by HFPA June 24, 2014

Tyrant, a new dramatic series premiering on FX is a reworking of an Israeli format (the country which has already brought us In Treatment and Homeland). A group of HFPA journalists recently traveled to Israel to visit with the production of the show. Elisabeth Sereda filed this report.

Last week the HFPA spent a day on the set. And what a set it was. Tyrant is a political drama that centers around a ruling family in the Middle East. The country – Abbudin – is fictional but the story of the dictator’s family is loosely based on a number of such dictatorships in that region.

The main character is the younger son Bassa‚ Barry’ Al Fayeed (played by Adam Rayner) who, after a turbulent and emotionally scarring childhood, escaped to the US, became a doctor and married the quintessential blonde California girl with whom he has two teenage children. When he is forced to return to his birth country to attend his nephew’s wedding the culture clash is inevitable. Further drama ensues when his father falls ill and Barry is drawn into the national politics that made him leave in the first place. His difficult relationship with his older brother Jamal also complicates things.

Lots of scenes take place in the presidential palace, and on this hot and humid day the open space between the two soundstages was covered so the production could shoot night scenes in the makeshift courtyard.

Rarely do journalists get the opportunity to watch such pivotal dialogue. Without giving too much away – no spoilers here – the scene we saw revolved around the president’s older son Jamal, his wife Leila, a female doctor and a severed penis. Yes, you read correctly. This is cable TV after all.

Arab-Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom (Paradise Now, Clash of the Titans, Coriolanus) plays the heir apparent and Moran Atias, who was born and raised in Haifa and has worked and lived in Germany, Italy and now Los Angeles (where she starred in Paul Haggis’ series Crash based on his Academy Award winning film) is his wife. Ashraf Barhom plays the scene in so many different ways that the director will have the luxury of a very hard choice. The actor is that good.

We also toured one of the most elaborate sets we had ever seen: art director Ido Dolbu showed us what he called "the entire presidential palace, with every room. Like the real thing" And except for the marble staircases and floors and the frescos on the walls everything was in fact real. From the canopy beds that were inviting enough to take a nap in, to the rugs and amazing lighting fixtures. "We brought some of those from Marrakech, Morocco where we shot the pilot episode" Ido explained, "The rest we bought at antique stores and flea markets right here in Israel."

Interestingly even the bathrooms and toilets are functional, with running water and the works. Try to find that on a Hollywood studio lot – you’ll most likely end up on a port-a-potty.

Tyrant did not start out without complications. Originally attached to direct and produce, Academy Award winning Ang Lee dropped out, as did creator and writer/producer Gideon Raff, the Jerusalem born force behind Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the series he then turned into Homeland in the United States. For David Yates, Lee’s replacement (Harry Potter), the change from film to TV did not go as smoothly as expected and then there was the change of location after shooting the pilot in Morocco: the logistics and infrastructure weren’t optimal and neither were the local crews. With the Israeli film industry expanding rapidly, the producers felt they had to move filming here. The irony of building and shooting a story of an Arab country in the middle of Israel is not lost on Moran Atias and Ahraf Barhom: "We really hope that it inspires people to learn more and be more open towards this part of the world“ they say.

Elisabeth Sereda