As the 2020 election loomed on the horizon, filmmaker and Miami native Billy Corben was spitballing ideas to increase voter turnout. One thing the Cocaine Cowboys director wasn't looking to craft was another film that explored some bizarre avenue of South Florida history.
“We started talking about how we could do phone banks and we can canvass,” Corben tells New Times. “That was a real thing where you could kind of go outside safely and not concern people by knocking on their doors.”
Now, weeks away from Election Day, the director of Cocaine Cowboys and Screwball is working to complete the final cut of his latest documentary, 537 Votes, in time for its October 21 premiere on HBO. (The film will premiere locally at Miami Film Festival's Gems on October 10.)
“537 Votes is a year in the life of Miami-Dade County, beginning in November of 1999 through to the resolution of the election, which does not occur until December of 2000,” Corben explains. “We realized that it being 20 years on [from that momentous year] that there was probably a significant amount of the population that wasn’t born yet or is too young to remember that an entire presidential election, and the fate of the free world, came down to 537 votes in Florida.”
It leaves you wondering: How does one make the leap from considering cold-calling potential voters to directing an HBO original?
Much like the subjects in his own documentaries, Corben was swept up by an immense ripple effect with curious beginnings.
“It reminds me a bit of Screwball, our documentary about [Alex Rodriguez] and the Biogenesis steroid scandal, where the highest-paid baseball player in history — his career ended over a $4,000 debt between a Miami cocaine-addicted fake doctor and his steroid-addicted patient,” Corben says of the cause-and-effect snowballs that have become a motif of his films. “There’s a lot of those Miami-type of connections.”
He and his producing partners, Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin, at the Miami-based media company Rakontur quickly dropped the notion of volunteer work in favor of something more in line with their skill set: documentary filmmaking.
“We said, ‘What is a particularly relevant historic corollary to this moment?’” Corben says. “That’s when we realized that this is the same conversation where we realized that 2020 would be the 20th anniversary of the Florida recount and our business is particularly responsive to anniversary shows.”
For anyone expecting yet another paint-by-the-numbers political drama, remember the filmmaker in question. This is the same guy who elevated Miami’s backyard brawl scene to Dickensian heights (Dawg Fight), used child actors to re-enact the story of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid scandal (Screwball), and dropped some Uncle Luke into the sappy genre of sports documentaries (The U). Tongue-in-cheek is a language Corben speaks fluently.
“It’s not your typical kind of political retrospective documentary,” Corben freely admits. “We’ve basically been referring to it as a heist movie from the standpoint of the pacing, the music, the style of interviews.”
537 Votes posits that the custody battle over five-year-old Elián González ultimately affected the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Opening on González adrift off the Florida coast, the film charts the ensuing controversy leading up to the 2000 election and its highly contested recount.
“We are very fixated on the role that Miami played in the Florida recount and the outcome of the presidential election,” Corben says. “It’s a butterfly-effect documentary.”
Corben views his beloved Miami as a microcosm of the United States, often indicative of where the nation currently stands and where it might be heading. This “as above, so below” adage becomes most apparent every couple of decades.
“Miami kind of predicted what would happen over the next 20 years and more,” Corben asserts. “Miami 1980 was probably one of the most historically significant single years in any American city. That really revealed many of the political, social, and cultural rifts that would become apparent in this country all the way to today.”
Corben recalls two watershed moments from that year: the McDuffie riots and the Mariel boatlift. One was the outrage following the acquittal of police officers who beat black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie to death, the other was the mass exodus and subsequent oppression of Cubans arriving in South Florida.
“I mean, you had racial demonstrations over white and Hispanic police officers murdering an unarmed Black motorist, beating him to death,” Corben recounts. “You had the Anglo population pushing back on the growing power of the Cuban-Americans in this community with an English-language-only ordinance being placed on the ballot in November.”
Issues of race, immigration, and even voter suppression are still making headlines in 2020 — just as they did in 1980 and 2000.
“The  election went from Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, through almost Christmas, which again feels like a possible sneak preview for what’s to come,” Corben says. “If you could imagine multiple states where that occurs this year, then you could have Florida times four, because it will not be an easy concession for either candidate in any state where there are legitimate disputes and narrow margins."
As timely a film as 537 Votes is poised to be, Corben and his producing partners had a specific mandate. They wanted to tell a political story without uttering the name that often invokes cheers or jeers, depending on your social circle: Trump.
“We were not going to make a Trump documentary or a documentary about the Trump ecosystem,” Corben says. “We get so much of the Trump show pumped directly into our eyeballs and brains and blood every second of every day that at the end of the day if you’re going to come home and watch any political content, you’re not going to settle in to watch a documentary about Trump World.”
Despite steering clear of any depictions of Trumpmania, 537 Votes does feature an interview with Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone. Beginning with Nixon’s run in ’72, the political impresario has worked on various Republican presidential campaigns, popping up in the background of political history like a right-wing Where’s Waldo.
“Roger Stone says in the documentary, ‘The Florida recount was a street brawl to the presidency of the United States,’” Corben says.
The documentary features a variety of personalities from both sides of the aisle, including former George W. Bush adviser Brad Blakeman and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.
“It was really important that Miami was well-represented from the Republican and Democratic perspective,” Corben says. “Particularly because we wanted to talk with people who had a sense of humor and who had both unique and irreverent perspective on the events.”
As 537 Votes took shape, Corben was shooting footage, but distribution was a bridge he had yet to reach. Then he was introduced to Academy Award winner and Step Brothers auteur Adam McKay.
“We were introduced by a mutual friend, Dan Le Batard — because Miami,” Corben says with a laugh. “Dan put us in touch with Adam and Todd Schulman at Adam’s new company, and we showed him what we were working on and he was like, ‘Holy shit! How can I help?’”
McKay is currently a producer on the HBO series Succession and has an overall deal with the network. Corben had been a fan of HBO’s sly, subversive programming long before the network got into the lucrative business of dragons, robot cowboys, and vigilantes disillusioned with their shiny blue god.
“In that era, that was the dawn of the golden age, going into the '00s, of the HBO movie where they were doing a lot of movies about original, real-life events with a very irreverent perspective, whether it was Late Shift or Barbarians at the Gate,” Corben reflects. “HBO originals have been very influential in our lifetime and have really helped to inform and shape some of our style and perspective.”
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Surprisingly, in such politically polarizing times, 537 Votes chooses not to play favorites. Things are more complicated than that. As Corben puts it, members of both political parties in that era were willing to discuss what they choose to remember 20 years after the fact. Thanks to hindsight, political narratives are a buffet and everyone is a picky eater.
“I think everybody will be unhappy and everybody will be happy with the final product,” he says. “When you watch it you’ll see everybody gets a fair shake and everybody gets egg on their face. That’s how it shook out.
"As Roger Stone told us, ‘Politics is messy.’”
537 Votes premieres Saturday, October 10, at Gems Film Festival and Wednesday, October 21, on HBO and HBO Max. Gems streaming access costs $9.99 via miamifilmfestival.com.