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On September 11, 1985, a former police officer-turned-drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton II dropped himself and around 75 pounds of cocaine out of his private plane over the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia. But something went wrong: Thornton—who might have hit his head on the way out the door—was found dead in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, his parachute not opening in time, while his plane crashed around 60 miles away.
As for the cocaine, Thornton’s crew on the ground never retrieved it, but two months later, a hunter in the Chattahoochee Forest found a dead 175-pound black bear surrounded by opened packages of what appeared to be Thornton’s coke. Its stomach was full of white powder. The bear had apparently ingested the cocaine (exactly how much is not clear) and died of an overdose.
Nearly 40 years later, this bizarre story forms the basis of Cocaine Bear, a new movie directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and the late Ray Liotta. Written by Jimmy Warden and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie), the horror comedy asks a simple question: what if the bear lived, jacked up on that coke, and washed it down with the blood of the befuddled humans unlucky enough to cross its path?
“I got sent a great script,” says Banks when we ask how she followed up the musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2 and the action-adventure Charlie’s Angels with a grisly horror farce for her third turn behind the camera. “I read Jimmy’s script, which was sent to me by my agent. I think they were potentially developing a take with somebody else, but Lord and Miller were about to start their new deal at Universal, where my company is also based. So after I read this, I sent a missive out like, ‘I’d be interested in producing this together if you guys want to join forces.’”
Saying that she loved the “fresh and bold” script, Banks also jokingly argues that Cocaine Bear isn’t too far afield from her previous directorial efforts. “Honestly, I think I kind of make the same movie every time,” she says with a laugh, “just in a different genre. I love comedy. I really like making people laugh and entertaining people… so I made a comedy inside a musical, I made a comedy inside a little action movie, and I made a comedy inside of a horror film.”
After Thornton’s disastrous jump and the bear’s unfortunate meal, the movie takes its wild turn into pure fiction, following a mom (Russell) searching for her troublemaking daughter in the woods; a cranky park ranger (Martindale) who doesn’t want to be disturbed; a good but overmatched cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on the hunt for the coke; and the hapless drug crew (Ehrenreich and Jackson) dispatched by their boss (Liotta) to recover their valuable stash. All soon find themselves at the mercy of an extremely coked-up predator on a rampage, who dispatches a lot of cast members in surprisingly gruesome ways.
“When it’s something fun and comedic, my line’s far away,” says Banks about where she draws the line regarding on-screen gore, which is quite plentiful in Cocaine Bear. “I enjoy a lot of things. I like over-the-top, operatic gore. For me, the references are more Quentin Tarantino than Saw… Watching somebody’s arm break slowly is not interesting to me. I like it done fast and furiously with a lot of blood, basically. Somebody pulling their fingernail off, that kills me.”
She’s got plenty of opportunities to knock people off in Cocaine Bear, with legs ripped off, digestive systems excavated, heads blown apart, and skin shredded to bits. Even though a number of them are killed, Banks notes that she enjoys making movies with large casts of characters and multiple points of view—“I’ve actually, as a director, not attempted a single-POV movie”—and cites films like The Breakfast Club and even Star Wars as the kind of great ensemble films she enjoys.
“I like giving the audience a lot of surrogates in the movie,” she explains about her own predilection for stories with multiple protagonists. “I want people to be able to feel like, ‘Oh, I can see myself in this movie, or I relate to that character in that movie.’ That’s part of the agreement that I’m trying to make as a director with the audience: ‘Come along for this really fun ride. You will laugh, and there’ll be some character, hopefully, that you think is interesting or representative of you.’”
The film is also graced by the presence of the late Ray Liotta, with Cocaine Bear one of a handful of projects that the iconic Goodfellas star completed before his untimely death in May 2022 (the movie is dedicated to him).
“Ray and I had worked together before in a little movie called The Details a long time ago, and he impressed me so much on that set, so I called him up,” Banks recalls. “He was just so game. That’s the thing I want people to take away from this. He knew what the movie was; he wasn’t coming into it like, ‘I’m gonna be in super serious mode,’ you know, he came to have fun.” She adds, “He gave very generously the entire time. He never blinked at anything I asked him to do. He was like, ‘Okay, let’s go, Banks.’ He just did it. I’m so grateful for the positive vibe that he brought every day.”
One actor who does not appear in the movie is Banks herself, who did show up in both Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels but elected to stay on the other side of the camera this time around.
“First of all, I’ve never done anything where the lead character is not in the movie,” she says with another chuckle, referring to the title beast itself, a wholly CG creation. “This was a pretty big endeavor and a great learning curve for me on the CGI stuff. I worked with Weta Digital on Cokie—as we affectionately referred to our bear—for two years and 17 days or something like that, beginning to end. There was so much going on, and it was Covid; everyone was in masks, and I just felt like there was enough for me to do in this movie.”
Banks adds that one of her main jobs was finding the right tone for the movie—which stirs together all those less-than-savvy (and often unsavory) characters, a string of outrageous jokes, and some genuinely macabre moments—which was inherent in the material itself.
“Look, I read a script called Cocaine Bear,” she explains, laughing again. “I was like, ‘Let’s not take it too seriously’… the idea here was really, let’s imagine what could have happened if real people came across a bear in the wild that they didn’t know was on cocaine. I love making underdog stories. And I feel like no matter who you are, no matter what gun you’re carrying, if you encounter a bear that you don’t know is high on cocaine, you’re an underdog. You’re not going to win.”
Cocaine Bear opens in theaters on Feb. 24.