Director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman joined me to discuss their upcoming documentary: Screwball, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film investigates MLB’s 2012 doping scandal, and the two men at its center: Tony Bosch and Porter Fischer.
Corben and Spellman have previous directed and produced, respectively, Cocaine Cowboys and ESPN’s 30 for 30: Broke, The U, and The U: Part 2. They tell uniquely Florida stories, and Screwball is no different.
The movie is such a light-hearted film, which is pretty amazing considering it really could have gone anywhere. It could have been a mob pic or a sports doc. Why did you choose an absurdist tone?
BC: We like to choose our genres going in. Like Cocaine Cowboys, we were like, ‘Oh, this is a gangster movie. We’re not going to treat it like a doc.’
Documentary is not a genre. It’s a style of filmmaking. And within that style of filmmaking, you can make any genre you want. A musical, a sports doc, a gangster movie, a comedy, a romance. You name it. And so, we like to know tone going in.
And it was called Screwball from the word, ‘go.’
We knew that was our title. We knew that this was going to be a farcical take. The names always bandied about were Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, the Coen Brothers. You know, that was our approach to this. Always.
When we interviewed these two main characters: Porter Fischer and Tony Bosch, we had met them of course. And knew that their methods of storytelling, their style or matter of speech would lend themselves to our take. And we certainly molded our take around their personalities.
And then when you hear them speak, it’s so vivid. The transcript from our interviews read like a screenplay because you flashback with them. ‘And then you said this’ and ‘I said this’ and ‘then this guy did this.’ So, there’s slug, action, dialogue. It’s incredible. So you’re watching and it just all plays out so vividly. So, in the moment, it’s practically verite. And it struck me how all these adults acted like children. Just irrational, and illogical, and emotional, and real tantrum throwing, real knee jerk, and it sort of devolved, arguably.
Like A-Rod kicking over the suitcase of his lawyer, and then going to a radio station to complain.
BC: To passionately scream and yell. And make his [case]. And it was entirely untrue. Everything that he felt strongly and passionately about was a lie that he was saying there. It’s amazing.
Did you ever contact with A-Rod and MLB?
AS: Originally we had a meeting with A-Rod back in the middle of his arbitration.
BC: 2013. 2015. Late 2015.
AS: He had approached us. This story had been on our radar, as South Floridians. This is right in our wheelhouse.
Carl Haissen couldn’t have written a novel any better than this.
And then he got found liable during the arbitration, and then we reach out and didn’t hear back from him.
And then a few months later, a mutual friend of Tony Bosch reached out and said he was interested in telling his story. And then he went off to prison, actually. So basically couldn’t do his interview.
And then a few months after that, Porter Fischer reached out.
So, we’re not big guys being on karma. But you know, the idea that these three principals of the story had all reached out, and we spoke to an MLB investigator(s) over the course of all this. The idea that all these people had reached out to us about telling the story. Then we said, ‘Alright, we gotta make a doc about it.’
BC: And you look at the book, Blood Sport. We interviewed one of the authors, Tim Elfrink, in the movie and it’s a wealth of information. It’s impeccably detailed and researched. And we relied heavily on Tim and Gus Garcia Roberts, his co-author, and their research material on it to make sure everything was accurate because none of it makes any sense. The motivations don’t make sense. Their reactions don’t make sense. The fallout makes no sense. It’s all antithetical. You literally could not make it up.
But it’s all true. It’s exactly how it occurred and unfolded. But the book is very dry. It’s a very serious work of legitimate journalism. It definitely references all the ‘Florida fuckery’ angle to this story. But it doesn’t have a tone. It’s primarily from Porter’s point of view because he was the only witness cooperating with the author, at the time. We had the ability to have access to these mortal enemies (Bosch and Porter), and to get both sides of this story, where the highest paid baseball player and one of the most famous men in the world is collateral damage. In this bizarre battle over $4,000.
It’s amazing. The small amount that it was.
BC: It’s ridiculous. The guy’s worth $400 mill. and $4,000 ends his career. It’s crazy.
And there’s Ugi, who asks for $10,000 instead of $4,000, and A-Rod’s like, ‘Whoa. What about the $4,000?’ I think he might have money to spare.
AS: And then Tony says, ‘Oh jeez. If I had only paid him the $3,600.’
BC: Because remember he paid down the principal, so it was ultimately for $3,600.
AS: I think that’s called a penny wise and pound foolish.
BC: That’s what that means!
What I find interesting, whether it’s your past films like The U or Broke, where there is this decision between risk vs. reward, and it’s an impulse. And I wonder what draws you to that impulse because that’s also at the center of this film too?
BC: What an interesting observation.
AS: I was going to say, “It’s a variation.” We’ve described a lot of our docs as a pursuit of the American dream by any means necessary. That’s Cocaine Cowboys. And I think that’s kind of what binds these things together. So the morality of it, we don’t usually address in our docs. They’re journalist examinations of these stories. We leave those judgements to others. Good guys, bad guys, etc.
BC: And Miami is a hustle economy. It’s a grey market town. Yea, a lot of people are legit and some in the black market. But mostly we exist, in grey. Morally, economically, and otherwise. And everyone is just trying to get along. It’s a real microcosm of the world, in Miami. And I was always say of Florida, today it’s the America of tomorrow.
If you want to know what challenges or calamities will befall us in the years to come, you look at Florida. Specifically, South Florida, to get a sneak preview of what the world will eventually become. So really everyone’s in a struggle for their existence, their livelihoods, and that town embodies that and these stories embody that.
AS: One of my favorite stories in research of Cocaine Cowboys is about the environment of the Bahamas in drug smuggling. And if you know the history of the Bahamas, when the natural sponge boom happened in the 50’s and 60’s, all of a sudden the Bahamians were wealthy and there was huge trade. And essentially that went away with artificial sponges, and then all of a sudden drugs came in and everybody made a ton of money. It’s like Miami, everybody gets on a hustle. You get on the real estate hustle or you get in on an anti-aging hustle. You ride the boom and wait till it crashes and you sit around and wait for the next hustle.
These impulses, as you say, aren’t just uniquely American. They’re Floridian. You wonder how most of the guys, like Bosch, Fisher, and Ugi, in the doc exist!
AS: Jon Stewart popularized the phrase, from the Daily Show, “Florida Man.” Miami, we’re not a factory town. There’s no factory where you’re going to work 40 years and get the gold watch when you retire. Everybody in Miami exists from hustle-to-hustle-to-hustle. Some are legitimate hustles. Some are grey market hustles, and some are black market hustles.
If you had gotten A-Rod on the record, what would you have asked him?
BC: More to the point, would he have told us the truth about anything?
When you lie for so long, it’s sometimes difficult to know the difference between a lie and the truth.
AS: But it’s not his story. It depends on the perspective that you tell the story. Cocaine Cowboys, for example, you get asked, “You tell the story of the traffickers, but you tell the story about the effects of drugs.” It’s a 90 or 100 minute film. A 2 hour doc. You can only tell so much.
There were so many supporting characters here. We would love to adapt this into a dramatic movie series. The individual characters’ backstories, plus all the collateral characters who aren’t even mentioned in the doc are so fascinating, in terms of this world.
I think Alex Rodriguez is the least interesting of them. Because you know his motivation.
BC: But he’s quite interesting. He’s so vain, he probably thinks this doc is about him. But the truth is, is that it’s in fact, not about him.
It’s very much the story of Biogenesis. It’s told by Tony Bosch and Porter Fisher, and he was collateral damage. That’s what he was. And it’s not really his story. The reason he does play any role, or as significant of a role as he does is because he was the only one of the suspended players to fight–to not take his lumps–to not accept responsibility.
He decided to fight and lie, and he also, to be fair, got the largest punishment. Not only in the scandal, but in MLB history. So he felt like he had to fight for his career, and he was in the twilight of his career.
I mean, how many more years did he have left to be suspended for the next season and a half. So, I understand his position. That’s the only reason he lingers. Manny [Ramirez] comes and go. Ryan Braun gets a mention, but Alex lingers. That’s the only reason he plays as significant role. He’s barely a supporting character.
Thank you again to Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman for joining me to their their film: Screwball.
Screwball is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): 2018.