Showrunners Ron Leshem & Amit Cohen Talk “Valley Of Tears” & “No Man’s Land”
Few showrunners can claim to have two TV shows released in the same year. American/ Israeli TV writers Ron Leshem and Amit Cohen have done just that with the riveting war dramas Valley Of Tears on HBO Max and No Man’s Land on Hulu. They are also known for their writing work on Euphoria and Allegiance.
Both had previous careers as Israeli intelligence officers and journalists bringing a unique and authentic perspective to their storytelling. No Man’s Land takes place during the recent war in Syria. It follows the inner world of the underground female fighters who fight ISIS soldiers. The show examines ten different countries, features six different languages, and portrays the fight with ISIS on an international scale we’ve never seen before.
Valley Of Tears is set in 1973 Israel during the Yom Kippur war told through the eyes of the young combatants whose repeated warnings of a war with Syria were ignored by their commanders. This story was based on Leshem and Cohen’s direct experiences as journalists intelligence officers in the phone tapping unit of the Israeli army.
The story behind Valley Of Tears started with a commanding officer who was talking to his platoon after a horrific battle in which they suffered terrible casualties at the whim of the higher ranking commanders who ordered an attack. They were arrogant and refused to acknowledge the warning signs which would have averted the casualties. During the speech, the commanding officer said, “I can promise you one thing, ‘We will become a better country and better people.’ Old Israeli society had died and a new one was born. We wanted to check if the change was for better or for worse,” added Leshem. It was a national reckoning for Israel.
“Being able to live the lives of others teaches you how to write strong characters,” said Leshem. “Observing the work of the unit makes you understand them better than you know yourself.” Leshem and Cohen also experienced the context of the unit’s work because they heard all the surrounding conversations too. They had all the relevant research to serve their curiosity at their disposal to make their stories more authentic. With an abundance of rich source material, Leshem and Cohen could take more risks in their storytelling.
Great stories come from understanding the nuances of human nature.
Coming from very specific backgrounds, one might think it would limit the kinds of screenplays they want to write to thrillers and espionage stories. “We take what we love about these genres and reinvent it through our own stories,” continued Leshem. “We also love the globalized storytelling of our TV shows.” This contrasts with American writers who generally write TV shows through an American lens and sell them internationally. Leshem and Cohen tell their stories through many more lenses. “We love how drama is becoming a village and globalized community.”
Amit Cohen doesn’t necessarily consider his career as a journalist and a TV writer as being vastly different. “There’s a common denominator between being a journalist, intelligence agent, and a TV writer because you’re always in search of a story.” Granted journalism relies on constructing a narrative of facts. Cohen and Leshem build their stories from character first and the conflict that arises from it. Audiences can relate to the intricacies of their unique story worlds because of the characters that inhabit them.
This posed some difficulties in their writing as they transitioned into TV writers because being journalists and Intelligence Officers made no allowance for subjective viewpoints. “You have to be one-hundred percent accurate.” However, you become emotionally invested when following targets and learning about them as human beings.
Furthermore, a deep understanding of human behavior allowed them to recruit human assets in the field as they assessed their motivations to act, ideologies, and influences. “I want to make sure you fall in love with me when I recruit you as an asset,” explained Leshem. “Being an intelligence officer was about getting into someone’s soul and accessing more of them,” despite the factual nature of journalism.
Leshem continued, “Writing these characters was like writing my alter ego. I made them do things I didn’t have the chance to do or be.” In doing so, “I find my weaknesses, and things with which I have a deep emotional relationship in my life in my characters without even noticing.” He would never write a story solely because it’s a good idea. “I need to get married to the story and fight for it for years.” Sometimes decades.
When they began writing No Man’s Land, their main priority was to explore the inner life of the resistance than the Yom Kippur war itself. “We focused on their journey. We explored what drives them to build empathy and compassion with others.” The experience of crossing borders was particularly relevant to Leshem and Cohen because growing up in Israel, they were surrounded by five borders they were forbidden to cross. “You get addicted to the urgency of life as you explore war as a medium to improve the world through sacrifice. After experiencing war you can’t go back to your comfortable life.” In discovering a journey for the resistance, the writers could transgress the genre constraints.
The pair started working on Valley Of Tears over a decade ago. They wanted to capture the trauma of the combatants. “Yom Kippur was our Vietman war,” mused Cohen. “We wanted to take the stories of ordinary people and make a comment about Israeli society.” Amit Cohen’s father was an intelligence officer during the Yom Kippur war who was another impetus for the story.
The devastating impact of war undoubtedly shaped their storytelling sensibilities since childhood. “Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line made us want to become filmmakers, ” confessed Leshem. They were also influenced by David Leans’ The Bridge On River Kwai and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In forging their own creative paths, they searched for characters, dilemmas, conflicts, and voices that were unique enough to stand out from these other films.
Despite the horrors of war, the filmmakers hope their audiences will feel empathy and compassion after watching their TV shows and accept the detriments of not having these qualities. “We don’t want them to be a social studies class,” concluded Cohen.
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