Spec Spotlight: Ben Ketai on Selling His First Spec 'Undying'
November 21, 2023
Screenwriter/director Ben Ketai was about 12 years old – too young, he admits – when he first saw the Adrian Lyne thriller Fatal Attraction. It left an indelible impression that has lasted well into his career in Hollywood.
“Something about the paranoia – someone making a mistake, committing a sin, and it leads to a lengthy unraveling of paranoia,” Ketai says. “They just don’t make a thriller like that anymore.”
But, apparently, they do now. Ketai just made post-strike news for the big spec sale he landed with Netflix – “mid-six against seven figures,” according to reports – for his Fatal Attraction-inspired script Undying, described as “a tense erotic thriller with a supernatural twist.”
Read More: What Is A Spec Script?
Like all overnight successes, it took Ketai, 41, a long time to get here.
Ketai, who studied screenwriting at the University of Michigan, landed in Hollywood in the early aughts. In 2004, he got a job as an assistant with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. He worked there for four years before breaking out on his own.
Ketai says he has been working consistently as a writer and director for 15 years.
“For better or worse, I’ve been blessed to always be busy and have work,” he says. “I got most of my jobs off of pitching a take on something that somebody needs written or rewritten."
His latest co-writer/director work, the feature River Wild, was released this year on Netflix. And while he once sold a spec screenplay to Quiby, breaking it up into multiple episodes, he had never enjoyed the classic feature-film spec sale. But he wanted to.
Taking Advantage of General Meetings
While coming up with spec ideas, Ketai thought back to Fatal Attraction. And in general meetings, he noticed that producers and studios were looking for “sexy thrillers.” So he started elevator-pitching the nugget that would become Undying.
“More than any other idea, they were leaning forward and saying, ‘I want to read that,’” Ketai says. “And I was like, ‘Well, I haven't written it yet.’ But just from that, I knew I had to see it through.
“That was like four or five years ago. It turns out it was a much harder script to crack than I thought it was going to be.”
Ten drafts later, and four weeks after the writers’ strike ended, Undying sold.
So, how’d Ketai get it done? One way that he taps into his writing: He gets away from his keyboard.
Process, Process, Process
“I do most of my writing in my head while doing other things,” he says. “My process is really about going to other parts of town and going for walks. People are like, ‘Did you go to someplace spooky to write this?’ That’s not the inspiration I'm talking about. It’s more about just seeing things that are different from what I see every day, you know? You unlock stuff in your brain.
“It’s like how writers will say a cold beer or a quick shower will just completely turn your brain. I feel that way about going to different places,” Ketai says.
He takes a notebook with him in case inspiration strikes. He also says that when he does sit down to write, he gives himself permission to write terribly.
“I plan about two or three days a week when I just binge-write the absolute worst garbage I can,” he says. “But I know where I’m going with it. Over the years I've just gotten really comfortable with writing badly, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and then throw the entire thing out and start completely from scratch.”
Ketai has a manager and agents for both film and TV. To writers who are still trying to make that leap, he stresses putting yourself out there and getting to know fellow creatives.
“I’m not a schmoozer, I’m not good at networking,” he says. “[But] LA is such a bastion of young creative people who, for selfish purposes or not, want to help each other and do favors and have favors done for them. And eventually, if you have a good piece of material, someone will read it and say, ‘I’m gonna give this to a manager or agent I know.’”
Written by: Jamie AllenJamie Allen is a writer based in Los Angeles. He's the creator of the Squirrel Census, a science, design, and storytelling project that was featured in The New York Times and other outlets.