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Why the Israeli ‘Euphoria’ creator couldn’t wait to go to jail

In ‘Bad Boy,’ Ron Leshem and Hagar Ben-Asher tell the story of a troubled, funny teen prisoner

When Ron Leshem, the creator of the Israeli Euphoria and HBO’s Valley of Tears was a 20-something journalist, he embedded himself in a prison where the inmates were even younger than he was. 

Leshem was there to report on the outcomes of kids who were born to mothers in jail, many of whom ended up in the system before they were 15.

“I fell in love with the story in a sense that it’s nothing like any ordinary prison,” Leshem, 46, said in a Zoom conversation. “It’s a kindergarten. It’s so many different things, but it breaks your heart. Most of them didn’t really have a chance to be anything else but this. I felt the story needs to be told but it took almost 20 years to figure out how.”

The answer arrived only recently, when producer Tmira Yardeni told Leshem that one of the boys he encountered, grew up to become a successful standup comedian Daniel Chen. Despite rising fame, Chen was able to keep his past under wraps. But now, Chen’s story is the focus of Leshem’s TV show Bad Boy, which had its world premiere Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Though the series is purportedly “based on a true story,” Leshem and his co-creator Hagar Ben-Asher, who directed the eight episodes, still aren’t sure how much of its action actually happened.

Daniel is a comedian,” said Ben-Asher, 44, an award-winning Israeli director, who’s worked on American shows Bosch: Legacy and City on a Hill and helmed the 2018 prison drama Dead Women Walking.His stories are based on the way that he remembers things — meaning we don’t know if they’re true, if they’re not.”

Bad Boy begins with the adult Chen playing a version of himself, running through the order of his jokes in his dressing room mirror before flashing back to his life in the Abu Khabir juvenile detention center. 

The 13-year-old Chen, then known as Dean Sheyman, runs afoul of the law after bringing home a gun from a class field trip. The story he tells of how he found the gun is both funny and exceedingly unreliable.

Scrawny and new to the prison ecosystem, Dean, played by Guy Menaster, is placed with a cellmate rumored to be a murderous sociopath (Havtamo Farada as Zion Zoro) and the two form an uneasy bond. While Dean is identified as a white kid, Zoro is Black, a member of Israel’s African Jewish minority, which often faces discrimination. But Leshem said the juvenile prison appealed to him as a place where the usual social order in Israel is suspended.

“Society doesn’t penetrate into it with its bad habits and prejudices and everything,” said Leshem, who added that the treatment for juvenile offenders in the U.S. is often much worse than in Israel. “Sometimes with the kids you have a love story between an ultra-Orthodox boy and an Arab boy — everything can happen over there. It is a disorientation from time and space, so it’s kind of a spaceship floating.”

Bad Boy filmed in two defunct prisons and constructed the main prison set on the grounds of scout’s camp. Such large-scale set building is rare for Israeli TV. Though Ben-Asher and Leshem are now well established in the U.S. (Leshem lives in Boston and Ben-Asher is based in New York), they knew they wanted to tell this story amid the “beautiful chaos” of their home country’s film industry.

“When you’re producing or directing or creating an American show, the cost of one episode is equal to five seasons in Israel. We’re doing 2% of the budget,” said Leshem, who produces the American version of his show Euphoria. 

The system in Israel often means shooting scenes for several episodes in a single day while a location is available. But while it’s less organized than filming for American television, it also affords the creators and directors more freedom. It’s a rare alchemy that may be the reason why Israel has birthed so many successful series.

“The Israeli audience is the most neurotic in the world but at the same time, you must create something that is mainstreamish,” said Leshem. This leads to “edgy mainstreamish” programming that is perhaps unique to Israel, where he says, life feels more vivid in its precariousness.

“There’s so much drama and tension in our everyday life in Israel,” Ben-Asher agreed. “The catastrophe is like a cloud about to rain or just black us out every moment, and I think that fear creates an urge to tell stories.”

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