Interview – ‘Cocaine Bear’ director Elizabeth Banks on making a movie where the titular character isn’t on set

Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine, and the black bear that ate it, Cocaine Bear is a wild dark comedy finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest where a 500-pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood.

With Cocaine Bear releasing in Australian cinemas on February 23, the amazing team at Universal Pictures gave me the chance to chat with the films director, Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3, Charlie’s Angels) about filming a movie where your main character is never on set, and compiling a banger 80s soundtrack that transports the audience into the movie!

Nick: I hope you don’t mind, but I want to geek out about the soundtrack of Cocaine Bear! I’m a huge Wet Hot American Summer fan, so when I heard ‘Jane’ opening this film and paired with that hilarious opening scene, I knew we were in for a soundtrack of bangers. How did you compilate the songs for this movie?

Elizabeth Banks: I have a great music team that I’ve been using since the very first Pitch Perfect! I rely on them a lot. When I read this script, the young girl in the movie is 12-year-old in 1985. And I was a 12-year-old girl in 1985! I was obsessed with Madonna, Depeche Mode and all of that. All the songs in the movie were songs from my childhood. The soundtrack to my childhood.

I had one rule, which was that you could not put a song in the movie that hadn’t been released before September 11, 1985, because that’s the day the movie takes place. So, we really looked into what was playing on the radio around that time, and what people were listening to in 1985.

And with ‘Jane’, here’s the thing – David Wain [director of Wet Hot American Summer] picked a perfect opening song for Wet Hot American Summer. And when I cut the opening of the movie, I tried several songs. But I just tried ‘Jane’ and I was like: “God-dang-it”. It was such a good fit. I just have to use it. So, I called up Dave and I’m gonna steal this for the opening, it’s a homage and I hope it’s okay. And he said: “It’s not my song! Go for it!”

But it totally captures that time period of the early 80s so beautifully. It drops you right into it. And it is a banger! It gets the audience ready to go. I also believed that it’s a song that Andrew Thornton would have been listening to while he was throwing cocaine out of the place!

Chris Miller mentioned that the screenwriter, Jimmy Warden, was a PA on 21 Jump Street and had worked with Phil [Lord] and Chris before. So, apart from the fact that title is amazing, did it make it easier to say yes to this project knowing that Chris endorsed Jimmy in some way?

Elizabeth Banks: Jimmy wrote a great script. He didn’t write it with Phil or Chris. He wrote it on his own. I love Phil and Chris, and I was super excited to collaborate with them because we have a similar sensibility with comedies. The same kinds of things make us all laugh.

I knew them [Lord and Miller] from the two Lego Movie’s, and I knew we would all be pitching great jokes and scenarios. That we would challenge each other to keep making it funnier, and to be better. That is what I was really excited about.

The script was amazing on its own, and Jimmy and I worked incredibly well together. He was very sweet. Anything I suggested, he was willing to try that, and we had a great time pulling this thing together. I loved certain aspects, but I wanted to movie things around and he totally got it and was really helpful!

With this story being inspired by true events, what kind of research went into how you wanted to portray a bear on cocaine, on screen?

Elizabeth Banks: Well, the fact of the matter is that nobody quite knows how a bear would react on cocaine in real life. We have the autopsy report from the bear, Pablo Eskobear, who died of an overdoes on nearly 70 pounds of cocaine. Every function inside the bear just collapsed!

So, what we did instead was look at hundreds of hours of real-life bear behaviour, bear videos and bears doing weird things. You know, thanks to the internet, you can find a bear doing pretty much anything. And we treated the cocaine like a special sauce that was going to be the superpower for the bear to allow us to stretch the truth of the behaviours enough that the audience feel like this bear is a superhero. But 90% of what’s in the movie is based on real bear behaviour. We would literally look at a video and then we would animate the bear and compare how close it looked. We attempted to give the bear a more ‘tweaking’ look, and it felt too animated. It didn’t feel real. We were adding too much human behaviour, so we ended up pulling a lot of that back, out of the movie.

I love the fact that you’ve taken this concept and not shied away at all in terms of tone – especially with the gore! What was the initial appeal in taking this on board?

Elizabeth Banks: I think the horror, or the terrifying thing, should always represent some real thing that you’re afraid of in real life. I read this script during the chaos of the pandemic, and I thought there was no better metaphor for the chaos surrounding my life than a bear on cocaine. And making this movie was almost a way to tame the chaos a little bit, and have a cathartic communal experience of collaboration with a bunch of my friends in the woods.

I also have never made a movie where the titular character is never going to be on set. I can’t control that aspect at all. And there are many aspects of filmmaking that I am confident about, but I can’t computer generate an animated bear. That’s not in my skillset. I had to rely on WETA. I had to rely on Universal for the right resources. And I’m so happy it all worked out. But it was a scary endeavour. It was something that felt chaotic in the beginning, until I really settled into the checklists of the daily working that was putting this movie together.

A big thank you to Elizabeth Banks for her time, and to Universal Pictures for giving us the chance to chat! Cocaine Bear is in cinemas February 23.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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