Buried treasure. Drugs. Betrayal. A Florida man story like no other is streaming on Netflix

It’s 2008. The Great Recession is on.

Florida man Rodney Hyden has fallen on hard times, along with the rest of the country.

His formerly booming construction business comes to a standstill.

Forced to abandon a luxurious home and move his family into a double-wide in Archer, Fla., Hyden starts getting desperate.

Then he hears the story.

A neighbor who used to study turtles on a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico left something behind in the sand, he reveals by the light of a bonfire.

In “The Legend of Cocaine Island,” the discovery of a duffel bag full of drugs washed up on a tropical beach ignites an unexpected chain of events. Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Down in Culebra, a duffel bag full of cocaine worth a small fortune is just waiting for someone to dig it up.

In time (and with a little encouragement from a casual drug dealer acquaintance), Hyden decides that he will be the one to do it.

After all, he’s always been a dreamer.

Fast forward to 2019, and Hyden has survived to tell the story of what happened next.

Director Theo Love spins the tale of American dream turned nightmare into a slick feature film filed neatly under “documentary.”

But don’t be deceived.

When you press play on “The Legend of Cocaine Island,” be prepared for the exact opposite of a Ken Burns PBS special.

“The Legend of Cocaine Island” is as much adventure movie as a documentary, with police chases, plane rides gone awry and a meeting with a tequila guzzling drug kingpin in a Florida bar. Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A tequila guzzling drug kingpin, police chases, a drum line number, cash and coke falling from the sky, a tortoise sex romp and more wild visions await in the retelling of a story that’s just too crazy to be made up.

Hyden stars as himself, of course.

The director and the subject of “The Legend of Cocaine Island” spoke with the Bradenton Herald after the film’s Netflix release on March 29.

Here’s what they had to say.

This story definitely joins the Florida man canon.

Theo Love: Rodney is the Florida man.

Rodney Hyden: I’ve even got the ring in my back pocket.

Rodney, can you give me the condensed version of your story? Of how all of this came to pass?

RH: You gotta watch it. Just watch it.

It’s a story that lends itself to film very well.

TL: Yeah, it did. The first time I heard about Rodney and his treasure hunt, I knew immediately that it would make an incredible movie. I didn’t know exactly how Rodney was going to feel about it. But I knew there was a really great story here that would make a great film.

Florida man Rodney Hyden stars as himself in new Netflix documentary “The Legend of Cocaine Island.” Photo Courtesy of Netflix

How did you wind up taking on the project?

TL: It all came down to how Rodney felt about it. I make documentaries and that involves getting into real people’s lives. I don’t want to put a camera in someone’s face if they don’t want it there. So I called Rodney up one day and asked if he wanted to make a movie. He had never heard from me before. I found his number I think on his company website. He said he had been waiting for someone from Hollywood to give him a call.

RH: I think I used the term Holly-weird.

Were you on board right away?

RH: Well if I had an opportunity to get my side of the story out, that’s what I wanted to do. And I felt nothing but comfort with Theo and Bryan (Storkel) when I spoke with them and met with them. They were the guys. They were the other half of the coin that would make the movie.

So you wanted a chance to tell the story in your own words?

RH: Yeah. I wanted to make sure it was accurate. And I wanted to be there doing it. And I think Mr. Innovation there (referencing Love) made that happen. I’ve never seen it happen like that before. But I think you’re going to see a lot more of it. They’re all going to try to copy this man. He’s brilliant.

TL: Get outta here.

What was the process like figuring out the narrative?

RH: There were times when we may have changed something a little bit because I felt like it was a little more close to accurate.

TL: That’s the advantage of having the real live people play themselves in re-enactments. They know their motivation. They know what they were feeling at the time. In many ways it makes my job a lot easier. And Rodney’s a born movie star, let’s be honest.

Are you up front with your subjects about how a documentary is going to turn out?

TL: Yeah, absolutely. Because they’re entrusting me with their stories, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be as transparent as possible with them and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to share your side of the story, but I’m also going to share somebody else’s side of the story.’ But my goal is to present as many sides as you can in the most entertaining way for a general audience. I think that my approach is definitely to get the subject as involved in that storytelling process as possible.

RH: My analogy of that is: Theo is driving down the road and he’s not in the right lane and he’s not in the wrong lane. He drove right down the center line on this movie. He made it as equal down the road to the truth as he could get. Everybody in the back of their mind thinks, ‘What’s it going to look like when it’s over? I’ll never hear from those guys again.’ But believe it or not, we talk quite often.

TL: Yeah, we’ve become really good friends over the course of this.

RH: Yes we have.

How did you decide on an approach to telling this story? It looks like you took a very theatrical route.

TL: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t think of myself as a journalist. I think of myself as an entertainer and a storyteller. And when I heard this story, it felt like an adventure film. I mean, you’re getting back to “Indiana Jones” or “Treasure Island.” That’s one of the most entertaining genres of storytelling. We wanted to make it truly feel like you were on an adventure. So we filmed it with cinema lenses and cinema cameras. We tried to make it look like a big Hollywood blockbuster — which is a little bit hard to do when you’re dealing with documentary subject matter. But with this story, it was such a unique Florida story, I felt like we did take the style a little bit further than you might see in a typical documentary.

Were there any scenes that you couldn’t wait to film?

TL: Oh my gosh. If I’m completely honest — this may have been the main reason I said yes to the project — is that we got to film on a tropical island. It was the best place that you could ever imagine shooting. This island off of the coast of Puerto Rico. Culebra. It’s just beautiful. We had to go there once just to scout it out and I may or may not have brought my wife and had a little vacation. And the next time we went out with Rodney and the whole camera crew and just had a blast filming out there.

RH: They held a gun to my head and made me show them where it was buried. No, I’m joking. Don’t you dare quote me.

An early review called this movie, possibly, “Netflix’s craziest documentary ever.” What do you both think of that?

TL: From my perspective as a filmmaker and as an avid Netflix documentary watcher, that’s a huge compliment. Cause there are some crazy documentaries on Netflix. The competition for that title is fierce. So I’m pretty excited that people are saying that. That’s a huge compliment.

RH: Well, I tell you. It is crazy. But I’ve been called a lot worse in the industry that I work in, so I thought that was a compliment. Because it’s a crazy story. It was when I heard it.

TL: That’s a really good point. This whole thing started because Rodney heard a crazy story. So we are passing that story off to the general audience now, and their reaction is going to be the same as Rodney’s: that’s a crazy story. And maybe we feel like booking plane tickets to Culebra.

“The Legend of Cocaine Island” hinges around the tale of Julian Howell, a turtle conservationist who says he found a suitcase full of cocaine washed up on a tropical beach. Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Rodney, what was it that drew you in about the original fireside story that Julian told?

RH: Well, to be honest with you, I never really thought about it again until I was approached by Dee (a drug dealer interested in partnering with Rodney to make millions off the cocaine). I never even thought about it until that came up. And then it started sounding better and better.

Do you regret anything? Or are you happy with the way everything has turned out?

RH: I think it turned out for what it is. I’m not ashamed of anything. Did I learn a lesson? Yeah, I learned a bunch of lessons. I’m pleased with it. If I had to change anything, I don’t know that I could change anything. It’s just part of my life and what happened in my life. Good or bad. Regardless. If I had to do it all over again, maybe I should have given it just a little more thought. Had I told anybody, any of my friends, what I was going to do, I can guarantee it never would have happened. But I intentionally kept it to myself because I think in the back of my head I knew they would talk me out of it.

TL: But I think that’s the point. Rodney has so many things about him that are unique. But his reaction to the story wasn’t that unique. This was a crazy story and Rodney at the time was in a bit of a desperate place. If somebody else was in that position and came across this story, they might react in the same way. Hopefully that’s the theme that comes out of a story like this. There’s a broader application.

So you shot everything on site? Did anything funny happen on set?

TL: We did as best as we could shoot in the locations that everything actually took place in. Rodney, anything funny happen? You got pretty upset with me when I got that fake cocaine in your eye.

RH: No, no. I tell you, the worst part — I think my face reveals it in the movie, too, Theo — was the 50 takes of digging in that rock. Ugh. One more. I’ll never forget. One more, man. One more.

TL: Well, you know why Rodney. That was literally the last shot that we did with you and I knew I was never going to have the chance to punish you again.

RH: I know. And you wonder why it was the last shot. No, I tell you man, it was great. It was a lot of fun.

Rodney Hyden at his homestead in Archer, Fla., in “The Legend of Cocaine Island.” Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Was it strange to relive some of the experiences again?

RH: No. It was just — after being through everything and it being over, it was kind of nice to go back down and enjoy the island for what it is. It was just beautiful.

TL: Not being stressed out by the drug running and all of that?

RH: What was that?

TL: Nothing.

RH: I learned that you don’t give a pig a biscuit because they’ll follow you around all day.

What has the response to the film been like, Rodney?

RH: Everybody has been asking about it. All my close friends and family. Everybody knew when it was coming out and everybody was hitting each other up. It’s been a great response. You know, you’ve got some haters out there, but I can live with that.

And, like you said, this could maybe open up a new genre of documentary.

RH: Yeah, I think this man put it out there for a new innovation and I’m glad I was a part of it.

TL: Awww.

RH: I’ve never seen it done like this before. Never thought about it until after I saw this movie and I thought: damn. Good movie, Theo. And I think you pay more attention to a story when you’ve got somebody that’s reenacting it. I really do.

So, what advice would you give somebody who hears a crazy story like this and thinks about going after it?

RH: Well, since you know who the police are now, you’d better listen to them. That’s all I’ve got to say. Because I don’t advise it.

TL: Good answer Rodney.

“The Legend of Cocaine Island” is streaming now on Netflix.

Without spoiling anything, the film’s conclusion hints that the story might not be over just yet.

We’d tell you more about it ... but we have a plane to catch and some digging to do.

Ryan Ballogg covers arts, entertainment, dining, breaking and local news for the Bradenton Herald. He won first place for feature writing in the Florida Press Club’s 2018 Excellence in Journalism Competition. Ryan is a Florida native and graduated from University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
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