‘Could he do a rail off a severed leg?’: Blood, fur, 12-year-olds on gear and the making of Cocaine Bear

‘People are relying on intellectual property and sequels these days. But they were crazy enough to go along with it,’ says producer Chris Miller  (Universal Pictures/iStock)
‘People are relying on intellectual property and sequels these days. But they were crazy enough to go along with it,’ says producer Chris Miller (Universal Pictures/iStock)

Forget Leonardo DiCaprio crawling on all fours in The Wolf of Wall Street; the funniest portrayal of drugs on film is an American black bear throwing famed character actor Margo Martindale from an out-of-control ambulance before hoovering up a mountain of blow. Within the space of a week, Elizabeth Banks’s comedy horror film Cocaine Bear has rampaged, gakked-up and bug-eyed, into the annals of drug-movie classics. And, if we’re being frank, it’s mostly because of the film’s title.

“We were definitely expecting a lot of resistance to the title,” says producer Chris Miller, who with his partner Phil Lord has helped shepherd into cinemas high-concept features such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Lego Movie for more than a decade. “We were expecting a call at some point telling us that we couldn’t actually call it Cocaine Bear – it’d have to be ‘The Bear in the Woods’ or something like that.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? But the call never came. Instead, the film’s backers at Universal Pictures were all-in. “They’re one of the few studios out there making risky, bold movies based on original concepts,” Miller continues. “People are relying on intellectual property and sequels these days. But they were crazy enough to go along with it. Shockingly, it’s been easier than you’d expect.”

Cocaine Bear gets her moniker after huffing multiple bags of gear dumped from a plane by a prolific dealer, sending her on a woodland rampage. Keri Russell’s single mum, Ray Liotta’s drug runner and Alden Ehrenreich’s heartsick henchman are among the humans who get caught in the crossfire. The movie is (if you squint) grounded in truth. It’s a tale passed down through generations of stoners: “Guys, you want to hear something nuts?”

In 1985, drug smuggler Andrew C Thornton II was flying a small plane over the Tennessee wilderness and tossing out of it his latest stock, with the intention of leaping out of the plane with a parachute and picking up the drugs later. In a Homer Simpson-esque turn of events, the plan went awry. Thornton’s parachute failed to open, killing him instantly and leaving the drugs to be found by any lucky so-and-so eager to turn their Springwatch fantasy into an all-you-can-snort buffet. A passing bear – who’d go on to be nicknamed “Pablo Escobear” and become so locally famous that he’d be taxidermied and put on display in a Kentucky shopping centre – went to town on it. In total, the whole sesh lasted around 20 minutes before poor Cocaine Bear’s heart packed in.

“After doing a lot of research,” Cocaine Bear’s screenwriter Jimmy Warden tells me, “I knew I wanted to pick up the story as the bear does the cocaine. Andrew C Thornton running drugs for Pablo Escobar – all of that stuff was interesting, but not the movie I wanted to write. When you’re hit with two words like ‘Cocaine Bear’, you know you need to write about them.” And he couldn’t OD early, either. “That wouldn’t be a very exciting movie at all.”

Warden also made his Cocaine Bear female and an animal eager to reunite with her cubs – a plot twist that allows for far greater empathy than your average “bear attack” movie. “I took a page out of King Kong,” he says. “If you treat it like a monster movie in the first act but then in the second act reorient everybody to ask, ‘Who is the true bad guy here?’, you won’t lose the audience. [Because] I wanted to give the bear a redemption story. What happened to the bear in real life is quite tragic. It’s not the bear’s fault that drugs fell out of the sky into its den and that it ate kilos and kilos of cocaine.”

Warden had worked as a set assistant on Lord and Miller’s 21 Jump Street reboot and brought his script to them in 2019. There was a certain degree of “fledgling screenwriter prodigy” calculation to the process, both with the script’s attention-grabbing title and what was initially its opening scene: two precocious 12-year-olds in the woods stumbling upon the downed drugs and eating piles of cocaine with spoons. “I knew that if you could [accept] those first five pages, you’d be set and along for the ride,” Warden says. “I thought that if you read that scene and realised that the kids are actually very sweet in it – you’d be like, ‘This isn’t exactly what I thought a movie called Cocaine Bear was going to be’.” Much like the title, this particular scene remains intact in the finished product, if about 20 minutes later into the film than Warden had initially written.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Banks on the set of ‘Cocaine Bear’ (Universal Pictures)
Filmmaker Elizabeth Banks on the set of ‘Cocaine Bear’ (Universal Pictures)

Lord and Miller approached Banks, who’d worked with them on The Lego Movie and previously directed Pitch Perfect 2 and the Kristen Stewart Charlie’s Angels reboot. She sparked to the idea and got to work. “She didn’t want [the bear] to be cartoony but to always seem like a threat,” Lord recalls. “Elizabeth went through reams of YouTube videos of bears doing weird things in the wild. But then there were days when we’d say, you know, ‘Could he do a rail off a severed leg?’” Having an actual bear on set, though, was always out of the question. “Like 99 per cent of the time, wild animals on set are safe and there are no problems. It’s that 1 per cent of the time, though, that you have to worry about. It’s honestly a practice that’s going out of style – it’s just not really safe enough, and not good for wild animals to be in captivity that way.” Plus: “Star of doomed Han Solo movie mauled to death by bear on film set” would be a bit of a buzzkill, promotion-wise.

It was during the launch of the film’s trailer last November that Lord and Miller realised they had a hit on their hands. “Only then did we become confident that the world was going to understand the tone we were going for,” Miller remembers. “The tone was the trickiest part of this thing because if it’s too silly and broad and feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch, it can’t sustain a whole movie. But if it’s too dark and gritty, it’s not gonna feel like the fun time at the movies that we were going for. But Liz was really smart about knowing where to draw the line.”

Reviews may have been mixed overall. “Bloody, dark and surprisingly endearing,” went The Independent. “A Class A disappointment,” went The Telegraph. The film has been a smash at the box office, though, earning back its $35m (£29m) budget in less than a week. So... sequel? “I would be lying if I said we don’t have a plan,” Lord teases. “We always like to plan for the future.” Warden is also game. “The people of Twitter have been pitching different animals doing all sorts of drugs,” he laughs. “PCP Pigs. Cocaine Shark... But if people are on board with it, then hell, I’ll write it.”

‘Cocaine Bear’ is in cinemas