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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Billy Corben, director of “Cocaine Cowboys”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Billy Corben, director of "Cocaine Cowboys"

Billy Corben‘s doc “Cocaine Cowboys” takes place in a place often though synonymous with the drug–Miami, Florida. Set in the 1980s when the Colombian coke barons moved into Miami with a ruthlessness not seen since Prohibition-era Chicago, the film is a true story of how Miami became the drug, murder and moneyed epicenter of America told by the people who took part in building the illicit empire. Corben won a special jury prize in 2002 (shared with producer Alfred Spellman) for “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He shares with indieWIRE his ideas on film distribution, his insatiable desire to collect film scores, and why Miami is one of his biggest influences. Magnolia Pictures opens the film in select cities on Friday, October 27.

Please give a little background about yourself…

I’m 28, born and raised in (and current resident of) Miami, Florida. I worked as an actor for 10 years when I was young and started my first production company with Alfred Spellman in 1994, when we were sophomores in high school. Twelve years later, our new banner rakontur is producing a documentary series with 42 Below Vodka called “Clubland,” a behind the scenes expose of the cutthroat South Beach nightclub business (www.clublandmiami.com).

What other creative outlets do you explore?

I am a composer and lyricist, just finishing my first full-length docu-musical, “Here I Am,” about three young women who move to New York the month before 9/11. We’re planning an Off-Broadway production next year.

Did you go to film school?

I triple majored at the University of Miami (aka Suntan U–home of the Miami Brawlers). My primary area of study was political science, which comes in handy as a filmmaker more so than anything you’d learn in film school. My second major was Writing, with a focus on screenwriting. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of filmmaking you can study because once you fully grasp its concepts, it makes you better at everything else–even the technical elements of the trade, such as camera and editing. The name of our company is rakontur (the phonetic spelling of “raconteur”), so our primary focus is storytelling; telling the most interesting stories the most compelling way we can.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?

As far as distribution goes, despite the enormous success of “Vice City” and the “Scarface” re-release, a lot of distributors just didn’t get it. They don’t really know what people are interested in seeing at the movies. We walk the streets of Miami everyday and we have a far better sense of what real people want. The closest I like to get to Hollywood is Hollywood, Florida because my parents live up there. Plus, they’re afraid. Technology is changing the world and particularly the entertainment industries so quickly and unexpectedly. The movie business is experiencing the digital revolution that has been turning the record labels upside down for years. Content producers like us can reach our audience directly now, with increasingly less need for distributors to cut into our profits.

We just released our first doc, “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, on DVD and our new doc series “Clubland” was fully financed by 42 Below Vodka and will be released in the US exclusively as a webseries in two dozen five-minute webisodes. Which is essentially a revolutionary way to release a feature length documentary. Read Michael Tolkin’s “Return of The Player.” Fortunately a company with balls and vision like Magnolia still exists. And it is made up of some badass people with a real love for their movies who work hard to see that they reach their fullest potential. Alfred and I are thrilled to experience how interactive the distribution process is with Magnolia, completely transcending bullshit contract lingo like “meaningful consultation.” It is a true partnership every step of the way, where our suggestions are respected and, more importantly, acted upon. While they are the distribution experts, they still appreciate that it’s our movie and we do have a concept of how to reach people with it–because we produced it with our audience in mind.

What are your biggest creative influences?

One of my biggest creative influences is Miami. The city feeds me in so many ways. Really the whole state of Florida, in its special way. There are so many incredible stories we can tell about this place, we never have to leave or worry about running out of ideas or characters.

What are your interests outside of film?

I’m a rabid film score buff. I own well over 3,000 scores on CD. They are my drug of choice. I focus so much on story when working on our movies, which tends to be a rather structured creative process and I sometimes neglect emotion. Music can tell a story too, but it is more about emotion. People don’t usually respond to music logically; when you listen to music it’s about how it makes you feel. I was very excited to work with Jan Hammer on the score for “Cocaine Cowboys.” He, of course, wrote the “Miami Vice Theme,” “Crockett’s Theme” and four years worth of episodes for the series. There’s just this vibe, this feeling about his work. He writes the best driving-in-Miami-at-night-with-the-top-down-music. Seriously, just grab a “Miami Vice” or “Cocaine Cowboys” CD and try it – it’s fucking amazing!

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

A lot of independent films are trees falling in the middle of a forest. If nobody is around to see them or hear them, do they really exist? The answer, for me, is “no.” I enjoy the stories we tell and the movies we make, but we don’t do it for ourselves or for any kind of personal gratification. We tell these stories so that audiences will hopefully see them, embrace them and want to see more from us. We are building a brand that people can trust. When they see the rakontur logo, audiences will know that they are going to be entertained and enlightened every single time.

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