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Cocaine Cowboy Director Billy Corben on New Miniseries The Tanning of America: "Find A Good Story, Don't F**k It Up"

Billy Corben.
Billy Corben.
Photo by Stian Roenning

You won't see much Miami in Rakontur's four-part docu-series The Tanning of America, which aired on VH1 this week.

The national TV viewing audience was once again denied access to the truth of how integral the characters in our city have been to that "tanning" process. And you certainly didn't find out that a Miami record producer named Henry Stone was the first to get a black R&B record onto the white pop charts.

But other than that, The Tanning of America, was pretty fuckin' awesome, especially episodes 3 and 4. If you missed the VH1 premiere, don't worry. O Cinema will be hosting the documentary's release on Blu Ray and on demand April 8.

We caught up with director Billy Corben to find out all about it. Here's what he had to say.

See also: Billy Corben on Miami Corruption, the Next Installments of Cocaine Cowboys, and Courtroom Tweets (Sort Of)

Cultist: Is this series supposed to be a history of hip hop?

Billy Corben: No. It was never intended to be comprehensive survey of hip hop. It's the "Tanning Of America," following the guidelines of the book of the same name, and trying to set out to prove the thesis that hip hop culture elected the first black president.

How did your involvement in the project come about?

We heard from Stoute's agent, who is a friend of ours, before the book came out. He called and said, "Would you be interested in an adaptation?" We started reading the book and envisioned an epic journey through contemporary American culture, and we said, "This is just one doc. We could make several documentaries out of this."

The book is great, but it's very much a business school study. It's not quite as extensive as we delve, but [it] has great stories, it's really compelling, and it really does prove the thesis. But it's a much bigger story.

From the beginning we wanted to do a miniseries. We had friends at VH1 who we'd been trying to work with for years and years, and they were fans of Broke, The U, and Cocaine Cowboys. Honestly there were not a lot of options for people we could approach with it. They also had a lot of the footage we needed. The MTV library has a lot of material we could dive in and use in the movie. They loved it from the first meeting. It was an ambitious project with over 40 interviews and like 60 licensed songs. The scope is big, and I appreciate VH1 giving us the opportunity to do it.

What was the production process like?

We had the advantage of Stoute's proverbial Rolodex, his phone book. We got access to some real compelling A-list people because of that, so it was a real star-studded affair.

Most of the time, Stoute was there, but I did most of the interviewing. We got a lot of candid interviews with these people talking in a tone you don't nomally see. Dr. Dre is very smooth and relaxed, and Diddy; we had a great compliment from our executive producer at VH1. They said, "We've seen a lot of interviews with Diddy, but this is the first interview we've seen with Sean Combs." His sunglasses are off, and he's refelective and introspective, taking a chance with the benefit of distance and hindsight, and he does so bombastically, self deprecatingly and with a cool attitude and demeanor that you don't normally associate with him.

 

What was your role as director?

The first thing I do always is discover the material. We got the book from Stoute's agent, and we were interested. We had a very specific vision, and a very specific outline to expand the universe of the book. We really had to figure out how to make it work dramatically and historically. I made a style sheet. I decided what the project should look like, and what it should sound like, and why.

I decided the look of the interviews. The gray background from grey to black gradient. Everybody sort of casual on a stool. We used something called an Interetron so that the subjects are looking directly into the lens, making the movie more personal and first person. There's no narrator in this or any movie we've done. It's all first person. It's all I and we, not They and he.

When we were color correcting we desaturated everything and sucked out all the color till it was almost black and white so that everybody has a similar color. The movie is more grey than colorful. It was the tanning of the interview for similar color temperature so everybody came off in a similar light.

The score wasn't so much hip hop, not an incessant beat. I rooted it all in a jazz idiom. The key word is "timeless." I said, "We gotta see this in 30 years, and except for the ages of the characters, not be able to tell when it was made."

Hip hop is history now. American history. We wanted to treat it with respect and reverence. I'm proud of this. When you start with a vision a year before the movie, it's difficult to see it through to the end, but this is consistent with the Rakontur style and what we chose to do. We're slaves to story. The job of the filmmaker is find a good story and don't fuck it up. It's easier said than done. Whether it's good or not is ultimately up the audience, and I hope we made good choices, but they were all ours.

VH1 was mostly involved in saying what should stay and what should go. Episode 1 was like two hours in the original rough cut, but the final episodes are like 41 minutes and 30 seconds. That's one hour of TV time on VH1. So we had to cut by up to a third. There's a lot that didn't make it, and that's where they were most influential.

What kind of cameras and how many?

Only one camera, an HD cam. A Sony HD camera. I don't remember the model. We stuck with that for the whole shoot. Alexa Harris is my DP, but on our movie Clubland she was a gaffer. She always says how she's "painting with light." She and I always have long coversations for weeks or months. We did camera tests for the look of different color backgrounds. We did a test in L.A. with a Steadycam to see if we could use that. We even explored standing interviews and how that would look, but we ultimately didn't like the flow so we went with a jib. It has the casual movements but a little less disciplined than a dolly, so that was the look.

How long were the interviews?

Most people were just about an hour. To be fair, closer to two hours.

Where was it edited?

All the editing was done in Miami Beach, right in our office, right up until delivery when we spent two weeks in New York polishing and delivering. When the first episode aired, we were still working on episodes 3 and 4.

 

What was the budget for licensing footage?

That's Alfred's department, but it was a not insignificant amount. Like I said, we got a lot from the MTV library, including stuff they didn't even know they had. One of the clips Diddy turned us onto in the interview. It was some footage from 2004, and while we were talking to him I made a note to myself that said, "Find this shit!"

It was from his much parodied and maligned Vote or Die campaign. He started something called Citizen Change that was intended to encourage the young hip hop generation to register to vote, and they made fun of him on South Park, and people really did not respect him for it, but it was extraordinarily influential. In 2004, he went to the Democratic National Convention as an MTV correspondent. He interviewed this young freshman senator out of Illinois named Barack Obama, and they had this hilarious exchange, really incredible footage. He says to the guy, "You make sense to me. I been hearing a lot of bullshit. I been disenfranchised all day. Right now I feel franchised. You're onto something kid. You might be president some day. Keep it up." Nobody had really seen that footage since it was shot.

Who made the decision to censor Miami out?

Actually, Miami was a big reason why we wanted to do it at all, 'cause Uncle Luke was arrested here. We had tremendous footage of a record store owner getting arrested for selling his records, and the whole thing with the Broward sherrif Nick Navarro. It was gonna be a big part of the movie, but it was just a matter of time, it was not intended to be comprehensive history, and there was a lot of great stuff we had to sacrifice.

What else do you guys have coming up this year?

April 8th, Cocaine Cownboys Reloaded comes out on Blu Ray and on demand, and we have an event at O Cinema to celebrate the release. It's a wholesale re-edit of the fist movie from scratch. It's not a director's cut. It's a complete re-edit from scratch with 60 minutes of never before seen footage. This summer, the long awaited Dawg Fight will finally come out; that's the backyard fighting story inspired by Frank Alvarado's New Times cover story. I can't tell you anymore but we've been talkin' to ESPN about a new project, so hopefully later in the year you'll hear about that.

Will you ever do fiction?

A lot of people ask me, "Yo bro, you every gonna make a real movie bro?" And I say, "What, like you mean with made up words, and a script, and false locations, and costumes and actors?" That's a fake movie. We do make real movies. We make documentaries.

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O Cinema Wynwood

90 NW 29th St.
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