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Take Five: Crackle's 'StartUp' Creator, Showrunner Ben Ketai

by Andrew Greene  |  09.02.2016

This Tuesday, September 6, the next wave of content from Sony’s streaming service Crackle begins with gritty crime drama StartUp.

The Miami-based series chronicles the intersection between the crime and technology worlds from the very specific point of view of a cryptocurrency startup. The series stars Martin Freeman (Sherlock), Adam Brody (The O.C.), Edi Gathegi (Blacklist) and Otmara Marrero.

Daily Brief spoke with writer-director Ben Ketai (Chosen) about his creative process, working with Crackle, and the American Dream.

DAILY BRIEF: Where do you get your best ideas?

KETAI: I can honestly say all my better ideas, or most of my ideas, come from walking. I just go for walks. I’m sort of a doer, I’m not very good at sitting for long periods of time. It’s not until I have it fully formed that I sit down in front of a computer.

Do you remember the walk where you came up with StartUp?

There was never a “Eureka!” moment with this show. It was an organic evolution. It began with me sitting down with the folks at Crackle because we wanted to make a show together again. We wanted to do something in the tech world, wondering what it would be like if it crossed paths with the crime world because there’s a lot of great tech shows on the air already, like Silicon Valley, Halt and Catch Fire, Mr. Robot. We wanted to put our own twist on it. It evolved from there. There was a lot of walks. It’s a complex show, there’s a lot to wrangle, but man, it was probably the most enlightening and refreshing creative process of my life.

I read that you spent six months researching this. What was that process like?

We had all of our writers in the writer’s room split up, divide and conquer. It wasn’t just tech stuff, it was Miami and the cultural stuff. Things were moving so fast as far as us having to get the show written. We were trying to hit a launch date from the start, but it was this beautiful melange of ideas and research and everything came together to form the show. Other things were going to Miami, spending time in cafes, walking around the streets and neighborhoods where the show takes place.

It blew my mind that Miami has the highest startup density in the country. Why do you think that is?

There isn’t really a cut-and-dry answer for it. The startup culture there is based in the fact that there is a lot of young people flocking to start their lives, whether it’s for the weather or the fun, there’s a lot of new things going on there. There’s also a lot of venture capitalists. It’s all about the money. There’s a lot of really wealthy people with disposable income that want to invest in the next generation of innovation.

It wasn’t just the fact that this is an entrepreneurial town that made it a perfect place to set this show, but also a lot of those wealthy people…their money does not come from the most savory places. That’s why it landed: holy shit, this is where tech and crime come together.

There’s so much TV and so many different networks. What is it like to work with Crackle?

Crackle has become my home the last few years. I did Chosen with them a few years back and now this. There are obviously other networks to work with, there are other streaming channels to find content on, but Crackle is the place that breeds an incredible amount of creativity. They are filmmaker driven. They let their filmmakers create an atmosphere, a world, and run with it, whereas I feel like the more traditional networks, the broadcast networks and even most of the premium cable networks, have a lot more boxes to tick as far as what they need from a show. Crackle gives you a lot of freedom as a filmmaker and that’s what I love about being there. Yes, they haven’t had as much exposure yet, as much as Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, but I think they’re well on their way. Actually I’m positive they are, because it’s not just our show: they have a new slate of awesome shows coming out. The world will know their name very soon.

This seems like a very different role for Martin Freeman: it’s dark. Did he approach you or…?

We reached out to him. He was one of the first names we threw around in the writer’s room. This is a character that takes a dark turn. In order to subvert expectations, we wanted to cast somebody that you would not suspect and Martin was one of the first people we put up on the wall.

Lo and behold, he really responded and had the same feeling we did: this is a role he has never played before. Wouldn’t it be fun to show the world that side of Martin Freeman? It was haunting to watch him take on this role. Somebody we normally know for lighter roles or more bumbling characters, he commands the screen with such gravitas. It’s wonderful not just to work with but to sit and watch as well.

You’ve written horror previously (The Forest), but in many ways, StartUp is more terrifying because it’s real.

When you’re doing horror, the goal should, in my opinion, always be to make it as real as possible, because that’s what makes things scary. Early in my career I was doing things with vampires. You’re already fighting an uphill battle there. That’s why this is a refreshing project for me. We can make something that is real, based in reality. Reality that is happening in real-time.

Do you still believe in the American Dream?

I don’t believe in the American Dream that is advertised to us. I believe in dreams. I believe in wanting something and working hard for it, but I don’t believe that is something that can be packaged and sold the way people have always believed. That’s the unfortunate moral of this story.

To lighten up: assuming you’re not lactose intolerant, what’s your go to milkshake flavor?

I’m a normal chocolate milkshake kind of guy I guess.

You can’t beat the American out of you.

I don’t pretend to not be American, I just believe the dream is dead.

But Crackle’s just getting started, with all ten episodes of StartUp arriving Tuesday, September 6.

[All images courtesy of Crackle]

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