A Thriller Knows No Borders: The Making of The Debt
After the Israeli feature film Ha-Hov [The Debt], directed by Assaf Bernstein and produced by Eitan Evan, opened in 2007, the thriller received four nominations for Israel’s Academy Awards equivalent. Evan credits the film’s having been sold for distribution to countries beyond Israel to “its original story, combined with the thriller plot about Mossad agents on a mission. Mossad is an institution, one of the best in the world for espionage and intelligence, and the film had an authenticity to it with regard to them.”
Producer Eduardo Rossoff took note of the film as being ideal for an English-language remake, tied to its unique two-tiered storyline revolving around 30-year-old secrets coming to light, and brought Ha-Hov to the attention of producer Kris Thykier.
Thykier was instantly intrigued. He recalls, “It was a spectacular story, and brilliantly acted. I did feel that there was an opportunity for a little more complexity and scale; I saw the potential of making a smart thriller that would be relevant to – and entertaining for – a world audience.”
After viewing the film, Thykier’s producing partner Matthew Vaughn agreed. As Evan spoke with Thykier by phone and then in person to finalize the new project, Vaughn started work on the script adaptation for the remake with his screenwriting partner Jane Goldman.
Six months later, the producers presented the script to Oscar-nominated director John Madden. He found the screenplay to be “offering a visceral narrative in which both the emotional and moral stakes are very high, coupled with depth in the characterizations. One’s engagement in the material deepens as the story becomes more complex and begins to exercise more of a grip. I was transfixed.
“I hadn’t seen the Israeli film when I read the script. I felt I needed to watch it – and I’m glad I did, but then I didn’t look at it again.”
John Madden on the set of The Debt.
Photo by Laurie Sparham
Thykier says, “We were thrilled that John was interested, and we quickly started preparing the project with him. He is a genuine renaissance man, totally involved and committed from the start to making the material work as a movie.”
Madden began honing the script with screenwriter Peter Straughan. The director notes, “The level of narrative development in the material is unusual in that the audience is constantly kept guessing about just what’s going on – and we wanted to heighten that.
“Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum’s script for the original film had an underlying foundation and structure that was solid, and Matthew and Jane had already developed the story in some interesting ways. But as Peter and I began to work on the story, we found new directions emerging. And the thematic emphasis of the film started to shift.”
Evan agrees, noting that “the new film involves the past much more than the present, and there is more action. The Debt also delves deeper into the psychology of the Israeli characters.”
Thykier observes, “With the script’s intelligence, and depth of character, we now had what I saw as a return to the 1970s thrillers that I had grown up on, like Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man.”