Filmmaker Billy Corben talks with the dizzying enthusiasm of a child prodigy whose mind processes information at light speed. It’s no surprise that his films hum along with that same sense of immediacy and kinetic energy. Such qualities have made Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys 2 and ESPN film’s The U among the most popular documentaries of recent memory. His company, Rakontur,continues in the aggressively entertaining tradition established by those works.
Planet Ill recently sat down with Mr. Corben and discussed his filmmaking style and his vision for Rakontur. His fierce loyalty to South Florida and keen understanding of the fascination the general public has with the seedy side of life was evident. He also displayed a single-minded fearlessness in the way he brings that side of South Florida to the larger public. The world of Billy Corben moves at a breathless pace. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Planet Ill: Tell us a bit about Rakontur.
Billy Corben: Rakontur is a Miami Beach based content creation company, so far specializing in non fiction content inspired by where we are, South Florida. Pretty much all of our projects so far have reflected some particular Miami-centric characters and storylines. Almost all of them have some sort of ties to the state of Florida, where we live.
Planet Ill: So you would definitely say that the spirit of South Florida informs your work.
Billy Corben: Positively. There’s no dearth of really exciting, eccentric, crazy, wild, dangerous, sexy, cool, characters and stories that have either never been told before or that are under explored and really deserve to be out there in the public’s eye. What’s so great about the city of Miami and the stories that we tell, it’s an international city, so even though I might sound kind of provincial in terms of what I’m talking about here we have an international city that’s of interest to people all over the world, that people all over the world come to. It’s the kind of city that, you say Miami, before Michael Moore made Roger & Me nobody knew what the f**k Flint Michigan was.
Everybody knows what the f**k Miami is. We have that advantage; we don’t have to introduce you to our world. We can say you know our world, but you don’t know these crazy stories and crazy characters that inhabit this world. That’s what we’re going to let you in on.
Planet Ill: When most people think of documentaries they think of something that is educational or informative. They don’t necessarily think of something that’s entertaining or fun to watch. How did you avoid that pitfall with the Cocaine Cowboys films?
Billy Corben: What’s funny about it is, I’m going to use those bad words you just used. S**t is informative. S**t is educational. There’s no doubt about that. I think it’s how you go about doing it. You’ll notice this about all the Rakontur movies and all the movies specifically that I’ve directed so far. There’s no narrator. There’s no faceless voice telling you what you need to know; telling you what’s going on. I don’t believe in the narrator when it can be avoided, and so far we’ve been successful in not having to have a narrator connect the dots for you
You want people telling you what “I” did, “we” did. This is how “we” set up our operation. This is how “we” smuggled drugs. This is what we did with the money. This is what we did with the plane. This is what we did with the boats. This is what we did on the football field. You can always find a reporter or a lawyer who can tell you “oh, what he did” and what this guy did and what this woman did. That’s not so interesting. You can tell me about anybody you want, but what’s your story? What’s interesting about you and what you have to say? We have a knack for that. For finding these interesting people and getting them to sit down for us and give us really insightful, comfortable, revealing interviews about them.
This guy’s not talking about drug smuggling. This guy is a drug smuggler talking about drug smuggling. I think that’s the cool thing about it, people talking about The (Miami) Hurricanes back in the 1980’s when they were playing great football. We have The Hurricanes telling you about playing great football back in the 1980’s!
I think everybody appreciates all of that and they take to that style. Cocaine Cowboys is the highest rated documentary in the history of Showtime. The U is the highest rated documentary in the 30 year history of ESPN. I think there’s something that we’re doing that’s right. That people, whether they’re buying DVD’s or they’re turning on the television when they see our stuff and they see Rakontur, they stop, and they tune in. That’s great.
Planet Ill: You managed to make those Cocaine Cowboys movies entertaining without shamelessly glorifying the subjects.
Billy Corben: Thank you. Some people would disagree with you.
Planet Ill: You let them tell their own story. The editing techniques that you used kept it interesting and kept it moving fast, but I never got the sense that you were telling the viewers to be like the people you were interviewing. How did you avoid that pitfall?
Planet Ill: Like I said, some people would disagree with you and some people would say that I didn’t avoid that pitfall; that we did glorify or kind of make folk heroes out of some of these bad men. That’s a perfectly legitimate point. Our intention was, as you saw it, to not glorify it. Like I said, mixed signals about how people interpret that. How do you do that? It’s like I said before, you just do it kind of straight forward. We’re telling a true story, we’re telling all true stories. So when you’re doing that, you just kind of put the facts out there for everybody else to judge. I try not to be too judgmental about it. If you ever listen to my commentaries on the DVD’s, I definitely get excited and very enthusiastic about our subject matter. I hope that I’m not, I don’t have stars in my eyes, I hope that we’re not glorifying these criminals. Some people will walk away going “they were criminals but that was cool”, some people will say “wow they’re criminals and their scumbags” and any of that works for me. Part of what we do if you’ve seen Raw Deal, even with Cocaine Cowboys II is when we can verify a lot of the facts like we were able to do with Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday and Griselda Blanco. In Cocaine Cowboys 1 we let the audience be the judge.
Planet Ill: In one of the deleted scenes on the Cocaine Cowboys II DVD, The enforcer Jorge “Rivi” Ayallah talked about checking himself into a hospital for depression after he killed Chucho Castro’s son accidentally in a bungled hit. Did that strike you as a bit surprising for a hitman? He seemed so casual when he was talking about every other murder, it almost seemed like there was really no line with him.
Billy Corben: Well, it’s an interesting arch because we are doing Cocaine Cowboys Remix right now, which is a complete reedit of the first movie. It’s really actually kind of an incredible experience because you’re watching the movie going shit, it’s the same movie, but completely new and totally different.
It’s got a whole bunch of new stories and a lot of the murders that Rivi talks about in the first movie are not in the Cocaine Cowboys Remix. We have all different murders. Part of the reason why we chose the murders that we did in Cocaine Cowboys is to give you a little bit of insight. There was a method to that madness. We wanted to show a character arch and a story journey that Rivi was taking. One of the things they do is they do a murder for business, which is the Lorenzo parents, with the kids in the house. That was a business dispute that Griselda was in. Then you have kind of a random, silly murder which Griselda was known for, which was the Chucho hit. He insulted her son. It was a Colombian pride kind of a hit. The third thing was a war, which they were very famous for. Getting into wars with different organizations and the Poppo Medija, war in this case. So we wanted to have kind of different examples of what could get Griselda so hot that she would put hits out, order hits on people.
Rivi said something very interesting which is not in the movie in terms of him kind of justifying what he did. He looked at himself as a mercenary. He looked at himself as a soldier for hire, in a war. He’s not a blood thirsty homicidal maniac. This is not a guy who kills for kicks, who took the usual route of a serial killer and started young torturing animals and then being a voyeur and then breaking and entering and then raping and then murdering. You didn’t have that sadistic, lustful, blood hungry serial killer arch to his life. He started killing because somebody paid him to start killing. That was it. He was a bad guy looking for work. He looked at himself as a soldier of war. In a war it’s kill or be killed. If he wasn’t going after these people, these people were going to come after him or his boss and he was hired and paid to protect her. Protect himself and his men, some of whom were his friends that he brought along with him in Griselda’s employ.
He saw that as his occupation, as his job, as his duty as a soldier in this war. Sometimes there’s collateral damage as in the case of Johnny Castro. Just as you see in soldiers of war coming back with PTSD[Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. That’s something that affected him. He did not have Griselda’s attitude of “kill everybody, spray the whole table. I don’t care. At least we got on of them. At least we got the kid, even though we missed Chucho”. Rivi didn’t share that kind of bloodlust and that attitude. He was a soldier, he was hired to kill Chucho Castro. He didn’t even see the kid in the car, according to him. When Collateral damage goes down and a soldier learns about the consequences of his actions and the innocent lives that were cut down in the course of his job, he claims that he was somewhat traumatized. Yes, I was surprised, but the more I thought about it and analyzed it the way I just did, the more consistent with his character that was.
Planet Ill: So you saw a method to the madness the more you sat back and thought about it.
Billy Corben: Absolutely, and he explained it. It’s not all in the movie because we sat down for hours with him on two or three separate occasions at two different prisons in Florida to do those interviews. There’s so much compelling material that didn’t make it. That’s part of the reason we’re doing Cocaine Cowboys Remix. I’ll tell you, in the remix, Rivi solves a cold case homicide of six murders. The Kendall Six homicide which is still an open homicide, still a mass murder. To this day it’s one of the worst mass murders in Miami history, certainly at that point when it happened in the 80’s. He tells you in the remix exactly what went down. I don’t know if Metro Dade or Miami Dade police are going to be ready to close it based on that information, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some detectives from cold case went over and interviewed him again to get some more info on this case. It is an open case and we’re going to blow the lid off it in Cocaine Cowboys Remix.
Planet Ill: Men like Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, and Charles Cosby, do you see these men as criminal masterminds or opportunists who got lucky?
Billy Corben: Yes (laughs). The answer is yes to everything. Jon and Charles in particular are a little more similar. They’re hustlers. Opportunists is a good word, definitely are criminally inclined. Definitely bad guys, gangsters, whatever you want to call them. In the case of Charles, Charles’s story was completely unique and even his son in law in Cocaine Cowboys II mentions it.
Just the kind of unique mindset that would prompt him to write Griselda Blanco a fan letter in prison and then start this pen pal relationship with her and then start this sexual relationship with her and then get into business with her. You can say opportunist, that definitely, in part, describes that. At the same time, there’s a certain kind of whacky mad genius at work there. When he wrote her the first time, he wasn’t just thinking, “This will be a fun little prison pen pal,” He definitely had it more than that in the back of his mind.
Planet Ill: He was definitely moving towards a goal.
Billy Corben: Exactly! Maybe this will go somewhere. At least a cleverness there. A criminal cleverness, obviously that makes me kind of grin about Charles’s story. Jon was in the right place at the right time a bunch of times. Here’s a guy who, before his 30th birthday was tied up with the Italian Mob in New York, and then boom! He’s tied up with the Colombian cartels in Miami. Two of the largest and most famous and notorious criminal organizations in history. That is a combination of opportunism and luck and what have you.
Mickey Munday? Totally different story from those two guys. Mickey Munday was an adventurer. He was a redneck whiteboy from North Miami, Florida. You have to remember that back in the day before Miami was a such a International Diverse kind of city, it was a southern town. Florida is the south. It was a bunch of white guys, a bunch of rednecks running around. Mickey was one of those guys. Jon Roberts describes him as a Mcguyver kind of guy. You give him a popsicle stick, a pack of gum, some lipstick and he’ll build a f**king helicopter. That’s his thing.
Here he was, doing his thing, building boats, doing construction, all this kind of stuff. Here he had an opportunity to get into a kind of trade that let him be really clever. How to evade the competition, the DEA, the Coast Guard, the Marine patrol. He got to be clever about that. He got to generate the money to build all the toys he wanted, all the clever radios and gizmos and gadgets. Try to come up with all these outlandish James Bond scenario kind of strategies to outsmart the competition. That was his thing.
He was in it for the adventure. He was certainly in it for the money, don’t get me wrong, but that money enabled him to get deeper into the adventure, build all the shit he wanted to build. He was confronted with a problem. He was a problem solver. We’ve got a plane. We get the biggest plane we can get, but what happens is, you need a certain amount of fuel to get to Colombia, sometimes to get to Colombia and get back just in case you can’t refuel in Colombia. You got these tanks where you need to hold this amount of fuel and those tanks take up a certain amount of space in the aircraft. You also take into consideration the weight of the fuel when you put it on the plane.
So he comes up with this strategy where he builds bladders that hold the fuel and are actually sitting in the cargo bay of the plane underneath slabs of wood that create a shelf on top of it. He’s now got more fuel than he needs in this plane, but as he flies to Colombia, the bladders are now contracting, they’re getting smaller. It’s like an IV with fluid in it. It shrinks as the fluid drains, it shrinks. You’ve got all this fuel, these bladders that he crushes down, removes the wooden planks throws them out on the field in Colombia and is able to load product right on top of what used to be a fuel tank that is now deliberately collapsed because he put it in a bladder. It’s f**king brilliance! That was his thing.
He was just a different kind of guy from Charles and Jon. He was a genius. He was a mad scientist. Whatever you want to say about Mickey, he was an adventurer, he was a pilot, he was a clever guy. He wasn’t criminally insane or anything (laughs) like that.
***LISTEN*** Billy Corben- Money Murder Miami Pt 1
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