve a balance by also showing the tyrant of the title had economic achievements to his credit.
"He's not just a monster," Gordon said. "It's fascinating, but also a minefield of potential controversy. The storyteller in me was very attracted to the hornet's nest of it."
"Tyrant" began broadcasts last month to middling reviews - a factor that may decide if the U.S. producer gets his wish of a second season.
Gordon learned to take critics' flak over his hits "Homeland" and "24". Both tended to view the Middle East through counter-terrorist gunfights and are enjoying long runs.
"Homeland" was inspired by an Israeli television series, "Hatufim", and partly shot in the Jewish state, an experience that contributed to all the episodes of "Tyrant" being made there, too, after the pilot used locations in Morocco.
The Israeli crews were highly professional, Gordon said, and while not as keen as American counterparts to work overtime, thrifty. He estimated each "Tyrant" episode cost 15 percent less than it would have in Los Angeles, where relative paucity of tax breaks has driven much television production to cheaper sites.
The "Tyrant" cast also appreciated the quality of life available, after hours, in Israel, Gordon said - although an initial arrangement to use a studio near freewheeling Tel Aviv fell through, forcing the entire production to relocate to sound stages erected on strawberry fields outside rural Kfar Saba.
"We've had some glitches," he said.
Gordon, who is working on two other shows concurrently, said that should there be another season of "Tyrant" he would likely limit shooting in Israel to secondary footage like exteriors and consider alternative locations in neighboring Turkey or Jordan.
"If we were to get the LA tax break, it might be an inducement to move much of the photography back," he said.
"There is also the political consideration of it," he added, noting the "potential political or perceived political incorrectness" of making a show about the Arab Spring in Israel.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Editing by Michael Roddy and Raissa Kasolowsky)