There’s an old adage that says, “South Florida is a sunny place for shady people.” Award-winning documentarian Billy Corben can attest to the validity of that statement. Through the years, the Florida native and lifelong Miami resident, has brought us some of the wildest characters and mind-boggling tales one could ever imagine. In the past, Corben’s Rakontur media studio, has been primarily known for two things: movies about drugs, like 2006’s “Cocaine Cowboys,” and movies about sports, like “The U” and “The U Part 2.” With his latest film, “Screwball,” Corben combines all of these elements for what is arguably the studio’s most ambitious (and side-splittingly hilarious) project to date.
Told primarily from the point-of-view of fake doctor Anthony Bosch, “Screwball” recounts the high-profile doping scandal that rocked Major League Baseball and takes us into the surreal Miami underworld that provided performance-enhancing drugs to Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and other star players. While Bosch’s medical credentials may be lacking, his storytelling skills are first-rate as he hilariously details the rise and fall of his “health clinic,” including mob connections, financial chicanery, his cocaine habit, and Rodriguez’s eccentric behavior. While powerful interests would be happy to let this story slip from memory, “Screwball” refuses to fade off quietly into the sunset. The film has spent the past several months dazzling audiences during its festival run, winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2018 Key West Film Festival, and the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2019 Miami Film Festival. It was also an Official Selection at the Toronto International Film Festival. Finally, on June 4th, 2019, Greenwich Entertainment’s brings “Screwball” to DVD and digital platforms the world over!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Billy Corben to discuss his unique career path, his evolution as a filmmaker, the making of ‘Screwball,’ and all things Florida Fuckery!
You’ve become one of the most intriguing characters in the documentary film world. How did the journey begin for you?
Miami in the 80s, in addition to being a big town for drugs, was also a very big town for entertainment. There was a lot happening with the modeling industry, commercials, and television. I was not athletically inclined in my youth. I have a brother who was a gifted athlete, but my claim to fame in that world was my first at bat at the North Miami Beach Optimist Tee-Ball League, where I struck out. That’s when I dashed my father’s hopes of me becoming a professional ball player. Instead, I became a child actor. I had friends who were in TV commercials and I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen! So, I became a child actor in Miami! I did dozens of TV commercials and then I did a movie called “Parenthood,” which Ron Howard directed, where I actually played a 3rd baseman! There has always been a baseball motif in my life! [laughs] I played a 3rd baseman and I cursed at the birthday party. That was cool because Steve Martin went on all the talk shows, from Carson to Arsenio Hall, and brought a clip where I had a line in it. My Mom thought that was the coolest thing ever because I found a back door and wound up on Carson in some way! [laughs] I was a big Nick at Nite fan and I watched “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days,” so seeing Ron Howard in charge, and knowing he was a recovering child actor, I thought it was badass! For me, acting was a hobby that I did after school and I never looked at it as a career. However, I thought if there was room for advancement, I could become the director and not the directed! [laughs] Ron Howard was a total badass and the nicest guy. He had his whole family on set and they all had parts in the movie. His wife was there, Bryce [Dallas Howard] was there, his Dad, brother and so on. Some of them had speaking parts in the movie and others were just quick cameos, just because they were there with him all the time. He knew everyone’s name on set and was just a wonderful guy. That’s really what set me on the track to directing and filmmaking.
My producing partner, David Cypkin, I have known him since pre-school. Alfred Spellman, I met in a television production class in middle school. We’ve all been working together ever since! We had always been news junkies and history buffs, even from childhood. We had a real interest in non-fiction in particular. We never studied it, but we were specifically interested in tales of Florida Fuckery! I’m a Florida native and a life-long Miamian, so you grow up with a really eccentric cast of characters around you, constantly. No matter what walk of life you are in or from, here you always seem to come across the most interesting people. It seemed like ripe ground and an untapped resource for non-fiction filmmaking, which is where we eventually found our way!
You’ve definitely found your niche, and I feel that “Screwball” is a great culmination of what you’ve done in the past with some new twists. Looking back on your work as a filmmaker, when do you feel you really came into your own as a storyteller?
You know, the best filmmaking class I ever took was screenwriting, which was one of my three majors at the University of Miami. That’s why we ultimately named our company what we did — Rakontur. I thought, “As long as you know how to tell a story and understand how a story should and can be told through the structure of storytelling, you can really do anything. For example, our first documentary, “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” made us the youngest filmmakers in Sundance history. I look back on it now, the work of a first time filmmaker at 21 years old, and cringe. You say, “Shit! There are so many things I would do differently.” However, I think it’s still a good story, really well told. I wouldn’t shoot it the same way, but I think the editing and storytelling are really strong. I think it was at that point when I was like, “Okay, we can really do this.” Again, we’d never studied documentary filmmaking before or took a class on it. We were certainly fans of the form but were never formal students of it. I think it was “Cocaine Cowboys,” which was our second doc where we got good at it! [laughs] Or at least better at it! With our first film, “Raw Deal,” the intention of that was that we wanted to do a Florida true-crime story. What we wanted to do, particularly after Sundance, was to establish ourselves as “The Miami Guys,” as opposed to three more schmucks peddling our wears in New York or Los Angeles. We wanted to invest in our community and to gamble on our community as well. The idea was that we could run a successful or at least a solvent, working company from Miami in the non-fiction world. Like I said, we wanted to be “The Miami Guys” because you need that shorthand in this business to distinguish yourself in the marketplace. We knew if people didn’t know what Rakontur was, they would know us as “The Miami Guys.” We needed a calling card! We needed a non-fiction film that kind of heralded our arrival as “The Miami Guys” and that’s what “Cocaine Cowboys” was for us. That’s when I really started to get out of the utilitarian aspects of doc filmmaking. I was still focusing on the journalism but also made the aesthetic a priority. We thought really hard about how we wanted it to look, sound and smell! [laughs] We came up with a guide or look-book were everybody from the DP all the way to composer and sound mixer understood what this was supposed to look and feel like. Not that there aren’t things I would do differently but I felt, for better or worse, that was a vision that was consistent. By that I mean, what it looked like in my head, before we even started filming it, is more or less what it looked like when we were done. That’s when I feel we really came into our own.
You latest project is “Screwball: A Batshit Tale of Steroids, Schemers and Baseball Stars.” The way this story came to you was a bit serendipitous. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah! I was approached by A-Rod’s publicist in November 2013. The story of the Biogenesis steroid scandal had broken earlier in 2013 when the Miami New Times had the sensational report which blew the lid off of this operation. Among the marquee names was Alex Rodriguez. Alex was on a break from the hearings in New York and he was back home in Miami. According to the publicist, he wanted to meet us, in what I presume was his office in Coral Gables. You know, sort of a private meeting to discuss the possibility of Alex doing a documentary. I thought was an intriguing opportunity. However, instead of his office, we met at high noon at the Hillstone Restaurant on the most popular corner of the city, right on Miracle Mile and Ponce de Leon Boulevard. It is like the power lunch spot if there is one in Coral Gables. The place was just absolutely packed. I mean you’re talking about a mob around the host stand on, three deep at the bar, every seat taken in the place, floor-to-ceiling windows and then an open kitchen, so everybody from the street to the dishwashers can see everything happening in the dining room. We’re escorted down the center aisle to the back-middle booth, which is literally on a step. It’s, like, on a stage. We had to step up to join A-Rod where he was holding court with his publicist and friends. And all eyes were on us, and we sit down with Alex. As we sat down at the table, I was like, “Well, who’s gonna call Page Six, you or us?” And sure as shit, it was in Page Six less than two weeks later. So, we spent about 90 minutes with him, where he lied to us about basically everything. We had fun; he was an interesting and complicated character. He didn’t have much of a sense of humor at the time, as you can also imagine. He was in a fight for his legacy and his livelihood, so he was in a mood. I thought he made some compelling points and I thought it would be interesting to do an interview with him, to do something.Ultimately, we were just kind of pawns in his PR offensive against Major League Baseball at that time. I spent the next seven months or so corresponding with the publicist about an interview that never happened. That was the end of A-Rod’s involvement with the project but, of course, not the end of the project.
Was there any doubt you wanted to bring this tale to the masses?
Not even for a moment! This is the ultimate tale of Florida Fuckery! It’s like freebasing Florida Fuckery. It’s Florida Fuckery distilled! I was doing an interview and someone referred to Tony Bosch as “the most Miami of creatures.” [laughs] I think that’s a pretty apt description! Like I said, if you grow up in this town, you come across people like that all the time. I hear from locals who have watched this doc and said, “I know that guy!” I’m like, “Oh, you know Tony Bosch?” They’re like, “No, but I know THAT guy, if you know what I mean.” [laughs] I don’t think that prevents it from traveling or playing to a wider audience. You sort of run the risk, when making documentaries about Miami’s drug boom in the 80s or a small private school that had a successful college football team in the 80s, that they may not play much further than your local PBS affiliate. However, we’ve discovered that there is a profound interest in all things Miami and all things Florida, the world over. As Miami as these creatures may be, they seem to really travel. So, we wanted to shine a light on these amazing characters like Tony Bosch, Porter Fisher, The Carbone Brothers, Gary Jones, or even the former police officer/Florida Health Department detective and Major League Baseball investigators turned into wild who turned into the wild Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, or Coen Brothers-esque characters by virtue of baking their brains in the sun here. [laughs] The icing on the cake of it all was that it involves the highest paid and most famous baseball players in the world! He was collateral damage in this whole wide tale. That’s part of the nexus of Miami though. It’s this nexus of celebrity/criminality/sports and all of these other things. I call it “America’s Casablanca” for a reason!
You’re involved with all aspects of the filmmaking process and bringing your stories to the masses. What do you consider the biggest challenges you faced this time around?
I don’t know if this was an easy project but the subject came to us, so that was a major hurdle that we overcame very early on. I think the biggest challenge in telling this story was that you go into a sports doc or a sports-adjacent doc like this one with the assumption that we’re going to be relying on a lot of sports footage. You think you’re going to interview people, they’ll talk about sports and you cut to footage of the game and that’s the formula. The sports docs and the “30-for-30” episodes we do tend to be a little more straight forward, if not paint by numbers that way. This was a challenge because all of the shenanigans, events and scenes in this story took place didn’t take place on the field or on a national broadcast. Obviously, there was no footage of this shady shit happening in a fake doctor’s office in a strip mall, a hotel, night club or sports bar. There was no footage or photographs, so we knew we would have to recreate these scenes and events in order to tell this story as effectively as we could. We called the movie “Screwball” from the jump. We also knew what the tone was going to be and that it was going to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek and irreverent. As serious as the story got for the people involved, they all look back on it with some sense of humor, as you can tell from the interviews. They’re not too self-important and they all had some sense of self-awareness. With the benefit of hindsight, they can all all look back on the situations they were involved in with a little bit of lightness and certainly realize the absurdity of everything that happened! [laughs] We wanted to maintain that aesthetic, tone and style. That’s how we eventually came to the solution of using the kids!
And what a great job they do in the film. They really bring something special to the project that I don’t think you could have captured any other way!
Yeah! They are so good! What’s funny is that when people ask us, “Why use the kids?,” I would originally say, “All of the people in this scenario acted like children!” I started to feel bad about that because I met these children, these young actors and they we so professional, so responsible, organized, and smart that I realized that none of these kids would have acted as stupid as some of the people in the story do! [laughs] I feel bad! I just meant that the people the film focuses on behaved in a way we normally associate with children but most children are smart enough to not act that way! There has been that terrible adage that’s associated with W.C. Fields or Hitchcock, “Never work with children or animals.” I would disagree! I would do it again in a heartbeat! First of all, their brains are like sponges so they were able to easily memorize everything. They knew the whole script and were able to deal with the challenge of playback on the set and syncing the dialogue in perfect time while putting up with the insanity of the hair, wigs and makeup. Throughout all of of that, they still managed to take it seriously and pull off the whole device. They were just a pleasure and it was a great experience under very stressful hours and circumstances. We shot everything on location. In fact, 3 of the locations were the actual locations where the real-life events took place, which were the LIVE Nightclub in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, The South Miami Sports Grill and The Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne. We tried to get more real locations but it just didn’t work all out with the schedule we were working on. We shot all around Miami and here’s the funny thing, we were running around with kids dressed up as cops, in lab coats and pinstripes and some of them had beards. Nobody looked twice at us! Nobody in Miami thought this was the least bit unusual or out of the ordinary. Nobody pulled out a cellphone to snap a picture. Everybody was like, “Just another fucking day in Miami!” [laughs]
There is certainly no shortage of wild stories coming out of Florida. Where do you see yourself headed when it comes to the material you take on?
We’ve kinda got this Miami thing done, so where are definitely in a firm “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mode. With that said, we are definitely growing in terms of the scope and lengths of the stories we want to tell. We have some doc mini-series in the works. For instance, we have a doc that we were we’ve been working on now for just over 10 years that, previously, there was no market for this type of story. It was unheard of 10 years ago but now you can do that and it’s a huge thing. We have accumulated footage through the years on spec and now, all of a sudden, we have an opportunity to tell this story in the amount time that we need to tell it. I think we’re also getting a little more ambitious in terms of the filmmaking itself, which is something that “Screwball” definitely does. You can watch “Cocaine Cowboys,” “The U,” “Dawg Fight” and then you watch “Screwball” and I hope people get a sense of that we are capable of more, if not different stuff. There is definitely a calling card for us as filmmakers, mind you it’s still Miami and drugs, but the filmmaking continues to mature and ambitious as we get older. The characters were so colorful and the story was so compelling in “Screwball” that we didn’t necessarily have to do the reenactments in the way we did but we did them because we always try to serve the story and come up with the most interesting way to tell whatever the story is. What I’m getting at is that while we have a style, I think we have to adapt it to the story that we are telling and with the ubiquity of non-fiction. I mean, when we started making documentaries, every cable channel on television was not showing docs. There is so much non-fiction in the marketplace that I think it’s important as filmmakers to try and distinguish yourself in the marketplace. I don’t think it’s a gimmick per se but it’s just saying, “why should the audience watch this one instead of the other one.” Those aren’t even the options anymore! Now, it’s “Why should the audience watch this one instead of the other one, the other one, the other one, the other one…,” in a world where we have two Fyre Festival documentaries at the same time for Christ’s sake! [laughs] You certainly need to distinguish yourself in some way. I think that’s what we’re trying to do and that’s exactly what we did with “Cocaine Cowboys.” We raised the bar for how documentaries were shot and how they were treated by buyers and the audience. We hope to continue to do that and continue to introduce younger people and a broader audience to non-fiction filmmaking by coming up with new ways of presenting them.
I know our time is short, Billy. I want to thank you for speaking with me today, and I wish you and your team continued success. Hopefully, it’s the type of success where you can commission a centaur painting of your very own to liven up your home![laughs] Thank you, Jason! You know, I have the one that we used for the doc and I will never let it go! Well, we might auction it off someday for charity. I don’t know if you saw it but someone asked A-Rod, I think it was New York Magazine or something, asked him about the painting last month. He gave the most bullshitty answer. He said something like, “I do not currently own a centaur painting of myself.” And then there was no follow up! How do you not ask, “Well, did you ever own a centaur painting of yourself.” Look, I know people who have seen it! [laughs] I think it’s a bummer and I hope he didn’t destroy it because just think of how much money he could generate for charity by auctioning it off!
A modern masterpiece!
Thanks for your time, Billy. Take care!
Thanks, Jason. I look forward to talking again soon.