Friday saw Billy Corben’s documentary Screwball, on Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis scandal, released in theaters. The film will be available digitally and through video on demand outlets next Friday. Ahead of that release, Corben (who previously directed ESPN 30 for 30s The U, Broke, and The U Part 2, plus other projects like Cocaine Cowboys) spoke to Awful Announcing about the documentary, and said its inception came thanks to a surprising source; A-Rod himself, in a strangely-public lunch meeting.
“It was actually Alex Rodriguez’s idea. I got a call from his publicist around November of 2013 right in the midst of the arbitration. Alex was on a break from the hearings in New York and he was back home in Miami. And they told me he had an office in Coral Gables, which is a little sort of wealthy enclave adjacent to the University of Miami. And, Alex, according to the publicist, wanted to meet us, me and my producing partner Alfred Spellman, in what I presume was his office in Coral Gables. You know, sort of a private meeting to discuss the possibility of Alex doing a documentary. And I thought, ‘What an intriguing opportunity.'”
“But instead of his office, we met at high noon at the Hillstone Restaurant on the most popular corner of the city. It is like the power lunch spot if there is one in Coral Gables. Just absolutely packed, this place. I mean you’re talking about a mob around the host stand on, three deep at the bar, every seat taken in the place, floor-to-ceiling windows and then an open kitchen, so everybody from the street to the dishwashers can see everything happening in the dining room. And we get
escorted down the center aisle to this back middle booth, which is on an elevated platform, so we literally stepped up on to the stage.”
“And thanks to ESPN and the way that they fetishize the directors in 30 for 30, our names are always there, they always interview us on camera during the broadcast, if there’s ever a neighborhood that I’m going to get recognized at, around two miles from the University of Miami campus, where our U documentaries are quite a sensation…it was very funny. We definitely felt like all eyes were on us. And as we sat down at the table, I was like ‘Well, who’s gonna call Page Six, you or us? And sure as shit, it was in Page Six less than two weeks later.”
Corben said Rodriguez definitely didn’t give them the whole story in that first meeting, but his comments were interesting enough to prompt a follow-up. However, that didn’t immediately lead to a documentary.
“And we sat there with Alex for about an hour, hour and a half, and he just lied to us. Which, that’s what he was doing at the time, so, you know. I don’t fault him. He might have even lied to the DEA during his queen for a day meeting. So, you know, I’m a documentarian, I’m used to people lying to me; no perjury charges there. So, we had fun; he was an interesting, complicated character. Didn’t have much of a sense of humor at the time. You can also imagine, he was in a fight for his legacy and his livelihood, so he was in a mood. But I thought he made some compelling points and I thought it would be interesting to do an interview with him, to do something. So we followed up.”
“I waited for the arbitration to settle down, in January 2014, and then I followed up with the publicist basically every month for six or seven months. And it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we were really just pawns in his PR offensive against MLB at the time. Which was all cool, they spelled my name right in Page Six and bolded it and everything. So I was all good with it, and then we moved on.”
Corben said after that, this came up again thanks to central figure Anthony “Tony” Bosch.
“This story was on our radar, first and foremost because of the Miami New Times story [that broke the scandal] , and then second because Alex brought it to our attention that it would be something worthy for us to do. And then out of nowhere, almost exactly a year after Alex reached out to us, we got a call from Tony Bosch, and he wanted to meet with us about doing a documentary. And then he went to federal prison, so that was the end of that, and we moved on. And then we got a call, an email actually from Tim Elfrink, who broke the story in the Miami New Times. He said ‘I heard from Porter Fisher,’ who was the whistleblower who stole the documents and then had the documents stolen from him, of course. ‘He wants to meet with you about doing a documentary.'”
“And I was like ‘Holy shit, the three potential figures in a scandal, independent of each other, have reached out to us about doing a documentary. Maybe we should do a fucking documentary.’ So we did, and it became pretty clear talking to Tony and Porter that they were the story. Alex was like, a supporting character. And as Porter says in the documentary, he was collateral damage. All the players, this was really the stunning thing about it, and the wild thing about it. The highest-paid baseball player in history’s career was ended over a four thousand dollar debt. Between this cocaine-addicted fake doctor and his fake-tan addicted steroid patient. That, to me, was a story, and Alex was just, again, collateral damage.”
Corben said his initial meeting with Bosch convinced him there was something here.
“He called us, right? So, you know, we were kind of auditioning for each other I guess in a way. And I was already aware, through friends of friends…Miami’s a pretty small town, everybody is kind of two degrees of separation. Especially if you’re involved in a scandal or a high-profile kind of person. And I had already heard he was a pretty charismatic kind of guy, who, you know, would make for an interesting or compelling interview subject. So I’m definitely interested in interviewing him, and he was interested in me interviewing him.”
“We came in obviously with an advantage, both of us. And meeting him and talking to him, you get that he’s rascally, he’s very charming, a hell of a salesman, and you know, I thought he’d make a wonderful interview subject. And so it was just a matter of setting about that, you know, after he got out of prison. At that point he was going away for a while.”
Corben said the finished documentary isn’t all that flattering to Bosch, but he thinks Bosch understands the problems with his own actions at this point.
“Listen, I think at this point in his life, you know, I heard him talking just the other day actually about his attitude before going to prison and his attitude after going to prison. Before going to prison, I think he was very pissed. He was pissed at Porter, he was pissed at the world, he obviously was in the throes of addiction. He’s now five years off of drugs, and so now he looks at it like, he thanks the prosecutor, he thanks the judge, he thanks everybody for kind of giving him an opportunity to reboot his life because he was totally out of control. So I think at this point in his life and when we interviewed him a little while ago, you know, after prison, he had a different outlook, you know, a different perspective a little more self-awareness. It was a little bit more self-deprecating.”
“He laughs quite a bit, you know. He has a sense of humor about this in hindsight. Obviously, when he was going through it, it was horrible for him personally, but now, it’s like…what is the definition of comedy, a tragedy plus time? So for him, he understood by the tone of my questions and the attitude and
everything that we were going for something a little bit lighter. You know, the movie was always called Screwball, that was always sort of our take on it so I think he was aware at that point of how preposterous and farcical this whole chain of events essentially was. And again, I don’t think you would have seen the comedy of it at the time. But now, I think he expected to be portrayed fairly and objectively, and I think, I haven’t asked him, but I think he might say that that it was fair if nothing else.”
An interesting element of Screwball is the decision to use kids to reenact various scenes as the principals are describing them. Corben said he’s happy with how that turned out, but it presented challenges.
“Logistically, it was really complicated, from the art direction to the writing to the casting to just the execution of devising a workflow where we could play back on set, and how we would prepare for that with the audio. And I think all in all, I think it worked out pretty well in terms of my vision. This was a success whether or not people understand it or think it’s funny.”
Corben said this presented different challenges from a standard sports documentary like The U, and the idea of using kids made more sense as a result.
“I thought it was a pretty good way of serving this story and telling the story. You know, when you make a sports doc, you make The U for example, you interview a bunch of players, you interview a bunch of coaches, and then you integrate sports footage or game footage, Because, you know, they’re all talking about this national championship or this game against FSU, and you know it’s pretty almost paint-by-numbers in that regard.”
“This was much more complicated in style. It’s not a sports documentary; it’s sports-adjacent. But they mention like three games in the whole movie. Someone mentions that Kansas City game Tony does after he first started treating Alex. He went and hit three home runs in that one game, so that game comes up. Then, later on, they mentioned a couple of games in Boston, maybe Chicago, where A-Rod, you know, the pitchers were gunning for him, and they hit him.”
“So we’ve got an hour and 40 minutes, so now what? You know, all these events took place in fucking nightclubs and locker rooms and hotels. So there’s no footage of that, you know? So we knew that we were going to have to do recreates, we were going to have to do it. And then we wanted to do something that was
totally consistent with this whole, like, Carl Hiaasen-Elmore Leonard-Coen brothers Florida fuckery tale that we were telling. So you needed something that would match that.”
Corben said the initial idea’s roots came from a music video, and from a nixed project on Scientology. And the concept fit in a way that it didn’t with The U or Cocaine Cowboys.
“I’ve always been inspired by Spike Jonze’s video in 1997 for Biggie’s ‘Sky’s The Limit,’ where he used a similar kind of concept with the kids, you know having to do a posthumous music video. And then I wanted to do a documentary about Scientology about 10 years ago, but nobody would let me do it. Nobody was making Scientology documentaries back then, if you can remember a time when nobody was doing Scientology documentaries. …But there was this this off-Broadway musical, called A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, and I talked to one of the creators of that, and I wanted to get the rights to the show and do a Scientology documentary using that show and the kids singing in this Scientology pageant as, like, the framing device for like this musical documentary. And everybody thought I was crazy, so it never happened, and the church was very litigious and no one was doing that kind of shit, nobody wanted to rattle their cage.”
“But it was an idea that I wanted to do. I thought, tonally, that if we could use this concept, it would work. You know, Cocaine Cowbabies would not have been appropriate, you know a bunch of eight-year-old kids dressed like drug dealers running around, like, you know, Crockett and Tubbs. But this seemed appropriate when I realized all the adults acted like children in this story. And in fact, the children I worked with on this movie were so professional and so mature that it’s almost an insult to say the adults acted like children. None of these children acted like children to me. But these adults, just with the entitlement and the selfishness and the lack of self-awareness, it was so immature, so I thought it would be funny.”
Corben said the idea also fit with how Bosch and Porter spoke.
“Tony and Porter had this very specific storytelling style where they speak so vividly and and in the moment they’re like talking dialogue. You know, like, ‘I walked into Tony’s office, I said ‘I want my money,’ Tony said ‘I don’t have your money,’ I said ‘You better get my money,’ he said ‘What are you gonna do about it?’, I said ‘I’m gonna break your neck.’ And you’re like ‘Oh, shit.’ And Tony tells the stories exactly the same way, so I’m like, ‘We could totally Drunk History this, you know, have the actors lip-sync dialogue. The only difference is the actors would be like eight, nine, 10 years old.”
However, while the reenactments with the kids are more surreal than real, Corben said they tried for authenticity elsewhere.
“Wherever we could, whenever we could, we went to the actual locations and recreated the events in the actual spot. We were really committed to this sort of blend of documentary realism, and of course, comedic absurdity, with the kids in their facial hair and police uniforms and pinstripes and everything else.”
This is far from the latest scandal or weird news story to arise in Florida, and Corben had some interesting thoughts on why that’s the case.
“I always like to say LA is where you go when you want to be somebody, New York is where you go when you are somebody, and Miami’s where you go when you want to be somebody else. Miami specifically and Florida in general has always been a sunny place for shady people. Miami is like America’s Casablanca, like, people flee here from all over the country, all over the world in fact, usually leaving some criminality in their wake. And then they come here and they find themselves in this very permissive environment where anything goes and everyone’s for sale, everything’s for sale. And they thrive here.”
“And we just seem to have a way of criminals becoming kind of super criminals here. And of course they sort of harnessed almost this little crime incubator here, where you have other criminals from other parts of the world, and they can put their heads together and cop the most outlandish and outrageous schemes and and scams. And this is just like one such tale that happened to have ensnared the highest-paid baseball player ever.”
“It’s this web of Florida fuckery with all these crazy characters, like out of a Carl Hiaasen novel or Elmore Leonard or like a Coen Brothers botched heist movie, you know? And all of these baseball people, like Ryan Braun, and Manny [Ramirez], and Alex, they all just kind of get caught up in this Florida fuckery.”
Corben said Florida scandals often soon become American scandals.
“Most importantly, the Miami of today is the America of tomorrow. So if you want to know what scandals, challenges or calamities will befall us as a nation in the years to come, just come down to Miami. You’ll figure it out real quick. If we don’t originate the scheme, we perfect it and export it to the rest of the country. For a while, I had a lot of friends who were, in 2016, saying ‘This Trump thing can’t happen.’ And I’m like ‘What do you mean it can’t happen? Where have you been?’ Like Florida elected, and then re-elected as our governor, the biggest Medicare fraudster in the history of the country. The Florida today is the America of tomorrow. We’re totally primed for this. Florida totally prepared everybody for this eventuality, you know, and Trump is of course a part-time Florida Man to boot.”
“And then there’s always a Florida connection. …And usually a Miami connection. You name it, I mean, Bernie Madoff, 9/11, this college admissions scandal that just erupted. You know, there is a Florida connection in almost every story, every shady international scandal.”
Screwball will be available digitally and through video on demand platforms as of Friday, April 5. (The photo up top is from an interview Corben did with TMZ last November.)