From The Underground Up: Michigan native Ben Ketai launches a gritty crime series.
Ben Ketai has entered the digital world big time. The former Metro Detroiter has developed an action series about digital money to be shown on a digital platform starting Sept. 6.
Ketai — who has been making short films since he was 12 — has created, written, directed and executive produced StartUp, an original series for Sony’s streaming network, Crackle. In its launching season, 10 one-hour episodes unfold confrontations of shady tech entrepreneurs who have come up with digital currency working out of Miami.
The series introduces three unlikely money operatives and a crooked FBI agent whose mission is to take them down. Stars include Martin Freeman (Fargo, Sherlock), Adam Brody (CHiPS, The League), Edi Gathegi (The Blacklist) and Otmara Marrero (Graceland).
“My favorite things about the series involve how disparate the characters are and how dynamic the cast is,” Ketai says in a phone conversation from California, where he has pursued a film career for 12 years.
“Each of the four main characters has a distinctly different background and personality. When you put them all together, it creates a wonderful chemistry and balance of tension and humor.”
Ketai, who asserts an ever-present interest in storytelling, made films as a student at the former Andover High School in Bloomfield Township and continued that pursuit at the University of Michigan. He learned on the job as an intern on productions associated with famed director Sam Raimi, another Michigan son.
“The series started with the theme and shining a light on what it means to do business in 2016 America,” explains Ketai, 34. “In wanting to do a show that was based on crime, I seemed to have the perfect confluence.
“I wanted to pull back the curtain on how the American dream — what people believe makes America great — doesn’t consider the hardships that people in this country still go through, economically or culturally. The characters were born out of that.”
In the first episode, Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero) begins her quest to build GenCoin, a cryptocurrency. Loan officer Nick Talman (Adam Brody) is tasked by his estranged father, Andy, to hide questionable funds and uses some of the money to partner with Izzy. Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi) deals with the perils of the streets while making a discovery about his gang’s money. Meanwhile, FBI financial crimes agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman) comes looking for Andy.
“We all did exhaustive research to try and become cryptocurrency experts,” Ketai says. “After six months of research for the writing process and a year of making the project, we found it’s such a difficult world to wrap your head around.”
Ketai began his film career by writing, directing and producing digital series for Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. He moved into features, co-writing and directing 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. Soon after, he began his association with Crackle as co-creator, writer and director of the award-winning thriller series Chosen.
Ketai, who has written and directed for various studios and producers, lists his latest screenwriting credits as the supernatural thriller The Forest and the fact-based horror film Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word.
He recently directed the psychological horror film, Beneath, released on iTunes. For the gaming sector, he directed the live-action portion of Microsoft’s Quantum Break.
“I hope to continue making StartUp,” he says. “There are different facets of the process that I have to juggle so time management is the hardest part. It’s about having a good plan every morning while being flexible and communicative.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned in the film industry is surrounding yourself with people you trust. You can take on any number of tasks or any load if there are people around you that you can trust to do tasks for you. It’s the key to successful filmmaking — and any other business, too.”
Ketai, who had his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel, has not written Jewish content into this first season but anticipates that will happen if the series continues.
“Because this is set in Miami, the natural melting pot of all cultures, including Jews, any upcoming seasons will have opportunities to expand into Jewish culture,” the writer-director says.
“This season is about Haitians and Cubans, and viewers start to get a little taste of the Russian mob. By the time we hopefully go to other seasons, every ethnic group that exists in the United States will be represented in some way.”
Ketai is married to former Metro Detroiter Rachel Lewis Ketai, an English instructor, and they have one son and another on the way. For quiet and mind-fresh time, he wakes up early to write and appreciates benefits of web programming.
“Crackle is easier to use than other big-streaming networks,” he says. “Viewers don’t need a subscription; it’s completely free. People can go to Crackle.com on their computers or go to the Crackle app on smartphones.
“Just click, and all the content is there. All 10 episodes can be watched alone or binge-watched for at least a year.” *
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer