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[whitespace] 'Car Babes'
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

'Babes' in Benland

Los Gatos filmmaker Ben Rekhi comes home to make his latest and biggest movie, the car-salesman flick 'Car Babes'

By Sarah Quelland

BEN REKHI is feeling the pressure. It's getting into the dog days of August, and the 26-year-old Indian-American filmmaker from Los Gatos has less than a month to film a major motion picture, on a limited budget. Surrounded by cameras, cables, lights, crew and actors inside the Moore Buick-Pontiac-GMC-Truck dealership on Los Gatos Boulevard, where they'll be filming from sundown to sunrise, his soft green eyes look tired. He wearily fidgets with a string of beads from Hawaii that he wears around his wrist.

No, they're not worry beads he says. "But I worry with 'em."

It's a stressful time for Rekhi, who's pushing to nail critical scenes for his third major film project, Car Babes, which stars Napoleon Dynamite breakout star Jon Gries, Donnell Rawlings (The Chappelle Show), Blake Clark (50 First Dates) and Ben Savage (Boy Meets World), before his actors have to ship out to honor other commitments.

'Car Babes' Not Talkin' 'Bout The Car Wash: The title of producer Ben Rekhi's 'Car Babes' comes from the term car salesmen use for each other. He realizes that some might suspect otherwise, but promises 'it's in no way a bikini car wash movie.'

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Filming is going well, though, and the air is charged with an intense sense of purpose. Members of the ambitious young crew march around importantly with headsets, clipboards and marker tape. Cups of coffee and healthy snacks, including grapes and PB&Js, are distributed liberally to keep the energy levels at a premium. Friends and parents drop by to watch the work in progress. Everyone's sociable, if a little bleary-eyed from sustained lack of sleep, and a closeness has developed between the cast and crew that makes the set feel like a family production.

The script was created by Rekhi's friends and fellow Los Gatans Blake Dirickson, Chris Wolf and Nicholas Fumia and has already been compared to cult classics like Office Space and Kingpin. The story centers around a car dealership and the title comes from the internal term car salesmen use for each other.

"It gets a lot of ears perked," Rekhi says of the movie's name. "But it's in no way a bikini car wash movie."

Instead, the comedy tells the story of Ford Davis (played by Savage), a 24-year-old with no direction who's forced to work at his dad's dealership to pay off a loaner car he damaged. Cast by Lindsey Kroeger (who served as casting associate on the Matrix sequels and Collateral), the film is peopled by colorful characters who band together under Davis' leadership to try to save the dealership from a hostile takeover by the camper dealer next door.

"It's kind of like the underdog story, but it's really in the details and the writing that makes it unique. We all have high hopes," Rekhi says. "I really think out of the three that I've done, this is the one that's got the most commercial crossover potential."

'Car Babes' Driving Forces: 'Car Babes' directors Chris Wolf and Nick Fumia talk to actor David Shackelford during filming.

Photograph by Peter H. Chang

Boy: Hometown Makes Good

The community in and around Los Gatos has embraced the project. Businesses such as the Moore dealership, Salon Demitri's The Hair People, Pedro's Restaurant & Cantina and C.B. Hannegan's agreed to serve as locations, and the Los Gatos Lodge became the Car Babes base of operations. All the cast and crew stayed there during filming.

"Being from this town and having really strong social and family networks here really helped people understand where we're coming from," Rekhi explains. "People see that this is a good thing for the community. It employs people. It brings money back to local vendors, local caterers, local businesses. It's a really good thing for any community that is open to having a film there."

As a location, Los Gatos holds special significance for the filmmakers. "There was something very personal about shooting it here because we all grew up here," says Rekhi. "The writers all really wanted to push for here because it meant so much to them—doing a story about a kid growing up and coming into his own—to be able to shoot it in their hometown."

Roadblocks were at a minimum due to the filmmakers' strong local connections. Plus, Rekhi adds, "In New York and L.A., everybody and their brother is shooting a feature film. You come up here and there's a certain appeal about it because it's unique and different. People want to be a part of that."

It's not just the community, but also the actors who jumped to get involved. When film and TV stars do low-budget films like Car Babes, they work for next to nothing because something in the script speaks to them and they believe in the project.

For Savage, it was the dynamic between the father and son and the struggle for the son to grow from a boy into a man. "It focused on something my friends and I are going through," the recent Stanford graduate explains. "Like that two- or three-year period right out of college where everything's a possibility, everything's terrifying. You don't really have any sense of stability. It's the first time you're out on your own in life and I think that's such an interesting time."

'Car Babes'
Photograph by Peter H. Chang

Good Lighting is for Closers: Ben Savage and Blake Clark in a scene from 'Car Babes.'

Savage is in almost every scene of the movie and he appreciates the level of collaboration involved.

"Working with these guys, it really makes you feel like it's a group project. They're all young [and) they are very open and receptive to everyone's ideas. It's a really great set to be around."

Caught during a quick break between takes, comedian Rawlings, who plays Julius, and veteran actor Clark, who plays Ford's dad Big Len, don't mind detailing their experience working with the Car Babes team.

"Sometimes when you hear 'independent,' you don't think you have the crew, and the production's usually kinda shady," Rawlings relates. "But the first day I was on-set, I looked and I was like these guys really got their shit together. There wasn't nobody slacking or anybody playing around, not taking the project serious. And I been in situations where everybody get together like that, you get a real real good product. When everybody's trying to do their job the best they can do, it reflects."

Clark adds, "We realize that they're on a limited budget, so we want to do as best we can and not burn their time or their film, 'cause it's expensive. We're trying to get it right as quickly as we can in as few takes as possible. I've done a couple of low budget movies, but nothing with this level of professionalism. I predict that these guys are gonna really go somewhere and be something."

'Car Babes'
Photograph by Peter H. Chang

Babes Gone Wild: From left to right, John Campo, Marshall Manesh, Ben Savage, Donnell Rawlings and David Shakelford are the 'car babes' of the title.

Between Friends

Car Babes is Rekhi's third major film project and serves as a real departure from his past two films which were intense character dramas. His first full-length feature as producer, 2002's Bomb the System, delves into the subculture of New York graffiti artists, and his directorial debut, 2005's Waterborne, takes an up-close look at a fictional bioterrorism attack on the water supply in Los Angeles.

Gries played Ritter, a key character in Waterborne, and enjoyed the experience so much he worked hard to fit Car Babes into his tight schedule. Right now he's shooting a Western in Calgary with Jon Voight, but he took his only week off to fly here and film his scenes.

Lounging in the backroom, flipping channels to pass the time until it's his turn on camera, Gries says part of the reason he likes working with this team is because of the bond they share. "They're all local kids from here and they grew up together basically. There was just a comfort to see the way the camaraderie was with everyone," he muses. "I'm still very close with my high school friends—in fact some of them from elementary school—even though we're all living in different places. So that was a comfort."

Rekhi's childhood connections have served him well. He started out making short backyard films with his middle school friends. By high school, they'd completed a cops and mafia spoof called Get 'Em, which was shot around town and has achieved a sort of cult status in Los Gatos. They even rented out the Los Gatos Cinema for a screening that drew 400 people. After high school, he went to New York University where he and business partner Adam Bhala Lough did short films together, including Jes One, which was the model and fundraising tool for Bomb the System."

"Each of us have started out together and we're all branching out and doing individual projects, but we all come back together to do big projects. I'm up here doing this project with people I worked with 15 years ago," he says, referring to Fumia and Wolf, "but [it's] the first time [we're] doing something of this caliber."

Gries is quick to say he'd work with Rekhi on future projects. "I think that's kind of a tacit understanding between us. That we would definitely work together again."

To be able to contract such reputable talent and make such a strong impression on them bodes well for Rekhi's future.

The multitalented filmmaker says, "My heart will always be with writing and directing because that's [where] I feel I can have the most impact in terms of the vision. Producing is just something I've found that I'm really good at." Still, he likes having the flexibility to do both. "I feel like there's a strong business sense in me and there's a strong creative sense, so I'm trying to balance those two out."

He's already won a number of awards including Best Feature at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival for Bomb the System and Special Audience Award at the 2005 SXSW Film Festival for Waterborne. Bomb the System is also being distributed through Palm Pictures in limited release and headlined the Route 05: Scion Independent Film Series. Last month, it screened at MACLA's Castellano Playhouse in San Jose as part of the Ghetto Fabulous: The Be-Sides of Hip-Hop Film Festival. It's scheduled for an Oct. 11 release on DVD.

He's committed to Car Babes full time until post-production is completed next spring, but is already lining up his next projects. Among them, an as-of-yet untitled film about a terrorist training school in Pakistan; Waste, which centers around a sanitation strike in New York; Weapons, a violent revenge story about a group of young kids in the South who finger the wrong guy for a rape; and The Living Wake, a dark comedy where the main character finds out he's dying and starts inviting people to his funeral.

"There's definitely a lot of momentum," Rekhi declares.

Rekhi has accomplished a lot for his age. He worked for New Line Cinema, Sony Pictures and MGM before founding his own production company, Drops Entertainment. He's done a number of music videos, including Los Gatos band dredg's Of the Room and several for Hindi pop star Sanjay Maroo. He served as a camera intern on the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? and was subsequently hired by George Clooney to direct the behind-the-scenes documentary for Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

His filming style is frequently described as kinetic, and he says he likes rough, edgy images.

"I really prefer to do something where it's high contrast. Like extremely white and extremely black in the same frame. It does something to the viewer emotionally that you're not really thinking about, but it's affecting you."

Music is also central to his vision. dredg scored Waterborne and Rekhi still sounds awed by their contribution.

"I knew that they were going to do something different with it, but I had no idea the incredible score that they'd create. It's something that really has been something that people comment [on] most about the film."

"I've always been a fan of creating original music for film," he explains. "I feel like if you're going to go to the length of creating the script, creating the visuals, creating the sounds, you might as well be writing the music as well, or having that created."

Rekhi shoots his movies in under 30 days with budgets near $500,000, a pittance compared to big budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Despite his financial limitations, he thinks the quality of Car Babes will be competitive with major studio films. "The production design, the cinematography, the wardrobe and the location are larger-than-life. I think it's gonna surprise people because the film looks and feels huge. It doesn't feel like an independent film."

With a calm confidence, he says, "I don't see myself continuing to do [movies] at this budget for very long. I feel like the longer you can work outside the system and show that you can do it consistently well, the more they'll want you in later. If you make a great work of art or a great business success, you're either really talented or really lucky. And if you can do it twice, then it starts to show that you're consistent about it and it's not just a one off. So with Car Babes, it'll be three really strong projects and people can't ignore that for too long."

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From the October 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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