Billy Corben - From Child Actor to Award Winning Filmmaker
Billy Corben makes movies about subjects that some people would rather forget.
For the last decade, the Ft. Meyers-born filmmaker has produced and directed - along with Alfred Spellman - documentary films that tackle contentious issues.
While Corben agrees that his films can be disturbing, he says that all he is setting out to do is present “stories that are worth telling; stories that have drama, conflict and controversy.”
But if a young Corben had hit the ball at his first little league game, some of those films might never have been made.
“I struck out,” says Corben.
“We were playing t-ball,” replied Corben.
And so, washed up as an athlete at 7, Corben started looking for a new hobby.
Living in North Miami Beach, he remembers a girl in his neighborhood who acted in commercials.
Any activity that didn’t require a 7 year-old to be humiliated while swinging a ball sounded okay to Corben.
After getting some professional headshots taken, he convinced his dad to take him to castings and he ended up getting work in a few commercials.
His mother wanted nothing to do with his new-found acting career. As far as she was concerned, the road to moral decay ran straight through Hollywood.
Eventually Corben was spending summers in LA shooting TV pilots and at 9 he acted in a film called “Parenthood” directed by Ron Howard.
Home-schooled during his acting years, Corben decided as he entered his teens he wanted to attend a normal school.
He enrolled at Highland Oaks Middle School off Ives dairy Road where he met Alfred Spellman in the 9th grade. A teacher paired the two off and assigned them the task of producing the school’s daily news program and a partnership was forged.
When it came time to choose a high school, Corben enrolled in the New World School of the Arts, a magnet school in downtown Miami. Spellman attended high school in North Miami.
In 1994 Corben and Spellman formed Spellman-Corben Productions and soon after they produced a student film, called “Waiting,” a 34 minute short about a girl waiting for the results of an AIDS test.
By 2000 Corben, was attending the University of Miami.
That same year, he took a leave from UM, and together with Spellman they produced their first Rakontur documentary, “Raw Deal: A question of consent.” The film centered around the story of an exotic dancer who filed rape charges after being hired to perform at a Gainesville fraternity house in 1999, Two days later she was arrested for filing a false police report.
First screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2001, one critic called it the “most important film to see at Sundance.”
Corben now says that “Raw Deal” was the film that “started it all”
In 2009, the filmmakers released the highly acclaimed “The U.”
The film recounted how University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger rebuilt the school’s waning football program in the 1980’s by recruiting players from some of Miami’s toughest inner city neighborhoods. By the end of the decade, UM’s smash-mouth, trash-talking style of football had won it few friends outside of Miami. And the program was also making UM leadership very uncomfortable.
When Corben and Spellman approached UM about doing the film, the school was so anxious to bury the past, the filmmakers were told by UM’s sports information director Mark Pray that they “should rethink even doing this project.”
The pair persisted and the film was made and was shown on ESPN following the Heisman Trophy awards ceremony in Dec. 2009.
Last March, Rakontur’s latest film, “Square Grouper,” had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
(Square grouper was the name given to bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes and found floating in South Florida waters three decades ago.)
Broken up into three parts, “Square Grouper” recounts the unlikely saga of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a religious cult that lived in a pricey Miami Beach mansion and insisted that marijuana was their sacrament.
Also included is the tale of South Florida’s prolific Black Tuna marijuana smuggling gang.
The final part of the film ends with the story of a group of fishermen in Everglades City in Southwest Florida who were forced to turn to pot smuggling when the federal government told them they could no longer fish in Everglades National Park.
In July, 1983, federal drug agents threw up a roadblock on the only road leading into town and arrested a dozen fishermen. In the years following the initial headline-making raid,100 more Everglades City residents would be arrested.
And while “Square Grouper” - like “Cocaine Cowboys” before it - deals with the drug trade, one writer has said that, “In sharp contrast to the brazenly violent cocaine cowboys, Miami’s marijuana smugglers were cooler, calmer, and for the most part, nonviolent.”
Like other films he’s produced, Corben was met with resistance even before the cameras rolled.
James Lawrence King, the federal judge who presided over the trials of the Black Tuna gang members declined to be interviewed for the film because of alleged threats on his life from former members of the gang.
One member of the Black Tuna organization, Robert Platshorn, served over 28 years in federal prison for his role in the smuggling operations. He was released in 2008 and was interviewed for the film.
Getting the residents of Everglades City to agree to be interviewed for the project was another hurdle facing Corben.
Just about everyone in the close-knit town of 500 or so residents had either been involved in the marijuana smuggling or had known someone who had been involved. For many, memories of arrests and jail time were just too painful.
To this day, some residents still speak bitterly of one network TV reporter whom they feel betrayed their trust.
And even on the best of days, Everglades City residents aren’t very talkative. To underscore that, the town’s grocery store sells a tee-shirts with the picture of a fish with its mouth open. “Keep your mouth shut and you won’t get caught,” reads the legend under the picture.
In short, Everglades City wanted nothing to do with Corben or his film.
But Corben would not be deterred. Telling the story of a town where 80% of the adult males had gone to jail was just too compelling to ignore.
Enter Lindsey Snell…
Snell, the film’s producer, traveled an unlikely road to filmmaking.
She grew up in Daytona Beach and after high school attended college, and then went on to study law at Fordham Law School in New York City.
After graduating from Fordham, she made her way to Miami Beach in 2008, intending to study for the bar. Instead she ended up joining Rakontur as a researcher.
Corben describes the 26 year-old Snell as having “the mind of an attorney, the wit of a satirist, the face of an angel and the heart of a storyteller.”
Snell decided the best way to get Everglades City residents to agree to cooperate with the production would be to bond with them.
So, for several months in the summer of 2009, Snell starting driving the 80 miles out to Everglades City on alternating Saturdays, hanging out with the town’s residents at a rough-and-tumble watering hole called Leebo’s Rock Bottom Bar.
At first, Snell says, “They thought I was a narc.” That notion was quickly forgotten, Snell says, “when they saw how much I could drink.”
Snell soon discovered that Saturday nights at a bar in a town that calls itself “Florida’s Last Frontier,” can be anything but sedate or relaxing.
Snell says she was “was hit on by men 50 years my senior too many times to count.”
One night she was “splattered with a little blood during a hilarious bar brawl.” A week before production was to begin, a woman pulled a knife on her and accused her of trying to “exploit the town.”
Corben and his crew eventually got their interviews and the final cut of the film was completed this past January.
Snell drove out to Everglades City last November with a tape that included an edited version of the town’s part in the film and screened it at Leebo’s.
“They came all dressed up like it was a Hollywood premiere,” says Snell. “It was cute.”
Corben emphasizes that “We just didn’t go into the town and make our film to leave and never return.”
He said that after completing a shoot in Ft. Myers recently, he and Snell “took the long way back and stopped in Everglades City for dinner.”
Following the film’s opening at SxSW, it was screened at college campuses and at film festivals in Tampa, Sarasota, Orlando and Boca Raton during March and April.
In Miami, the film will be screened at the O Cinema in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, April 14 - 17.
The film will be available on DVD on April 19.
And while Corben is happy that two years of work has finally come to an end, “it’s anti-climactic,” he says. “I won’t feel like the film has really been released until it’s screened in Miami.”
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