"We're not one-hit wonders, but we might be one-trick ponies," jokes director Billy Corben during a rainy morning at the New York City offices of Magnolia Pictures. If Corben's aside has any truth in it, it's because that one-trick pony has enough material for an entire career.
In 2001, University of Miami alums Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman were invited to Sundance as the youngest filmmakers in the festival's history. Ten years later, the duo find themselves as busy as they've ever been with the success of Rakontur, their small production company that will have five projects this year alone. Their latest film, "Square Grouper," premiered last month at SXSW and is currently doing the festival rounds before the world premiere of their next film, "Limelight," at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month.
Their work explores the fascinating stories of crime, corruption, vice, and racial strife that make Miami the global metropolis it is today. Their films are driven by a balance of candid one-on-one interviews with subjects who defined that era in Miami's history and a strong library of archival news footage from local stations. The result are films with a strong local feel that attempt to explain, or at least describe, the ineffable modern myths that have come out of South Florida.
With "Square Grouper" the directors have found another golden source of interview material from Robert Platshorn, the United States' longest-serving marijuana prisoner. The film screened last night at Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and is having its theatrical premiere tonight (April 15) at New York City's Cinema Village.
The three men met with indieWIRE to discuss their approach to documentary filmmaking, their connection with Miami and what lies ahead for Rakontur.
The use of archival footage, particularly from local television stations, is central in all of your films. What is fascinating about it is how surreal it feels — the sort of news coming out in that era in South Florida and how the violence gives it an almost surreal quality to it. How crucial is it for you to gather this sort of footage when beginning a new project?
Spellman: There's a transition moment that occurred in local news around 1979 when video replaces film. And you notice when you see those early videos that the footage is deteriorating at a rapid rate because of the first-generation videotapes. A lot of news footage from the late '70s and early '80s is going to disappear because no one knows how long those tapes are going to last. We know how long film lasts now only because we've had the time to figure it out, but video is disappearing. So unless it's archived properly it's going to be gone.
Corben: The archival footage is so crucial to our stories that it inspired a new project Magnolia is releasing this summer, "Cocaine Cowboys: Remix." It's a wholesale re-edit of the first "Cocaine Cowboys" movie from scratch. It was inspired by all this news footage that we didn't have access when we originally made the film, footage that nobody has seen for the last 30 years.
On "Raw Deal," our first movie, we were only able to make it because of the archival footage we found. So really, in our line of storytelling, the access to archives is key. We grew up watching that news footage. Every day at 5 pm, while mom is making dinner, you sit and watch these unbelievable images of violence and corruption.
Spellman: Miami was a good place to be if you wanted to be a homicide detective, a medical examiner or a news reporter.
Is that how "Square Grouper" came about?
Spellman: The impetus for "Square Grouper" came after we did most of the research for "Cocaine Cowboys." The idea of doing something about Everglades City came out of the first ten minutes of that film. Everybody associates South Florida now as this melting-pot of races and ethnicities but most people don't realize that up until the mid-70s it was really a southern city. Throughout the '60s and ' you do have Cuban immigration, but it slowly became a Hispanic city. "Square Grouper" is set in the Jimmy Buffet era of South Florida: flip-flops, fishing and hunting in the Everglades. It was an outdoors-y, southern lifestyle – totally different than the South Beach thing we see today.
Robert, you lived through this time and had to deal with the press. How did you think their treatment was during your case and what influence it had on the trial?
Platshorn: They buried us. They told one side of the story – the government's side. The judge put a gag order on us and would hold a press conference every day where they would announce the most outlandish stories that we couldn't even relate to ourselves.
There were Miami Herald headlines that claimed we brought in a 747, which we never did. Headlines claiming we plotted to kill a judge, which we never did. Later the government admitted there was never a violent plot. But those newspaper headlines stayed. And throughout those thirty years in prison, can you imagine how we were treated by prison authorities who believed we planned to kill a federal judge? It was the first big marijuana trial and we paid the price.
Tell me a bit about Rakontur, your production company. It's rare to see an indie documentary company sprout up without any institutional support behind it.
Corben: Our first ten years we had five films come out, on average one every two years. This year we have five.
Spellman: When we made "Raw Deal" in 2001 we became the youngest filmmakers to ever be invited to Sundance and the first ones from Miami. Afterwards people would ask, "What's next?" if it was New York or L.A. We always answered that we wanted to go back to Miami to tell all these great South Florida stories. There are a lot of narrative filmmakers associated with a city…but documentary-wise… there's nobody that becomes identified with a city so much.
Corben: It's very accessible because it's modern. The history is within reach, young people have an association with it when they hear about it. It's not this foreign concept. Miami is an international city, you say it anywhere in the world and people know about it.
What is the approach that Rakontur takes in its documentary productions?
Spellman: Every time we make a doc we try to take a 360 degree angle to it. When we decided to make "Cocaine Cowboys" we began to think about all the forms it could take on. We just made a deal with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer to make a "Cocaine Cowboys" TV Series and came back from scouting locations earlier this week. With the same film we are also working on a coffee table book with MTV Books. So we're always looking for these opportunities with our projects
Corben: We are always looking for films that have legs, beyond the movie itself. There's always more to talk about than the film itself.
And all of it stems from a very local, city-based trademark in your work.
Platshorn: Let's face it, Miami is the city that crime built. Since its inception, some of the greatest land frauds done in this country took place there and it's been a continuing history through prohibition, the Al Capone era, and today. You're never going to run out of stories there.
Corben: And that's the thing that really inspired "Square Grouper," this past-time in Miami to go into some dockside bar and sit next to an old-timer on a bar stool, only to find yourself three hours later after a whole lot of whisky having heard the story of a notorious smuggler, a deposed third-world leader, some disgraced mayor – that was the whole vibe of "Square Grouper." We wanted to share with people that aren't from here have this experience of sitting in a bar hearing these stories.
That's one of the most exciting factors about your films, that you export this sort of storytelling tradition in Miami where you walk into a bar on a weekday afternoon and you come out hours later hearing some unbelievable stories. They're movies where the stories aren't anywhere near finished at the end of the film.
Spellman: We always like to look at work in a sort of macro/micro perspective. "Cocaine Cowboys" is a story about the drug war set against the transformation of Miami, "The U" is a story about the inner-city recruits taking on the world while also being about Miami coming to terms with racial tensions and strife. Our new film, "Limelight," works the same way – the rise and fall of a club promoter during Giuliani’s transformation of the city. "Square Grouper" is the story of these smugglers set against a new environment in the country when it came to legalization and penalization of marihuana.
Corben: Not everyone gets what we do. A friend dubbed our work as "Pop Docs." Not everything is a Sundance film, so you need to find people who appreciate what we do and we've been fortunate to have come across folks who appreciate what we do. We are about to have our second World Premiere a month after our last one.
Right, "Square Grouper" premiered at SXSW and now you're coming out with "Limelight" a month later at Tribeca.
Corben: It's a full-time job to just release one movie. Earlier this week we were working on the HBO series and simultaneously trying to finish "Limelight." I got word that "Limelight" sold-out in 9 minutes in the Tribeca pre-sale on Tuesday, so now I guess we have to finish the movie. Thank god for the new vimeo app because now I can see the footage on my iPhone.
Spellman: We are the filmmakers of the digital generation. When we made "Raw Deal" it was right after the summer of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Chuck and Buck," when DV became liberating for docs. We never thought of making a documentary before DV. We cut "Raw Deal" with the first version of FinalCut Pro. We've grown up with digital technology and managed to leverage that technology every step of the way. On "The U" we didn't even go to a post-house, we did everything ourselves. We've managed to streamline the process to the point where it has become economically feasible to make all these films.
How's that coming along so far?
Corben: [Laughing] Ask us in December…
[Billy Corben's "Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja" opens at New York's Cinema Village Friday, April 15th.]