Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miami Life: A Phone Conversation With Billy Corben

By Scott Tre

For the past 4 years, Billy Corben has played a major role in the way the city of Miami is viewed in popular culture.  His Cocaine Cowboys films exposed the underbelly of Miami's cocaine wars in a way that Scarface and Miami Vice only hinted at.  The U showed how the emergence of Hip-Hop coupled with the racial tensions and harsh economic realities that existed in Miami at the time played a role in reshaping the University of Miami's football program for better or worse.  In fact, that phrase is indicative of Corben's filmography.  It could be titled South Florida: The Good, The Bad & The Indifferent or maybe South Florida: The Crazy, the Wild, and the Outrageous.  The tales told in his films are as outlandish as anything you'd read in a supermarket tabloid.  The major difference is that it's all true.  You're hearing from the horses mouth.

As with the culture of Miami itself, Billy Corben is in a state of flux, with his attentions divided in a million different directions.  Continuing and maintaining his Cocaine Cowboys brand remains a major priority.  He is also readying more lurid tales from the magic city for our consumption.  That his focus can be so intense yet so broad is amazing.  Somewhere in the middle of readying The U for its debut on DVD, Mr. Corben found the time to talk to me over the phone about nothing in particular.  Since Mr. Corben is the kind of guy that can make even the most mundane conversation just as exciting as one of his documentaries, I figured I would share it.  Billy Corben operates like the Big Apple.  He never sleeps.   

Scott Tre: The DVD of The U is now available.  How is it different from the broadcast version?  What can buyers expect?

Billy Corben: ESPN is in the middle of doing 30 of these movies, the 30 for 30 series.  30 different documentaries from 30 different filmmakers to celebrate ESPN's 30th Anniversary.  This is the first one that I'm aware of, the first 30 for 30 DVD release that is a two disc special edition.  Its got two discs worth of material.    So it's not only got the movie, but it's got a bunch of deleted scenes. I think there's an actual interview with me on there.  There's a second disc with condensed games.  So I think there are just like elaborate highlights from four great Hurricanes games from the era that we cover in the movie.  We just got our DVD's in yesterday from ESPN so I haven't even had a chance to really take a look at it and see everything that made it on there.  We prepared about a half hour of deleted scenes...stuff that didn't make the final cut of the movie when it was on ESPN.  We shipped those all over to EPSN and they put this whole thing together.  I am now looking forward to seeing what finally made it but I know there's a lot of stuff on there.

Scott Tre: Will Rakontur ever produce any non-documentary feature films?

Billy Corben: Right now, Alfred Spelman, my producing partner and I are executive producing along with Jerry Bruckhiemer and Micheal Bay an adaptation of Cocaine Cowboys, our documentary as a dramatic series for HBO.  So right now there is a writer working on a script for a pilot episode as we speak.  Hopefully we'll have some more news on that later this year.

Scott Tre: What's the scariest story that any of your interview subjects ever shared with you?

Billy Corben: It would have to have come from Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, the Colombian hit man who we interviewed in prison in Florida.  He's serving not one, not two, but three consecutive lifetimes in prison.  Here's a guy who has confessed to being involved in over a dozen homicides and is a suspect in at least an additional 40.  That's a conservative estimate of how many homicides he was likely involved in.  In Miami specifically but really all over the country and Colombia back in the early 1980's.  He's a pretty chill guy, so right away that's pretty off putting.  He's so calm and relaxed.  There's actually one reviewer who wrote about Cocaine Cowboys and he said that Rivi proves once and for all that basically every portrayal of a hit man in the movies has been totally off.  Nobody's ever gotten it quite right in a fictional film or a scripted film or a performance to actually capture the demeanor and the style of a hit man.  Rivi is obviously the real deal.

There isn't one particular story that he told us but his whole life working for Griselda Blanco La Madrina, the Godmother of the cocaine trade, his whole career I should say working essentially as a enforcer/hit man/murderer/mercenary/soldier, whatever you want to call them, was just as scary as you could ever imagine.  I should mention we are actually in the process of spinning of Rivi's deposition and testimony in the Griselda Blanco case which amounts to thousands upon thousands of pages of interviews between him and the state attorneys in Miami Dade county.  We are going to spin that off into a stage play called Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy which is all about Rivi's whole life story in working with Griselda until he got busted.

Scott Tre: Being that you come in contact with a real killer like Rivi, I'm sure that you are familiar with the scandal involving the rapper Rick Ross, who is one of the biggest rappers out of Miami right now.  I'm talking about him being a correction officer in real life and denying those claims and then being found to be a liar.  Do you think he should be held accountable for that or since he's an entertainer do you think that the fans should just shut up and enjoy the music?

Billy Corben: Well for the most part I think the fans have shut up and enjoyed the music.  The guy has continued to produce, and I think people have continued to acknowledge and embrace the work and I think that's great.  He's managed to stay focused through the scandal and whether the storm relatively unscathed.  I don't think anybody's going to refute this.  Denying it was a mistake obviously.  You know what Nixon says, it's the lie that gets you.  It's not so much the screw up, but it's the lie that people really get offended by and that turns out to be the ultimate crime.  I mean everybody seems to learn that lesson the hard way: Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon.  Who did it best?  Remember Hugh Grant was caught with that hooker...on sunset boulevard you know.  He shows up on the tonight show with Jay Leno.  That was his first public appearance.  So he comes out and Jay Leno says something to him like "So, what you been up to lately?" and he just kind of like sheepishly shrugs you know, like "Hey, you caught me!  I screwed up, it's all good let's move on".  That seems to be the best way to handle these types of situations.  It's like "yeah the intern blew me, now what?" (laughs).

They should just say that, by the way.  There's no impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.  He wouldn't have perjured himself.  He wouldn't have committed a crime.  That would have been the end of it.  He would have had to dealt with Hilary, I'm sure that wouldn't have been a picnic.  That would have been the end of the major dirty part of the scandal.  The same thing here.  He got caught, so he just could have come up with his cover story right away, which was what?  "Oh this was my cover for the drug business" or whatever he said.  He could have had that story out a couple of months sooner.  Instead of getting beat up and dragged through the mud by 50 Cent and everybody (laughs).  He could have avoided that all by himself by just going like "Yeah.  That was then, this is now.  So what?  Now I'm gonna drop a new album.  So what are you gonna say now?"  That would have been the end.  None of that officer Ricky crap or nothing.  The bottom line is if you continue to do good work in the trade in which you are respected than the people will still rally around you and embrace that work.

Scott Tre: How did it feel to see Luther Campbell get honored by the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors?

Billy Corben: That was great, long overdue.  Obviously Uncle Luke plays a big role in The U.  Both the movie and the football team and the institution and its history.  I mean Uncle Luke was blowing up in Miami at the same time that the university of Miami Hurricanes were blowing up in Miami.  Also a lot of the most prominent players on the team and best players on the team were from the inner city streets of Miami where Luke was from.  He was like the first hood star of that new generation, that post RUN DMC generation; before gangsta rap but after Run DMC.  Right in the middle there where it was just like the wild west for Hip-Hop, where anything goes.  2 Live Crew did anything.  They were as nasty as they wanted to be.  Luther was doing it right when the Canes were blowing up.

I think Casey Jones says it in The U.  He says that Luther Campbell provided the soundtrack for the University of Miami Hurricanes but it was a lot more than that.  That kind of seems superficial.  It was a lot deeper than that.  He was a mentor to these kids.  Micheal Irvin describes it in the movie as this was sort of the beginning.  The relationship between Uncle Luke and the Canes at this point was the start of the blending between sports and entertainment.  Young sports celebrities are almost like rock stars, and Hip-Hop celebrities, they all became kind of intertwined at this moment in time and it makes the story of The U so extraordinary.  Particularly in the 1980's when...this is in the movie too; one of the white former players says: "You're a white guy in the 80's, and think about what you know about African American pop culture..it's the Cosby Show."  That's what white people thought every black family was like in America, they're the Huxtables.  All of a sudden you've got Uncle Luke and you've got the Hurricanes on TV in prime time on Saturday brawling.  It was an eye opener and you either loved it or you hated it.  The city of Miami loved it and pretty much everybody else hated it.  This was the 1980's and Miami was getting shit on left and right by the national media, by the international media.  Miami was Dodge City.  It was dangerous, it was the murder capitol, the crime capitol of the country.  All of a sudden you had the renegade college football team in the renegade city.  They were the Casablanca Canes.

Scott Tre: Since Florida has a lot of transplanted New Yorkers there is kind of a cross breeding of the two cultures. What would you say is the biggest difference between the underworlds of Miami and New York?

Billy Corben: Miami has always been known as the sixth borough.  Really it goes back to this old saying that I caught on to many years ago and have been repeating ever since like a mantra: that Los Angeles is the place you go when you want to be somebody, New York is the place you go when you are somebody, and Miami is the place you go when you want to be somebody else.  That's what Miami's always kind of been to New York.  Any of these stories, whether you go back to the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, the Chris Paciello/Liquid Nightclub story.  These are people who had their day in the big city, and then when the heat came and they needed to lie low they went to Miami.

Edna Buchanan said this in her interview in Cocaine Cowboys.  I don't think it made the final cut, but she does talk about how there's just something about the geography of the country where everything kind of winds up draining down into south Florida.  It's no coincidence that the vast majority of fugitives on America's Most Wanted wind up getting caught in Florida or south Florida.  It's the end of the line.  It's where you go when your just trying to get away.  It's always been a tourist kind of town and a transient community.  I think it's the same way crime wise to.  Crime kind of comes in waves, it doesn't grow the multi-generational roots like you see in New York.  Where there are sort of crime families and empires and dynasties.  Miami is a little bit more transient than that.  It's the place that all of the New York criminals come to play.

Scott Tre: I'm a comic book fan, and one thing comic book fans like to do is speculate on the outcome of imaginary battles between different characters.  I've come up with one for you: Tony Montana vs. Griselda Blanco.  Who wins and why?

Billy Corben: I think Griselda Blanco.  I think the interesting thing about Tony Montana is that...all props to Oliver Stone who wrote the screenplay to Scarface.  That script is an incredibly brilliant piece of work.  It's just so thorough in its realistic examination and detail of Miami in the 1980's during the cocaine wars.  Also, he was faithful to the original 1932 film that he was adapting.  He was trying to be true and faithful to that story and those characters while putting it very firmly and very realistically in the time and place that he did, Miami in the early 1980's.  He really did his homework and made it very accurate.

One of the least accurate things about the movie is actually its initial premise, though it's extremely forgivable because it's actually a very clever device.  That was that the Marielito criminals that came over during the boat lift never ascended to those heights of kingpin.  They were like Miguelito, Miguel Perez in Cocaine Cowboys.  He was a hit man but that was it.  He wasn't a big player.  He was hired help.  These guys were dangerous, psychotic, murderous, lunatics, some of these criminals that came over during the Mariel boat lift at the time. Along with a lot of other Cubans who were not criminals, who were just trying to get the hell out of Cuba and who could blame them?  There were some genuinely bad people, a lot.  Tens of thousands of real evil people.  So I think that Griselda would definitely have a leg up on Tony Montana.

Then you see what Tony Montana is doing at the beginning of the movie, he's a short order cook and he's a just a bag man and he depends on other people.  That's basically what the Marielitos did.  So I think that Griselda would have a field day with Tony Montana.  Basically the last scene of Scarface, that would be the first and last time Griselda and Tony Montana would ever meet.  She would chew him up and spit him out for dinner like she did three of her husbands.

Scott Tre: Is there anything that you would like to say in closing?

Billy Corben:  I'm just thrilled that ESPN has finally put The U out on DVD I hope that people who love the movie get a chance to see even more material in the bonus features.  I hope the people who haven't had a chance to see the movie will check it out, at very least you can get both discs on Netflix.  You can get the disc with the movie and some of the bonus features.  You can also get from Netflix the second disc with more bonus features on it.  I really hope that people check it out, come and see us at rakontur.com.

We have a lot of projects coming out between now and the end of 2010 and a ton more projects coming out in 2011 including Square Grouper which is kind of an unofficial prequel to Cocaine Cowboys.  It's about the crazy redneck pot hauling days back in the 70's and early 80's.  This is kind of before the Colombians came to town and the drug trade got violent.  Really a lot of drug smuggling and drug business takes on the personality of the drug that's involved if you know what I mean.  Cocaine is a dangerous, intense, violent business.  Pot was mellow, relatively safe.  People didn't carry guns.  This is back in the day when you had to smuggle pot in.  Nowadays, there's just grow houses in south Miami.  Nobody really smuggles pot anymore, it's like a bygone era.  It's almost like a movie about pirates.  So it's a really cool project and I think it's going to be another amazing piece of classic Miami drug culture.

Then we've got the Cocaine Cowboys remix coming out after that which is a wholesale re-edit of Cocaine Cowboys with hours of new material packed into the movie.  It's the same movie that you know and hopefully loved the first time but completely new.  It's a really interesting experiment.  We literally remixed the first Cocaine Cowboys.  In 2011 you'll get Cocaine Cowboys: Los Muchachos, the third movie in the Cocaine Cowboys series.  It's really a brand new story about Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, "Los Muchachos", who were the biggest Cubans.  That was one of the things in Miami... you do a movie called Cocaine Cowboys all about the Colombians and the Cubans get pissed.  They're like "What about us?" (laughs)  We're like "Okay, we'll give our Cuban friends their day and Willy and Sal were the biggest Cuban Cocaine Smugglers in the history of the world.  Willy and Sal, "Los Muchachos", the boys, will have their day in 2011 in a Cocaine Cowboys movie.

We got a great story called Limelight which is about Peter Gatien.  There's a New York story for ya.  Peter Gatien was the owner of the Limelight nightclub.  At his peak in the 90's he owned the four biggest clubs in Manhattan.  He owned Limelight, Palladium, Club USA and The Tunnel.  The Tunnel eventually was home to the most famous Hip-Hop party in history, the Sunday Night party that Funk Master Flex put on every Sunday.  Ultimately it had something to do with him getting run out of town because he got himself wrapped up in a ecstasy rap and was acquitted in a sensational federal trial and ultimately deported to Canada after spending 25 years as a successful business man in America.  It's an incredible story.  That should be coming out early next year.

What else we got going on Scott?  I don't wanna forget anything.  For the comic book fans we're supposed to be doing a graphic novel based on Cocaine Cowboys 2.  So I hope that we get a chance to do that because we've got some book deals that involve a photo book based on Cocaine cowboys and a graphic novel based on Cocaine Cowboys to.  We've just been so busy with everything that I hope we get a chance to get to those projects next year.  I'm not forgetting, there's a ton of other shit going on.  We've just been crazy working down here.  Everybody's been so incredibly supportive.  You guys in the press, everybody' whose been watching and buying our stuff and we're just really excited to continue to get more content out there for the people who enjoy it.                     


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