Mark Layton talks to Shira Hadad, Dror Mishani and Shay Capon, the creators of Israeli surrogacy drama A Body That Works, about the inspiration and original plans for the Keshet 12 series.
Having already sparked watercooler debate in Israel, Kuma Studios series A Body That Works has now brought its dramatic examination of surrogacy, fertility, family relationships and bodily autonomy to the global market.
The series follows Ellie and Ido (Rotem Sela & Yehuda Levi) a well-to-do Tel Aviv couple struggling to conceive a child who, after multiple unsuccessful pregnancies, hire cash-strapped single mum surrogate Chen (Gal Malka) to carry their baby to term.
It is a decision that ultimately affects the lives of everyone involved in unforeseen ways as they begin to re-evaluate their relationships.
While the show was created by Shira Hadad, Dror Mishani and Shay Capon, who also serves as director, it is Hadad who gets to take credit for originating the story, which is inspired by her own experiences with surrogacy.
“Ten years ago, my son was born through the surrogacy process – it was very unlike the process in this show, but the initial idea came from there. In this process, in this triangle, there is a very strong dramatic potential. I kept thinking about it in the first years of his life and at a certain point I started developing an idea for a feature film,” she tells TBI.
After writing the first draft for a feature, Hadad realised that the scope of the story she wanted to tell was better suited to a series, and it was at this point that Mishani joined the project.
“It started from a very far away place from where it is today. We worked for four years, we went through all kinds of detours, and almost two years before the series was filmed, we sort of settled on this version that we finally wrote,” she says.
The Keshet International-distributed series made its debut on Keshet 12 in February and has since managed to achieve that rarest of phenomena for an Israeli show: growing its audience share during its first three weeks. It has also sparked national media debate around some of the issues presented in the series.
“Normally, when Israeli shows are succeeding around the world – we talk about Hostages or Fauda – they succeed because they show another reality that the British, the American or the French viewer doesn’t know or knows only through the news,” says Mishani, who believes that A Body That Works instead deals with very universal, relatable themes and issues.
“This show is completely different – these discussions, these fights, are the same fights being fought in London, in Paris, in Stockholm, wherever. And I think this will be the attraction of the show, the way that it reflects very basic, universal tensions and desires.”
Act One: Political pivot
Israeli broadcaster Keshet was involved with the project from a very early stage, but as Hadad reveals, the story went through some big changes on its way to the screen.
“We pitched them another show,” she says, explaining that while still based around surrogacy, the series was to have followed a young Israeli prime minister and his wife.
“That was the show we pitched them and they loved it. We worked on it for a year and a half – but we failed completely with it,” says Hadad.
The writers instead dropped the political angle and moved the action to follow a married couple in Tel Aviv, with Keshet agreeing to the reworked proposal. “It was very lucky for us. They said OK, try writing it like this and let’s see how it goes,” says Hadad.
“I think that the original looks much better on paper, but I’m sure that this one is much better in fact, because there was something not real about that [original version]. We kept writing political lines and all kinds of things that we were not interested in and we didn’t understand.”
Mishani adds: “When Keshet read the real scripts, the scripts that were filmed afterwards, they understood that what was important about this show was not the politics or the scenery, what was important was the relationships.”
Kuma Studios came on board after Keshet, when the series was still set to follow the prime minister character. Hadad says that after they “shopped around” for a producer, they “fell in love” with the production firm.
Once the story found its familiar form, Capon then joined the project as director around two years ago. He says he was struck by the emotion at the heart of Hadad and Mishani’s writing.
“In every script I read, there was a question that was hiding in this series, what this series is really about. At first I thought it was about incomplete, damaged people and then I went deeper and deeper, and I understood that this series is really about the never-ending relationship between children and parents, and the longing for unconditional love. Every one of the characters is seeking love and acceptance from the other person,” says Capon.
The characters, particularly Ellie, evolved during the writing process with Hadad revealing that “we went through about 20 other professions before we made her into a book editor.”
Hadad explains that while the job didn’t seem very interesting for a TV series, she and Mishani realised that “editing a book is very much like being a surrogate. These two processes echo each other – bringing something into the world, through a third person, they go side by side.”
Act Two: Casting coup
Hadad describes the series as “an intimate show” and notes that, unlike some of the more well-travelled Israeli dramas of recent years, “nobody shoots anyone, nobody’s kidnapped, there are no explosions.”
So the creators see it as something of a coup in that the project managed to attach “the three biggest stars in Israel” – The Baker And The Beauty’s Rotem Sela, Mossad 101’s Yehuda Levi and Fauda’s Lior Raz.
“It’s crazy that they all came together in one show. Gal Malka (Commandments), who plays Chen, is less well known but she shines,” says Hadad.
Raz, who is known internationally as the lead star of action-drama series Fauda, plays the role of Tomer, a well-known horror movie actor who turned to writing and whose book Ellie is editing.
The character was based in-part upon the real-life star, reveals Hadad: “He was sort of an inspiration, but I didn’t think he would actually play the role – then, as it turned out, he actually agreed to do it.”
Capon directed Raz to play against type: “Lior normally acts the role of the warrior, so it gave me the chance to make him a very delicate and very frightened character, it made it very interesting.”
The series has already achieved high ratings in Israel, with audience share growing week on week to 26.5% by episode three, hitting the same peak again at episode six, and maintaining high share throughout the run, when the norm for Israeli TV is for 10-20% of drama audiences to drop off after episode one.
As the show now goes in front of buyers, the creators are hoping that international audiences may find themselves similarly hooked.