Alex Rodriguez is not the second coming of Jesus Christ, but his comeback story is absolutely fascinating to director Billy Corben. And he couldn’t help but make the comparison. The former slugger has slowly rehabbed his image as a cheater who was essentially forced out of baseball by the Yankees to a successful broadcaster who’s generally well-liked by the public that watches him talk about baseball on TV.
Those good feelings could change with Screwball, which explores the Biogenesis scandal that tarnished Rodriguez’s reputation in 2013. Tony Bosch, a phony doctor at the center of the lab Rodriguez seeks out, is front and center in the film, his interview adding weird anecdotes about Major League players like Manny Ramirez and the subsequent MLB investigation that spirals into strip mall tanning heists and, somehow, a health inspector. But Corben wants to make it clear: he’s not out to get Alex Rodriguez.
“I got no beef with A-Rod,” Corben told Uproxx. “I know I’m not getting an invitation to the wedding. I’m OK with that.”
Corben has a lot of ideas about Rodriguez, who doesn’t appear in Screwball at all. Well, a child version of him gets plenty of screen time, but we’ll get to that later. The documentary, Corben said, was actually Rodriguez’s idea back in 2013. The filmmaker called him an “interesting dude” who has a lot of ideas about what fame and baseball superstardom does to the human brain. And he knows he’s very different now than he was back during the Biogenesis days.
“He was this very emotional, amorphous dude when I met him in the thick of the scandal in 2013,” Corben said. “And now he’s liberated. I feel good for him.”
The director whose titles include The U and Cocaine Cowboys wishes Rodriguez “all the best,” and he means it. But Screwball isn’t really about steroids in baseball. It’s about honesty, and the lessons the absurd saga that played out in South Florida means for America. Corben calls them the “new American values” of lying, cheating and stealing your way to the top, and though it makes for good cinema, he’s worried about what it means for the people living through its fruition.
Corben talked with Uproxx by phone ahead of the limited release of Screwball in theaters and before it hits video on demand services in early April, discussing A-Rod’s second coming and why Florida is the only place a story like Screwball could happen.
Uproxx: Using kids in the reenactments was a really interesting idea, and maybe the first thing you notice when you watch the film. Why did you go that route with Screwball?
Billy Corben: First and foremost, right off the bat my inspiration was Spike Jones’ 1997 music video for the Notorious B.I.G’s “Sky’s The Limit.” That was the kind of original inspiration filed away in the memory banks. Because that was a posthumous video — Biggie had been murdered — and Spike Jones had to make this video.
So he decided that he was just going to do it: classic, straightforward Bad Boy Records video with the Mercedes and the mansion and the hot tub and the girls and everybody in it would be like eight, nine, or 10 years old. So you had baby Biggie and baby Puffy and baby Busta Rhymes, baby Lil Kim. It was just an ingenious way to overcome Biggie’s premature death.
I always thought that was brilliant and then we had this interesting project here. We had a lot of documentaries and I would characterize none of them as comedies. We’ve made gangster movies. We’ve made sports movies. Dawg Fight was almost, aesthetically, an 80s action movie. But we’ve never made a comedy, really, and so this was a comedy.
We called it Screwball from the jump. We know this would be a kind of Carl Hiaasen, Cohen brothers-esque tale of Florida fu*kery. And so we just wanted to come up with a way of aesthetically supporting that tone and genre of comedy, something a little lighter in genre for a steroid documentary. And we had a challenge, we had no B roll. It’s not a sports documentary, there’s no sports footage that you can use so we had to come up with a creative solution and we were going to have to do recreations.
It certainly fits the tone of the movie, though. It was made to be a comedy, right?
This device would not have been appropriate for some of our past productions: Cocaine Cowbabies would not have been appropriate. But it just felt right for this because all of the adults in this scandal acted like children. So it just felt right.
Now everyone’s asking me, “Why the kids?” So only now am I second guessing myself. At the time I felt very fu*king confident about it, I’ll have you know, and now everyone’s asking, “What’s with the kids?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, it seemed obvious to me at the time. Is it not obvious to you?” [laughs]
I think we pulled it off. I think it works for this story.
I was looking at this movie maybe from too much of a sports standpoint, and I realized about halfway through what you said right away: This is a Florida story, or maybe a Miami story. How does this fit into the movies you’ve done in the past and why was it important to tell a Florida story more than just a baseball story with Screwball?
Listen: I don’t think this story, with the characters involved and the absurd manner in which it plays out, could have happened anywhere else in the world. I truly believe that. We often use the phrase “only in Miami” and this really feels like that.
These people don’t exist anywhere else, this kind of multicultural criminal paella that we have in Miami doesn’t exist anywhere else quite like that. It’s just America’s Casablanca, people flee from all over the country and all over the world, usually leaving criminality in their wake, come to Miami and bake in the sun and just start to brainstorm the most insane schemes and scams and that becomes our greatest export.
There’s an old saying that I often repeat but the more I live the truer it seems to be: L.A. is where you go where you wanna be somebody, New York is where you go when you are somebody, and Miami is where you go when you wanna be somebody else. Miami, specifically, and Florida in general, has always been a sunny place for shady people.
The entire state was build on lies that came true: real estate scams. And Miami is one of the youngest cities in America and we are forever America’s perpetual rebellions teenager. Only wants the new sh*t, the cool sh*t, the hot sh*t, doesn’t care about old sh*t or history. Knock it down, get the new stuff. We have a transient population and a lack of institutional memory. A total hustle economy.
You have an environment that is just ripe with characters and stories and there’s always a Miami connection. Every major story of scandal that breaks, we’re always waiting for the Miami connection. The Florida connection. Yes, it’s a major national story, but there’s gotta be a Miami connection, and invariably there is. Go all the way from 9/11 to Bernie Madoff to the college admissions scandal that just erupted. You name it, there’s a South Florida connection.
It seems fitting that the death of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson play a part in this story, making the first Manny Ramirez scandal go away because they happened right after it broke. Finding Neverland was a huge pop culture moment, and the Elizabeth Holmes documentary about Theranos on HBO has got a lot of people taking as well. Are we in the middle of a documentary renaissance?
We’re always in a documentary renaissance. We really are. It feels like more and more people are making them but documentaries are perennials. People are always interested in keeping it real. They know the truth is stranger than fiction. There’s not a lot of scripted shows or narrative drams or comedies that are calls to action. Or can really alter your perspective on things.
We’re certainly living in days where conventional wisdom is worth challenging, so I think documentaries are becoming more ubiquitous but more essential. And filmmakers are responding to that marketplace’s need for thoughts and real news, for information, and to asses things that we always took for granted, like Michel Jackson is a beautiful soul and kind to children and wants to heal the world, and that the government can be trusted, the the president is not above the law. All these ideas that we need to reassess.
It feels like documentaries are having a moment, but documentaries capture moments, so they’re always having moments. I’m happy to see people are paying more attention to them, it certainly feels like more of them are being made and more are becoming popular, but there’s always important work happening in nonfiction filmmaking, and it’s just really heartwarming to see people seem to take more notice of it now, which I think is what’s happening.
I think the movie that stuck with me the most of the 30 for 30s is The U, and I remember thinking how much fun it looked like it would be to root for Miami football back in the day. But this movie is funny, not fun. There’s a big difference. And it made me reassess how I feel about steroids. I think a decade ago I cared a lot more. Does that general indifference to steroids in baseball now change the impact of this movie?
I think we all accept that everybody is lying and cheating and stealing to get ahead. Nobody is really interested in preserving the American dream and our system of capitalism and democracy. Because once you get power and money all you’re interested in is the status quo — retaining power and money. I think a lot of Americans are getting complacent at accepting that unfortunate reality and instead of running to rise up and change it, we go “who gives a sh*t about cheating in baseball?”
And, honestly, I’m one of those people. I don’t give a sh*t about steroids in baseball. But then you look at the kids, the children who idolize these professional athletes. They’re heroes to them. I’ve been doing Q&As with some of the young actors in the movie, and I’ll never forget, doing a Q&A a few weeks ago with Brian Blonco, who plays Tony Bosch, with the stethoscope and lab coat.
Someone in the audience asked, “What is the moral of the story?” And Brian raised his hand, “Oh oh, I want to answer this.” And I say, “Brian you don’t have to raise your hand, it’s your Q&A too, dude.” But he’s in sixth grade. He raises his hand, it’s darling, and he says, “The moral of the story is lie, cheat and steal. And that’s how you win.”
So when I said it earlier, whatever, I’m 40. But when you hear a 10-year-old say it, that’s what he thinks the moral of the story is, it’s pretty devastating. My heart sank. And so I was, like, these are the lessons we’re teaching our children. I called them the new American vales. We used to teach honesty, integrity, do unto others, and now this is the lesson that you get. Lie, cheat, and steal and you can be the highest-paid baseball player of all time. Lie, cheat, and steal and you can be the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Lie, cheat, and steal and you, too, kids, can be the President of the United States.
It’s fascinating that A-Rod has successfully rehabbed his image since this all happened. He’s on TV now. He’s getting married again and seems genuinely happy. He’s likable to a lot of people, maybe even more people than when he was playing and perceived to be clean. How important is it to retell this story and maybe not target Rodriguez, but show that everyone got a little dirty in the story here, including Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball?
It’s another saying in Miami, you roll around in the swamp a bit you’re going to get dirty. That’s the way of the world. I mean, A-Rod, man. We haven’t seen a resurrection like this since Jesus Christ. It’s remarkable. His publicists are geniuses. I think it’s going to be a case study that will be in PR classes for decades to come.
And I think, honestly, that he’s a liberated man. Free of the constraints of Major League Baseball and America’s Pastime I think he’s a little more comfortable and free to be himself, and he’s really good at his job right now.
But it can’t hurt to tell the truth, and I think our documentary does just that. As absurd as it is, as farcical as the events are, you literally can’t make them up because you wouldn’t believe them, it’s just so stupid how everybody behaved and this cast of characters. But I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that this happened and this is how it happened, and that this is the potential damage it’s doing.
It’s another layer to the device of using the kids in the reenactment, which is that what I was saying earlier, kids looking up to professional athletes. We need to acknowledge the fu*kery here and the dishonesty and the toxicity of these new American values and the damage that will be done to potentially generations of Americans that all think this is the way to behave in order to be successful, and this is the way to treat each other in order to be successful.
If we survive these dark days, it’s going to take so much time to fully comprehend the damage that we’ve done to our kids.
It’s also a slightly different era, it’s HGH and things like that. Which a legit doctor which, spoiler alert, Tony Bosch is not. But it’s not those ridiculous steroids that turn you into a fu*king baseball monster like Sosa and McGwire. Like, smacking balls to Guantanamo and everyone knowing it and Bud Sielig profiting off it. This is why I think I care less. Like, a disproportionate amount of players have waivers to be on Adderall — disproportionate compared to the general population on Adderall. Like, that’s a performance enhancing drug for f*ck’s sake. Tommy John Surgery. Like, that’s some bionic man sh*t.
If your body is your fortune. If your physical condition is how you make your living, shouldn’t you want to be in peak condition? Shouldn’t you want your testosterone level to be where it should be? Shouldn’t you want to heal faster from injury? This is between the player’s union and Major League Baseball. But let’s not lie to kids, that’s all. Santa Claus is real. A-Rod’s a hero. The president doesn’t lie. Let’s just tell them the truth and why it’s wrong.
How interesting is it to you that everyone who got caught up in this scandal (except maybe Ryan Braun at the time) wasn’t using to stay great, but to maintain greatness. Manny had his run with the Red Sox and got caught trying to keep it going in Los Angeles. Rodriguez had hundreds of home runs already. He might have broken the all-time mark without Biogenesis if he played long enough. But trying to chase the past took them down.
It’s fascinating to me. And listen, they’re really superstitions. They’re trying to maintain a career. And getting older sucks. I’m 40. It sucks. I literally woke up the other day and I couldn’t move. Everyone asked, “What did you do?” What do you mean what did I do? I didn’t even lift a gallon of milk. I just woke up.
I couldn’t imagine if my livelihood depended on my getting up and throwing a ball and running and hitting. But I also could do something else. Some of these guys only know one thing. They’re only told they’re good at one thing. They’ve been playing this game their whole lives, and to face that is incredibly daunting. It really is. Their identity is totally tied into this thing, too.
I have a lot of empathy for these guys and heir need to get an advantage and an edge. If Tony Bosch had been a real doctor it might have been less of a scandal. But getting older sucks. Being a processional athlete and getting older sucks even more. Because a lot of guys don’t get a second act. Alex has had one of the most extraordinary second acts in history. But not everybody gets to be paid to be a high-profile multimillion dollar analyst and broadcaster and marry Jennifer Lopez. It doesn’t happen for everybody. So I don’t blame him for trying to hang on.