Interview – Producer Chris Miller on pushing the limits in ‘Cocaine Bear’

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 producer, and one half of the dynamic filmmaking duo Lord/Miller, Chris Miller (director of The Lego Movie and writer of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse) on how far they could push the limits on screen with Cocaine Bear!

Elizabeth Banks described this as an action/horror/thriller/comedy and it adheres to all of those genres. During the production phase of Cocaine Bear was it ever leaning towards one genre more than the other? Or did you know it was always going to be this amalgamation?

Chris Miller: We got the script from Jimmy Warden, who had been a PA for us on 21 Jump Street, believe it or not, and when you see a script called Cocaine Bear you don’t know if it’s going to be a silly, broad comedy, or a dark, gory horror film. Like, what is this? But the script had this very deft tone that was taking itself seriously, but it was also very funny and real. The deaths were exciting. It had this very unique tone that became a north star for us, really. We wanted to preserve that tone. We never wanted to veer away from it to a parody, silly movie where things were impossible and winking too much at the camera. We wanted to take it seriously and have the bear be real, and we wanted it to work as a gory horror/thriller as well and be a fun time at the movie (laughs), which is a lot to do!

But when we talked with Elizabeth, she totally got the same tone. She has experience sneaking comedy into other genres, and when we worked with her on The Lego Movie, so we knew her, and we helped each other out on things we were both working on. It is really tricky (though), because you think “Well, what if this happened?”, and it’s too broad and too silly, but then it can go the other way where it’s too normal, and you’re thinking that it’s not insane enough for a movie called Cocaine Bear. So I was shifting and navigating to make sure it hit this tone and that everybody was rowing the same direction.

Were you ever interested in directing it yourself?

Chris Miller: (Phil Lord) and I did think it would be fun, but we were so overwhelmed with Spider-Verse and other things going on (that) we couldn’t responsibly take ourselves away. We needed to find a partner who would be able to take ownership and drive it in the way it needed to be done, and Elizabeth really did that. We’re seeing all this wild “cocaine shark” talk out of the recent headlines in New Zealand. Are there any other broad connections that we wouldn’t expect of a substance and an animal that you think you’d want to explore after Cocaine Bear? (Laughs) It would be only amazing if this spawned a series of drug-fuelled animal films. If that happens then this is a total success.

Off the topic of New Zealand, you worked with the Weta digital team there on the bear. How did that come about?

Chris Miller: It was important to both us and Elizabeth that the bear be believable. We wanted to use an effects house that has a lot of experience in making very believable animals in real environments, and really, Weta is the best in the business. They were great partners. We worked with them a lot about making sure we had the design of a bear that felt distinctive and real. That was moving in a way that was anatomical, but could still be a little tweaky and demented (laughs). We did a lot of experiments with how far we could push it. Elizabeth did a lot of footage of bears doing odd things in real life that you can find on YouTube. She compiled them and we had the range of behaviour that a bear actually does for real. So you think the behaviour isn’t what a bear would do, but we have the footage!

On the tone of the film, as mentioned before, with a title like Cocaine Bear, is that proving difficult to release in certain countries? And were there any scenes that you just thought, “The MPAA won’t like this!”…

Chris Miller: Well, we wanted to make sure we weren’t promoting cocaine use. That would be morally irresponsible, and I’ve personally never done cocaine, and I don’t plan on doing it (laughs), but we took pains to make sure we weren’t portraying cocaine in a positive light. The real bad guy of the movie is the drug dealer. The bear is the unfortunate recipient (laughs) of the drug dealer’s badness. That’s why, unlike some other terror animal movies where they kill the animal at the end, this is one where the animal wins and the real villain dies. It was important to us to not be like, “Hey, cocaine is fun, kids! Get involved! It’ll make you powerful like Popeye!”

The part that I thought was going to be a problem, and it made the most people nervous, is the two kids trying cocaine (laughs). They clearly don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re so innocent and afraid of each other. It’s very funny and very outrageous. It feels naughty. The studio thought about ageing them up, and then it just wouldn’t work if they were teenagers. They’d be too savvy. They have to be innocent and I and not know how it all works. That was the only time I was a little nervous about not getting away with it.

Yourself and Phil are really great at executing extremely heightened material and making that entertaining. I don’t think there are a lot of filmmakers taking the same risks that you are. What is it about, for lack of a better word, “extreme cinema” that excites you to make films of that tone and atmosphere?

Chris Miller: We’re somewhat masochistic, I think. If it’s not something that hasn’t been done before or something that’s putting something new in society or the marketplace, it’s not very interesting to us. If it’s a good movie, or a normal movie, you think “Okay, that’s great”, but unless it’s hard or pushing the envelope in some way then it’s not very appealing to us. We’ve learned to embrace that.

The truth is audiences want originality. They don’t want things they feel they have seen a hundred times before, or something that feels as if it’s come from a corporate mandate. This film was certainly not a corporate mandate, I can tell you (laughs). We love movies that make us feel as if we can’t believe we got away with it. This is certainly one of those films. We’re shocked. We’re like, “You’ll really let us call it Cocaine Bear, right?” (This film) won’t work if it’s called “Bear in the Woods”, or something. It has to be as bold as the movie wants it to be. To poke through the market today your film has to be well-made, but also innovative and interesting.

A lot of the films I have enjoyed this last year have been, what I called, “try hard” movies, where they really go for it. Like Everything Everywhere All At Once. That’s a movie that’s going for it. I really appreciate filmmakers that are trying something new and not being lazy. They go to an extreme, like you say.

Speaking of making things more than they should be, I can’t go past the ambulance scene in Cocaine Bear… It’s my favourite scene of the movie. Was that something that escalated whilst filming? Or it was always in the script?

Chris Miller: A lot of it was in the script, but Elizabeth really worked that scene. We had a storyboard and we pre-visualised that scene to really make sure we had the rhythm of it. Horror is all about tension and rhythm and release, and for a big set-piece like that you’re just building and building, and then this happens and this happens, and eventually you’re like, “Oh my god, look at his hand! Look at her face!” (and) it builds to a huge crescendo. (Elizabeth) really did a great job of making it into a symphony of comedy and horror that is, by far, my favourite scene of the whole film.

Thank you to Chris Miller for his time, and to Universal Pictures for organising our 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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