Special to AmericanMafia.com
Director of Gangster Documentaries
By Ron Chepesiuk
Billy Corben is a 30-year old award-winning director of gangster documentaries. Corben produces his documentaries through Rakontur (www.rankontur.com), the Miami-based media production company he operates with is partner, Alfred Spellman. Corben's most noted productions, Cocaine Cowboys 1 and 2, document the rise of the cocaine trade and the resulting crime epidemic plaguing Miami in the 1970s and 1980s. Cocaine Cowboys 1 focuses on Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday, two former drug traffickers who during the Cocaine Cowboys era claimed to have personally transported more than $2 billion worth of cocaine into Miami. Cocaine Cowboys 2 profiled the remarkable criminal career of Griselda Blanco, the so called Godmother and Black Widow of the Colombian drug trade who played a seminal in the rise of the Medellin Cartel. Blanco was also responsible for dozens of vicious murders during her criminal career. Comments of Charles Cosby, a former California cocaine dealer who worked for Blanco and was her lover, comprise a key part of the documentary. Cosby provides fascinating insights into Blanco's personality and criminal career and their relationship.
Billy Corben & Charles Cosby
Q: How do explain the phenomenal success of your two gangster documentaries: Cocaine Cowboys 1 and 2?
A: Actually, those two documentaries could have done better, but there is a glut of gangster documentaries on the market. That's the downside of the democratization of independent filmmaking (laughs). Anyone with a camera can make a gangster documentary. And of course every gangster who now gets out of prison thinks that he is the next Frank Lucas, Leroy Nicky Barnes or Griselda Blanco, if only someone would film his story.
Q: Are there any documentarians from whom you've learned?
A: Stylistically, no. I believe the job of the documentarian is to find a good story and then not fuck it up. That is--stay out of the way of the story. If it's a lousy story you have to work overtime to make the documentary watchable. As a director, I adopt my directing style to suit the story.
Q: But your gangster documentaries have stood out and they have become a model for other filmmakers wanting to make gangster documentaries. What has been the key to your success?
A: Well, it's critical to have access. Remarkably, many gangster documentaries get made without any access to the subjects of the documentaries. It you are going to do a documentary about cocaine cowboys, you better have some cocaine cowboys in it who can talk about being cocaine cowboys. We did a pre interview with John Roberts and Mickey Mundy, the two key sources for the first documentary. Jon Roberts said to us: "What's in it for me if I give you my time and my story." That's a fair question, but we couldn't give Jon and Mickey any money. We barely had enough money to begin shooting the documentary. I said: "Jon, your life is your life. We are just asking you for the one-time right to tell your story. Hopefully, we will do such a good job that you and Mickey will become well known and Hollywood will come calling." But we made no guarantees. John said: "Fuck it! I'll take a chance on you guys and do it."
Q: So did Hollywood come calling?
A: John got a deal with the producers who did "Entourage" and Jon's story is now being produced for HBO. The same thing happened with "Cocaine Cowboys 2." We never gave Charles Cosby (the lover of Griselda Blanco who dealt drugs for her)) any money, but since the documentary came out, he has had two meetings with Antoine Fuqua (the director of the Academy Award winning "Training Day") and they've discussed doing a movie about his story. I won't make any money if they work out a deal, but I love what happened. It's you scratch my back and hopefully Hollywood will scratch yours.
Q: I understand Hollywood has scratched your back. You have an HBO television series in the works. What's that about?
A: Yes, I will be executive producer of the series. I'm working with movie industry heavyweights Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Warner Brothers will produce the series, which will document cocaine trafficking in Miami in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Q: For "Cocaine Cowboys 2", you had a great source in Charles Cosby. How do you know that a source is telling you the truth and is not embellishing his story?
A: Every source will embellish their story to some extent. Hopefully, documentation is available that helps us check out the story. For instance, you can look at the indictment to make sure the source is not making himself more important than he actually is. In the case of Jon and Mickey, their drug trafficking activities were well documented. We found several good law enforcement sources that could talk about the Cocaine Cowboy era. Charles' story is remarkable but, through dozens of photos we found in the courthouse, we were able to document that he and Griselda did have a close relationship. Michael Corleone, Griselda's son has verified the story as well. Of course, we couldn't verify everything-for instance, the amount of money Charles Cosby made in the drug trade. But we feel comfortable with the authenticity of his story.
Q: Have you had any contact with Griselda Blanco?
A: Not directly. We tried to get her cooperation for the first documentary but she declined. We heard through Michael Corleone that she liked both documentaries but would have liked to set some things straight. Also, it seems that her youngest grandson who is in grade school in Colombia, found a bootleg copy Cocaine Cowboys I. That was how the kid found out about grandma Griselda. She was a little pissed off about that. All I can say is don't shoot the messenger (laughs).
Q: What about future projects. Will you continue to document Miami's crime history?
A: Yes, we are working on the little known story of Willy Falcone and Sal Magruder, two drug traffickers from the 1980s who made a shit load of money. They took care of a lot of people and were Robin Hoods in the Pablo Escobar style but without the violence. We talk about the O.J. Simpson's first trial as being the "Trial of the Century," The trial of Falcon and Magluta was the most expensive in U.S. government history. Falcon and Magluta had a defense team that put Simpson's defense team to shame. Witnesses were bribed and both were acquitted of charges they had smuggled several tons of cocaine into the United States. It was the biggest drug case ever lost in the history of the Justice Department. Eventually they were convicted. The documentary will be the "trial of the cocaine cowboys." Unfortunately, it was a federal trial so there is no trial video.
Q: In researching your documentaries, what have you learned about Miami?
A: Of course when we began the documentaries, I knew about Miami's gangster past, but working with the old video footage was overwhelming at times. I remember calling my mother and asking her how she was able to raise kids during the cocaine cowboys era? She said there was a certain ghetto factor at work. We were white and middle class and not living in a Latin neighborhood. So our family, like many white families, felt it was above the fray. Of course, there was the reality. In those days you could stop at a red light and be kidnapped. Or be in a mall and get sprayed with machine gun fire. But my mother's comment reflected the segregation that exists in Miami. It's not just black and white. In Miami we still have segregated populations...whites, Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans, Jews, Colombians, more recently the Russians …the rest of Latin America. In Miami, we congregate with people who look and talk like us. The segregation affects every aspect of Miami. For instance, you can't get elected to political office in Aventura in the same way you get elected in Hialeah.
We want to do a documentary about "The Streets of Miami." Each of the city's neighborhoods has a completely different set of gangsters with different lifestyles and crime styles. You can't do a story about Miami without it being a true crime story. In Miami we say: "the reason I like Miami is because it's so close to the U.S." Miami is not a melting pot. It's a melting powder keg!
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