How the 'Cocaine Cowboys' filmmakers built a career interviewing Miami's most notorious gangsters

Billy Corben Alfred Spellman Rakontur
Billy Corben Alfred Spellman Rakontur

((L-R) Director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman.Rakontur)

  • Filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman used the perspective of drug dealers and hitmen to tell the story of "Cocaine Cowboys."

  • When criminals get out of prison, they want to tell their stories to Corben and Spellman.

  • Corben and Spellman explained their failed attempt to make the real-life story of Martin Scorsese's "Casino."

Born and bred in Miami, Florida, director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman grew up knowing a simple fact: their city has been, and will always be, a sunny place for shady people.

Whether it’s the refuge for retired mafia kingpins of the past, or most recently O.J. Simpson’s likely new home once he's released from prison in October, The Magic City has never been able to shake its notorious reputation.

For Corben and Spellman, memories of being kids in Miami include racing home after suddenly coming upon a massive drug bust on their way to school and realizing that all their neighbors suddenly were driving around in fancy cars, had big boats, or were building additions on their houses — all while the rest of the country was going through a recession in the '80s.

And then there was “Miami Vice.”

“The big thing [growing up] was finding, in town, where 'Miami Vice' was shooting," Spellman told Business Insider. “They were always just shooting the other day near your friend's house, that was the talk. It was a huge thing in elementary school."

When the two grew up (they've known each other since the 9th grade), and decided to get into making movies through their production company Rakontur, they didn't set up camp in Los Angeles or New York City. They stayed put in Miami and decided to tell the taboo stories of the city.

The first: making the real-life "Scarface" movie.

The Smugglers

Miami was the entry point for cocaine moving into the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It made the people who were trafficking it extremely rich, but it also made Miami, in that time, the most violent place in the country. The Colombian and Cuban drug cartels set up hits almost on a daily basis around the city.

It was a story Corben and Spellman felt had been glamorized in movies and TV, but never told the real way in documentary form. They planned to do that with "Cocaine Cowboys" — tell the story through the accounts of the people who were there. And not just on the law enforcement side, but the underworld as well.

But there was a problem. Corben and Spellman had zero connections in the city's drug world of that era. However, there's another simple fact about Miami: "You are basically two degrees of separation away," Corben told Business Insider. "You'll be at a bar and end up sitting next to a former smuggler."

And that's what happened to Corben's cousin on a sunny Miami day in 2003. While Corben and Spellman were beginning their research on the movie, Corben got a call.

Jon roberts magnolia
Jon roberts magnolia

(Jon Roberts.Magnolia Pictures)

“My cousin called me and he said, ‘Do you know who Jon Roberts is?’ And I’m like ‘No, but let me ask the office.’ And Alfred yells out, ‘Yes!’” Corben said.

In his research, Spellman had come across the book “The Man Who Made It Snow,” and in it Roberts is featured as a former New York City club owner who moved down to Miami to deal marijuana, and ended up being one of the major players dealing cocaine for the Medellín Cartel.

“It turns out Billy’s cousin met him at a pool and Jon wanted to know if we wanted to do lunch and meet,” Spellman said.

Up until this point, Corben and Spellman had hit closed doors whenever it came to talking to the people behind the cocaine that flooded into Miami in the 1980s. By the early 2000s “Scarface” was a bonafide classic constantly referenced on TV shows and rap songs, but for people living in southern Florida, the topic was still a sensitive subject.

“In Miami, you didn’t talk about cocaine, it’s just an era that had never been talked about,” Spellman said.

“My grandfather, who was a real estate developer in Miami Beach and South Florida, he was appalled we were doing the movie,” Corben said.

But after a sit down with Roberts, in which they explained to him that the movie would not feature a narrator, or have an agenda, and instead would be focused on the first-person accounts, Roberts was on board. And Roberts’ partner, Mickey Munday, a modern-day pirate who was in charge of smuggling the drugs into Miami through air and sea, quickly followed.

cocaine cowboys magnolia pictures
cocaine cowboys magnolia pictures

(A drug bust shown in "Cocaine Cowboys."Magnolia Pictures)

Corben and Spellman realized they possessed a tool that the former gangsters desperately needed to get back on their feet after years in prison: notoriety.

“Most people coming out of prison don’t have anything,” Corben said. “It’s life reset. You’re not helpless, but you have no income, you have no savings, some people don’t have any support system when they come out because people have disowned them. So you come out and all you have is your stories. I don’t want to call it your currency, but that’s what you have.”

Though Corben and Spellman said they never paid for an interview, they do not take their subjects’ life rights, which means the people they interview are free to use the notoriety they get from the movie to try and land a book or movie deal. (Thanks to the success of “Cocaine Cowboys,” both Roberts and Munday have done just that.)

After snagging Corben and Spellman, the filmmakers now had law enforcement, newspaper reporters, and smugglers all retelling how cocaine got to the shores of Florida. But they still didn’t have any Colombian enforcers.

The Hitman

Landing someone who would go on camera and speak about the murders they committed was obviously a huge challenge. In most instances, the hitmen were in prison for a single murder, so the person could only speak on what they had been convicted of. Corben and Spellman would want to talk to someone who could speak about a wide range of criminal activity.

Through the help of a homicide detective, Corben and Spellman reached out to three hitmen serving prison sentences. One was a man convicted for the murder of Barry Seal, the drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel who Tom Cruise will be playing in the upcoming movie “American Made.” They also reached out to Miguel Perez, who is featured in “Cocaine Cowboys” as a hitman who once killed a target at an airport in broad daylight with a bayonet.

“This guy was described to us by a veteran homicide detective in the documentary as one of the scariest people he had ever encountered in his life,” Corben said of Perez.

Perez agreed to be interviewed. But after weeks of preparing, and hours on the day setting up lights and dolly track at the prison, Perez appeared from his cell to tell the filmmakers he would no longer do the interview after speaking to his lawyer.

“This took months to get to this point,” Corben said. “I’m on the other side of the room with the crew and I see Alfred wagging his finger at Miguel saying, ‘We came all the way here….’”

“I’m just yelling at him,” Spellman added. “And he said he couldn’t do it.”

rivi magnolia
rivi magnolia

(Jorge "Rivi" Ayala.Magnolia Pictures)

The third person was Jorge “Rivi” Ayala. An enforcer for drug lord Griselda Blanco, aka “The Godmother,” Ayala was unique to the other hitmen the filmmakers reached out to. Why? Because Ayala had turned on Blanco and cooperated with authorities. Instead of getting the death penalty, he had immunity and could speak about over 20 homicides instead of just the one he was convicted on.

For five to six hours a day, for three visits, Corben and Spellman, along with a film crew, visited Ayala. And what they got from the interviews is some of the most compelling and memorable footage of “Cocaine Cowboys.” Ayala held nothing back as he talked about the people he killed and how insane his boss, The Godmother, was.

After “Cocaine Cowboys” premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, the movie was bought by Magnolia Pictures. Though its theatrical release wasn’t that impressive, the movie would later gain a loyal following on the bootleg market, and quickly became a popular title in the hip-hop world. The movie has since found even more fans on Netflix and airs on movie channels like Showtime.

The filmmakers have also built up their status through their popular ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries “The U” and “Broke.

That has made Corben and Spellman’s job of landing interviews with shady characters much easier. A major reason why “Cocaine Cowboys 2,” which delved deeper into the reign of Blanco, was made is because the main subject of the movie, Charles Cosby, saw that the promotional material for “Cocaine Cowboys” had a photo of him and Blanco. Cosby reached out to Spellman to get the photo, which led to the two talking and eventually deciding to do a movie.

And their two movies released in 2011, “Limelight” and “Square Grouper,” were made when the subjects reached out to the filmmakers directly. In the case of “Square Grouper,” main subject Robert Platshorn's first call after 29 years in prison for marijuana smuggling was to Corben and Spellman.

“We say, ‘When you get out of prison the first call you make is to your mother and the second is to Rakontur,’” Spellman said.

The real 'Casino'

But the pair hasn't landed every movie idea they’ve gone after.

Shortly after the theatrical release of “Cocaine Cowboys” in 2007, Corben’s cousin came through again. He told him that Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a mob associate and the person Robert De Niro's character is based on in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” lived in Miami Beach. As “Cocaine Cowboys” was spun as the real “Scarface,” Corben and Spellman felt it was time to tell the real-life “Casino.”

The duo tracked down Rosenthal, who suggested they meet at the posh Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach.

Rosenthal, impeccably dressed as Corben recalled, dazzled the filmmakers with stories about his power plays with Hollywood, like how he forced the studio that released “Casino,” Universal, to change the real-life names of the mobsters for the movie. In the movie, Rosenthal’s name is changed to Sam “Ace” Rothstein. But when Corben pitched to Rosenthal the idea of a documentary about him, Rosenthal's reaction was simply that he’d “consider it.”

“So a two-hour, $250 lunch later, we walked out with a definite maybe,” Spellman said.

Two more very expensive lunches followed, including one in which Spellman had to move Rosenthal’s car so it wouldn’t get towed — “I’m walking to the car and I’m thinking, ‘Are people still after him?’ I took a deep breath and started the car,” Spellman said — but they were still at a stalemate. Months after the final lunch, Rosenthal died.

Frank Rosenthal AP
Frank Rosenthal AP

(Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal.AP)

“Funny enough, a month or so later I have lunch with an FBI agent we know, and I was spitballing ideas with him, and I told him the whole story about Lefty and he looked at me and paused and said, ‘He was the biggest snitch we ever had. He ratted on people until the day he died.’ So I realized he was still an asset of the agency and didn't want to put himself out there with doing a movie,” Spellman said.

Corben believes what has made them successful over the years is they are completely honest with their subjects. They don’t have fixers or field producers trying to track people down and convince them to be in the movie, like other movies and TV shows. It’s just Corben and Spellman building the relationships.

“I don’t even know what a fixer is,” Corben said with a laugh. “So much of what we do and the candid nature, we’re asking people to recount embarrassing, unflattering, or humiliating parts of their lives, like going to prison. Those relationships are so much about trust. I don’t know how we could do this any other way.”

And because of that they also are meticulous in the edit room to make sure nothing a subject says on screen is taken out of context. To date, the filmmakers say no one featured in one of their movies has ever said they were depicted unfairly.

“You’re dealing with people who would be very upset if we weren’t truthful,” Spellman said.

The duo aren’t done with the “Cocaine Cowboys” franchise. A third one, which will focus on a Miami Cuban crime family headed by Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, is currently being made into a six-hour miniseries. But before that, there will be another documentary we’ll see from them. At the moment they are keeping that under wraps, but you can bet it will be set in Miami and involve shady people.

“All I’ll say for that one is the people called us on the way to prison and then on the way out,” Corben said.

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