When Ran Tellem joined Mediapro Group in 2016 as head of international content development, he had years of experience in one of the most creative and innovative television markets in the world: Israel. As a programming executive at Keshet Broadcasting, he had produced and overseen a broad slate of programs, from Hatufim—the series about Israeli prisoners of war that served as inspiration for the U.S. series Homeland and earned Tellem a Primetime Emmy—to the interactive singing competition Rising Star. Today, at The Mediapro Studio, he scouts the world for compelling ideas that can be developed into scripted and unscripted shows. He talks to World Screen about what he looks for, how he works with writers and upcoming projects.
WS: When you come across an idea, what elements must it have to make it worth developing into a TV show?
TELLEM: It’s a combination of many things, not just boxes I want to check. I want the story I’m reading not to be vague or blurred. Usually, when I read an idea, I read it as a reader; I don’t read it as a professional. I try to get myself interested and if it works for me as a reader, it has a good chance of working for the viewers. I look for the engine of the story, which is the core reason for why we are telling the story. What is the story about? Is there a deeper DNA to it that I feel is interesting and fresh, and hasn’t been touched before? Or is it [taking a] completely different [angle] on a story [that has already been told]? I take a look at the creator, at how good of a storyteller he is, how passionate he is about the project and how grounded the project is in the place where he is telling it. Then I look at the characters. How interesting and layered they are, how many sides the characters have—not one dimensional, but having something interesting that you can follow through a season and see the progression and evolution that a character goes through.
WS: And I would imagine there also has to be a strong emotional connection that viewers can make, either to the story or to the characters.
TELLEM: Completely. But again, it’s not like I try to have a page where I say: this answers this, and this checks this box. It’s a feeling. Two years ago, at Christmas, I created a project for myself; it was a kind of research. I looked at procedurals, trying to understand how they’re done. Everybody was on vacation in Europe and America, and here in Israel everybody was going to work and I wanted to do something. So I started to research, and I watched between 10 and 15 different procedurals, trying to understand if there is something that connects them. I found something super interesting: they all have in common eight or ten points. What’s amazing is that in the very good ones, you can almost tick off those eight to ten points in the first seven to eight minutes of every show. It’s truly fascinating, and they are all following the same rules. There’s almost a textbook for how to write a procedural. And they’re all very, very interesting elements. It could be: what is the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist? And there are very clear differences. It could be an object that appears or the main flaw or the block of ten episodes. [Each procedural has about] eight boxes. Every time I went to one of those shows, I [found] all the boxes, and sometimes I noticed a new box, and then I went back and I found that box in the shows that I missed before. So, they’re all following the same boxes.
Then I said to myself, OK this is really interesting, maybe I now need to go back into all my shows and take a look if I have all of those boxes and create a system. But I felt it was the wrong thing to do because first, I look at the whole story. I read and I have a feeling. Is this working for me? Is this not working for me? And when I have a feeling that something is not working for me, I try to look for the reason. But it’s not a line of boxes that I tick. Usually, it’s a feeling that I have while I’m reading. Am I fascinated? Am I drawn into that story? This is the beginning.
WS: I’m so glad to hear you talk about feeling. I’m sometimes scared that this business is becoming too algorithm-driven.
TELLEM: [Laughs] I think there cannot be an algorithm for a story, they’re so different from one another. But I do think there’s almost an instinctive reaction to a story. It’s only a first sign to get to know if you’re interested or not. Then a very long process of work begins because every script we work on—from the moment you have an idea to the moment an actor stands in a scene and says those lines—usually takes, if you’re really lucky, between two to three years. And those two to three years are so much work on that line of dialogue and that story. It’s not an instinctive process, but at the beginning of it, for me anyway, it’s very instinctive.
WS: How do you work with writers, and how do you establish an environment where they feel free to toss out all sorts of ideas and not be judged?
TELLEM: For me, first of all, the show belongs to the writer. I have an opinion and we can have a discussion, but at the end of the day it’s their show; they write it. Every writer has a different way of working. Some would like to go into the details with you. Some would just want to go with little steps; some would like to go with larger steps. You have to adapt your system to the writer you’re working with. And you have to make it completely comfortable for them to have a good process. I regard my role as a creator of dialogue, because many times, writers have the urge to have a dialogue with somebody. They need another person to read what they’ve done and give them an opinion, have a discussion with them. Does this character work? Does this line make sense? Is there something missing? I try to have a conversation, and it can be with a writer or with a writers’ room or with a broadcaster, with anyone. Usually, the way it works for me is that when we have that dialogue—it can be three minutes or three days—but at the end of that conversation, there’s usually one conclusion and we all agree it’s the best decision. Then the writer takes that conclusion and needs to write a story that will [include it]. I think the only hands on the keyboard should be the hands of the writer. But he should put his hands on the keyboard after you finish a very long and deep dialogue about all the points in the story.
WS: Because there is so much more scripted production going on, are there enough writers, directors and actors available?
TELLEM: It’s becoming more complicated. It’s getting to a stage where we’re not just talking about the writing process. When you move into production, and when you want to cast both your crew and your actors, you need to move quicker because people are busier than before. If you want to have more options, you need to get into motion earlier in the process and be quicker than before in order to get good people on your show. But I still think, even though there’s a lot of content being created, that there are more good people looking for work than [there is] work.
WS: Since Hatufim and its adaptation in the U.S., Homeland, how have you seen the business evolve?
TELLEM: In a way, Hatufim was the very first example of how a story from a very small TV production from Israel can become a global success. Eight years ago, we were all amazed at how an idea created by a very talented Israeli guy, Gideon Raff, can win an Emmy. Today when you look at the scope of drama production in the world, there are many places where ideas can come from and then travel the world. There are many more examples of shows coming from Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and Latin America. Many more countries are able to create ideas that become shows that can travel the world. Then the biggest change is that shows can travel today on their own. For instance, if you take a look at Israel, eight years ago Hatufim, in order to become an international success, had to have Homeland. Today, you can take a look at Fauda. It was successful around the world as it is, with its production budget and the Israeli actors, without having an adaptation. You can see that happening in many places around the world. So for me, the biggest change is that today, if your goal is to tell a story that is going to be successful around the world, you don’t have to have an American or English broadcaster pick it up and do its version. It can travel the world completely on its own. And that’s a huge thing.
WS: What projects do you have in development or production?
TELLEM: We recently finished filming The Paradise, the first-ever Finnish-Spanish drama series. The show is supposed to go on the air at the end of this year on YLE and hopefully other stations around the world. We are working very hard in pre-production of The Head, our South Pole thriller. The Head is an incredible story, written by the Pastor brothers, David and Álex, two Spanish-born writers and directors who work in the U.S. They wrote an amazing thriller that takes place during the winter in the South Pole. The story starts on the last day of sunlight when a group of people is left in an experimental lab on their own to continue the necessary experiments. Then three or four weeks before light returns, they discover one of their colleagues is dead. When they try to communicate with the outside world, they find that somebody has ruined their communication system. And the guy that’s dead is the communications guy, which means they’re cut off, they’re completely on their own, and one of them is probably a killer because there is nobody else there.
We are also working on 270 Days, a period drama that tells the story of what happened in the last 270 days of the Nazi occupation in Italy. It’s a remarkable true story about a Catholic doctor, who invented a disease to save the lives of [Jews before they were taken to Nazi concentration camps]. We are working on Unwanted, created by Mariano Baselga and written by Susana Casares. It’s a co-production between Televisa in Mexico and us, about a Mexican couple that goes into a surrogacy process with an American couple. The American woman is carrying twins in her womb for the Mexican couple. Then something unexpected happens and that couple breaks up, and now they want to rethink the future of those babies still in the womb. And the question is, who has the right to make that decision?