Billy Corben Brings a Rakontur Double Feature to Miami Film Festival

Director Billy Corben
Director Billy Corben Courtesy Rakontur

Miami-based documentary filmmaker Billy Corben speaks in the same style his movies unfold: fast and peppered with plenty of self-effacing jokes. You don’t want to laugh for fear of missing what he might say next.

On a tight schedule to finish one of the two films he's slated to premiere at this year’s Miami Film Festival, he admits he only wants to procrastinate. That's why a 15-minute chat turns into a 45-minute confessional: He might not screen his final cut of his new documentary Magic City Hustle for its world premiere.

“It’ll be done,” he assures. “It will be a finished cut, but I don’t think it’ll be my final cut, but I don’t know. Listen, I have another week. Maybe I’ll be happy with it by then.”

You can bet he and producer Alfred Spellman, his partner at Rakontur, will be working on it till the last minute before its world premiere at MDC’s Tower Theater this Saturday, the opening night of the theater’s festival program. Full disclosure: This writer has firsthand experience waiting for Corben and Spellman to deliver a final film. It was 2005, and I was managing film traffic for MIFF. I was able to get actual 35mm film prints shipped from filmmakers around the globe in time for their screenings and never needed to get the festival director involved. But Rakontur's then-up-and-coming local filmmakers couldn’t deliver a tape of their first cut of Cocaine Cowboys the morning of what would have been the documentary's first public screening. Eventually, it was hand-delivered, but it sent that year’s festival director into a panic.

Corben laughs about it now. “We were [panicked] too,” he says. “But there wasn't a damn thing we could do about it. Final Cut Pro ate our movie! It was literally trapped on the computer. The system was far too unstable to handle the diversity of footage we were using. We legit thought we may never be able to show anybody this movie we had spent all this time working on.”

Of course, that documentary has since made Corben and Spellman highly sought-after filmmakers, having worked for ESPN and produced several well-received docs since, including a sequel to Cocaine Cowboys. Corben says Magic City Hustle is a departure for Rakontur, noting the movie has a bit of a raw, vérité feel. It follows a group of former University of Miami Hurricanes athletes trying their hand at jai alai for Magic City Casino’s new team. Even though it features one of Corben’s favorite subjects, his alma mater’s football team, it has a different feel from his previous documentaries, something Corben is still trying to get right for the screening.

“It’s very much in our canon at Rakontur,” Corben says, “but at the same time, it’s stylistically a little bit unique, so I really want to make sure that it feels right. This is a very literal interpretation of it,” he says of the cut he currently has, which he admits is still missing some establishing shots. “I’d like to let it breathe a bit more. It’s running long, so I think people will see shit that maybe they’ll never see again in the movie, so I’m really trying to get a feel for it... It’s just one of those things where it takes a little bit of time, and that’s just the one thing we don’t have.”

At least the other Rakontur production showing at Miami Film Festival is finished. It already had its Florida premiere at the Key West Film Festival in November. Screwball is also about sports — the Miami connection to doping in Major League Baseball, first reported by New Times — but it is also a bit of a departure for Rakontur. Corben says there’s hardly any sports footage they could use for the film. They did, however, have some chatty subjects who speak as if re-creating what happened behind the scenes.

“I said, 'Listen, we could Drunk History this,'” Corben says, referring to the Comedy Central series. “We could use their actual interview dialogue and have the actors lip-sync it on-set, and the actors will all be 8, 9, 10 years old.”

Ten-year-old Bryan Blanco plays the shady, hard-partying, Miami-based unlicensed doctor Tony Bosch, who founded Biogenesis, a so-called anti-aging clinic that supplied human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs to famous MLB players such as Alex Rodriguez (played by Blake McCall) and Manny Ramirez (Davion Figaro), among others. There’s even a child actor, Ian Mackles, who plays New Times' former managing editor, Tim Elfrink, who broke the Biogenesis story in 2013.

It’s more than a comic-relief gimmick. It works on several levels for the movie, from the idea that the story’s principals were behaving like children to the notion that inspired Bosch to mess with human growth hormone: the Fountain of Youth. Legend has it that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León voyaged to Florida in search of it. Centuries later, the street that Biogenesis overlooked before it was shut down was none other than Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

Most of the people involved in Biogenesis got only slaps on the wrist. Bosch served less than two years of a four-year prison sentence, and A-Rod, though suspended from the game for a year, Corben points out, has since come back as a respected sports commentator. But Corben says there is still a larger crime to consider, which also speaks to the darker side of the child reenactments: Bosch injected cocktails into high-school baseball players. That's ultimately what got him sentenced to prison time.

“The most significant of the crimes committed here is... that he was injecting high-school kids with God knows what and — more disturbingly, in my opinion — that those children were being brought by their parents and coaches to do that,” Corben says. “No 15-year-old kid came off the street to Tony Bosch. They didn’t hear about him from their friends in high school. They heard about him through the parents buzzing and the coaches buzzing. So to me, this is as much a DCF case as it is a health department or criminal case or DEA case. Where’s the DCF?”

Magic City Hustle. Part of Miami Film Festival 2019. 6:45 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; Tickets cost $13 for general admission or $12 for seniors and veterans.

Screwball. Part of Miami Film Festival 2019. 9:15 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; Tickets cost $13 for general admission or $12 for seniors and veterans.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.