Turning Athens into Tehran: how crew behind Apple TV+ spy thriller reimagined the troubled city

Cinematographer and production designer talk about recreating the Iranian city and presenting it with authenticity in Greece

Niv Sultan in ‘Tehran’, an Apple TV+ spy thriller and human story that eschews stereotypes, showing the Iranian people as complex individuals. Apple TV
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When production designer Yoel Herzberg sat down with cinematographer Giora Bejach to discuss the making of Tehran, an Apple TV+ spy thriller that revolves around a Mossad agent infiltrating the Iranian army, they quickly decided the titular city had to be colourful and vibrant, just like the real Iranian metropolis. There was only one problem – they were not allowed to shoot in the country.

The production team was soon on a mission to find a suitable city as a replacement. Herzberg tells The National that after contemplating several options around the Mediterranean, one outstanding candidate quickly emerged in the shape of Athens.

Not only are both cities very ancient, but Herzberg says they have also undergone “massive urban restructuring in the 20th century”. This has seen the introduction of modernist architecture and urban planning into old cities. As a result, Tehran and Athens have a similar mixture of what 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”. As a result, they did not have to create any new studio sets or fake facades for filming.

Actors Shervin Alenabi, left and Niv Sultan in 'Tehran'. Apple TV

Bejach says these similarities were not only restricted to the city centres. “Athens is a city surrounded by mountains, exactly like Tehran. Athens is also very green with gardens resembling Tehran.”

Capturing the natural beauty and greenery of the Greek capital was key for Bejach, as he wanted the rich colours and the joy of its architecture, well-kept gardens and bustling markets to make the audience sympathise with the city and the people of Tehran. Particularly when the “common visualisation of the area is cruel, dark and colourless”, all of which he made sure to avoid.

Production designer Yoel Herzberg, left, and cinematographer Giora Bejach, far right, on set of ‘Tehran’, which was filmed in Athens. Yoel Herzberg

But how did Bejach and Herzberg actually turn Athens into Tehran?

One of the first major problems they had to overcome was finding locations without graffiti. The Greek city is full of street art, a phenomenon that took off in the 1990s but has really thrived since the economic crisis of 2009. So much so that Athens is now regarded as Europe's primary destination for this urban form of expression.

For Herzberg, this meant "steam-cleaning marble walls, stairs and columns" across Athens, which he would then cover with Iranian posters, flyers, signs and adverts. Over several months, Herzberg 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 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

The incorporation of Iranian art also played a significant role in depicting the city. Bejach cites Homa Arkani and Kiana Hayeri’s paintings and photography as constant sources of inspiration. All the while Herzberg focused on Iranian films and documentaries, especially those that were from the point of view of locals, which meant they avoided the “inevitable American or Eurocentric interpretations of Iran”.

These included the documentaries Writing on the City and We Skate In Iran, as well as the feature films No One Knows About Persian Cats and Raving Iran, each of which he described as "poetic and eye-opening".

“[They] introduced me to a rich and complex world that I later integrated into my version of the streets of Tehran, and allowed me to better grasp the rich and complex culture and daily life of Iranians.”

Unsurprisingly, Herzberg also studied the work of Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi. When watching films such as The Past, A Separation and The Salesman, he found himself focusing on Farhadi's humanity and the way he depicts the "intimacy of everyday life", which is often opposed to the political tension and conflicts of the city.

Such characterisation and emotion was integral, as 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".

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."

Tehran is on Apple TV+, with new episodes broadcast every Friday