Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Take 5: Billy Corben

The “Cocaine Cowboys” impresario launches the next iteration of the Miami crime saga

In the late 1960s, the population of Miami Beach consisted of “a lot of old people just  sitting on rocking chairs waiting to die.” That’s how one observer characterized it in the  opening of Billy Corben’s 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys.”

But by the early 1970s, when drug traffickers began exploiting Miami’s miles of unguarded shoreline, the city became awash in white powder. Opportunistic locals, who moved drugs from South American cartels through an intricate network of boats, planes, cars and safe houses, discovered a $20 billion annual empire that only crumbled when blood began to shed. Narco money from the Miami Drug War, which started with a broad-daylight shootout at Dadeland Mall in 1979, built Miami into the thriving metropolis it is today while claiming the lives of innocent women and children, a devil’s bargain that “Cocaine Cowboys” helped to chronicle.

Corben’s documentary has since inspired a sequel, a docuseries, a photo book and, now, a stage play, premiering March 7 at the Colony Theatre, courtesy of Miami New Drama. Corben, who was still writing the adaptation at the time of this interview, is centering the  play on Rivi Ayala, the soft-spoken assassin who confessed to 29 murders on behalf of Miami’s most ruthless cocaine boss.

Corben, a boyish 40-year-old with a delightfully foul mouth, is the Ken Burns of seedy South Florida, with many of his 11 documentaries covering the region’s sordid history. March also marks the theatrical rollout of his newest film, “Screwball,” about a major-league steroid scandal and a star athlete. He spoke about this and “Cocaine Cowboys” with Boca mag.

1. When you were making the first “Cocaine Cowboys” documentary, did you have any conception that it would spawn a multimedia franchise?

Yeah, actually. The deeper we dove into that world, the more excited I got for the franchise potential, or the ancillary or spinoff potential. And every time I’d come up with one of these ideas, Alfred Spellman, my producer, would always go, “can we just make the f**king documentary? One thing at a time.”

2. Why are we attracted to such stories of murder, drugs and decadence?

This has been the discussion we’ve been having about the macro themes of the play. One of the things that has come up repeatedly is the audience’s intrigue with outlaws and bandits and scofflaws, and the idea that these figures can easily be misconstrued as folk heroes. A certain percentage of the audience finds them aspirational, which is frightening.

I hope that most of the audience is not wanted toward evil. It’s exposure to a subculture of criminality that, hopefully, they will never be a part of. I think that’s part of it—the idea that I’m never going to be a hitman, which is all the more reason why I find this glimpse into this world so compelling.

3. How do you hope we feel about Rivi Ayala? 

He spoke in a very quiet voice in person. So when you’re talking to him, you almost have to lean into him. It’s only at that moment when you’re ear to ear do you realize, wait, this guy’s an assassin. He’s disarming in that way—very charming. We do not shy away from his violence or from his brutality. But at the same time, there is something about him that is appealing—that allowed people to draw close to him. And some of those people did not survive to walk away. The audience will have the benefit of surviving the evening.

4. Your latest movie, “Screwball,” also has a Florida connection? 

It is probably our most Florida tale of Florida f**kery ever. We out-Florida’d ourselves with this one. It is the Biogenesis steroid scandal, which ended the career of the highest-paid baseball player in history, and it involved a fake doctor who ran a grey-market steroid clinic out of Coral Gables. We liken it to the Coen Brothers, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen in a blender with Florida citrus.

5. It sounds like a comedy this time around. 

Some filmmakers might have engaged in the pearl-clutching that comes along with a steroid scandal. But this was a uniquely Florida story with such an irreverent and bizarre cast of characters. We create these multinational super-criminal conglomerates where people from all over the world meet each other and hatch these ridiculous schemes. That’s why we called it “Screwball.”


WHAT: “Cocaine Cowboys”
WHERE: Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach
WHEN: March 7 – April 7
COST: $35-$65
CONTACT: 305/674-1040

This story is from our March/April 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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