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A Hell of a Drug

Legend of Cocaine Island may be the most #Florida story ever

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More than almost anyone else we can think of right now (except maybe that guy who used to be mayor of New Port Richey), Rodney Hyden is “Florida Man.” Hyden lived in Archer, enjoying a casual life of working-class leisure, campfires and beers and such, when he became fixated on a tall tale his friend Julian had shared. Julian claimed to have found a massive cocaine bale, which he buried on the Puerto Rican isle Culebra, and more or less forgot it.

Hyden never forgot, though, and decided to go treasure-hunting. No spoilers, but his efforts resulted in criminal proceedings, as well as a gripping new documentary, The Legend of Cocaine Island. The film, which debuted on Netflix in April, has already drawn a ton of media attention, more than usual for what is a fairly obscure niche production. Maybe it’s the subject matter, which may resonate in a nation whose president made his bones at places like Danceteria and Studio 54, and is prone to sniffle-fits, like he’s allergic to oxygen itself.

Hearing about all this through the Hollywood grapevine, director Theo Love cold-called Hyden a couple years ago, to see if he was interested in telling his story. The resulting film is Love’s second feature-length documentary, already drawing copious praise on the film festival circuit. “It was a really small crew,” he says. “I think we had about five or six people on most days. We got some help from some locals in the Gainesville area, and then we shot in Orlando,” with some action scenes using a dozen folks, sometimes more.

“It took about nine months to make the film,” Love says, “but the indie film cycle takes about two years.” The production cost is a guarded secret, but the filmmakers clearly got maximum bang for their buck, in part due to source material. “We’ve been working on this about three years,” says Love. “Like most people in America, I love a good ‘Florida Man’ story. But there was something special about Rodney.”

“I think the most surprising thing was how good all the storytellers were,” says Love. “You know, with a lot of interviews, you kinda have to coax the answers out of people and really help them a lot with their story-telling, but with this particular story, everyone was so excited to tell it, and so giddy, that getting access to the interviews was pretty easy. And sitting down and interviewing them was incredible, because they would have the entire crew laughing.”

For the soundtrack, Love tapped the talents of a personal friend, as well as old heroes. “My longest collaboration is with this incredible musician, Michael Lee. He was one of the first people I called when I started this project, and he started composing music way before we even started filming. So, as we were filming the interviews and editing the video, we listened to his music. The music has always been a part of the film’s DNA.” He was also able to score a contribution from Weezer, a band almost everyone likes. “It was a huge deal for me,” he says. “Weezer’s pretty much my favorite band of all time.”

The project has brought both principles to Jacksonville on occasion, and their impressions of the River City were quite different, as could be expected. “I don’t have any fond memories of Jacksonville,” Hyden says with a chuckle, “cuz that’s where my face hit the pavement!” But Love had a great time: “I, on the other hand, have very fond memories of Jacksonville, because the people we worked with in the court systems there were wonderful—really, really welcoming. The judge in this case was particularly great. Judges don’t often give interviews, but he was kind enough to sit down with us for the film, and I think he did a great job.”

Hearing that, Hyden warms to the city a bit. “My hat is off to Judge Corrigan,” he says. “I don’t think I could have ever gotten a more fair trial with another judge. He had a lot going on that week of our trial, and I don’t see how he paid attention, but he did.” (As part of Hyden’s sentence, he does community service at nonprofit Habitat for Humanity in Alachua County.)

The film has been screened around the country, premiering on the first night of the Tribeca festival in 2018 (the date of which was 4/20, by the way) and then showing at nearly a dozen other independent festivals before landing on NetFlix this March. “On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a movie that would spark much discussion; it seems like kind of a silly story,” says Love. “But I’ve been reading comments and message boards, and people are talking a lot about the movie. That’s the huge advantage of NetFlix—they have such a wide audience, in 190 countries. I’m getting messages from people in Malaysia, saying they’re watching this movie.” Well, that’s a given—of course the film would do well in the fabled Golden Triangle.

The treasure-hunt theme of the story connects with lots of people, particularly in Hyden’s home state, which already holds the dubious distinction of having more bricks wash up on its sandy shores than every other state combined. “It’s because of the total lineal miles of beach we have, when you take the Gulf Coast and the East Coast and the Keys,” says Hyden. “It’s just huge, and it just seems like something’s always drifting up.”

One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and one man’s treasure was that same man’s felony, but everything worked out OK in the end. Well, OK in the sense that Hyden’s out of prison, the coke was part of a sting, and Hyden’s wife didn’t leave him.

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