At just 33 years old, Billy Corben, one-third of the Miami-based documentary production crew Rakontur, seems young to be celebrating a retrospective of his work. Yet Corben and his partners in Rakontur, Alfred Spellman and the less-public David Cypkin, boast a decade in the business under that brand name — and even more from the years before. This week at O Cinema has been all about celebrating an official decade at Rakontur, with a concluding event tonight featuring a live Q&A with Corben and Spellman. And to hear Corben tell it, he’s felt every day of those 10 years.
“A lot of people in our business move to L.A. or New York, so they don’t have a real basis of comparison for change. But when you stay in one place — Miami — as we have, you feel the years. Miami, unlike even other cities that develop quickly, is unique in that it transforms almost completely over the course of a decade,” Corben says. “Every decade — the ’80s, the ’90s, the ’00s, and now the ’10s — is defined differently.”
Incredibly, Corben, Spellman, and Cypkin have been making films for almost all of those decades. Ferociously precocious, Corben and Spellman made their first films together as middle-schoolers in television production class at Highland Oaks Middle. In ensuing years, they formed their first tentative companies, including one by the highfalutin name Spellman Corben Productions. (“It sounds like a fucking law firm,” says Corben.)
As high schoolers, the two rode a community service film to one of the locally vaunted Silver Knight Awards, a long-running, Miami Herald-sponsored nod for exceptional area students. It was then that they decided they were onto something — and that their hometown was probably an essential part of that something. Just a month before Corben was set to depart for Tufts University to study political science, he and Spellman made a last-minute executive decision to apply to and attend the University of Miami instead. Corben did keep the poli sci, but added majors in screenwriting and theater, the latter a holdover from his high school years at New World.
Just four years later, they completed their first feature-length documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent. The no-holds-barred film followed the murky truths and half-truths in the case of Lisa Gier King, an exotic dancer who may or may not have been raped after appearing to perform privately at the University of Florida’s Delta Chi frat house. What was particularly unusual about the case was that almost the entire episode was caught on film, raising more questions than anything.
Raw Deal was an in-depth piece of reportorial work, and it was also unflinching — large chunks of that video in question appears, in all its seat-squirming power, in the final film. It was enough to land Spellman and Corben at Sundance at age 22, making them, at that point, the youngest filmmakers to ever appear at the film festival. It was then that they, along with Cypkin, officially formed Rakontur — and when they again made the decision to stay in Miami. Raw Deal was a Florida story, but they really wanted to turn to their hometown for its abjectly weird native narratives, as well as for its brand-building edge.
“We thought, well, if you move to L.A. or New York, you literally become two more schmucks wandering around walking into people’s offices. And we were enamored with Miami, and its potential in terms of story-telling,” Corben says.
At just the age of 23, then, they began work on what would become their cinematic calling card: the first of the Cocaine Cowboys films, and still the most celebrated of that film franchise, which also boasts a sequel, and, soon, a third installment. “Growing up, Alfred had read all the books on the subject of Miami and the drug wars in the ’80s, all of which were out of print and not that easy to come by. He was always a voracious reader of nonfiction in that genre,” Corben recalls. “We had grown up witnessing things that we didn’t understand, so there was a curiosity about what had happened here.”
The end result helped to define the company’s style — deeply journalistic but with a true-crime novel flair. Cocaine Cowboys, and later Rakontur films like The U and Square Grouper, are voice-over free, reserving judgment but teasing out a thesis through the subjects’ own words. They’re glossy, full of period-appropriate music and graphics, but also pulpy at the same time. Corben, Spellman, and Cypkin never shy away from the racy, ridiculous, or salacious, much like the city of Miami itself.
They also, roughly, follow a certain geographical arc of the kind Corben notes in the city’s transformation. Square Grouper, a movie about marijuana pushing, starts in the ’70s and runs in time up into the cocaine-centrism of the following 10 years. The first Cocaine Cowboys is unabashedly ’80s, whereas its sequel is firmly of the early ’90s. The U straddles the University of Miami football program’s glory days (and subsequent falls from grace) across those decades.
The stories of the ’00s and ’10s are forthcoming. The next Miami-centered, feature-length film from Rakontur is Dawg Fight, due out this year, a story of West Perrine’s illicit backyard fighting circuit. And as long as similarly obscure scenes here continue to populate with larger-than-life characters, Rakontur’s backlog of potential film ideas will continue to overflow.
“L.A. is the place where you go when you wanna be somebody. New York is the place you go when you are somebody. Miami’s the place you go when you wanna be somebody else. That defines so much of our culture here, and so many of the Gatsby-esque characters,” says Corben. “The city inspires us literally every day with its never-ending sordid and assorted cast of characters and stories past and present.”
A conversation with Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, hosted by CBS’ Jim DeFede. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 30 at O Cinema, 90 NW 29th St., Miami. Call 305-571-9970, or visit o-cinema.org.