Israeli Filmmaker Teaches Rutgers Students to Write Compelling Drama
Moshe Zonder, writer of Netflix’s Fauda, is this semester’s Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist
"I want these aspiring screenwriters to know their characters so well that whatever takes place in the story will feel fully, intuitively natural to the audience." – Moshe Zonder
Creative writing students at Rutgers University–New Brunswick are learning screenwriting from the head writer of one of “the best international shows of 2017,” according to The New York Times: Fauda, a tense drama that explores the lives of Israeli counter-terrorist agents and Hamas members.
Moshe Zonder is this semester’s Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist, hosted by Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
He speaks with Rutgers Today about what it takes to write a compelling drama that makes viewers think deeply about real-world conflicts, and how those lessons benefit students of his course at the School of Arts and Sciences.
Q: Fauda presents characters on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a Hamas member, as real people, not stereotypes. How did you come to understand and write these characters?
I spent many years as an investigative reporter and met senior members of Hamas, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder, that later Israel killed. I got to know them and, although I could not agree with them, I understood their motivation. They are not criminals or gangsters. Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said he understood why young Palestinian men join these organizations and that if he was a young Palestinian, he’d assume he would have joined one of them. Barak's words caused resistance. I suppose many people knew he was right but were afraid to admit it. Now, the creators of Fauda had the idea for a show about Mista'arvim (Israeli counter-intelligence agents who operate undercover among the local Arab population). What’s really interesting about the Mista'arvim is that most of them like Arab people and their culture, language, codes of behavior, music and food. They must wear two hats while serving as an Israeli patriot who wants peace. Mutual respect and understanding of each other’s humanity is possible even amid this tension.
Q: Can you point to a key scene in Fauda that highlights this mutual recognition?
We have only one scene where the protagonist, Doron Kabillio (leader of an Israel Defense Force unit), meets his antagonist, Abu Ahmad (a high-level leader of Hamas military regime), while Doron is undercover as someone willing to die for the Hamas cause. Though very different, it reminds me of a scene in The Dark Knight where Batman and the Joker are face to face for the first time. Heath Ledger as the Joker is one of the best antagonists. He’s more sophisticated than just a villain. And he recognizes something in Batman. There is a real connection of equals between them. In our scene, Abu Ahmad is very smart, very sensitive, and although he doesn’t know that Doron is undercover and wants to kill him, he identifies something within him. There’s a connection that Doron also feels and he begins telling Abu Ahmad things that he never tells his wife or his closest friend, and Abu Ahmad does the same. This is representative that they are a lot alike.
Q: How have viewers reacted to Fauda?
We initially had a hard time selling the show to a network. When it finally aired on Yes (an Israeli network) and Netflix, it turned out that everyone found something to connect with. All along, Israeli society, Jews and Arabs, left wing and right wing – and even, I must say, among Hamas itself. A Hamas spokesman has said negative things about the show, but Hamas actually put a link to the first episode on their official website. Now that it’s on Netflix, we are receiving successful feedback from all over the world. I still find it hard to believe.
Q: What are you teaching Rutgers students in your screenwriting course?
I teach how to write a story using things Aristotle wrote 2,500 years ago in the Poetics. I’m also influenced by Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. I focus on how to write a character, how to build the protagonist and the antagonist that stands in his way, how to write the conflict of the protagonist, how to make the audience identify with each and every character, how to write dialogue and how to write a scene. I prepare them to create and sell their own TV series by teaching them to write a bible, a four- or five-page summary with a description of the series in five sentences, bios of the main characters, sub characters and supporting characters, and a summary of the story. This is quite difficult to do, but you need a bible to get producers and agents interested in your work. I also try to teach confidence and perseverance. To paraphrase the legendary director John Huston, screenwriting is 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work. Writing a TV series is like climbing Mt. Everest, not in good weather. Not everything you do is going to be produced. You must really believe in yourself and always keep working.
Q: What are some of the projects you assign to your Rutgers students?
I want these aspiring screenwriters to know their characters so well that whatever takes place in the story will feel fully, intuitively natural to the audience. One trap that even experienced scriptwriters fall into is trying to move the plot forward by forcing a character to do something that is not actually true to the character. The actors will sense this if they’re really connected to the character. The audience will feel it, too, even if they don’t notice it consciously, and they will feel dissatisfied. So, first I ask them to really invest in writing bios for their protagonist and antagonist. If they truly know their characters, they can make decisions for them, so it comes across as a fully developed character. I also ask them to write about their parents and about traumatic events in their lives in a truly personal way. We have a lot of vulnerability, trust and respect for each other in this process. Each and every character has a traumatic event in some stage of their life. This is something we need to know in order to write conflict. I teach them to write conflict with three layers, an inner, an external and a universal layer, and to work with all three in order to reach the climax of the drama in the best way.