Miami has two prominent cultural gatekeepers nowadays: Rick Ross and DJ Khaled, the city’s most successful purveyors of street-approved entertainment. To less mainstream fanfare, however, Rakontur, an independent, Miami-based film production company, has provided South Florida’s truest stories with tireless research and the most aplomb. Founded by director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman back in 2000, Rakontur specializes in unraveling the region’s most notorious “true crime” stories, their biggest film being 2006’s Cocaine Cowboys, which detailed the rise of coke and violence in 1980s Miami. Much like Scarface, only, you know, real.
Corben’s latest documentary, Square Grouper, takes a much mellower look at the city’s sordid history, this time focusing on the pot smugglers of the late 1970s. The film profiles three separate entities: the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a religious sect that used God as a defense against smoking weed while earning millions of dollars from marijuana; the Black Tuna Gang, a crew of smugglers that obtained their product from Colombia and royally angered the FBI; and the inconspicuous weed-moving fishermen of Everglades City. Unlike Cocaine Cowboys, which roared with a fast pace and hardcore sensibilities, Square Grouper, which hits DVD shelves this week, is a light and chill look at “the godfathers of ganja.”
In addition to Square Grouper, Corben’s first doc set outside of Miami, Limelight, is set to make its premiere this Friday as part of the Manhattan-based Tribeca Film Festival. Limelight looks back at the NYC nightclub empire amassed by Peter Gatien, the man behind such popular spots as Palladium and Tunnel who watched his venues get shut down by the fuzz.
Complex spoke with Corben about Square Grouper, how much Miami has changed over the last thirty years, the role hip-hop played in the success of Cocaine Cowboys, and the negative effects of Funkmaster Flex’s old Tunnel parties.
Complex: Similar to Cocaine Cowboys, Square Grouper has some amazing archival footage, especially the footage of the Zion Coptic Church. It’s pretty surreal. How difficult is it for you to obtain all of that old footage?
Billy Corben: Well, the impetus for these sorts of projects is the archival footage. That was true with our first doc, Raw Deal, that went to Sundance; we only made it because of the videotape footage of the alleged rape of a stripper inside the fraternity house at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Without that footage, we never would have made that movie or told that story, and it’s very similar here.
The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church hired their own film crews to document their goings on. As you can see in the movie, they very briefly had a TV show, The Coptic Hour, that they produced, which they shot a lot of footage for. The church’s headquarters on Star Island (in Miami Beach) was always open for the press. And there were local news stories on them back in the late ’70s, and ultimately they went national with the Dan Rather 60 Minutes story.
So going into that one, we were well aware of how well-covered they are; the interesting thing, and we discovered this on Cocaine Cowboys, is that 1979 was a real transition moment for the news business, in terms of format. I remember we met a cameraman for a local news affiliate, who said, “Oh I remember covering that Dadeland shooting in Cocaine Cowboys, because it was one of the first stories I ever went out and did with our new video camera equipment. That was the big transition time from film to video.”
We’ve always been aware of film preservation, and how long film lasts, and when or how it starts deteriorating, but we don’t know a lot about beta, in terms of preseveration. News stations put these beta tapes on a shelf somewhere, in a storage room somewhere, and you get these video tapes from 1979 that are basically the only remaining video record of whatever news was contained and produced, and the shit just turns to dust.
We’re really sensitive to that, when we go through all of the archival footage. No one has taken the time, effort, and hard drive space to digitize all of this old stuff, and create, on a local level, a digital archive. We’re really sensitive about how much time is running out on the durability of these old tapes. We always try to put as much of it as possible into our movies, or into the bonus features on the DVD, just so now there will be a digital record of this stuff. Some of this stuff, especially the Coptic Church footage, is just out-of-this-world bizarre. [Laughs.] You’ll never see anything like that—ever.
Billy Corben: That’s the thing about Square Grouper. The three stories are a blessing and a curse. We had so much material, enough material to make three, I think, compelling feature docs, one about each of these subjects. But, from a practical standpoint and a financing standpoint, how many Miami, late ’70s pot-hauling documentaries are you going to actually produce? [Laughs.] So we made the decision to make it a self-contained anthology with all three stories. We had to obviously cut so much material out, from interviews we shot to news footage; I would love to have the opportunity to go back to all three of these stories and flesh them out. I think we did a good job condensing them, but there are so many more compelling angles to these stories.
The origins of Square Grouper trace back to when you were working on Cocaine Cowboys, right? How exactly did you come across the three stories?
Billy Corben: Well, we grew up with all of it. With Cocaine Cowboys, I have distinct memories of sitting in the kitchen while my mom was making dinner on a school night at 5 p.m., when the local news would come on, and these were the stories and images I saw on the TV.
We’ve had this extraordinary resource down here in South Florida, in Miami, called the Florida Moving Image Archive that has taken the time and put in the effort to archive this classic local news material. And then we just hit the streets; we got Mark Potter, who did a lot of amazing stories down here before he went to NBC National News, so he had a lot of great packages for both the Cocaine Cowboys stuff and Square Grouper. You just reach out and play all the angles to find this stuff.
In fact, because we had so much great stuff in Cocaine Cowboys, and we’re talking about hundreds of hours and hundreds of photographs and interviews we shot, there’s another case of material inspiring a project. We’re actually working with Magnolia on a Cocaine Cowboys: The Remix. That’s coming out in late summer, early fall, and that’s the same structure in terms of the three acts, “Money,” “Drugs,” and “Murder,” but it’s full of interviews you haven’t seen and news footage that hasn’t been seen in thirty years. In fact, we discovered, long after we made the movie, a story on Griselda Blanco, “The Godmother,” with a picture of her as a young woman, that hasn’t been seen since that news story ran like thirty years ago.
Cocaine Cowboys really blew up and allowed you to make The U for ESPN and Square Grouper. Has the success of that film shocked you?
Billy Corben: Yeah, it’s interesting to watch these films naturally find their audiences, especially with the indie films. With The U on ESPN, you know that’s going to find its audience because ESPN is behind it and they’re going to promote it to the perfect audience, which is awesome, obviously. [Laughs.] That’s like two million new fans with each airing.
But with the independent films, like Cocaine Cowboys and now Square Grouper, they find their fans, the people who really respond to the stories and respond to the characters. Not every movie is for everybody, so you get to find out who loves it, and they recommend it to people who love it, then you watch the whole thing blossom and grow.
The conventional wisdom in this business is that “opening weekend mentality,” where people think that a movie is never going to make more money than when it first comes out; they think the same thing with DVDs, that you’re never going to sell more units on DVD than you are during that first big week. Well, Magnolia Home Video told us that when Cocaine Cowboys came out on DVD in 2007…the day it came out, they got calls from Netflix and Amazon, both of which doubled their original orders because they couldn’t meet the demand. And then every month, for almost the first year of the release, we shipped more DVDs every month than the month before. That was just from word-of-mouth, and that was pre-Twitter, too.
The hip-hop community really gravitated toward Cocaine Cowboys. Did you expect that sort of enthusiastic reaction from rappers and hip-hop personalities?
Billy Corben: We completely attribute the success of Cocaine Cowboys to the hip-hop community. Without fail. We absolutely give all credit where credit is due. It was people within the hip-hop community, starting in Miami, who discovered the movie, embraced the movie, and made it viral. The early adopters were guys who got it from the flea—bootleg. [Laughs.] It was Trick Daddy, Pitbull, N.O.R.E, Cool and Dre, and then DJ Khaled—the guys who were right there on the ground level, because we know it first got bootlegged right out of Miami.
It was all of the Miami artists who first saw it, and then the shit just spread like wildfire. And as soon as the hip-hop artists pick up on it, soon come the professional athletes, of course. [Laughs.] The two go hand in hand. I remember asking one of the guys we interviewed for The U, “What’s with the symbiotic relationship with professional athletes and hip-hop artists?” He kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, “They want to be us and we want to be them.” [Laughs.]
Mark Cuban told us this funny story. You know, in addition to owning the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban owns Magnolia, the distribution company that released Cocaine Cowboys and now Square Grouper. He said that back in 2007 he was on the team plane, walking down the aisle, and all the guys had their personal TV players. He goes, “There must have been at least a dozen guys watching Cocaine Cowboys all at the same time. He asks one of the guys, “Oh, is that Cocaine Cowboys?” The guy says, “Yeah,” and Mark is like, “Oh, cool, we’re distributing that—that’s a Magnolia movie.” And the guy goes, “Oh, well I got it on bootleg.” [Laughs.]
Listen, that’s the mixtape craze—the hip-hop community knows that better than anybody. People don’t bootleg the shit they don’t like; they bootleg the shit they do like. And I know that Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2 DVDs are some of the best-selling DVDs in strip club men’s rooms all over the country. [Laughs.] Thanks to the bootleg guys with their books or whatever. So we’re very proud of that.
It’d actually be cool to see you make a documentary about something within hip-hop, some unique story that you could present with the same skills on display in a movie like Square Grouper.
Billy Corben: I would love to, if we could find just the right story. Alfred [Spellman, Corben’s production partner], actually, has an interesting take, but I don’t know if it’s good enough for a feature doc. We did Cocaine Cowboys 2, which is a little bit about crack-slinging in Oakland, California, in the ’90s—kind of like Boyz N Da Hood through the Cocaine Cowboys/Miami Vice/Scarface story lens. So Alfred has this theory that it was actually hip-hop, in a way, that saved the streets from crack.
At first, everybody was rapping about slinging rock, basically. But then a lot of the music started to be about smoking pot. No one ever really promoted crack; they said that was a means to an end, an opportunity to generate revenue. But then it was about pot.
In our next feature doc, Limelight, one of the clubs we look back upon is The Tunnel; you go into The Tunnel, and people weren’t doing blow or fucking ecstasy like the club kids were inside Limelight. It was basically like Cristal, Hennessey, and pot, and weed doesn’t hurt anybody. [Laughs.] Alfred actually says that if you look at the evolution of hip-hop and the artists, hip-hop music really saved the streets from the crack epidemic in a lot of ways. That’s one interesting thing that we talk about sometimes, thinking about what artists we’d need or what arch we’d need to tell that story.
Hopefully you get the chance to explore that someday. I’d imagine that’d be a much different film than Square Grouper. One thing that stands out about Square Grouper is its laidback tone. It’s like watching a bunch of older folks tell their life-stories in a really chill manner. Was that the intention all along?
Billy Corben: It’s the yin to Cocaine Cowboys’ yang. It is the unofficial prequel. I got a favorite pastime down here in South Florida, and a lot of people do this here. What you do is, you go to some dock-side dive bar, and I try to scope out the coolest looking old-timer I can find, right, and I take the barstool next to him; inevitably, after a few hours and a whole lot of Whisky later, you’ve just heard the life story of a notorious drug smuggler, or disgraced politician who just got out of prison on corruption charges.
Miami is just that kind of town. I always use this quote, and I don’t know who said it first but I say it a lot: “L.A. is the place you go when you want to be somebody. New York is the place you go when you are somebody, and Miami is the place you go when you want to be somebody else.” We’ve always had that kind of situation down here—it’s the end of the line. When you’re in Key West, you are closer to Cuba than you are to Miami at that point; 90 miles away from Cuba. One of the crime reporters we interviewed for Cocaine Cowboys said, “It’s not a coincidence that most of the fugitives on America’s Most Wanted get caught down in Florida.” [Laughs.]
But when we set out to make Square Grouper, I didn’t want it to look and feel like Cocaine Cowboys, because Cocaine Cowboys is about cocaine. [Laughs.] So that movie is Miami in the ’80s—it’s fast, we fade to white, there are fast dolly moves, quick cuts, the music sounds like it’s right out of Miami Vice, with synthesizers. For Square Grouper, I wanted to give it the vibe of that pastime inside the waterfront dive bars. I wanted you to feel like you just spent 90 minutes chilling in a bar, having some drinks, and hearing these guys tell their stories about being pirate pot-haulers in Miami in the ’70s.
The ’70s was a big transition period for Miami, because everybody knows that Miami today is a Latin city—there’s just no doubt about it. But that transition really happened over the course of the ’70s. After Square Grouper, you may never see another movie about Miami again that has so many white people in it. [Laughs.] But, the thing is, Miami used to be the South. Everybody had a boat, they were fishermen, and it was a bunch of rednecks.
Billy Corben: Right? Dude, you’ll never hear this many people speak English in Miami. [Laughs.] It’s true. But that’s why it’s kind of a cool time capsule in that way. Sit back, grab a beer, smoke 'em if you got 'em, and watch the movie. Really, this was the drug-smuggling business, but it’s not the fucking cocaine-craziness, which was the very next decade.
That was the idea—to adopt a style. The name of our company is Rakontur—we’re slaves to the story. We have a style, I think, but we try not to impose it onto the story we’re telling; we try to tweak our style to match the story we’re telling. Cocaine Cowboys has that fast-moving feel and the synth score; Square Grouper has nice mellow dolly moves, some pretty close-ups, blurred backgrounds, an all-acoustic soundtrack and this Jimmy Buffett vibe, and everything is earth-tones. Why? Because it’s about ganja. [Laughs.]
The same thing with Limelight, by the way. It’s all inspired visually by ecstasy. You look at it and it has a lot of the visual elements that you’d associate with rolling.
Limelight is interesting because it’s the first time you’ve covered a subject that’s not Florida-specific. What made you want to venture out of your home-state to make Limelight?
Billy Corben: That was actually Jen Gatien. She’s the daughter of Peter Gatien, who was the small-town Canadian boy who built what was, and remains to this day, the largest nightclub empire in New York history. Limelight is his rise and fall. Jen came to us and wanted to tell this story of her dad, but she didn’t want to do it as a movie about a daughter telling a story about her father. She wanted somebody else to come in and objectively investigate and retell what happened, because a lot of people don’t know what happened. You see Peter Gatien and people are like, “Oh yeah, they guy with the eye patch?” [Laughs.] “Didn’t he go down on some ecstasy beef or whatever with the feds? What ever happened to him?”
Everybody has been to Limelight, everybody’s been to The Tunnel, or Palladium, but nobody knows exactly what happened to him. So we were intrigued by that. And I was also impressed that Jen didn’t want the film to be some kind of propaganda or image-rehabilitation piece for her dad; she was like, “I will turn it over to you and give you final cut. I will produce the movie with you, but creatively you guys are the force and you have the last word on everything.” And she’s been true to her word. We got to put the government’s case together again from scratch and look at the people and evidence involved.
What was so interesting to me about the Limelight project is that it’s set against the larger backdrop of the Rudy Giuliani revolution of the 1990s, and how Rudy Giuliani changed the city, which is a situation that every New Yorker has an opinion on. Some go, “I miss the days when Times Square wasn’t like Disney Land,” and others go, “Well, shit, he really turned this city around from one of the most dangerous big cities in the world to one of the safest and most family-friendly, without the peep shows and the drugs and the prostitutes on the streets anymore.”
Now, what happens, of course, is that the big nightclubs turned into the venues for drug sales and drug use, and Peter Gatien becomes, let’s say, collateral damage in this culture war that was happening in New York at the time.
A big part of that, by the way, was the hip-hop party Sunday nights at The Tunnel, with guys like Funkmaster Flex. When all was said and done, they instituted that CompStat program, you know, with the computerized crime statistics, so they could measure crimes to the day and block they took place. Once a month, the precinct commanders from those neighborhoods would have to go these big meetings with the brass and basically get brow-beaten about why crime was up. That’s why the precinct commanders had to take to the streets with military-like force and stop crime before it happened, so they wouldn’t get their balls busted in the monthly meetings. And what does that mean? Every time someone would leave The Tunnel and take a piss on the street, someone would call the cops and there’s a blip on the CompStat.
So they wanted hip-hop out of that neighborhood, for good. “Shut the party down.” And Peter Gatien, at that point, couldn’t afford to shut the party down. That party at The Tunnel was the most successful thing he had going for years on end. Ultimately, as a lot of people speculate, they shut him down altogether just for that party at The Tunnel, and how they saw hip-hop at that time.