Cocaine Cowboys Producer Alfred Spellman talks storytelling and trust in doc filmmaking

Sexual assault. Drug smuggling. Illegal steroid use. No subject matter is off-limits for Miami based documentary production company Rakontur. With an explosive documentary catalogue that includes titles like Cocaine Cowboys, The U, Raw Deal and their latest release Screwball, Rakontur producer Alfred Spellman is no stranger to high-stakes filmmaking.  

Along with director Billy Corben, Spellman built a powerhouse documentary company. Rakontur specializes in bringing the “Florida F*ckery” to the big screen. 

In the beginning

“I remember reading Videomaker Magazine when I was a little kid basically, back in the camcorder era. Videomaker was one of the first to cover .” Spellman reminisces. “Video is no longer the semi kind of dirty word it was back then.”

In fact, the early inspiration Spellman drew from Videomaker Magazine led him to broadcast production class in high school. There, he met another auteur that would compliment his talents as a producer. Thus, the pair would become the foundation for Rakontur.

“Billy and I met in TV production class in ninth grade. We started making short films together. When I say short films, I mean short videos because we were shooting in Beta SP at the time. And, of course, everybody has a home camcorder to do that,” Spellman says.

Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben and Producer Alfred Spellman.
Rakontur director Billy Corben and Producer Alfred Spellman. photo courtesy of Rakontur

Trademarks of the 90s

Blair Witch had come out, and Napster. It was those two digital markers that kind of shaped our entire perspective on the business of what we wanted to do,” Spellman says.

“In the summer of ’99 two things happened. Blair Witch Project came out, which was the first time you saw that video could all of sudden end up on multiplexes nationwide. Because we were kids of the ’90s Sundance era, that’s kind of what we felt we wanted to do; be the next Quentin… or go to Sundance and show your film and Miramax buys it.” Spellman continues.

“At that point, it was so expensive to make docs. You know if you weren’t shooting on film, you were really kind of out of the game. We had never considered doc filmmaking very much; we had gone to film school at the University of Miami, and until seeing the digital video in Blair Witch, we were just kind of talking about what do we want to do with digital video?”

A turning point

In any event, Spellman and Corben then decided: “We should do something that kind of incorporates the aesthetic.”

Then, they heard about a story out of Gainsville. It concerned a stripper claiming she was raped at a fraternity house. And it was all captured on video.

“We thought we could make a documentary about this and incorporate the actual video in the story,” Spellman says. “So that’s kind of how all it happened.”

We never took a doc filmmaking course; we never even took a journalism course.

“We never took a doc filmmaking course; we never even took a journalism course. We kind of just made it up as we went along based on Raw Deal, and that’s how we ended up in the documentary filmmaking business,” Spellman says. He also gives props to Videomaker.

“Thank you, Videomaker, for kind of pointing us in the right direction.”

Raw Deal: Huge hit, huge controversy

Raw Deal – A Question of Consent was the first feature doc film that Spellman produced under the Rakontur banner. 

“So, we had some friends at the University of Florida. In the spring of 1999 there was a huge controversy out of Gainsville involving a stripper who had been performing at a fraternity house and claimed she had been raped and it was all on videotape,” Spellman says.

Later, it came out that the sexual acts on the videotape were believed to be consensual. So, the authorities arrested the alleged victim for filing a false police report, which made the videotape itself a public record.

Twists and turns

“You expect videotape to kind of be the truth and the next day people would watch this video that a few fraternity men shot at the house that night and reasonable people would disagree if it was consensual sex or rape, and we set out to make a documentary about it,” Spellman says. 

Raw Deal was the launchpad for Spellman and Corben’s filmmaking careers. It put the Florida-based production company in the spotlight. 

“Billy will tell you Raw Deal is our best work,” Spellman says. 

Raw Deal also made national headlines landing the cover of the New York Post. 

“We made this documentary and submitted it to Sundance and literally one year after we took a leave of absence, we ended up at Sundance in 2001. And it was a huge hit — a huge controversy.”

Newspaper clipping showing the success of Raw Deal
Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman made headlines at the age of 22 premiering Raw Deal: A Question of Consent at Sundance Film Festival photo courtesy of Rakontur

“Ultimately it really put us on the map. And at the time we were the youngest filmmakers ever invited to Sundance; we were 22 at the time,” Spellman says.

From then on, Rakontur grew into their specific brand of documentary, which highlighted stories out of his backyard.

“We wanted to tell stories from our hometown. No one was telling these kinds of indigenous Miami stories,” Spellman says. “South Florida has its own kind of genre, but no one was doing it. It always had been a sunny place for shady people here.”

The two questions at the start of each production

“There’s always two questions Billy and I ask ourselves before we take on a doc. One is, is this better as a 60 Minutes or Dateline piece?” Spellman says. 

As for the second question, Spellman poses: “Is there some kind of, sort of genre analogue that we can equate it too? Where you know what the approach is.”

“Billy always says documentary itself is not a genre, that documentaries can be thrillers, they can be dramas, they can be comedies, they can be musicals they can be romance… In other words, any of the typical genres that you think of in a dramatic feature certainly can apply to docs as well.” 

Spellman goes on to say, “When we set out to make Cocaine Cowboys, we said whelp, let’s make it as a gangster movie. How would Martin Scorcese make it?” Spellman asks.

“So, that’s how we decided to approach Cocaine Cowboys.” Spellman says.

“In fact, I remember when we were at the Tribeca film premiere. We were with Tom Quinn at Magnolia and said ‘if you pick this up, if you merchandise us in the special interest section at Best Buy, we are not going to move any units… But if you merchandise us in the gangster movies section, we should do really well.’

The strategy worked.

“To his credit, they put Cocaine Cowboys in Best Buy in the action movie section between Con Air and Casino Royale, and that caused us to sell truckloads and truckloads of DVDs.”

Spellman says other Rakontur productions use the same strategy.

Cocaine Cowboys and documenting sensitive subject matter 

Spellman says, “With Cocaine Cowboys we started with a thesis essentially, that Miami was transformed from God’s waiting room to America’s Riviera on the back of the cocaine trade. And we kind of had anecdotal evidence of that, but no one explored it as a theory.” 

“As a result of that theory, the original title for Cocaine Cowboys was City Made of Snow, because it was this kind of thesis we thought would be controversial, and make a lot of people kind of question it. But now it’s taken as a given, no one really kind of pushes back on it.”

“With Screwball, it was a much different story with private individuals that might have been on the wrong side of the law vs celebrities or entities in the mainstream, but it was all true,” Spellman says.

Producer Alfred Spellman at Miami International Film Festival
Producer Alfred Spellman at Miami International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of MIFF

Putting the pieces together

Spellman makes a key point here. The stories are all based on facts that are available to the public. This is how Rakontur is able to protect themselves from legal action.

“That’s one of the things about making docs. The truth is the absolute truth. We are very careful with our fact-checking, obviously.” Spellman says.

“We take things that we know. Again, if you were around Miami in the late ’70s, you know Miami was this exceptional dangerous city. Nobody had kind of ever put the pieces together. Similarly with Screwball, which is this bat-shit tale of Florida f*ckery; I don’t know if you can put that in Videomaker,” Spellman says. “That’s how we look at it.”

Spellman says anyone can access this information. It’s available to the public via depositions, court testimony, FBI reports, and arbitrator reports. These help you get a fundamental understanding of what the truth is.  

The subject tells the story

Spellman has a good tip when it comes to getting your interview subject ready to tell their story on camera.

“One of the things that we tell all of our interview subjects, kind of the advantage we have in a way, is that we don’t use a narrator in any of our docs, which is to say that the perspective of the story is told by the interview subjects themselves,” Spellman explains.

Know the key players

“That’s sometimes useful to get interview subjects to participate because they know we are not going to have our thumb on the scale with some narration that makes them look one way or the other.”

“So, to the extent that people tell us their own story and it’s their own word and that’s what ends up in the doc, people tend to feel more comfortable with that,” Spellman says.

“I will tell you that, with Screwball, one of the interview subjects knew that we would be doing interview recreations with 8 and 9-year-olds, so that was kind of the first time where there was — We were concerned. We were certainly concerned about it.”

Still from Screwball
Still from Rakontur documentary Screwball photo courtesy Rakontur

“We wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with it. But the perspective of the storytelling was clear to the interview subjects, certainly by the questions we asked in the interviews, and we were very upfront of how we viewed the subject matter, that we weren’t taking it too seriously,” Spellman says.

Risky business

“When we made our first doc, Raw Deal, Lisa King, the woman in the videotape who believed it depicted her sexual assault had to trust two young guys. We were the same age as her alleged abusers — she had to put a lot of trust into us.”

“She hadn’t seen the doc yet because it wasn’t done,” Spellman says. “She came out to Sundance and came to the first press screening and it was her first time she saw the documentary and we were nervous, wondering how was she going to react.”

After the first screening Spellman describes how King reacted.

“We come out and she looked at us and says ‘you said you were going to show the truth and that’s what you did, and not all the time do I look good and not all the time do I look bad,’ she said, ‘but it was a very very fair and balanced portrayal.’

“And that was the best compliment we could get from any interview subject,” Spellman says.

Trust and integrity

“That’s the thing with docs. If you’re not being fair to your interview subject, people will speak out and you will have other problems with subjects trusting you again.”

“So, documentary filmmaking requires an incredible amount of trust both from the interview subject but also the trust that we are going tell their story fairly and accurately. That’s something that takes a long time to develop. That’s one of the keys to making the docs, is being able to convince people you are going to tell their story fairly and accurately ”

All in all, Spellman sums up their approach in a few words. “There’s no other precautions we take except trying to get as close to the truth as we can,” he says.

“Certainly something like Raw Deal was trial by fire,” Spellman says. He still regards the film as the highest stakes production Rakontur has produced to date. The film taught the production duo a lot about releasing a hot button topic as a documentary.

Presenting truth

The story for Screwball actually came to the Rakontur team through Alex Rodriguez’s publicist. However, Spellman says A-Rod’s team “ghosted” them after the initial production meeting. Likewise, the team turned to public records for the facts to keep the production moving.

“We were lucky to have sworn trial testimony, so helpful. Also, FBI reports where they were sworn to tell the truth,” Spellman says.

“Tony gave a lot of sworn testimony in the arbitration hearing, so that was very helpful to try to discern where that might have been some factual deficiencies versus what we were able to discern from sworn testimony. That is kind of the most helpful if you’re making a true-crime doc. That will guide you in the right direction.”

The cutting room floor

“Someone might’ve told us something that they might’ve misremembered. We were then able to check up on it and if it didn’t check out, we had to cut it. And that’s happened several times,” Spellman says.

In the end, when it comes to people not being happy about something in the film or how it comes off, Spellman says to not worry.

“That’s part of the business. That happens all the time. People aren’t happy with what you’re saying or how you’re saying it. What people always tell us ‘Nobody sues the unsuccessful films.’ You kind of take it as a badge of honor and then move on.”

Ultimately, when someone is not happy, Spellman has a definitive piece of advice to pacify the them: “You give it to the lawyer to deal with. It comes with the territory. It’s a part of anything. You have a bakery and someone slips and falls. These types of things are just a part of life.”

Fair use and the legalities of doc production

“We would never release something without having a legal review, part of that is because that’s how you get E&O (errors and omissions) insurance. You want your insurance carrier to cover you if somebody comes back and makes a claim something you used is not covered by fair use. “

Fair use allows filmmakers to legally incorporate copyright media in your film that you don’t have rights to, including video clips, music and quotes. Consequently, Spellman believes fair use one of the most important rights a doc filmmaker should be aware of.

“We haven’t done a single doc that hasn’t utilized fair use. People think it’s being sneaky; maybe, but it’s totally legit and there’s absolutely no reason not to take advantage of fair use. You have to familiarize yourself with fair use,” Spellman says.

Similarly, Spellman’s directing partner Corben emphasizes this point in a 2011 Indiewire Magazine interview: “On Raw Deal, our first movie, we were only able to make it because of archival footage we found. So really, in our line of storytelling, the access to archives is key.”

Spellman adds, “We watched the evolution of fair use become an accepted part of doc filmmaking, and it’s invaluable, there’s stories you can’t tell without fair use.” Spellman continues, “I view the evolution of fair use in documentary filmmaking as one of the top 2 or 3 reasons why documentaries have enjoyed such an explosion in popularity… there are so many stories you can tell now.” 

Rule of thumb

Spellman also says there is also a critical rule he follows when applying fair use in Rakontur docs:

“We basically know the kind of white line rules. Don’t use more than you actually have to to make your point. What that means is, if you’re using music, don’t underscore the rest of a scene with something that you’re claiming fair use on. You’re not replacing the market for the original work,” Spellman says.

“Fair Use is a documentary filmmaker’s best friend,” Spellman emphasizes.

Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben giving insight at a conference.
Award-winning director Billy Corben giving insight at a conference. Photo courtesy of Rakontur

Defending free speech

Doc filmmakers covering controversial subject matter may find themselves in legal trouble that extends beyond copyright infringement claims. If someone doesn’t like the message behind a documentary, it’s possible for that person to sue the filmmaker for defamation or something similar. Even if they don’t expect to win that lawsuit, this legal action can still result in censorship and intimidation. This kind of Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is illegal in many jurisdictions since it impedes the filmmaker’s freedom of speech.

Under many Anti-SLAPP laws, if you get a complaint from someone that implicates speech, they have to show the likelihood of success of their motion before moving forward. If they lose that early motion they are liable for attorney fees. This shields filmmakers from someone looking to get a quick settlement.

Spellman explains: “In our case, you have a robust first amendment defense. In Florida actually, they strengthened our SLAPP laws in 2015, which is a huge benefit to any sort of publisher.”

Visual journalist

In this age of misinformation and fake news, more people are turning toward documentary as a source of news and information. I asked Spellman if he believes documentarians are visual journalists. He replied:

“I thought where you were going with that is called New Journalism, which is what of course Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson were doing in the early ’70s. That’s certainly what independent documentaries are, right?” Spellman says. 

New Journalism is a style of news writing and journalism, developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It uses literary techniques that were unconventional in journalism at the time. 

“They function in the same way that Wolfe and Thompson did during that era. That air of journalism that exists outside of a corporate framework, you know in some cases… Certainly, independent documentaries have been that way.”

“Absolutely, this day in age, mainstream media has come under such fire. There are more journalists doing more good work than ever before. We don’t get paid as much as journalists used to get paid before, but there is certainly more of us working in the field of reporting than ever before in human history. And that’s a good thing,” Spellman says.

“The more reporting, the more publishing, the more options people have who are seeking out truth and not just opinion journalism, the better off we are,” Spellman says. 

“And that comes from the guy who records police misconduct on the social, who publishes it on Instagram or Twitter or people like us who research a topic for 18 months and try to bring it to the public’s attention. I think all of those things are progress in the 21stcentury,” Spellman continues.

Rakontur filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman at Miami International Film Festival
Rakontur filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman at Miami International Film Festival photo courtesy of MIFF

Next for Rakontur 

Spellman, Corben and the Rakontur team have had an amazing run in the documentary space. They’ve premiered work at the biggest film festivals in the world including Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca. They’ve done distribution deals with Magnolia, ESPN and Netflix. So, what’s next? 

“We are working on a feature doc about Macho Man Randy Savage for A&E. A&E is rebooting their biography series as a 30 for 30 type series. It will be out spring of 2020. We have a couple of other things up our sleeve, but nothing that’s been announced yet,” Spellman says.

When it comes to scandalous, wild, high-stakes storytelling there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of ideas. Next year will mark two decades in the doc industry for the Miami-based production company.

Spellman ends the interview with a one-liner that could be the company slogan.

“We always joke that the first call you make out of prison is to your mother and the second call you make is to Rakontur to tell your story.”

Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and is the founder of D-House Entertainment.

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