When approaching interview subjects that would be intimidating to most – former drug runners and their higher-ups in cartels, wanted criminals who still have warrants in their name, and the law enforcement that continue to chase after them or retired after many attempts – Tiller Russell comes to them with terms they can understand immediately.
“What I tell everybody is the movie is a full co-conspiracy,” says Russell, who waded into murky waters previously with the 2015 police corruption saga “The Seven Five.” “I’m going to conspire with you to tell this story and you’re conspiring with every single person to do it, so they can either totally be themselves and totally tell their story. In a weird way, a lot of the movie is made before the movie’s even shot because it’s that building of trust where you’re taking people’s most precious secrets and the architecture of the film gets built in those relationships. So what I tell everybody is we’re making the movie and if you don’t want to be in it, I don’t give a fuck. Don’t be in it. But you’re in it either way. So either they can tell your story or you can tell your story, but I’m here now and you can tell me anything.”
It’s remarkable what they do tell Russell, which makes his latest “Operation Odessa” perhaps even more jawdropping than “The Seven Five,” recounting the history of a cross-continental plot instigated by Ludwig Fainberg, a Miami-based strip club owner nicknamed “Tarzan,” to facilitate the purchase of a Russian submarine for the low, low price of $35 million to the Cali drug cartel in Columbia. A deal made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unimaginable wealth created at the height of the international drug trade during the late 1990s, Russell uncovers how a handful of fun-loving gangsters that comes to include Juan Almeida, a car dealer and connect to the Columbians (who linked up with Fainberg through a chance encounter with Vanilla Ice), and Tony Yester, a major distributor for Medellin whose requests of Almeida for stylish transportation grew from Mercedes to cigarette boats to submarines.
While the wild tale seems far too good to be true, not only do those intimately involved in hatching the plot regale Russell with the outrageous particulars, but a host of DEA special agents, FBI task force members and local police assigned to the case are on hand to assure that indeed something suspicious was up between St. Petersburg, Florida and St. Petersburg, Russia. Besides subjects who have their own versions of the truth, Russell sifts through 15,000 hours of wiretaps to get to the bottom of things and give audiences the same rush of adrenaline that surely Fainberg, Almeida and Yester felt in pulling off the scheme. While Russell was at SXSW for the film’s premiere, before its debut this weekend on Showtime where “The Seven Five” has become a cult staple, the director spoke about “the caper” of tackling the real-life caper movie and traveling around the world, finding himself inside prisons and on private jets, and getting those he interviews on all different sides of the law on the same page.
What’s the incentive for your subjects to speak to you?
A lot of it is timing. If you approach people too early, then they’re not yet ready to tell the story. But they’ve carried it for a long time and these stories where people carry great secrets for long periods of time eventually everyone is ready to tell their story, so what I try to do is create the trust, like “Okay, we’re going to tell it, we’re going to tell everything and and this is your chance to tell your story and I’ll get out of the way from it, but I’ll be your ear and you can be the voice. Now’s the time.” So I never know quite why people tell the story, but the bigger the secret, the more people want to tell it at some point or another.
Where does “Operation Odessa” start for you?
The film began with a tip from a narc I know who works at DEA, seven or eight years ago. I was working with my producers on an unrelated crime thing and this narc called me and says, “I’ve got the greatest true crime caper you’ve ever heard. There’s this Russian mobster [named Tarzan] who once sold a submarine to the Cali drug cartel. He’s locked in a Panamanian prison and he has a Blackberry. Do you want his number?” And I’m like, “…Yes, I want his number.” [laughs] So I jumped on a plane, flew to Panama and went out to this prison – this carved out of the jungle stone cathedral nightmare – with $10,000 strapped to my legs, knowing that I’d have to pay bribes to get into the prison. The [guards] would literally leave this “Mad Max”-like penetentiary at night, they would lock the gates and it was inmate rule at night, so when you came in, you were stepping over the dead bodies of the people that had gotten shanked at night, and [I had to] essentially bribed a guard to smuggle me in.
The guy wanted a thousand bucks to get me into the prison, so I was like, “Why don’t I give you $500 now and $500 when I get out,” so I ran across the yard where all the convicts are out playing soccer and the plan was, “When you get to the other side, knock on the door and Tarzan will be on the other side of it.” And I was like, “This is a fucked up plan.” But I did it. I went into the Panamanian prison and I met him and he was charming and gregarious and hilarious, like he’d stepped out of a Scorsese movie. I thought, “This is going to be a great story,” but at the time, I couldn’t get him to do it. He had gotten a call from some Russian mobsters who got wind of the fact that I was there and they told him they could have him killed for $60 if he told the story of what happened. So we stayed in touch via e-mail and I would get crazy videos and shit from this Panamanian prison, like “Merry Christmas from Tarzan” for seven years.
I knew this was an unbelievable true crime caper and that if I stayed with it long enough, the opportunity would eventually present itself. I got an e-mail from Tarzan saying “Jailbreak from Panama. I ran out of Panama to Costa Rica. From Costa Rica, caught a boat to Cuba and they repatriated me to Moscow. If you want to tell this story, we’ve got to do it now.” And this was right at the time “The Seven Five” was coming out and I was in between seasons of writing for this TV show, so I had exactly six weeks [to shoot this]. I called my producers and I was like, “We’ve got five days to prep and blast around the world and let’s go shoot this movie.” And that’s what happened. We had five days prep and we shot it in about 25 days in Miami, Moscow, Africa, New York and then edited for a long time.
This relies on a lot of archival material in addition to interviews that must be hard to get a hold of. How much of that do you need before starting to film interviews to know you can even make a movie out of this?
You need all of it. To do these stories and to do them justice, you need everybody. It requires complete and total participation. That means all of the good guys – law enforcement, U.S. attorneys’ office, DEA, U.S. Marshals – because they’re the ones that have all the evidentiary record. All the surveillance video, the photos, all the wiretaps – all that resides with the cops, and without that material, you can’t tell the story because that’s what authenticates it and makes it feel lived in and real. Then what I try to do is [the film] has to be comprehensive and definitive, so once you’re working with all the real material and you have all of the first-person interviews from every side of that, [whether] you’re a good guy or bad guy, I want your full story to make it a kaleidoscopic portrait of the story. Once all that material is in hand and you’ve begun to structure the story, then it’s all of the original photography that you shoot around it [where] you sometimes blur the boundaries between what’s archival and what isn’t. But you need every person and you need every photograph that’s ever been taken. And I’m relentless. I’m a maniac for that shit until every single thing is in. I don’t stop.
All of the writing in these nonfiction films takes place in the edit room, so you go in knowing roughly what the story is and then you’ve acquired every piece of information that’s in the public record from all of the court filings from all of the defendants, having talked to all the cops off the record to, and then you get in there and it’s way crazier than you thought it was. And with these stories, I’m magnetized to underworld stories, whether it be as much to the cop perspective as it is to the crook perspective, so when you’re able to connect with every person as a human being, regardless of where they fall on the moral spectrum, that’s when people can be real and be authentic with you. “The Seven Five” was a perfect experience in preparation for making this film, and this was the next evolution in that type of storytelling.
What’s the craziest thing you had to leave out of the movie?
God, there’s a lot of crazy shit. In a weird way, the craziest thing not in the movie is [just] the making of this movie. This is like a caper movie, like three best friends pulling off the caper of a lifetime and the making of it was a complete surreal caper where I had five days preparation [for a film] that I’d been waiting seven years to do and then was like blasted out of a cannon. [I had] no idea who was going to say yes or who wasn’t [to being interviewed] or what was going to happen next, whether that was standing in Red Square and going to the markets where you can buy anything you can imagine from any drug to any weapon to running into a sketchy informant/double agent and having to run the fuck out of Moscow in the middle of the night to being told you need to be in Africa for a cup of coffee in 24 hours the next day if you want to know what really happened, to being taken to secret airplane hangars where there’s a MIG Fighter jet and $15 million in cash in the cockpit. It was all bonkers bananas insane. And that caper of making it was mindblowing and surreal.
Tony Yester is a wanted fugitive when you start communicating with him and there’s no way of knowing whether you’ll get an on-camera interview with him or not. I won’t spoil what ends up happening, but what was it like operating with the uncertainty of not having the involvement of such a key player?
What I’ve found at every stage in the game is you think you have a movie when you meet the first person and you hear the story and then it becomes a totally different movie when you actually start shooting it. This was deep into [production] once I realized, “Okay, we’ve got Juan, we’ve got Tarzan, we’ve got the cops,” and then it occurred to me, “Holy shit, if you don’t have Tony, you don’t have the movie” because nobody knew what actually happened – to the sub, the money, any of it. He was the guy holding the golden ticket and he’s been a fugitive from DEA, CIA, U.S. marshals, FBI and on America’s Most Wanted multiple times for 26 years. So [I thought] we’ve got to get him and then I put out the word to everybody that I’m looking for him – to the cops, to the crooks. And everybody said categorically, “It’s impossible. It never will happen.” And then he called me.
Another surprisingly crucial, yet admittedly marginal figure in this story is Vanilla Ice – did you ever pursue him for an interview?
That’s funny, and I actually did not because you hit a point with it where it’s the principal storytellers, and you could ask Vanilla Ice like what’s it like to shoot guns in the Everglades with Juan Almeida, but he doesn’t give a shit. He just runs across these guys. But to your original question, everyone tells you a different version of the facts. It’s never the same story from any person that you talk to. Everyone’s got their own conflicting telling of the tale and your job as the filmmaker is to cross-reference all of them, not because people are bullshitting – sometimes they are, but not because they’re being disingenuous, but because memory is unreliable. That’s why eyewitness testimony is so unpredictable, and there’s a point at which [you ask] where does the circle stop? You can keep going, “Well, what about this? Somebody mentioned so and so.” And if all of those people tell their story and you find the spiritual truth of it, that’s the job. Everyone’s a spoke in the wheel and your job as the director is to be the quiet center of it to make sure the wheel turns. That’s the job of finding the truth.