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Reel World

Billy Corben:

"A Cut Above The Rest"

Written By Rachel Galvin

With very little patience for the “development hell” (the lengthy time it takes to get a film off the ground) often intrinsic to the Hollywood scene, filmmaker Billy Corben is content to do it himself. “We are very production oriented,” he says.


Using the documentary as his form of expression, this storyteller and his Rakontur team (his company) has created some of the most unique concepts and film ideas that sometimes the A-list production companies “don’t understand,” but that the public clamors for. Perhaps he is best known for “Cocaine Cowboys,” a documentary with what turned out to have an instant cult-like following, about the drug industry in the 80’s in Miami. “When we went to pitch it, nobody got it,” he admits.


This truth-teller began his venture into the cinematic scene with his longtime pal Alfred Spellman by playing around with cameras at an early age. But, professionally, their first foray was the movie “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” a documentary of an alleged rape of an erotic dancer on the campus of the University of Florida. Luckily for Billy, the film not only got attention, but was shown at Sundance. That was enough to get people to take notice and to encourage him to pursue his dream.


The timing for his classic “Cocaine Cowboys” was perfect. Grand Theft Auto had just hit the top of the popularity charts for the video-gamer crowd and the “Scarface” DVD had just surfaced. In addition, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” was coming out. It was obvious the nostalgia factor was in perfect synchronicity with this concept.


Spellman knew all about the personalities behind the early Miami drug trade and, before they knew it, the dominoes fell into place. “Spellman was a real buff,” says Billy. One by one, the team started obtaining interviews with the actual people behind the drug wars, starting with Jon Roberts. “It was about finding the right person at the right time,” he mentions, as he explained becoming a pen pal with the hit man before meeting him in person. “The Florida Department of Corrections was terrific.”


The resulting film became popular before it was even released as bootleg copies were circulated and people on the street just had to get their hands on this material. “I went to the flea market and I saw it playing,” Billy says. “Between the time it was at Tribeca and the theatrical release, people at the barber shop had seen it 30-40 times and could recite it by heart.” Embracing this, rather than going against it, Billy and crew chose to capture the momentum by documenting it in a web series called “The Streets of Miami: The ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ Phenomenon.” Billy explains why people are so thirsty for what he offers. “We’re real. We know what we [and people] want to see,” he says.


It is perhaps this underground popularity that, in an unusual twist, has brought Hollywood to his front doorstep. Not only has “Cocaine Cowboys” gone on to sequel status (Look for “Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ With The Godmother” on DVD.) The third installment is on the way, but now concept heavy hitters Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer will be working with Rakontur on an HBO TV show based on the concept.

When asked why he felt the Hollywood top producers wanted to work with him on this new HBO venture, he says, “Because they know we get s*** done.”


He has been pleased with the faster-than-usual development pace. “It’s been rapid development so far. If all goes well, we should be in front of the cameras by 2010.”

Since he won’t be in the director’s chair for this one, what will be his role as an Executive Producer? “The Executive Producer’s main role is to ensure authenticity and attention to detail,” he explains.


His first step has been to give a tour to “Cold Case” creator Meredith Stiehm, who will be writing the script, showing her locations in Miami that he terms “frozen in time,” that could easily be used as “period” locations without a major change. “She has incorporated many of them already into the script,” he says.


In the meantime, Billy is not staying still. His mind is abuzz with activities and ideas. He is developing a half-hour series for Adult Swim called “Square Grouper” with Pharrell Williams and is working on a graphic novel. He is putting together a stage play with, as he describes, “the most riveting and chilling information.” He is also creating a “photo book” for MTV, working with hip-hop artists on music. Nothing seems out of reach.


He has already done a web series called “Clubland,” a behind-the-velvet-rope look at the challenges of running a nightclub, and now co-owns what has been titled Best Bar in 2009 by “Miami New Times,” the Bella Rose, located in SoBe. It was quickly a hotspot for celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Tom Cruise (and Katie) and many others.

Rakontur is currently working on a documentary called “Dawg Fight” about kids in Perrine taking their aggressions out in the makeshift boxing ring in the backyard, rather than shooting it out in gang turfs, a concept given a lot of credence lately through programs such as the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s “Gloves Not Guns.”


Currently filming a documentary called “The U,” chronicling the history of the University of Miami football program for ESPN, and finishing up “Limelight”, a film about famed nightclub mogul Peter Gatier, it is evident that Billy’s future is as bright as his smile…and equally as addictive for the myriad of fans who are anxiously awaiting their next Corben fix.-DUO


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