I was fortunate to meet the film and TV director and producer Billy Corben at the ATX TV Festival. During our conversation, we both stopped for a minute, turned our heads to look at the interior of the restaurant at the Driskill Hotel and simultaneously gaped, mouths wide open, at the “real guns and guns as artwork and cowhide taxidermy” that lined the tables. He cracked up, “It’s like a long weekend in Yellowstone” (the TV series).
Billy Corben is mischievous as he is politically savvy. His Florida equivalent of New York’s Borscht belt upbringing made him who he is today; a profoundly private person in his personal life whose intense inquiring mind seeks truth in a gregarious manner. His producing partners, Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin are South Florida natives whose production company Rakontur, based in Miami, has made waves since the release of Cocaine Cowboys, which premiered at Tribeca in 2006 and Magnolia Pictures released. The documentary was a huge hit on the flea market/barbershop bootleg circuit and garnered them a vast hip-hop following, with artists like DJ Khaled, Jay-Z, and Rick Ross name-checking Cocaine Cowboys in song. To him, a documentary is a form and can come in any flavor, sports, comedy, romance, politics, economics, etc. It was a gangsta movie.
Cocaine Cowboys helped define Rakontur’s style of tabloid-esque, fast-paced nonfiction storytelling. Soon they created Cocaine Cowboys 2 – a sequel delving deeper into Griselda Blanco – for Magnolia in 2008. “I call it popdocs,” said Billy
Most of the TV series and films directed and produced by Billy take place in Miami or have a Florida theme. He’s the expert in his state and the state of mind of the characters who inhabit his visual landscape; criminals and unlawful-abiding citizens who run the various shows, from drug runners to Evangelical elites.
God Forbid, his last film, is “Get Out meets the Righteous Gemstones. It’s about a young guy who gets honey-trapped into this white world of power and privilege and then has a moment where he has to get out.” It was a daunting exposé on the sexual shenanigans of Jerrry Falwell Jr. and his wife Becky with a pool boy. In 2022, their second McKay collaboration, God Forbid, premiered on Hulu and quickly became its most-watched documentary, knocking Fyre Fraud out of the top spot. “That film might have taken them down,” he muses.
Billy does the work of an investigative reporter, uncovering the hidden plot or event, the onion, and peeling it. “At the U. of Miami, I studied political science, a pre-law curriculum. Much to my grandfather’s chagrin, I didn’t become a lawyer.”
At the festival, he participated in the panel Unscripted POV https://guidebook.com/g/#/guides/atxtvfestival/items/15793060. Shedding light on the TV industry and its morphing, he says, “It’s fluid and not as set in its ways as the film industry. There’s so much room to create, grow and make something literally out of nothing. This iPhone is more powerful than many cameras, and in the past twenty years, I’ve watched the enormous changes. Anyone can record a film nowadays, and the technology is only improving for everyone.”
In 2000, they created their first documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, investigating an alleged sexual battery of an exotic dancer at a University of Florida fraternity house that took place a year earlier. Raw Deal premiered at Sundance in 2001. It was the dawn of DV, digital video. At 21, they were the youngest filmmakers ever invited to Sundance and the only ones from South Florida. The documentary generated enormous controversy and ended up on the cover of the New York Post.
“Reasonable people disagreed on whether or not this video was, in fact, a consensual act and became a scandal. This is all before the age of ‘fake news.’ It was incredible”, Billy recalls.
In 2021 Netflix premiered the four-part series “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami,” which garnered an Edward R. Murrow Award. Corben is working on the release of Cocaine Cowboys, the 4th installation to be released next year, and has other projects in the back of his mind. Big stories worth telling. Big stories worth waiting for.
Find Billy Corben on IMdB https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0169253/