Sigal Avin, Ayalet Zurer & Lihi Kornowski

Sigal Avin is an American Israeli screenwriter, playwright and director. In December 2016, she created, wrote and directed “ZeMatrid,” five short films showing the dynamic behind sexual harassment. They launched on Facebook and went viral. She then created, wrote and directed the American version – “That’s Harassment,” produced by David Schwimmer. In January 2018, the films aired digitally on Amazon, CBS, The CW, FOX, Freeform, hulu, Showtime, Starz and the NYC yellow taxi cabs. In June 2014, she was featured on Variety’s list, “10 TV Scribes to Watch.” In 2013, she created, wrote and directed “Bilti Hafich” (“Irreversible”) for Reshet, that was the number one comedy that year. A year later, she teamed up with Peter Tolan/Sony TV to develop the American version for ABC network. She wrote and directed the pilot. In 2016, the second season aired in Israel. In 2007, Avin created, wrote and directed the dramedy “Mythological Ex” for the Israeli Keshet. In 2008, the American version, “The Ex List” premiered on CBS. In 2018, a Mexican adaptation of the show, “Mi lista de exes,” produced by Televisa aired. She created and executive produced three of Israel’s most acclaimed Telenovelas: “Game of Life,” “Michaella” and “Telenovela Inc.” Her career began writing and directing for theater.

Ayelet Zurer first garnered the attention of worldwide audiences when Steven Spielberg cast her as Eric Bana’s wife in the Oscar-nominated film “Munich.” She then starred opposite Tom Hanks in the box office hit “Angels & Demons,” directed by Ron Howard and opposite Russell Crowe in “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder. She is one of Israel’s most acclaimed actresses, having won the Israeli Film Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in “Nina’s Tragedies,” and was nominated three more times. Zurer also won the Israeli Television Academy Award for Best Actress for “In Therapy,” later adapted as HBO’s “In Treatment,” and for Beni Aruba, later adapted as CBS’ “Hostages.” She was also nominated for “Shtisel,” currently on Netlix, for which she won the Golden Nymph Award in Monte Carlo. Her lead role in the film “Milada” earned her a nomination for Best Leading Actress at the Czech Lion Awards. Zurer has also illustrated two adult books, “Shorts – A Collection of Short Stories” by Paulo Coelho and the best-seller “Badolina” by Gabi Nitzan. In 2018, she published her own book, “As of Now,” which she wrote and illustrated.

Lihi Kornowski is an Israeli actress working across theater, film and television. She is a member of the National Theater in Israel – HaBima. She made her professional acting debut on the teen television series “Summer Break Diaries” for the Disney Channel in Israel. Her breakout role in cinema was in Hagar Ben Asher’s “The Burglar,” for which she was nominated for Best Actress at the Israeli Academy Awards in 2017. She can currently be seen on television as part of the ensemble cast of “The Commune” on HOT and on stage performing in HaBima’s production of “The Betrayal,” written and directed by Hillel Mittelpunkt. Other film credits include “Born in Jerusalem” and “Still Alive,” directed by Yossi Atia & David Ofek, and the upcoming “Sublet,” directed by Eytan Fox. Her other television credits include “False Flag,” currently on Netflix, “Queens,” “VIP,” “Killing Grandma” and the teen series “Neighborhood.” She is a classically trained opera singer (soprano), for which she has received several scholarships.

Tara Karajica talks to Sigal Avin, Ayelet Zurer and Lihi Kornowski about their latest TV series, Losing Alice,” an eight-episode erotic, psychological, neo-noir thriller, inspired by Faust’s tale that screened in Competition at this year’s Canneseries Festival.

 

 

Most series about Israel or from Israel are political like Homeland or Fauda, for instance. Are series like Losing Alice common in Israel?

Sigal Avin: It’s very different for Israel to get a series like this. It’s exactly like you say, most of the television here deals more with the army, political or religious situations, the police, the corruption… And so, it was unique here in Israel to have a show like a film noir and something that’s a bit more of a psychological thriller that hasn’t been done here very much.

Ayalet Zuror: And not speaking about any of these subject matters, but about art and creativity, female writers and directors – and very much from a female perspective. So, that’s also different.

How did you pitch it to get it financed?

S.A.: This was the train scene, which was also the first vision that I had in mind when I wrote it – it was the meeting of these two women on a train and Yoni Paran, an executive producer at Dori Media, heard the idea and was like: “I want this!” and then when we met Mirit Toobi and I pitched it. I think the image of the train and these two women – the older woman and the younger woman – and the obsession that they had between them and the symbol of the train, somebody getting off the train and somebody else going on it, I think all these things together had the ingredients that made them feel that this is the kind of show that they like.

All three of you, can you talk about the characters of Alice and Sofi. How do you see them, how did you play them and how did you write them?

A.Z.: I see Alice as a three-dimensional character, where you start in one place and you have a second part of her and then, a third part of her and even though she’s all three parts at the same time, she really is not aware or is not consciously aware of them. We find Alice at the start of the show in a place of numbness even though she’s a very successful woman. She works in commercials as a director and has three kids and a beautiful house and a husband, a grandma who can take care of the kids when she is working, but she’s very unfulfilled in a very deep way and asleep. So, when she begins the journey, she’s there and there’s a lot of little lies that she tells herself throughout the evolution of the story. But then, once she makes certain choices to have Sofi in her life, she really evokes the other parts of her that were asleep, which is the creative force, the sexuality, and with that comes a price she’s sort of willing to pay unconsciously or consciously.

L.K.: I think Sofi is a very complex character, she has a lot of contrasts and her biggest dream is that Alice directs the script she wrote, and that’s her biggest role. Her obsession with her script and with Alice may seem to the viewer as if she were a manipulative, mean and aggressive person. People think: “Why is she so sexual all the time?” But I think that, in the end, she is just a young powerful lady who wants to be creative, who wants her creation to come alive in the best possible way and how she’s dreamt it. Also, to understand Sofi and to play her, I needed to understand the big baggage that she carries with her, what happened in her past that makes her act like that.

S.A.: I think that when I was writing them, I wanted to explore the part of the two characters that was the generation gap of someone talented, beautiful and young who has the whole future in front of her versus somebody beautiful, talented who kind of has everything, but is not fulfilled and feels like maybe everything is behind. And, it was important for me to write them both with, on the one side, the identities of two very strong women, but who are also very vulnerable and have very many different sides. Sofi’s not just sexual, young and free. She also carries baggage and has a dark and sad side and deals with quite a lot as the series evolves. Alice is a very complex character who, as the series moves forward, finds herself with so many different layers of femininity that it was really a joy to write her and explore and, after that, create with the actresses when they came in.

Relationships between women that are so complex are not often seen on screen. Can you talk about what you wanted to explore when portraying this relationship?

S.A.: I think the simplest, realest thing that I can say is that when the idea popped into my mind is, first of all, what happens when a younger woman comes into your life, who you think is what you were or reminds you of who you were and you may not be anymore. And maybe, she’s more talented than you were and she has this sexual, young vibe that you forgot you had and you have the house, the kids and the husband, but she seems to be this muse with sparkles around her. And, what happens when somebody like that comes into your life and reminds you of certain things that were important to you, especially arts and how much you come alive when you’re creating. So, I guess, that was the starting point to explore the meeting of these two women.

A.Z.: I relate to that very much, of course. I feel that, as I’ve said, Alice starts right there in the equation where she looks at that creature and she’s intrigued and drawn to her and jealous and wants some of that and is reminded that this used to be a little bit of her. And then, the talent, when she reads the script, she says to her husband: “Is that real? Nobody writes like that unless it’s real.” There are so many layers to this in the relationship between a person and themselves; between a person artist and themselves; between women; between women and creativity; between women and age, and women and their relationship to men and women and their relationship to their workspace. Also, for me, Alice is a boss because a director is not, in a sense, non-fat and feminine, so she goes through a sexual and feminine stage and then becomes a boss. I don’t want to tell too much, but once she steps into that realm, she’s almost not a woman in the regular sense of the word – she’s half and half, really.

S.A.: The beauty is that she is a woman.

A.Z.: But in the sense that the job is so male.

S.A.: The problem is that it is so male and part of the series is a love letter to the female director and there are not enough female directors because we’re so used to seeing mainly men in that place. Even growing up as a child, I wanted to be a director, but I also only saw male directors around me all the time and it wasn’t until The Piano and American Psycho that I started to even understand that there are real female directors working and creating because it really is considered a male field and something that women still have to prove they can do, that they can take the cast and the crew after them.

What is the situation for female directors in Israel?

S.A.: I guess, the same as the rest of the world – it’s still a much lower percentage and, in television, it’s even lower than in film. It is changing now and there are more, but it is still a very male-dominated field.

What was #metoo like in Israel?

S.A.: I made a project here [in the U.S.] at the end of 2017 about sexual harassment – five short films – that came before #metoo. And, I made them in the States and you can see them on YouTube. They’re called That’s Harassment. The situation in Israel is that, I guess, it is much more spoken about now than it was before #metoo and it’s easier for actresses now on sets because a lot of stories came out in the last two years. But I am not sure what the pandemic will do… I am afraid it will take things backwards.

A.Z.: I hope not!

S.A.: I hope not! I really hope not!

You say that when Alice is directing, she assumes some characteristics that are considered more male than female. Is it like that for you? Do you think that you have to have certain attitudes, impose yourself in a certain way that makes you more respected as a creator?

S.A.: Yes! It’s not by chance that Ayelet said that she becomes half female and half male because that is what is expected and you don’t as a woman go and direct in a gown and heels. An Israeli woman director said once that when she’s directing, she feels like she’s a military commander and I think that’s why Ayelet said that. It’s like my daughter, when she heard Hilary Clinton was running for President, she said: “Oh! Women can be Presidents?” and she said it from the most naïve place because she never saw a woman President before, so she didn’t even know it was possible. Ayelet has been acting for a long time and you have worked with how many women directors? Two?

A.Z.: I keep saying that I’ve worked with two female directors. One on stage and one in film. I think that says a lot because I have been working for a long time and it’s a strange thing, but funny in a way. In theater, it is different than in film or television because you’re not commanding a large group of people. It’s not like you have so many departments that you need to collaborate with on the one hand, but also be the boss on the other. There’s an interesting energy that comes out when you do that and I was watching you Sigal a lot! Sigal is extremely feminine. At home, she’s one thing, but when she’s directing, there’s another essence that comes in.

S.A.: It’s also why I think it was so hard to find the actor who will play Alice because actors and directors, at the end, are different animals. And, there were two things that kept bothering me with finding Alice. Lihi, we knew immediately that she was Sofi. But then, every actress that came in, they had a mother-daughter dynamic, which is the wrong dynamic, and the actresses didn’t have a certain strength that you need as a director. When Ayelet came in, first of all, the dynamic between Lihi and Ayelet was amazing and they were not mother-daughter, they were like equal opponents. It was amazing! It was like electricity and they were both intimidated and excited about each other and that was one thing and the other thing was that Ayelet was, with her vulnerability and femininity, very strong. There was a strength that came in. And, when you look at female directors – Patti Jenkins, Jane Campion, Greta Gerwig and Sofia Coppola – you can see the strength coming out of them and you need that; there’s like a grounded strength.

One of the subjects the series deals with is female insecurity. Can you talk about that?

A.Z.: That’s a very interesting aspect, I think.

L.K.: I think Sofi feels the way she acts in the series. She feels good about herself, about how she presents herself and about how she acts and that comes from her very big insecurity. She’s very insecure. She’s a young writer and she wants other people to think that she knows what she’s doing, but sometimes you do something new and you don’t know if you’re doing OK and you feel insecure.

A.Z.: In a sense, there was something conscious that I just remembered about female insecurity. There were a few places where I was with a bra and underwear and there was a little bit of a conversation around that because I used to be really skinny and athletic and, in the last few years, I had an injury and I was sitting at home and writing and have become more rounded that I used to be. And, I remember coming to the set and having to feel exactly what Alice is feeling at that stage of life, where you’re not the skinniest girl around and you’re not the most beautiful girl and you have to live with yourself. In the first episode when she has to go with her husband and be that charming wife, hanging on his arm, she’s really a director and a creative force but then, she has to be this beautiful lady, wearing something nice that she needs to find just after seeing that beautiful young and talented woman, it kills her because she feels so bad about herself. She starts feeling really insecure because something is not quite working for her in a deeper sense and I had to let go. I really wanted to be able to show women exactly how they are at that point in their lives where they have maybe gained a little bit of weight, where they maybe don’t feel like the most beautiful girl in the room and yet this is part of who we are. The ability to accept ourselves as we grow older is really part of the things that no one discusses at all and I think that there was an underlined expression of that, especially in the first and second episodes.

Another thing that is taboo is female sexuality, especially when it’s not told 100% connected to a man. Can you talk about exploring and portraying that?

 S.A.: I was in a meeting a couple of years ago and there were men and women in the room and, at the end of the meeting, one of the men said: “You know what the difference between men and women is? The men look at the women and say ‘Who would I sleep with? Who will I f*ck? Who will I not f*ck?’ and women look at the danish saying: ‘Will I eat? Will I not eat?’” And, everybody was laughing at this joke and I hated that joke so much because I felt that a lot of men just see women like they’re not sexual beings, like they’re looking at the women and wondering which one of them they will sleep with and women are just exploring the food on the table. It was important for me with this show, to touch, deep in the layers, all the basis that I feel are urgent and it was important for me to show women’s sexuality and that they are still sexual beings and that they fantasize and that it’s OK to go with these thoughts and go deeper and deeper. It was intriguing and interesting for me to write this and I kept encouraging myself to go as far as I can with this to a point where I would sit in my office and my husband would sometimes come in and I would be like: “No! Go away!” It was like he was bothering me!

A.Z.: He told us that sometimes he would feel like Sigal had a lover.

S.A.: And, I was writing! I wanted to see women in this show like sexual beings, just like I think they should be. And, the series does go and get even more sexual along the way and I think it’s so important to also see that and to see it from a woman’s point of view. And even from a woman’s direction. I think, in the end, nobody talks enough about the difference in the way sex scenes look if they’re directed by a man or by a woman. It’s completely different angles.

A.Z.: We had a big poster in Alice’s workspace, where this was her first film, the one that supposedly was her big success. It portrays a female body and noodles coming out of her genitals and that’s what Sofi’s talking about on the train, that sex scene that she apparently shot and was remarkable. And, it’s also about that; it’s about exactly what Sigal says about how you portray that, not just be that, but also how you tell that story. So, here you have this director who’s used to that kind of work, something really out there and expressed that way.

L.K.: Sofi is a really sexual character and it was really important to me that the boundaries were really clear and for me to get some freedom. I hope you watch the whole series and see what I’m talking about. But it was like a choreography. It was like dancing and it was so important that we talked every scene through before shooting it because it’s more comfortable and because of #metoo. I think it’s so important to talk about it.

Having a female director at the helm probably helped with that, right?

L.K.: Yes, it was very helpful and she was so sensitive and so delicate in her directing.

S.A.: And, also so scared. I mean, directors always ask actors how they feel before the sex scenes. I almost had a heart attack before going to the sex scenes and the very erotic scenes that gradually grow as the series evolves. I did a lot of research because I’m very into #metoo and the harassment project and I read and spoke to actors and directors that said that, a lot of times, when it says: “sex scene or kissing part,” the directors feel so uncomfortable that they just kind of let the actors do their thing, so that’s what Lihi was saying. We really did rehearsals and choreographies for all the sex scenes and erotic scenes in the script, from Ayalet’s first scene that you see in the first episode and as it gets more and more erotic. We rehearsed every beat and then, it’s like they have lines or these sexual things that they’re doing and it’s amazing. They’re just acting, they’re playing sex and they have freedom to do this very easily because they know exactly what they’re going to do. And, they all did it really amazingly. It was very interesting to tackle and scary, too.

 

 

 

Photo credits: Dori Media.

This interview was conducted at the 2020 (hybrid) Canneseries Festival.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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