Some first heard the name Billy Corben in 2001, when he
became one of the youngest directors in Sundance history. His next release,
monumental in its exploration of the cocaine-fueled Miami heydays of the 1980's, and earned him even further notoriety. Lately, he's been the most famous jury foreman in Miami's recent history, and is set to appear in court over tweets and Facebook posts he sent while serving jury duty.
Corben's career has taken him from ESPN to the Tribeca Film Festival and beyond.
Cultist caught up with him recently to talk about jury duty, future projects, Miami Beach corruption, and Frank
"Lefty" Rosenthal, on whom the movie Casino
Cultist: Cocaine Cowboys has become more than just a Miami documentary, but a phenomenon appreciated by people all over the country. What inspired you to tell such a powerful story?
Billy Corben: After Sundance, Raw Deal didn't get much distribution or attention, so we knew we had to create something special. Growing up in Miami, what we watched and read really informed our mentality. Reporters like Edna Buchanan, books like Kings of Cocaine, and articles on the former Mutiny dance club in the New Times back in the '90s. The news clips you see in Cocaine Cowboys are merely a collection of what we watched growing up. In Miami, we seem to forget our own history, mainly due to an extremely transient population. I remember when MySpace first came out, I would go on there and see people putting "305 'til I die" as their personal quote. I realized, for the first time, people were identifying themselves as Miamians. We are essentially the first generation to do so.
You just came from the Tribeca Film Festival, where you premiered a work-in-progress documentary entitled Broke. Talk about your experience there and what other projects you are working on.
We were there for just about three days, so we really didn't get a chance to do much. Broke is about the phenomenon of pro athletes losing their fortune after leaving the game. It is planned as the premier to ESPN's new season of 30 for 30 in the fall. We are also about one year away from another chapter of Cocaine Cowboys, dealing with the trials of Augusto Falcon and Salvador Malguta, the most successful Cuban drug traffickers in history. If people thought OJ spent a lot on his defense, these two accumulated a $24 million legal bill with a set of lawyers that would've made OJ's appear to be straight out of law school. There is also a Cocaine Cowboys remix in the works, using footage that didn't fit in the first version. It's not just more footage, but different stuff. We shot over 100 hours and still have things like pictures of Griselda Blanco from her youth no one has seen. There was a lot of crucial info cut for time; you'll say to yourself "how did they cut this out?"
What about the Cocaine Cowboys mini-series we've been hearing about?
HBO is developing it with executive producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. We are on our third writer, Michele Ashford from the series The Pacific, and are really hopeful this will work out. Our job on the project is to ensure accuracy. Like Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal once told me about the movie Casino, "It's about 15 percent of the story and about 70 percent accurate." With a dramatic miniseries, that is probably the best you can hope for.
You are an outspoken critic of issues that permeate the Miami landscape. What is the one thing you are most concerned about?
The City of Miami Beach has put a new precedent on corruption (City Manager Jorge Gonzalez just announced his resignation). You can go to a commission meeting and see them bickering back and forth. It is one of the most famous cities in the world, and the feds had to come in. Makes me wonder why in Miami, we can't do anything without the feds. The feds are investigating the City of Miami Beach police force, Marlins Stadium funding, and the transit authority for misusing federal funds. Citizens are scared of their officials instead of trusting them.
As residents of the city, what can we do as individuals to better the situation?
Vote. It starts with going out there and voting. Our parents' generation fucked things up, now it's our turn to fix it. We have no faith nowadays in our own institutions, and when we lose confidence, we have nothing left. I hope good people run for office and I hope, for a change, we go out there and vote for them. People get the government they deserve.
When I call out people and situations, I am also calling out myself. You don't criticize something you don't care about. As comedian and well-known roaster Jeff Ross said, "You only roast the ones you love."
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We also asked Corben to comment on his courtroom tweets and the legal drama they've inspired. But Corben stayed uncharacteristically quiet on the topic, referring us to his lawyer, David Markus, for this statement:
Billy didn't violate any court order. The court reasonably prohibited jurors from talking about the case. But Billy never tweeted about the case at all. He took his oath extremely seriously, was elected foreman of the jury and raised questions about the prosecution case, even finding the defendant not guilty of the most serious charge. Before he was selected and during breaks, he would comment on the food or the elevators or the views, like any of us would do. He is extremely sorry that this has led to resources being used because he took this process seriously.
So, we hope to show the judge at the hearing that Billy did nothing wrong. To the contrary, he was a very good juror and thought highly of the process and the judge, as he tweeted the following day.