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Just getting started: Creator Ben Ketai on Crackle’s StartUp

Silicon Valley meets The Wire as technology and crime clash in StartUp, US SVoD platform Crackle’s latest original series. Creator Ben Ketai explains why the world of cyber currency is the perfect setting for this 10-part thriller.

The murky worlds of technology and hacking have proven to be fertile grounds for TV drama in recent years. This trend is best exemplified by the success of Mr Robot, USA Network’s original drama that was one of the success stories of 2015 and scooped the Golden Globe for best drama earlier this year.

Other examples include Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s period piece that dramatises the personal-computer revolution of the 1980s and is now in its third season.

For five seasons, CBS crime drama Person of Interest saw the use of a computer to predict the victims and perpetrators of future crimes, while on the same network Scorpion brought together a team of genius misfits to act as the last line of defence against modern, high-tech threats. The show’s third season launches next month.

Creator Ben Ketai on set
Creator Ben Ketai on set

The most recent spin-off within the CSI franchise, CSI: Cyber, also saw Patricia Arquette investigate tech-based crimes for two seasons on CBS between 2014 and this year.

The latest entry in this genre is StartUp, a 10-part thriller that merges the tech world with the traditional crime drama for US SVoD platform Crackle.

Set in Miami, the plot sees financier Nick Talman (played by Adam Brody) invest his father’s ill-gotten gains into a tech start-up pitched by Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero). When local Haitian gang leader Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi) discovers the money he left with Nick’s father has vanished, the trio form a dangerous alliance that makes them a target for FBI agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman).

“With these characters and the subject matter, it’s not the sort of thing you see every day,” admits creator and executive producer Ben Ketai, who also writes and directs on the series.

Ketai had previously worked with Crackle on Chosen, the streaming service’s action-thriller that stars Milo Ventimiglia as a lawyer who discovers he has been selected by a mysterious organisation to play a deadly game whose players must kill or be killed.

Otmara Marrero and The OC's Adam Brody (right) star
Otmara Marrero and The OC’s Adam Brody (right) star

So the platform was the natural home for Ketai’s next project, in which he wanted to explore how tech is changing the face of crime and organised crime in the 21st century. The result is StartUp, which he describes as “Silicon Valley meets The Wire.”

The series is produced by Critical Content and Hollywood Gang Productions. Tom Forman, Andrew Marcus, Ray Ricord, Gianni Nunnari and Shannon Gaulding executive produce with Ketai. Brody and Anne Clements are the producers.

Filming for the show, which landed on Crackle on September 6, took place in Puerto Rico between January and May this year.

And at the centre of the story is GenCoin, a brilliant but controversial digital currency created by Marrero’s unorthodox tech wizard Izzy.

“We did a lot of research,” reveals Ketai. “One of my favourite parts of the job is doing research. In what other job do you learn about so many things at once? It was great becoming a student of crypto currency [a digital currency that operates independently of a central bank].

“There are certain things out there that are very difficult to wrap your head around unless you’re a tech person. It took six months of research to hone what was important about Bitcoin and other digital currencies and how big the gap was between Izzy’s idea and it really existing. We consulted with a lot of experts and they assured us it was within the realm of possibility. It’s very exciting to us that it’s feasible.

Martin Freeman plays FBI agent Phil Rask
Martin Freeman plays FBI agent Phil Rask

“Season one is focused on the idea that the American dream doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been stolen, and sometimes to be good you have to do some bad. That’s the theme that ties our characters together.”

It wasn’t just the writers who had to understand this new tech world, with the cast and crew also requiring a crash course into the world of crypto currency – something Ketai describes as the biggest challenge of the series.

“It’s not something you easily translate to a cast and crew,” he explains. “It’s hard enough for the writers, and then you have a 150-strong production. Everyone has to speak that language. That was a big challenge, being able to tell a story this big with the references we had, but we had an incredible cast, crew and producers. We’re fortunate to have such a wonderful group of people because, without that, there’s no way you pull this off.

“Like other shows, we all have to take some creative licence to make it more compelling for the viewer. We want to service the tech world to the best of our ability, but what comes first is the story and the characters.”

Among those characters is FBI agent Phil Rask who, over the course of the first season, plans to take a journey to “the very pit of darkness” to take down the unsuspecting trio he is tracking. And to play Rask? There was only ever one actor in mind.

“Martin Freeman was the natural choice from the start,” Ketai reveals. “When we started developing the character, we always wanted to cast against type. We’ve seen corrupt FBI agents before so we wanted to find someone that would be surprising to us and the viewers. I’ve always loved Martin. I’ve only seen him in more comedic roles but he has charm and believability. It was very exciting to see and work with him and watch him embody the character. It was a no-brainer.

“The most important part of my job as a directing showrunner/producer is to hire the best people in front of the camera. I leave it in their hands and I’m there as a guide. The cast are all just incredible, smart actors. That’s the only kind of actor I know how to work with. You rely on them to craft the emotional landscape of the characters and their story.”

With a team of five writers on the show, Ketai admits StartUp is “a very big story – there’s a lot to tell in 10 hours” – and the trickiest part was setting up the pilot to ensure every character was adequately introduced.

“They have their own stories to tell and without us understanding where they’re coming from, none of it works,” he says.

“I wish we could have had 20 episodes! That’s what season two and three will do, if we get recommissioned. And we are starting the process to get ready in the event that we are getting a second season.”

If StartUp takes off, Ketai could be cashing in his GenCoin chips for many more seasons to come.

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Netflix senses second-season success

sense8-cast
Sense8 has been given a second run

As expected, SVoD giant Netflix has greenlit a second series of its acclaimed sci-fi series Sense8.

Fans were starting to get worried because of the long time the company seemed to be taking over an announcement. Usually, Netflix makes a decision within a month of a show’s completion – but this was a scary two-month gap.

Sense8 was created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski, who are widely expected to come back on board for season two. The trio have previously said that they planned the series to run for five seasons, Netflix audience data analysis willing.

While much attention is paid to Netflix’s US originals, the company is also ordering an increasing number of international series to support its global roll-out. This week, for example, it ordered its first original series from Brazil, which is set to debut in 2016.

Produced by Boutique Filmes and directed by Cesar Charlone, 3% is billed as a “dramatic futuristic story set in a world divided between progress and devastation.” In 2011, Boutique Filmes released a three-episode pilot of 3% on YouTube that attracted more than 400,000 views.

Tiago Mello, the show’s executive producer, said: “Netflix’s willingness to invest in Brazilian content, local talent and creative storytelling is key for our growth as an industry. The story was created a few years ago and now I am thrilled that it will turn into a new original Netflix series.”

The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October
The second season of Fargo comes to FX in October

A lot of attention has been paid to the original commissions strategy at Netflix and Amazon, but there are a growing number of other on-demand/streaming services seeking to establish their credentials as sources of event drama.

Sony’s Crackle, for example, has just released a trailer for The Art of More, its first scripted drama. Starring Dennis Quaid (who is also an executive producer), Christian Cooke, Cary Elwes and Kate Bosworth, the 10-episode series will delve into “the surprisingly cutthroat and glamorous world of premium auction houses.”

The series follows Graham Connor (Cooke), a blue-collar upstart who leverages his way into this exclusive realm by exploiting connections to antiquities smuggling rings he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. Also inhabiting this rarified world is Sam Brukner (Quaid), a self-made billionaire who was somewhat ruthless on his way up the food chain in the real-estate world. Now he’s a tycoon with access to everything he desires and he wants everyone to know it – he’s a collector of both art and people.

The writers of The Art of More are Gardner Stern (NYPD Blue, Law and Order) and Chuck Rose. They are also executive producing alongside Quaid, Laurence Mark (Last Vegas, Julie & Julia, Dreamgirls), Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury, The Shield) and Tamara Chestna.

This week has also seen a number of announcements from US cable channel FX. Chief among them was news that Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse’s thriller The Strain will return for a third season.

Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks and FX Productions, said: “Guillermo and Carlton have delivered two thrilling seasons of The Strain that are captivating and visually arresting, doing justice to the original novel trilogy and meeting fans’ high expectations in the process.”

The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe
The Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter, which is being adapted into a series starring Ryan Phillippe

FX has also set the premiere dates for a number of its hotly anticipated new series. Kurt Sutter’s new drama The Bastard Executioner will start on September 15. The show is described as “a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.”

Other FX series coming up are American Horror Story: Hotel, which debuts on October 7, and the new edition of Fargo, set to premiere on October 12. If that sounds like an exciting line-up of drama then you should probably enjoy it while you can.

At the recent TCA (Television Critics Association) event in the US, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf caused a stir when he said “there is simply too much television.” He predicted that the number of original scripted series will reach a peak in the next two years before starting to decline. FX currently has 20 original scripted series across FX and sister network FXX.

Economics dictate that it won’t go any higher, though Landgraf had originally hoped to take the total up to 24. One inference from his comments is that the scripted industry will soon experience a retraction, which may in turn lead to some company closures or consolidations.

Big news on the international coproduction front is that The Weinstein Company (TWC) and ITV Studios Global Entertainment have joined forces to make a 10-part gangster series set amid the fall of the Soviet Union. Called Mafiya, the series is being written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) and produced by Archery Pictures, the UK producer set up by Kris Thykier and former Scott Free UK chief Liza Marshall. Set in Moscow in the 1990s, the mob series will follow the rise of a street trader who becomes one of the richest and most powerful people in the country.

ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special
ITV has commissioned a three-part Scott & Bailey special, to be produced by Red Production Company.

This week also brought news that the Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter is being reinvented as a TV series. The small-screen version of the 2007 Paramount film will star Ryan Phillippe and is being written by John Hlavin. Phillippe plays a former Marine sniper who is brought back into action to thwart the killing of the president.

Other greenlights this week include Wanted (working title), a thriller for Australia’s Seven Network. Scripted by Timothy Hobart, John Ridley and Kirsty Fisher, this story follows two strangers who intervene in a deadly carjacking and are swept up in a chase across Australia in a car full of money. Shooting starts in October in Brisbane, with Screen Queensland investing in the project.

In the UK, meanwhile, broadcaster ITV has commissioned a special three-part run of cop drama Scott & Bailey, featuring a single crime story to be produced by Red Production Company. Explaining the three-part format, ITV said it will “allow the story to unfold with scale and ambition as Scott and Bailey tackle one of the biggest and darkest cases they have ever had to face.”

The drama will be executive produced by Red’s Nicola Shindler and written by Lee Warburton and Paul Logan. “We’re delighted to be returning to Scott & Bailey with an investigation that will have everlasting consequences for the characters,” said Shindler. “This series is more ambitious and sinister than ever before and the concept of a three-part story allows us the opportunity to tackle a story of epic scale and ambition.”

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