Stories Without Borders: Writing Abroad

Editor’s note: I’m thrilled to Introduce our new column by Julie Gray, an author, script consultant and former script reader who moved from L.A. to Tel Aviv. She shares her global view of writing abroad in her new column, Stories Without Borders. Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Blake Snyder’s passing in 2009 really threw me for quite a loop. I considered Blake a friend; he’d mentored and guided me through so much. He was such a gentle soul. For years I had lived and worked in Hollywood as a script reader, initially, then later both consulting privately on scripts and running a script coverage company. But death became my companion in 2009 and 2010. Only months later, in April 2010, I lost a dear friend to breast cancer, and one month later, my brother took his own life. What a series of breath-taking losses. I had been prepared for none of them. I will never be the same. Yet, as a writer, I can find gratitude in the depth of emotion and empathy these losses have given me – and the sense that life is a precious gift.

So I moved to the Middle East. Tel Aviv, to be exact. Not something most people would choose to do as a way of dealing with grief. But then I’ve never claimed to be a normal person – I am, like you, a writer after all.

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I did not speak Hebrew, in fact, I had never been to Tel Aviv. I had been to Israel, though, many times. I used to come here every six months and spend time in Jerusalem, in a quiet, sunny flat in Rehavia and write. But Tel Aviv was never a city I had spent time in.

Why Israel? Something about this place got inside my bones the very first time I came here, which was to visit a friend who had been brought to work in Israel at a well-funded but misguided animation studio which was trying to attract the best animators from Hollywood in order to get off the ground. The gambit didn’t work. But had it not been tried, I would not have come here to visit my friend. So I came, and I fell in love.

I fell in love with the Jerusalem stone and dun-colored rolling hills, with the scent of flowers and spices in the shuk in the Old City, with the doves fluttering on the streets and with the graffiti and the cardamom-flavored coffee in the Arab cafes on Sulieman street. I fell in love with the silent expanse of the Judean Desert in Qmran, where the heat feels like ten kilos on your head.

And I was intrigued – surely in this – a war zone by any definition, and arguably the most contentious place on the planet – surely this place was FULL of stories.

Oral storytelling is a powerful tradition in the Middle East. Gilgamesh, Rumi, Scheherazade, not to mention the loquacious tales (or truths, you decide) of the Jewish Bible – the Torah – have been the bedrock of thousands of years of story. Oral storytelling is still very much in evidence in this part of the world. Daily conversations that are much more heightened and volatile than an American would find comfortable abound. In fact, I have a theory that nine of ten news clips that Americans see, in which Middle Easterners are shouting and gesticulating are really people just arguing over a parking space and nothing more. So you can imagine when a real conflict comes up. Which it does. But we’ll save that for another column.

As I got to know my new country, I also found much more contemporary theater, art installations, and accomplished film industry in Israel than I had realized. Many American writers know the both Homeland and In Treatment were originally Israeli television shows but have you also watched Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe winning Waltz With Bashir,  The Band’s Visit, Ajami, Five Broken Cameras or the poetic and gorgeous Nina’s Tragedies? Catch up on your Israeli films if you haven’t already.

In this part of the world, creatives have less access to the things we take for granted in the US and particularly in L.A. – competitions, fellowships, internships, networking – so the film industry in the Middle East is fairly self-contained. Most Arab language films are produced in Cairo, which is the Bollywood of the Islamic world.

In Israel, film and television production is robust and centered in Tel Aviv. Because this is a small country and everybody in Israel knows everybody else (you think I’m kidding) there are a handful of cafes where the biggest Israeli producers, writers and actors hang out, and it’s easy to meet and get to know them. That accessibility is a wonderful thing and not something we have in L.A. There are not the ten layers of “people” between you and filmmakers here. Aharon Keshales (Big Bad Wolves) is my Facebook friend, and I worked closely with Anat Assoulin, the “Sherry Lansing of Israel” and producer of Nina’s Tragedies. She also just happens to be married to Ari Folman, the writer/director of Waltz With Bashir. It is a smaaaall country.

About a year ago, I founded the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon, which is a weekly writing group in which writers write flash fiction. The creativity unleashed in that group has been staggering. Just the other day I was in the West Bank having a conversation with a lovely young Muslim woman, Lina, about potentially having a monthly women’s writing group there. There are some security issues with this idea, but I am trying to get that idea off the ground. It might take some doing. Le-at, le-at as we say in Israel. Slowly, slowly.

Are there creative opportunities outside of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London? You better believe it. There are stories right where you are, just waiting to be told, in Kansas City or Poughkeepsie or Tel Aviv. Being a writer means taking the time to try to explain our lives and our world.

Wherever you go, there you are. Write.

More about writing and creating adventures in the Middle East on Stories Without Borders next time!

More articles by Julie Gray

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