Interview: Florida Man Rodney Hyden Who Lived ‘The Great Cocaine Treasure Hunt’.
The Great Recession of 2008, desperation, and the documentary of the Great Cocaine Treasure Hunt: meet director Theo Love & Rodney Hyden.
I chatted with The Legend of Cocaine Island’s director Theo Love and Rodney Hyden, the man who lived this bizarre and wickedly-entertaining tale of desperation, big dreams, and the power of a crazy story.
This interview originally appeared at The 405.
We love a great based on a true story flick. It’s one of our favorite things to cover for a variety of reasons, but above all because – quite often – truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Such is the case in Netflix’s wildly entertaining, documentary tale of quintessentially American desperation, dreams of wealth, and the power of mythic storytelling: The Legend of Cocaine Island, out now on the streaming giant.
The Legend of Cocaine Island tells the true story of a Florida man (Rodney Hyden) who came into hard times – like so many – with the Great Recession of 2008. Hyden owns a construction business in central Florida (a state hit harder than most others) which was booming until the real estate bubble burst and triggered a huge part of this story.
Yet, what makes the story different is the tale Rodney was told by his neighbor Julian. You see Julian lived in Puerto Rico for a time years before, when one day he found a suspicious… package, on the beach. Inside – according to Julian – was roughly $2 million worth of cocaine. Apparently, a trafficker mistakenly dropped it either out at sea or in the air and it washed up on Julian’s beach.
As Julian did not want to involve Puerto Rican police, who likely would not have believed he was innocent in all this – he generally wanted to avoid that hassle – he decided to bury the package near the trailer he was living in at the time and leave it there.
This became a “southern fairy tale” as it got passed around bonfires in Florida with each telling from Julian and others who heard and retold it. That is, until Rodney Hyden heard it, and decided he was going to try to find the cocaine and cure his post-Recession financial woes. Will he succeed? What will happen with this strange tale of desperation and the American dream? You’ll have to watch the film to find out – trust me, you won’t regret it.
Theo Love – the mind behind the 2013 documentary Little Hope Was Arson, about a series of 2010 church arsons in East Texas – director of Cocaine Island, took a novel approach to telling this story. Rodney Hyden plays himself in the film, with his daughter and wife also making appearances. It was a tremendous gamble which really paid dividends in Love’s final product that is the film.
Check out our interview with Hyden and Love below – we talk film-making, myth-making, great movies, the Florida Man Challenge and much more. And check out The Legend of Cocaine Island on Netflix worldwide now.
Hello Theo and Rodney.
RH: Hey, how you doing?
I’m great. How are you guys?
TL: Doing good. Doing good. We’re excited to be putting the movie out but a little nervous, too.
It was fantastic, and I just have to ask as the first question. Not totally related, but a little related. Have either of you guys done the Florida Man Challenge that’s going around social media right now?
TL: No, I haven’t. I just heard about it today. This is the second time it’s come up, so I should probably do this today. Rodney, we should do it together.
[Laughs] Could be interesting.
RH: Tell me what I’m getting into first before we make that decision, Theo.
Yeah, it’s googling “Florida Man”, then your birthday (month and day), and you’re supposed to share the first article that comes up.
RH: Oh, wow.
Like for instance, mine was “Florida Man gets sent back to jail after not paying taxi that picked him up from jail.”
TL: That’s a good one.
But yeah, it made me think of that with this story’s very Florida-centric nature. Yeah. Rodney, what was going through your head when you finally decided to pursue Julian’s story?
RH: Nothing was going through my head until I was approached about it. That’s as simple as I can answer it.
Interesting. Did you ever think that something like The Legend of Cocaine Island would come out of it?
RH: Absolutely not. I mean, come on. When Theo called me, I didn’t believe it would ever happen. Come on. It’s surreal. Totally surreal.
TL: Yo. Yo Rodney, you said that you were waiting for somebody from Hollywood to call you when I first called.
RH: Yes. Hollyweird.
[Laughs] Well, there you go. Theo, I was curious, what was it about the story that made you wanted to do it in a documentary format versus doing it in a more conventional format like a fictionalized true story or based on a true story?
TL: I look for true stories, and I am leaning towards narrative. That’s a goal of mine, but a lot of times when you are researching these true stories, the real people who lived the events are better than any actor you could get, and people like to tell their own side of the story.
TL: Rodney wanted to make sure that this was accurate, and that we portrayed him the way he was. Frankly, we were a tiny little indie film, and we wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But kind of doing it in the documentary form allowed this to have that anchored in realism to it.
Another interesting thing about it that I found really cool was the way that you did it almost as mythic storytelling. Mythic in the sense that it’s a big story, it’s what you would think would be an improbable story, and I was curious what your process was like in writing it to accent that?
TL: Yeah. Pretty early on, we realized that this was a story about storytelling, and the power of storytelling. Growing up, and honestly still to this day, a lot of times when I’m hanging out with my friends it’s sitting around… and drinking, and we’re smoking and telling stories. Rodney and his group of friends out there in Archer [Florida], they had the life that I wish I could have, but I’m in L.A. making movies. But just the whole atmosphere of how this came about was really attractive. Then, when I actually met the storyteller, Julian, he’s this barefooted hippie. He looks like kind of like Gandalf, and he’s just larger than life. Wouldn’t you describe him like that, Rodney?
RH: Pretty much except … yeah. Don’t forget the bottle of wine. He loves wine.
Gandalf if Gandalf lived in Florida [Laughs]. Yep.
RH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
A question for both of you, I’m sure there’s probably many, but any funny or memorable moments that stick out from the process of filming?
RH: Yeah. The digging scene, I’ll never forget it ’cause Theo makes you do it about a hundred times. That ground is solid rock, believe me.
TL: That’s hilarious. Rodney agreed to act, and I fully pressed him for it, and I think it wasn’t … at the end of the day, Rodney, are you glad you did it?
RH: Hey, let me say this, I work with two of the most brilliant people and their staff. Now, their crew was excellent, and the little I know about movie and film-making, I think you should call Theo “Mr. Innovation” and that’s all I need to say about it.
TL: Oh man.
RH: Who else has brought a guy in that lived it and did it, and said “look, you’re gonna be a part of it if you want to. I think it was a great experience.”
Absolutely. Quite the novel and effective approach.
TL: Rodney, you’re gonna make me cry.
RH: I’m being serious.
TL: We just honestly had a blast making this film. We really did, and we got to know all the people who were involved, their friends, and yeah. I hope the audience has half as much fun that we had making this film.
You know, I think they will. I had a hell of a lot of fun watching it. I’ll tell you that.
TL: Well, thank you.
RH: Thank you so much.
My pleasure. Thanks for telling the story. Let’s see. Looking for that next question there. Rodney, what do you hope people will take away from your story?
RH: That it could happen to anybody. This story could literally happen to anybody, Wess.
[At this point, we had an issue with the phone connection which was quickly resolved]
Let’s see. Rodney, if you could do it over again, would you?
RH: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. In the future, hell no. Absolutely.
TL: It’s this attitude, Wess, that I heard on the very first call where I called Rodney. I just cold-called the guy.
Having worked in sales I have great admiration for that approach Theo.
TL: Called him at this business, and this is how he talks. He is self-aware, and he’s able to laugh at himself, and if that was the case for everybody else, it’s just a good story. It’s just a good story. Is something that we recommend people doing in the future? No, but we might dare you to, but we don’t think that you should. But yeah, you could.
Yeah didn’t mean to imply that you’re recommending it because the film doesn’t. There’s definitely that playful suggestion at the end which worked really well with Cocaine Island considering the film’s tone though.
Let’s see. This is one I had for both of you, although you might be answering it separate. What were the challenges like?
RH: Go ahead, Theo. I want to bother you first.
TL: What were the challenges. Honestly, I think that it was the creative decisions that we were making. It was a bold choice to cast Rodney in these movie moments, these recreations, whatever you want to call them.
Definitely. That was a gamble that paid brilliant dividends.
TL: We were really gambling on that. But when we thought about it, we were like, man, I think that this is just ridiculous enough to be good. That thought that … and we really felt like we were going out on a limb like, “Oh my gosh, man. The documentary community, they might hate us. We’re not making a serious documentary.”
[Laughs] the blasphemy! Wonder how many were clutching their pearls?
TL: It shouldn’t be this fun making a movie in the Caribbean. It was kind of a dream scenario. As a filmmaker, I feel like I’m never gonna have a more fun set.
That’s great. That’s excellent you guys had that experience. Theo, one question I like to ask all filmmakers that I talk to, what movies and directors would you consider as the most prolific influences over you?
TL: I would say that … I grew up watching just the big blockbusters. My family didn’t even have a TV until I was in middle school, and we didn’t live in a place where there was movie theaters. By the time I got into movies, it was just the big Steven Spielberg blockbusters. When I’m in high school, the big Michael Bay movies.
TL: But then, once I got actually into filmmaking myself, and started to break down kind of who are the filmmakers that I want to emulate, it really leads to the Coen Brothers I’d say more than anybody. I find myself just going back over and over to their movies, and with Cocaine Island, I watched The Big Lebowski quite a few times.
Well, there you go.
It’s a very Coen Brothers story, too, when you think about it. Cocaine Island I mean. It’s a modern tale of misadventure that does echo the Coens.
TL: Hey, if the Coen Brothers are available to do the remake of this, the narrative version, I will take that meeting [Laughs].
[Laughs] I bet.
Rodney, how about you. Favorite movies?
RH: Favorite movies. Scarface. No, just joking.
RH: Grown Ups, Adam Sandler.
One that came to mind there, you guys were watching, was it The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the hotel suite?
RH: Yeah. When I was a young kid, that’s what my dad liked. The early Clint Eastwood Italian movies, and it brought back memories when we chose that scene to watch. Seen it before. Probably seen it 50 times.
Oh, me too with the spaghetti westerns. One of my favorites as well. Let’s see. Yeah, another question I’d like to ask everybody. What makes a great movie to you? Kind of a big question.
TL: Yeah. That’s a good question. What makes a great movie?
TL: Rodney, you want to go first?
RH: Yeah, I’ve got a pretty quick answer that didn’t take much thinking, and I’m only gonna speak specific about the genre of this movie or documentary. I think the biggest thing was that … tell me your question again.
What makes a great movie?
RH: In this case, based on what I saw at the film festivals, it’s the audiences’ reaction and that’s all I’m gonna say.
TL: Whether the audience likes it?
RH: Oh yeah…
TL: That’s actually a pretty great answer. What makes a great movie is whether the audience responds to it. We have taken it to a few film festivals, and audiences really enjoy it. That feels amazing as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. Yeah. Good answer, Rodney.
It is a really good answer.
RH: Sitting in the middle of everybody with my hoodie on, nobody knew who I was, and everybody around me was cracking up. It was just great.
Rodney, I’ve gotten quite the variety of answers to that question in the numerous interviews I’ve done, but I don’t think I’ve ever got your answer: the audience’s reaction. That’s a fantastic answer.
RH: [Laughs] There’s only one… Let me tell you, man.
It is fantastic. Let’s see, actually, the last question I had for you guys is what’s next for you?
TL: Well, Rodney is gonna be an actor. Right, Rodney?
RH: No. No, I’m gonna take an early retirement.
RH: Let me say for me I’m in the construction industry, and it’s just booming right now. I’m just blessed with what I’ve got, and I never forget this memorable … one of the most memorable things of making this movie in my life, the other memorable was getting in trouble, but this one really, really was the best. That’s what I take with it.
Fantastic. Theo, how about you?
TL: I’m in post on my next feature, a future documentary. Can’t talk much about it, but I’ve got quite a few projects in the works. But I’ll let you know when I can give you more details. How does that sound?
Hey, that’s great. We’ll definitely be watching for it. Yeah, and even your first movie, Little Hope Was Arson is excellent. I watched that the other night, too.
TL: Oh really, wow. Thank you so much. Not a lot of people saw that one, so yeah, that means a lot. Thank you.
Yeah. More should. I try to do that with everybody I interviewed to at least catch one more of theirs…
TL: A lot of journalists sometimes … yeah. You’re going above and beyond. That’s all I’ll say. That’s amazing. Well, cool, I’m glad you enjoyed them. Thanks so much for doing this, and asking us all these questions.