The residents of Archer, FL had heard Julian Howell's outlandish story so many times they could recite it themselves — embellishments and all. Howell, the close-knit neighborhood's resident hippie, had moved to the small island of Culebra off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico in 1986 to work in sea turtle preservation. While he was there, a large black duffle containing a million dollar's worth of cocaine washed up on the shore. Unsure of what to do, Howell buried the bag. He came home. He told the story.
Clearly, Howell didn't act on his highly illegal buried treasure. But his neighbor Rodney Hyden, the subject of the playful and enthralling new Netflix documentary The Legend of Cocaine Island, did. In 2012, Hyden embarked on the ill-fated mission to Culebra that would eventually have people deem him the "Ultimate Florida Man."
Hyden is only now learning what that moniker really means. "I know all about [Florida Man] now. I didn’t know anything about it until I started looking at the reviews," Hyden said in an interview with Refinery29.
For the uninitiated, "Florida Man" is a meme that originated in a Twitter account that curates headlines of bizarre crimes orchestrated by Florida residents. According to KnowYourMeme, the Florida Man tweets "are meant to be humorously read as if they were perpetrated by a single individual dubbed “the world’s worst superhero.'"
Look, man — it’s the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life, but it’s a good story.
Hyden's quest certainly reads like something torn from a Florida Man comic book. In 2012, Hyden — aka Florida Man — leaves his wife and daughter for a jaunt to Culebra, where he'll fulfill the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme by digging up a bag of cocaine worth $1 million. But Hyden, a real estate developer, has no way of turning the drugs into cash. So he partners with two men embedded in Floridas's criminal underground to import and push the cocaine. Little does Hyden know, Carlos, the suave narcotics transporter who reminds Hyden of Tony Montana from Scarface, is actually an undercover FBI agent. Instead of being being greeted by oodles of cash, Hyden's greeted by armed agents. Eventually, Hyden was sentenced to 60 days in prison and mandatory community service.
It's not the most flattering story, but Hyden owns up to it with a chuckle. "I don't pretend to be anything but the new image of the Florida Man, these days," Hyden said.
Along with some of the story's other primary characters (like Andy Culpepper, who accompanied Hyden to Culebra), Hyden narrates his own story. The documentary goes a step further in recreating that 2012 odyssey — Hyden also acts out the journey. Hyden trembles while flying to the island, stands in the middle of a Culebra field on an overcast day, searching for Julian's trailer. And, in what he calls the hardest part of the entire shoot, he digs into the rock-hard soil.
"That ground is rock! [Director Theo Love] made me do it 50 times at least," Hyden said. "I was just ticked off at doing this heavy duty activity. I did it once and didn’t get away with it. Now I was doing it 50 times knowing I wasn't doing it for any reason." Still, he admits: "It was fun."
Fun — now that's an unexpected word to describe the events that might've derailed a man's life and potentially humiliated him forever. But, since Hyden has accepted his past actions with such honesty, Love could have fun while rendering them in The Legend of Cocaine Island.
"That’s the great thing about Rodney. He’s always quicker to laugh about himself," Love told Refinery29. "From the very first time I talked to him on the phone, he said, 'Look, man — it’s the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life, but it’s a good story.' He’s one of the most self aware people that I know. he wanted this to be entertaining. It was a blast."
With Hyden's blessing, Love filmed the recreation scenes with an eye for gag comedy. At one point, for example, Love filmed Hyden typing and retyping the word "cocaine" until he got the spelling right. On the third take, Hyden realized they were filming him deliberately mess up — but he went along with the joke.
"You did something that a dumbass would do, so be accountable for it. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I did do that when I was Googling," Hyden said.
With The Legend of Cocaine Island, Hyden got the movie he always knew his saga could become. Now that his business has bounced back and his family is in a good place, Hyden's finally able to appreciate the story's inherent cinematic qualities. That wasn't always the case.
"I think the first time I heard someone say it would make a good movie was when they incarcerated me, and I was waiting for my bond hearing. Someone in jail said, 'Hey man, that would make a great movie,'" Hyden said. "That was the last thing on my mind, right there. All I was focused on was, Will I ever be back with my family again?"
If Hyden ever had an inkling of curiosity about going back to the burial site, making Cocaine Island extinguished that desire. Curiously, Love and his crew were unable to film at precisely the location of the bag. "That’s part of the whole mystery at the end of the movie," Love said. "There are several reasons to believe that it might be out there."
Hyden, for one, doesn't think the bag was ever dug up by the FBI. But that doesn't mean he'll go looking.