Miami Film Festival

Billy Corben on Rakontur's New Projects: "Florida Has Unlimited Characters"

Billy Corben always has his eyes on Miami.
Billy Corben always has his eyes on Miami. Courtesy of Rakontur

"It's been two years since we've released anything," director Billy Corben says of himself and Rakontur producing partner Alfred Spellman. After a brief pause, he laughs and rhetorically asks, "It's like, what the fuck do these guys do for a living?"

Corben is reluctant to share what exactly he's been working on the past two years. It's not that he doesn't want to talk about his and Spellman's latest projects, which will be screened in snippets at the 2017 Miami Film Festival. It's that he doesn't know exactly where to begin. All he does know for sure is that Miami, despite its beauty, is filled with insane stories. And, holy shit, are there stories to be told.

From chronicling the bloody Miami drug wars in Cocaine Cowboys to taking an in-depth look at the University of Miami's college football dominance in ESPN's The U, Corben and Spellman have devoted their craft to revealing the sexy, weird, fascinating, and unreal stories of South Florida to the rest of the world. Now, this Friday at Regal South Beach Stadium 18, they're set to reveal what the past two years of shooting and editing has birthed at the Miami Film Festival (MIFF) event Straight Out of Miami. And every indication is the two Miami-based filmmakers continue to uncover a plethora of intriguing stories to tell.

"Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but Florida has unlimited characters."

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"Twitter is limited to 140 characters," Corben says, "but Florida has unlimited characters." That sentiment is sort of his unofficial mantra.

Corben says he's been hard at work on at least three documentaries, all equally fascinating and all Miami-centric. But what will make Straight Out of Miami different is that, instead of screening an entire film, Rankontur will show clips from three docs and then have a conversation about each piece. A reticent Corben says he and Spellman will solicit feedback from the audience about clips he hopes "won't leave the room."

"It's weird, I know," he says. "Here we are at a film festival, and I don't want anybody to see the work. I would subtitle the evening as an 'off-the-record-screening and conversation.'?"

Corben says, however, that accepting an invitation from MIFF was a no-brainer. After all, it was the festival where Rakontur firmly planted its flag as the official chronicler of Miami's craziness. In 2015, the production company premiered the backyard brawling doc, Dawg Fight, at the festival to much fanfare and critical acclaim. Corben says he was working on the film right up until the morning it screened at the festival and calls it a watershed moment in his career.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STIAN ROENNING
Photo by Stian Roenning

"I'll never forget that screening," he says. "People were fucking cheering at the end, and Treon Johnson's mother was there. Treon was tasered to death by Hialeah Police before we finished the movie, and his death precipitated my wanting to finish the film in time for the festival."

Since then, Corben says, he has received an annual phone call from MIFF programmer Thom Powers, asking, "Whaddya got for me this year?"

What Corben can deliver this year are scenes from upcoming projects. Three, to be precise.

The first screening will be an eight-minute reel of the pilot episode of A Sunny Place for Shady People, a project born out of what Corben calls "a zillion ideas for Florida-centric documentaries." Described as "American Greed on flakka," A Sunny Place will feature subtle differences never seen before in any of Corben's films, such as a narrator. For this project, Rakontur brought in none other than Steven "Manolo From Scarface" Bauer to narrate the stories. Corben says each episode will be a different telling of another seedy only-in-Miami tale but promises it's not the typical "Florida-man shit" you find online every other day.

These stories are greater in scope than internet fodder, Corben says. "I have worked as hard on this as I have on some of our feature docs."

The second screening will be a teaser for the much-anticipated third installment of the Cocaine Cowboys series, Los Muchachos — a six-part docuseries that chronicles the rise of Cuban cocaine traffickers Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. Corben describes the clip as a teaser-trailer that will surprise.

Finally, the evening will present a clip from a secret project still in the early stages of production. Whereas with Cocaine Cowboys Rakontur worked on the theme of "Miami was built on cocaine money," this secret project promises to have a theme that on paper might not make much sense but will pull audiences in once they see it.

As coy as ever, Corben admits to being uncomfortable with putting uncompleted works out there. But he's enthusiastic all the same that everything will be revealed come Friday night.

"It's good to get outside feedback on these things," he says. "It's all very Miami-centric, so we'll be in the right room in terms of demographics. It's hard to put into the proper words. Just come and see it."

Straight Out of Miami: Rakontur Previews New Work
Part of Miami Film Festival. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 10, at Regal South Beach Stadium 18 & IMAX, 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Visit Tickets cost $13.

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Chris Joseph