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by gaspar gonzalez | January 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
It’s late afternoon and the offices of Rakontur are filled with the rat-tat-tat chatter of principals Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman. The director/producer team behind the Cocaine Cowboys phenomenon has just moved into new digs, a picturesque 1927 Mediterranean on upper Alton Road, and, save for a couple of movie posters and the leather sectional in the living room-turned-reception area, the space is pretty bare. In the half-empty room, their rapid-fire banter pops like an AK-47 in the hands of one of their celluloid protagonists. “Cuban coffee?” Spellman offers a visitor, before pouring himself a shot. “How many projects have we got going on now?” asks Corben. Nine, his partner tells him. Nine? “Nine.”
It’s hard even for them to keep up these days. Since the premiere three years ago of the original Cocaine Cowboys—a blood-soaked, white-powdered documentary assemblage of interviews with drug pilot Mickey Munday, dealer Jon Roberts and hit man Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, along with vintage South Florida news footage—Corben and Spellman, both 30, have been riding a growing wave of success. What began as an attempt by the two University of Miami alums to chronicle the city’s shoot-’em-up, blow-’em-up cocaine wars of the early 1980s has morphed into a lucrative branding operation.
First came the follow-up to CC, Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ With the Godmother, which expanded on the story of the most memorable character from the original film, Griselda Blanco, the “Black Widow” of the ’80s Miami drug trade, who built her empire on the bulletriddled corpses of those stupid enough to underestimate a woman with a temper and a cadre of devoted hit men. Now there’s a third CC film in the works, along with an HBO series, a remixed version of the original CC, an animated series for the Adult Swim cable network and even a coffee-table book.
According to Spellman, that was the plan all along. “With Cocaine Cowboys,” he declares, “we knew right from the beginning that it was going to be a cottage industry—action figures, cartoons, comic books.” The reason, he says, is that when it comes to Miami’s cocaine wars, truth was not only stranger than fiction, but it was also more entertaining. “People thought they had seen how overthe- top the Miami drug scene was with Scarface, but they really hadn’t.” Corben concurs: “The most shocking thing about working on Cocaine Cowboys is that nobody had done a documentary like this before.”
Corben and Spellman, who had only one previous film to their credit—Raw Deal, a 2001 Sundance entry about an alleged rape at the University of Florida—debuted CC at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006. The exposure led to a distribution deal with bad-boy billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures.
It was an auspicious start, but the first indication that CC might really blow up came when Corben and Spellman were told that bootleg copies of their film, which had yet to be officially released on DVD, were being sold at the Carol City Flea Market, a popular urban emporium in North Miami-Dade. When they went to the neighborhood to investigate, Corben and Spellman made an even more surprising discovery. “We go into this barbershop,” remembers Corben, “and they have these two TV sets and Cocaine Cowboys is playing on a loop. All day. These guys in the barbershop know all the dialogue—and the film hasn’t even been released!” CC, with its celebration of violence, fast money and the kill-or-bekilled ethos, was an instant hit with the hip-hop demographic. The producers saw the potential for a branding breakthrough. “Hiphop had embraced street-team marketing,” Spellman says. “Why couldn’t we do the same?” Highprofile Miami rappers were some of the film’s biggest fans and, according to Spellman, “it became important for them to say they had seen it,” so Corben and Spellman shot video testimonials with the likes of Trick Daddy, Pitbull and Cool & Dre and posted them on YouTube. It was only a matter of time before wannabe gangstas, white 20-somethings too young to actually remember the ’80s, and the rest of the Facebook set were scrambling to get their copies of CC.
Since then, fervent fan interest has fueled the franchise. “We always knew it was going to be a series of films,” says Corben. “After Cocaine Cowboys, people came to us and said, ‘Bro, you didn’t get the whole story. Bro, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that.’”
Hence, CC II, which the boys released in July 2008, and now CC: Remix, due out this spring. Remix, like the original CC, will be structured in three acts—drugs, money, murders—but with completely different content. “We shot 150 hours of interviews for Cocaine Cowboys,” says Spellman. “That’s what the remix is about—all this stuff that’s really good that didn’t make it into the [first] film.” Then, exhibiting a producer’s practiced flair, he adds, “Rivi is going to solve a cold case from 1981. Rivi is going to tell you what happened in the Kendall 6 killings!” The remix will coincide with Cocaine Cowboys: An Explicit History of Miami’s Drug Rush, an MTV book containing photos, police memos and other bloodstained tidbits from Miami’s “paradise lost” days.
A third installment in the CC series, about the prosecution of legendary Miami drug dealers Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, is also currently in production. “It’s the biggest drug case in the history of this country,” says Corben, speaking of the series of federal trials that ended with Falcon getting 20 years and Magluta a quasibiblical 195. “For 10 or 15 years, Willy and Sal financed the legal profession in Miami.”
Corben and Spellman seem primed to keep Hollywood awash in CC-related product for almost as long as Willy and Sal kept Miami swimming in snow white. A chance meeting in 2008 with rap mogul Pharrell Williams has led to the development of an animated series for Cartoon Network sister channel Adult Swim. The show, about two dope-peddling brothers in ’80s Miami, is to be titled Square Grouper, after the local nickname for the bales of marijuana that used to regularly wash up on Florida beaches.
But the biggest score for Corben and Spellman appears to have come through their talent agency, William Morris, which put them in touch with another of its clients, director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers). The initial phone call did not seem promising. “The first thing [Bay] says to me is, ‘I hate documentaries,’” remembers Corben. “Then, after a pause, he says, ‘But I love Cocaine Cowboys.’”
Bay asked them how they would envision a dramatization of the documentary. “I told him I thought the story of the smugglers would make for a great ongoing story,” says Corben. “Cocaine Cowboys is an ensemble piece, which is also what a TV series is. So he says, ‘Okay, let’s pitch it as a TV series and, if that doesn’t work out, we could always make the movie instead.’” Corben laughs. “Only somebody like Michael Bay would see a $200 million movie as a fallback.”
Soon after, Bay roped in megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI: Miami, Pirates of the Caribbean), who successfully pitched the series to HBO. Corben and Spellman will serve as executive producers on the show, which is scheduled to premiere next year. Their chief responsibility, they say, will be quality control. “Our job is to get the setting right, make sure the city is accurately represented,” stresses Corben. “There’s going to have to be scenes at Miami Jai-Alai and on the Miami River.” (Each figured in a memorably grisly killing back in the day.)
Corben and Spellman aren’t the only ones cashing in on the success of CC. Jon Roberts, whose drug-dealing adventures supplied the original film with much of its narrative fireworks, has secured a deal of his own. Working through another Hollywood talentagency heavyweight, Endeavor (since merged with William Morris), he sold the rights to his life story to Paramount Pictures, which is currently developing a film version directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock). Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly have already signed to play Roberts and Mickey Munday. Roberts’ money is on Salma Hayek to land the role of Griselda Blanco.
Sitting in a Miami Starbucks and sporting camouflage shorts, a tan T-shirt and black sneaks, Roberts looks more like the suburban dad next door than one of Miami’s most infamous ex-drug dealers. That is, until he starts hyping his latest project. “This film is going to blow everybody’s mind,” exclaims Roberts. “Cocaine Cowboys was just about Miami, which was a little operation.” Roberts promises the new movie will detail his much more extensive operation out of Louisiana, as well as his undercover dealings with the United States government, which he claims recruited him to fly weapons to the Contras in Nicaragua in the ’80s. Writer Evan Wright of Generation Kill fame is writing both the movie script and a book based on Roberts’ experiences.
There has been talk of a falling-out between Roberts and Rakontur—the competing projects might have something to do with it—but Corben and Spellman, for their part, wish Roberts well. “I’m very happy that Jon was able to parlay his appearance in CC into something,” says Corben. “He and Mickey have this icon status, which is great for us.”
Corben and Spellman can afford to vibe magnanimous. No one, it seems, can get enough of Rakontur’s street-level stories about Miami’s outlaw ways. The U, about the University of Miami football team’s rise to glory and notoriety in the ’80s, aired in December as part of ESPN’s 30th-anniversary celebration. Dawg Fight, about Miami’s illegal backyard fight circuit, is in post production and will be released this summer, as will Limelight, on the rise and fall of the great New York club scene of the 1980s.
While not, strictly speaking, a South Florida film (though this being a Rakontur production, you just know there will be a connection), Limelight nevertheless reflects the producing duo’s abiding interest in that other famed Miami industry—clubland. In 2008, Spellman, along with nightlife maven Keith Paciello, opened Bella Rose, a laid-back, loungy throwback to the early days of South Beach. “The plan was to build it just like Cocaine Cowboys,” explains Spellman. “People open clubs and invite stars from out of town and pay them. We just invited our friends, and it grew from there.”
It certainly did. Though temporarily closed for relocation, Bella Rose has become a draw for hipsters, A-listers and CC groupies. “We get a lot of attention because of it,” says Spellman. “It’s an extension of the Rakontur brand.”
TOP IMAGE: Miami police detectives pose with confiscated weapons and drugs from a 1987 drug bust.
RIGHT IMAGE: Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, the director/producer team behind Cocaine Cowboys phenomenon.
portrair by mateo garcia