On the set of Oslo: director–coexecutive producer Bartlett Sher (center, masked) and coexecutive producer Cambra Overend (left front, masked) with cast members Joachim Assbock and Geraldine Alexander (rear, center), Dov Glickman (seated, right) and Andrew Scott (standing, right).
The spark for Oslo — the Tony-winning play turned HBO film about the secret negotiations that came this close to bringing peace to the Middle East — was not ignited on the fabled playing fields of Eton.
According to director Bartlett Sher, it actually was ignited on the playing fields of the New York City Parks Department.
It was there, some 10 years ago, that Sher met Norwegian diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen, who — along with his wife, Mona Juul — had organized the 1993 back-channel meetings.
Their school-age daughters were then best friends and soccer teammates. While the girls ran up and down the Upper East Side pitch, the dads whiled away the time in conversation. That's how Sher discovered that Rød-Larsen and Juul were the couple who'd had the chutzpah to put Israelis and Palestinians in the same room.
Sher, who has "always been a political person and followed these kinds of things seriously," knew about the signing ceremony on the White House lawn and the (as it turned out, premature) Nobel Peace Prizes for Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chief of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
But he was unaware of the backstory: how dangerous it all was, and how careers rested not only on diplomatic success, but on keeping the media away from the meetings.
In-person exchanges between Israelis and the PLO were illegal — and political suicide for the Palestinians.
"I felt it had all the components of great drama — a great time frame, a secret location," Sher says. "J.T. [Rogers, Oslo's playwright and screenwriter] is fond of saying great drama is not between a right and a wrong, but between two rights. So that very much applies to the Palestinians and Israelis, two very strong people who each believe what they think is right. And that is very good for dramatic purposes."
With Sher directing, the play opened in New York in 2016 and won several awards, including the 2017 Tony for Best Play. Discussions about a film began "early on." Producer Marc Platt wanted Sher to direct, "even though I'd never made [a film] before," Sher says.
There were the usual delays, but when Steven Spielberg came aboard as an executive producer and HBO signed on, it was full steam ahead. Or as much speed as you can muster in the midst of a pandemic. Sher says there were a few bumps in the road, including some positive Covid tests, "but we worked through them."
The result — debuting May 29 on HBO and HBO Max — is "a very different experience from the play," says Sher, who is also a coexecutive producer of the film. "It's different coming into your house than when you get in your car, drive to the theater and see it with other people."
But no matter the medium, the message is the same: "It's a story of how you can bring incredible enemies into the same room and find hope."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2021