- “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy” is a stage play adaptation of Billy Corben’s 2006 documentary, “Cocaine Cowboys.”
- Corben co-wrote the play, which will have its world premiere at the Colony Theatre in Miami, Florida, on March 16.
- Corben decided to adapt his doc after getting the narrative rights back.
- For close to a decade, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer Television attempted to make the doc into a TV series.
Documentary filmmaker Billy Corben has never played it safe, and his latest venture is the perfect example.
After nearly a decade of Hollywood heavy hitters like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer being unsuccessful in adapting Corben’s hit 2006 documentary, “Cocaine Cowboys,” into a TV series, Corben has taken back the narrative rights and is preparing a stage adaptation titled “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy.“
The play will have its world premiere at the Colony Theatre in Miami, Florida, on March 16, with the hope of later doing productions in Los Angeles and New York. “Confessions” is written by Corben and Aurin Squire and uses the wild events highlighted in the movie to weave a story about 1980s Miami after cocaine hit its shores.
Corben told Business Insider he’s looking at the play, in some sense, as a proof of concept to show his doc can work in narrative form.
“It has always felt like a bit of unfinished business,” Corben said while taking a break from rehearsals on “Confessions.” “We thought we had a good handle on how to dramatically adapt this world and never really got our chance.”
Waiting on Hollywood
A year after “Cocaine Cowboys” hit theatres and gradually became a bootleg sensation – getting in the hands of rappers, athletes, and even making the rounds in the criminal underworld – Corben and his longtime producer Alfred Spellman optioned the TV rights of the movie to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer Television. For Corben and Spellman, who were both in their 20s at the time, it was an education inside how the Hollywood machine works.
“We were the low guys on the totem pole, which we accepted as a fact of Hollywood when you have these power players,” Corben said. “I think the extent of our contribution was going to be maintaining some historical accuracy in the story.”
Over the years, both would be on development calls as Bruckheimer’s team discussed the show. Corben and Spellman would read through every draft of the script and when a new showrunner entered the project, they would go down to Miami and Corben and Spellman would give them what they called the “‘Cocaine Cowboys’ tour.”
“We would take them to all the shady Miami sites,” Corben said. “So they could get a feel of the environment of the time and then go back to L.A. and try to write this world.”
But as the project moved all over town, making brief stops at HBO and TNT, it became obvious it was in development hell.
“It felt like we were holding onto the caboose of this Hollywood train trying to get this show made,” Spellman said.
So in 2015, Corben and Spellman’s Miami-based production company, Rakontur, took back the rights. Then within the last few years, they watched as shows related to the birth of the cocaine trade that they documented in “Cocaine Cowboys” (and its sequels) inundated TVs and movie theatres.
“Narcos,” “Cocaine Godmother,” “Queen of the South,” and the Tom Cruise movie “American Made,” were just a few projects that glanced on or directly touched what “Cocaine Cowboys” first brought to the screen.
Corben could have been bitter about missing his shot to cash in, but observing the craze, he realised all these projects missed one major aspect of the story: Miami.
Telling stories beyond docs
“Cocaine Cowboys” shows that a major reason why coke became such a huge drug in the US was because it found the right port. And that was 1980s Miami. So what better place to give a narrative telling on the story but in the Magic City?
Corben teamed with non-profit theatre company Miami New Drama, which is located on the same street as Rakontur’s office in Miami Beach, to put on a stage production of “Cocaine Cowboys.”
Memorable characters from the doc like Jorge “Ravi” Ayala and The Black Widow herself, Griselda Blanco, are front and center in the play (actors play multiple characters), but Corben said Miami is also very much a character.
“No one has treated Miami like the way ‘The Wire’ treated Baltimore,” Corben said of the other birth of cocaine projects that have come out. “Here’s a line from the play: ‘Miami is like “Game of Thrones” in paradise with slightly fewer dragons.’ So to understand the cultural conflict that eventually became violent conflict that defined that era, Miami has to be a character.”
To accomplish this, Corben said “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy” is told in numerous settings and timelines to suck you into the environment.
Now if all this sounds a little out there – turning a documentary into a play – Corben would be the first to agree. But recently he’s been taking big swings to show that he’s capable of more diverse things.
Even “Screwball,” his latest documentary, which looks at the doping scandal that brought down Alex Rodriguez (in theatres March 29), goes against the grain as he cast children to play Rodriguez and the movie’s other subjects when filming recreated scenes from stories of the real-life subjects.
Corben said the experience of bringing “Cocaine Cowboys” to Hollywood in his 20s taught him that you have to make your own luck. He hopes that “Confessions” and “Screwball” is a one-two punch that will prove he can do more than straight-up documentaries.
“The bottom line is we know we can do it, but you have to prove to other people who are going to invest in you that you can do it,” he said. “I hope people will take notice and say, ‘Let’s give these guys a shot to do something a little bit bigger.'”
“Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy” is currently in preview performances at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach, Florida.
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