INTERVIEW: “Fauda” and “Greenhouse Academy” Writer and Director Amir Mann

Susan Kouguell interviews writer/director Amir Mann about breaking into the film industry, working on international projects, and advice for emerging screenwriters.
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Amir Mann’s career trajectory is an inspiring story of perseverance, hard work, and without a doubt—talent. In our interview, Mann shares important advice for writers and directors, and offers insights into working in television and navigating the industry.

Amir Mann

Amir Mann

An accomplished television and film creator, Mann was the head writer of the second season of the Netflix hit series “Fauda,” for which he won the Israeli Television Academy Award for Best Writing in a Drama. In 2019, he directed seasons 3 and 4 of the young adult drama “Greenhouse Academy” for Netflix. In 2018, he directed the cable hit show “Malkot” (“Queens”), a crime family drama produced by Endemol, which was the most-watched show on Israeli television that year. Before that, Amir created, wrote, and directed the highest-rated Israeli cop show, “Ahat Efes Efes” (“Downtown Precinct”), which won several awards. He also wrote and directed the indie feature “The Fifth Patient” starring Nick Chinlund and Peter Bogdanovich (distributed by IFC). He produced and co-directed the award-winning documentary “Shanghai Ghetto” which was released theatrically in the US and was on the Academy Awards shortlist. His screenplay for “Final Awakening” won a prize at the Slamdance Film Festival and was produced as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” with New Line Television. Amir is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Film and Television Program.

KOUGUELL: How did you break into the business?

MANN: After film school (NYU), I worked as a script reader, which I highly recommend, because it opens your eyes to what works; it’s a good way to understand what they’re (executives) are looking for.

I won a screenplay competition, Slamdance, for a short screenplay and got an agent through that and a first sale. After that, I self-financed, produced and co-directed the documentary “Shanghai Ghetto” with Dana Janklowicz-Mann that got distribution and was released theatrically and won some awards. But it was still a struggle to raise money for another feature that was done three years later.

My big break happened when I moved back to Israel. My set of skills was much rarer in a small country and it was easier to get an opportunity than in L.A. I already had two features and a lot of experience writing so I got several jobs that lead me to pitch my own show at a struggling Israeli network. It was a cop show, “Downtown Precinct”—a genre I really like and something that wasn’t really done before in the Israeli market. They saw my American feature and I got to write and direct my own TV show! I knew it was my big break and I threw everything I knew into it. The show was very successful in Israel and ran for three seasons. We won several TV awards and the lead became a bona-fide star. Doing the show also taught me a lot about both writing and directing.

The only real way to learn is by doing. You learn so much from working on the whole process from beginning to end and seeing how the audience reacts to it. Writing and directing more than two dozen TV episodes, that are essentially mini features, is a great school.

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I got an Israeli agent after doing the show but even after doing all that I still had to fight to get jobs and they were mostly for writing new shows, which is a very long process. I know it’s a problem to get an agent in the US, and many writers are frustrated with the process; what I have to say about this is that agents are like banks, they only offer you money after you already have money. Agents get you jobs only after you already have a job. Don’t concentrate on getting an agent, concentrate on writing great screenplays and getting people to read them. Competitions are a really good place to start. Agents will appear once they think they can easily sell you.

FAUDA

MANN: After trying for a year to get financing for an Israeli feature, my agent called me about “Fauda.” The first season was a hit, but they were replacing their head-writer. My agent represented one of the creators, who was also a fan of “Downtown Precinct” which was a plus, so that helped to get the job.

Working on “Fauda'' was very different than writing and directing my own show. “Fauda” is a special situation, as the show is based on the personal experiences of the two creators – they served in a military unit similar to the one on the show. And one of them is the star of the show. Also, at that point there was a lot of pressure because this was a groundbreaking show for the Israeli TV market and the network and creators already knew it was going to be sold internationally.

Being that we’re low-budget Israeli TV, the three of us would meet, usually at somebody’s home, and discuss the storyline for the season. After that I would write outlines and then treatments and we would meet again and discuss. From there I would either write the episodes myself or take it out to one more writer and then I would do more drafts. It took a while to come up with a story that is dramatic and exciting but also adheres to the realism the series presents. And then there were notes of course, from multiple sources.

Doing a show like this also requires skills in office politics. The bigger the project, the more people involved, the more management skills are required. It took a lot longer than I thought it would, almost a year and half to write the season, but I was very happy with the final result.

It’s important in a second season to set up a story that would feel different, but still in the world and style of the show. My creative vision for “Fauda” was to create a tragedy that sucks the characters into the violent vortex of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and grinds their life and dreams to a pulp. A horrible car crash that we can’t stop watching. It was one of the best things I ever wrote and I became a better writer because of it.

After “Fauda” I wanted to get back to directing so in 2018 I took two very different directing jobs. I directed an Israeli black comedy about a crime family, called “Queens” (“Malkot”) produced by Endemol, that became a very big hit for the cable network. It was recently sold for a remake to Gal Gadot’s company.

GREENHOUSE ACADEMY

In 2018 I was also offered to direct “Greenhouse Academy” for Netflix. At first, I was reluctant to take the job since it’s not really my genre, but it meant directing an English-speaking series for Netflix with a budget higher than most Israeli shows.

“Greenhouse Academy” was an interesting situation; it started as a daily kid show in Israel with a minuscule budget and when it was sold to Netflix for an American remake, the production company in Israel convinced Netflix they could save money by shooting in Israel with American actors. So the show is shot in Israel but the story takes place in Southern California. They brought me in to direct seasons 3 and 4 because they wanted someone with American experience. It was a lot of fun working on “Greenhouse Academy” and a great collaboration with the creator and the company.

Being a Mult-Hyphenate

KOUGUELL: You are writing, directing and executive producing on various series. Please share your insights about these different roles, and how they intersect and even don’t intersect.

MANN: The more expensive the show is, the more people are involved, the more management skills are required, skills that have nothing to do with the art of storytelling. Sometimes TV shows are like sausages, if you want to enjoy them it’s better if you don’t know how they’re made.

I think it’s crucial to take projects where you can do the job well and have enough power to influence the result, because it will be on your resume. On the other hand, jumping at opportunities is also important because they’re very rare, especially at the beginning. So it’s these two conflicting considerations that still guide me in making choices.

I think most writers have something they’re better at, be it a genre or a skill, and once you find that voice, it’s usually smart to concentrate on that for a while. It’s okay to be the writer who writes great action, or the one who is really funny. I was for a while the go-to-guy (probably still am) for genre pieces in the Israeli market. It’s good to differentiate yourself in the market.

Filmmaking in Israel

KOUGUELL: Tell me about the film and television industry in Israel. Before Covid-19, what was the landscape like and what does it hold in the future?

MANN: Israel is a tiny market, with only 9 million in population so there’s very little money for production. But still, a lot of great product is coming out and there’s a lot of creativity and great talent. We’re working in a similar way to how low budget American indie films are made. There are no writer’s rooms like in the US,; it’s one to two writers writing a show, no assistants, no perks. And the season is shot completely by one director and out of order to save on budget, like a giant feature. That also means the screenplays are done by the time the first frame is shot.

Episodes are shot in about 4 to 5 days. That means we’re shooting about 8-9 pages of script per day, which is insane. Therefore, it is rare to see massive scenes, action, crowds or anything that slows down production in Israeli shows. “Fauda” from season 2 on is an exception since it got some foreign money, but it’s still far less expensive than American shows.

The TV landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade mostly due to Netflix and the advent of streaming. It opened up doors for international productions in a way never possible before. It’s not that important really where you are if you can tell a compelling story that would interest an audience.

BAND OF SPIES

Mann is currently writing and exec-producing “Band of Spies,” an international series for Capa Drama and Reel One that will tell the true stories of the Israeli Mossad agents responsible for hunting down members of the Palestinian terror group, Black September.

MANN: “Band of Spies” is a dream come true for me. The story is about the events after the terror attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It’s about the beginning of international terrorism as we know it and about the Mossad’s tactics of targeted killings. It’s about how the paranoid world we live in today came to be. It’s a European-Israeli collaboration that could not have happened several years ago. It has great characters and elaborate story lines that are mostly based on fascinating actual events. I was always interested in history as a basis for movies and TV and it’s a great opportunity to do something very special. I think people will be very interested because it connects to so much of what is still relevant today in the world and it will be a very exciting show.

Final Advice

KOUGUELL: Advice for aspiring writers and directors?

MANN: Find your voice. Remember that there are many writers and directors out there all clamoring to get attention. Your work must jump out of the pile. Not only does it need to be of exceptional quality, but it needs to bring something fresh to the table. Find what is unique about you, your feelings, your upbringing, your past, your passions, your dark fantasies or dreams, and bring them to the page or screen.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

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