INTERVIEW: Director Ben Rekhi Puts Viewers In A Drug War For Watch List

A desperate single mother joins a drug cartel while the government of the Philippines uses brutal measures to take them down in the new film starring Alessandra de Rossi (Since I Found You) and directed by Ben Rekhi (Waterborne).

Watch List centers around Maria (Alessandra de Rossi), a mother of three who’s rounded up by police during a massive assault on civil liberties in the name of getting drugs off the streets. Maria’s husband’s taken too and ultimately used as an example to future would-drug pushers. Now a widower, Maria’s got to figure out how to survive. That’s where Alvin (Arthur Acuña) and other nefarious players come into Maria’s life.

PopAxiom spent some time talking with Ben Rekhi about his road to filmmaking, being a director, and getting the Watch List made.

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Invested

Around 11 or 12, Ben and his friends “started playing with the family video camera in the backyard. I had a neighbor who was a little older than me, who would make funny videos. I thought it was pretty cool.”

Like any kid in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, or today, Ben says he ”grew up in the age of Spielberg and Lucas.”

Naturally, the influence brought on by those two filmmaking legends meant Ben and his friends were “making little Indiana Jones movies.”

The young filmmaking crew had a rare advantage. “We had access to some of the digital editing software. One of my friends, his uncle worked for Apple. We were early adopters of morphing technology and lightsabers. We’d see something like Terminator 2, then come home and try to make some morphing effects ourselves.”

“It’s great to have all those tricks and stuff,” Ben says, “but I think it was Lucas who said that FX is just a tool and aren’t much without a story. FX on its own is not so interesting.”

Of course, when Lucas made his comment, we didn’t have nearly the spectacle we have now. “It’s debatable because there’s some eye-popping stuff that’s being created.”

However, Ben still believes “it only really works if you’re emotionally invested.”

Becoming A Director

Ben’s backyard videos became “more and more sophisticated and I went to film school.”

“At first it was fluid,” Ben says of film school, “Everyone was doing everything. But I guess I had this passion for corralling people and getting people organized. Directing felt the most tuned to my skillset.”

It may not sound sexy, but corralling is part of being a director. “So much of it is management. I think it was Danny Boyle who broke it down and said filmmaking is just about getting people to show at a certain place at a certain time. It’s an oversimplification, but so much of it is that and getting people on the same page.”

Don’t let that fool would-be directors. “Of course,” Ben asserts, “there’s also diving into the creative side too and using the tools you have available for doing that. But film is such a collaborative effort. So many other art forms is one person creating the art. Film is more like a symphony and making sure that everyone is playing the same song.”

Directors need to conduct this symphony, which with so many moving parts, it’s incredible movies get made at all. “Any film that gets made is a small miracle.”

After Tisch, Ben ended up as an intern on Oh, Brother Where Art Thou and “working in the camera department under Roger Deakins. I was twenty years old and getting Roger’s tea every morning. I learned so much in those two months in Mississippi, almost more than in four years of film school.”

“I kept in touch with George Clooney’s team and ended up on the first film that he directed, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” Ben says, “where my job was to shoot things for the behind-the-scenes for the DVD.”

Following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Ben says, “I partnered with one of my classmates to do a short film on graffiti writers, and we used that to fund-raise for a feature and produced Bomb The System. It did well in the festival circuit, got nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and we sold it.”

The success of Bomb the System afforded Ben a great opportunity. “I was able to leverage that into directing my first feature, Waterborne, which won the Audience Award at South-by-Southwest.”

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Big Break

That’s it! Ben became a non-stop success after that, or so the feel-good biopic would have you believe. “As anybody who works in this business knows, it’s a roller coaster. At one point, I had an agent, and I was up for several directing and writing jobs, but I couldn’t land my next film. I fell back into a rut after having a film that was good and broke through, but didn’t quite crossover into that ‘breakout film’ type scenario.”

“I was young, and I didn’t quite understand how to turn those opportunities into the next one,” Ben admits and soon learned, “one thing about life is that anytime you have any kind of mild success, you have to step on the gas even harder.”

Ben also got some advice that he holds dead. “Always have your next project lined up before the current one releases. That way, no matter how the current project does, you’ll have the next shot ready to go.”

The movies always have a happy ending, so “You always hear the success stories, but rarely about the failures. For every movie that sells at Sundance, there are 1000s that don’t go anywhere.”

“Once you’re in the field,” Ben says, “you realize that’s not a very good odds game. You wouldn’t go to a casino and bet on 1000-to-1, especially with your life and career.”

More advice that Ben holds dear came from a directing legend. “Some of the best advice I ever got was from Spike Lee. He came and talked to us at NYU, and someone asked, ‘Do you have any advice for young directors.’ Ben continues, “Spike Lee replied, ‘I have a question for you. Why should you direct? Is there anything else you can see yourself doing with your life? If there’s anything else, then do that. This is way too hard and way too competitive.’”

None of this is to discourage would-be filmmakers. But the journey is long, and many only see a destination. “It’s not all about the destination, it’s about the journey. Do you enjoy creating every day? Of course, we want to do our best work. But the work is just the result; the process is the experience, everything in between, it’s our lives.”

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About Watch List

Ben’s filmography quickly reveals that he’s not shy about approaching heavy topics. “Watch List began with a photograph I saw in the paper that stuck with me. It was about a woman holding her husband who’d just been murdered, and she kind of resembled the Mother Mary. This was the photo that put the drug wars on the map in 2016.”

Ben reached out to the journalist who worked on the story. “She told me story after story of the most heartbreaking things I’d ever heard. She invited me to come to Manila and see for myself.”

Ben went to Manila and “was embedded with these journalists for three weeks. I did ride-alongs to crime scenes, spoke to victims’ families, police officers, and started to piece together the tragedies that were unfolding. There was a true story of a woman who worked for the police as an informant. And because she was a woman, she was able to get closer to her targets and not raise suspicion and lure them out into a trap.”

The writing process began as Ben’s brain started asking questions. “What a mother must go through to put food on the table for her kids. Or, how far would someone go to protect their kids? Would they shoot someone else’s father? All those questions seemed like the most compassionate way to tell the story.”

In Watch List, you get to one character “going from being a victim to becoming a vigilante and seeing all sides of the drug war.”

Ben worked with a writer in the Philippines, and through a connection at XYZ Films (The Raid, Mandy), he connected with “producers like Erik Matti … it was very serendipitous. It was nine months from idea to the first day of production.”

Nine months is from idea to production is phenomenal. “I feel like the universe aligned to make it happen. I constantly asked myself why I was the person to tell this story? I felt compelled. I feel like ideas infect you. They come out of nowhere and take hold. It’s kind of our jobs as artists to follows those ideas and see them through without over-rationalizing it.”

Ben shares a bit of what he’s learned. “I did a project where I intellectually approached it and tried to think my way through, and it was a traumatic experience. For Watch List, I said, let me surrender to my heart and intuition and see what happens. It’s the fastest film I’ve brought into the world, and it’s the one I’m most proud of.”

Ben laughs and says, “Art is a spooky thing.”

Outsider

Ben was born in California, so making a movie about the Philippines’ drug war meant a cultural disconnect. “Research, to me, is so important to any story. I let authenticity be my guide. So, when I’d go out into the street to talk to people, I would incorporate what I’d hear into the story.”

Everyone’s hear the saying, “write what you know.” Ben adds, “but I think it was Dan Brown, who said, ‘I write what I want to know.’ That, to me, is something that I embraced for Watch List.”

Ensuring authenticity is a vital component of a film like Watch List. “Also,” Ben says, “being an outsider has its advantages. I can get this story to people outside the Philippines and create great awareness.”

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Film Vs. Reality

Film productions, particularly those taking place outdoors, are at the whims of mother nature. “We were caught in a typhoon, and that flooded out a location with water up to our knees. We had to get out of there.”

“One of the locations,” Ben recalls, “was a little shack next to train tracks. There was a train that came by and hit our set and took part of it. We had to shut down for a couple of hours.”

By now, you might start to understand what Spike Lee was talking about. But the Watch List shoot got even more dramatic. “I was briefly hospitalized at one point for exhaustion. I had to get an IV and everything.”

Ben explains a key contributor to his exhaustion. “The way they shoot in the Philippines is that all the crew and equipment are on a 24-hour hire. You shoot for 24 hours and then have a day off, then another 24 hours, then a day off. We get 16, 18, 20, 22 hours into a shoot day and be complete zombies. I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”

“It’s the way the industry’s evolved there,” Ben continues, “but they’re trying to change that now after a few directors died in this process and actors have hurt themselves. They’re slowly changing things, but it was brutal; 110 degrees and humid.”

The authenticity of the level seen in Watch List was many times, all too real. “We were shooting in the real slums where a lot of these things took place. So, we’d be filming on the same corner where someone had been shot the night before. But I think all that helps add to the realism.”

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Wrapping Up

Ben grew up a fan of Spielberg and Lucas. Who’s are some future legends in his eyes? “Literally from my school, NYU, that’s Cary Joji Fukunaga is doing extraordinary work. Denis Villeneuve is another one. These are guys that are very sophisticated storytellers who are choosing to work in different genres. It’s exciting not to get boxed into one type of film. James Mangold fits into that and Danny Boyle. Filmmakers who are incredible storytellers, but also chameleons. That, to me, is who I admire the most.”

Quantum Leap the TV show was so incredible,” Ben says when asked about dream projects, “and one that I thought would make an amazing film. I know they’ve been trying for a while. I’ve always loved 80s sci-fi comedies like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, or even weird stuff like Weird Science too.”

Watch List released digitally on September 1. So, what’s next for Ben? “I just finished my first feature documentary called the Reunited States about people trying to bridge our political divides. It couldn’t be more timely or urgent, given the state of things. It’s on the festival circuit and will probably distribute later this year.”

Ben’s got one project releasing and the next project already in motion. “My next fictional film we’re just putting together now is at the intersection of mass shootings and online extremism. It’s about a young woman who survives a mass shootings and goes online to start targeting extremists and stop them before they do anything in the real world.”

Is Watch List on your, um, watch list?

Thanks to Ben Rekhi and October Coast
for making this interview possible.

Want to read more interviews? CLICK HERE.

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Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.

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