Miami has provided the setting for truly epic crime tales turned into movies, such as War Dogs and Blow. The upcoming film The Corporation tells the story of Cuban crime lord Jose Miguel Battle’s rise to power in the underworld. The project stars Benicio del Toro, is based on a history penned by best-selling author T.J. English, and will be distributed by Paramount Pictures.
But none of it would've happened without a local film student.
Jose Daniel "J.D." Freixas, a Miami native who studied film at the University of Miami more than a decade ago, helped conceive the idea of Battle that would eventually turn into a much-anticipated book and Hollywood film production.
Freixas learned of Battle in 2006 while in school. He'd been following the story of the Cuban-American criminal organization known as La Corporación, or the Corporation, in the news. The group had working relationships with the Italian Mafia and raked in proceeds from gambling, drug trafficking, and other illegal enterprises, according to court documents. Battle was its leader.
Freixas was enthralled. “I literally opened up the newspaper and read that all these raids had occurred,” he recalls. Soon he was spending hours researching the guy in the school library.
Years passed, but Freixas' interest in Battle never faded. Battled died in 2007 while incarcerated in a South Carolina federal prison. Freixas moved to Los Angeles in 2012, but around that time, he learned that retired Miami-Dade Police Det. David Shanks, who had relocated to Kansas, was writing a memoir on the Battle case. So Freixas booked a plane ticket to the prairie. Ultimately, he entered into an agreement to help Shanks finish writing the memoir.
But Shanks' project stalled — he was a detective, not an author. With the exception of the reports that first brought news of the Corporation to Freixas, Battle's story remained largely untold.
In 2013, Freixas had returned to Los Angeles to jumpstart his film career. He still had dreams of turning Battle's life story into a film. He was also friends with DJ Irie of the Miami Heat, who was spinning for a producer’s party in Hollywood and helped Freixas get in.
“I basically snuck in with the DJ,” Freixas says. “I didn't know that Benicio [del Toro] was going to be there.”
But there he was, standing on the balcony. They were smoking cigarettes. Freixas asked Del Toro for a lighter and made his pitch. They set up a meeting.
Del Toro was enthralled with the idea, Freixas recalls, but said there first needed to be a book.
Freixas returned to Miami and went to work, armed with the 1,000-page manuscript he had helped write in Kansas, which read like a police report. But years passed, and progress slowed yet again. Shanks was no longer contractually obligated to Freixas. The book was all but dead. That’s when Freixas met Tony Gonzalez, who hired him to produce a music video — and who happened to be friends with a nephew of a former associate of Battle's.
Gonzalez and Freixas discussed the Battle movie and decided to reauction the material. They persuaded an agent to reach out to best-selling organized-crime author T.J. English, who had published Havana Nocturne, a book about the Italian Mafia in Cuba. English, who had already been wanting to write the story, agreed to write a book.
“A lot of these old-school, hard-core Cubans started talking to us, and that's what broke it open for T.J.,” Freixas says. “We talked to hit men, to complete psychopaths, to dirty cops. We unlocked that Pandora's box of almost 40 sources.”
Using Shanks’ manuscript, English dug beneath the documentation to get at the essence of the Corporation.
“[Shanks] had accumulated an archive,” English says, “police reports, court transcripts, psychiatric reports of various key players, just a treasure trove of information." English spent more than a year cultivating sources.
“I had another task, and that was to humanize the story,” the author adds.
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The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld was released this month. English will read selections from it an an author event Wednesday, March 28. But before it hit shelves, Freixas and his colleagues had already begun pitching the movie project again. This time, major Hollywood studios wanted in. Eventually, Paramount landed the deal with Leonardo di Caprio as a producer.
No release date has been announced for the film The Corporation. But it'll likely be worth the wait. After all, English says, in terms of most notorious crime bosses, Battle is high on the list.
“He’s more interesting than your typical narco boss because of his political connections,” English explains. “Just the reputation of that guy and his charisma and his leadership qualities that he had and the other side of him, which was violent and bad. He really embraced the idea of being a mob boss.”
T.J. English. 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 28, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.