Undercover agent: Athens puts on a disguise to play Tehran

Undercover agent: Athens puts on a disguise to play Tehran

©Yoel Herzberg

How long does it take to convert an Athenian square decked out with Christmas decorations into an Iranian metropolis of Farsi posters and larger-than-life  billboards? Less than 24 hours apparently. We go behind the scenes with the Athens Film Office to discover how the Greek capital transformed into Tehran to star in a gripping new big budget spy thriller.

Athenian streets get an Iranian makeover for Tehran, the Israeli spy thriller on Apple TV + ©Apple TV

Location, location, location

Moshe Zonder, the creator of Tehran, and Daniel Syrkin, its brilliant director, wanted this gripping geopolitical thriller to dive deep into the murky world of espionage, but also to draw a humane, complex portrait of Iran, ‘beyond inevitable American or Eurocentric interpretations’. Filming in Iran was a no-go, so the production team was assigned the task of finding a suitable city that would substitute Tehran. It had to be Mediterranean, surrounded by mountains, with narrow alleys and gardens and a profusion of jasmine and bougainvillea. When they narrowed their choice to Athens, the Athens Film Office took it on themselves to assist the production team to make Athens’ makeover to Tehran a reality.

A tale of two cities

Athens and Tehran have shared ties as ancient cities, but they have also undergone “massive urban restructuring in the 20th century”. The brutalist invasion of modernist architecture and chaotic urban planning into both these cities lend them a similar mixture of what Production Designer Yoel Herzberg calls “glum modern, Neoclassical and European-style buildings”, each of which are low rise and have either Greek or Persian architecture.

Herzberg also notes they have “narrow residential streets and alleys” that are “combined with wide boulevards and squares”, while even their “lower-income neighbourhoods are not dissimilar, too”. All of which meant that the Tehran production team did not have to create any new studio sets or fake facades for filming.

Capturing Athens’ natural beauty and greenery was key for cinematographer Giora Bejach, as he wanted to parlay the rich colours and the quirkiness of its architecture, well-kept gardens and bustling markets to make the audience empathize with the city and the people of Tehran. “Athens is a city surrounded by mountains, exactly like Tehran. Athens is also very green with gardens resembling Tehran.”

The lead protagonists Milad and Tamar walking through Pedion tou Areos for Tehran, the Israeli spy thriller on Apple TV +©Apple TV

Grafitti, graffiti everywhere

A sore subject for most Athenians, but one that posed a real problem for the production crew – the slew of graffiti tags across the city. To successfully transform Athens into Tehran, the team had to scout for ink-free locations. What started off as an urban act of rebellion in some neighbourhoods in the ‘90s and has now overrun most of the city’s walls, and distressingly its monuments too, graffitis have rendered most Athenian structures tattooed.

The Athens Municipality has taken pains to clear much of the vandalism in the name of freedom of expression over the last year – it has been a tough balancing act of supporting street art and even promoting street art tours while keeping the taggers at bay. For the Israeli crew, it meant “steam-cleaning marble walls, stairs and columns” across Athens, which would then be covered with Iranian posters, flyers, signs and adverts.

The Conversion

In an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based National, Herzberg explained how he built up huge dossiers of information on Tehran, using the internet and social media to research artists, musicians, businesses, markets and street signs. By the time of filming, he had acquired an extensive list of specific details of the city, which he then recreated in Athens to make the series feel authentic.

The Athens International Airport is transformed into Tehran airport for Tehran, the Israeli spy thriller on Apple TV +©Apple TV

Stathis Kalogeropoulos describes just how realistic the setting looked. When a section of the Athens International Airport had to be converted to look like the Tehran Airport, complete with Farsi writing on the flight information displays – some of the local passers by momentarily believed they were unwittingly part of a massive candid camera prank! One of them had fright written all over her face, believing that Athens was under siege! The Athens Film Office along with the Athens Municipality had to also convert the bustling Plateia Vathis, festooned with Christmas decorations during the shooting mid-December, into an Iranian square. The Christmas decor had to be taken off at record speed, and put back on within a few hours later in the day!

Herzberg does not see Tehran only as a spy thriller, but also a human story, one that shows the Iranian people as “complex individuals and not the stereotypes that are often presented in the media”. That is why, throughout the production of the show, everyone involved approached Iran, Iranians and Iranian culture with, Herzberg says, “the utmost respect, awe, curiosity, and love”.

Production designer Yoel Herzberg and Cinematographer Giora Bejach on location ©Yoel Herzberg

Herzberg says even the production design and look of each episode of Tehran is layered with a deep and subtle subtext, which is designed to provoke spiritual and intellectual conversations that extend beyond cinematic form. But is there anything in particular that Herzberg wants audiences to take away from Tehran?

First and foremost, he wants them to enjoy it and be emotionally invested. Beyond that, though, he hopes they can “discover themselves in the characters” to such an extent that they decide to learn more about the region and its people. He wishes the audiences see Iran as a place where people have “dreams, desires and fears”, just as they do elsewhere in the world.

“I hope we managed to bring a human view,” Herzberg says. “The greatest comments I get on the series are about details, about people noticing a street sign, a poem, a Persian rice dish. These details allow us to realise how complex we are as individuals and how similar we are as humans.”

Can you spot the locations?

The first season of Tehran was shot on different locations in Athens, Greece. The Athens International Airport was transformed into Tehran airport. Pedion tou Areos featured prominently in the scenes where Tamar tries to escape from the student protest into the labyrinthine gardens near the University. The landmark OTE building in Maroussi doubled up as the Arabil Air Defence Centre and Plateia Vathis was the setting for several scenes!

According to the Athens Film Office, the Israeli team will be back soon to scout locations for Season 2, scheduled to be filmed in spring 2021. Stay tuned!

Tehran trailer from Athens Film Office on Vimeo.

Leave your comments ...