Interview: Elizabeth Banks on taming the chaos and relinquishing control of 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 that 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.

Overseeing the blackly comic carnage of it all is Elizabeth Banks, the actress-turned-director handing over the acapella notes of the Pitch Perfect series and the badass femininity of Charlie’s Angels for, undoubtedly, her greatest challenge as a filmmaker to date.  Talking with our own Peter Gray (again) ahead of the film’s global release, Elizabeth touched on pitching the sensibility of this wild story, the unexpected challenges that came with international locations, and toeing the line of realism when depicting what exactly a bear would do if high on cocaine.

Hi Elizabeth.  I spoke to you when the trailer dropped, and you did not disappoint in leaning all the way in on this film.  I understand that the script writer, Jimmy Warden, was a PA on 21 Jump Street, where he worked with this film’s producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  Apart from the fact that Cocaine Bear is just an awesome title, did it make it easier in saying yes knowing Phil and Chris in some ways endorsed Jimmy in some way?

Jimmy wrote a great script.  He didn’t write it with Phil and Chris, he wrote it on his own (laughs).  I love Phil and Chris, and I was super excited to collaborate with them because we have a similar sensibility.  We make comedies that are very….the same kinds of things make us laugh.  I’ve made two Lego movies with them, so I exactly knew their sensibility.  I knew that they would be great at pitching jokes and scenarios.  And I knew that we would challenge each other to just keep making it funnier and better.  That’s what I was excited about.  When it came to working with Phil and Chris, the script was amazing on its own.  Then Jimmy and I worked incredibly well together.  He was very facile.  He was very sweet.  Anything I suggested he was open to trying it.  He would try anything.  We had a great time kind of pulling this thing together.  There were aspects that I needed to movie around.  I wanted to pull certain threads through.  He totally got it and was really helpful.

I’ve read your comments on how Hollywood is still dragging its feet in terms of handing bigger budgeted films over to women.  I love the fact that you’ve taken this on and not shied away at all in terms of its tone, which is very transgressive in places – especially with the gore.  What was the appeal of taking this on board for you? And what did you want to achieve?

Well, thank you for that.  I really did love (that) with horror, or whatever horrible, terrifying thing is in the middle of (the story) it should always represent some real thing that you’re afraid of in life.  I read this script during the chaos of the pandemic, and the trauma of all of that, and I kept thinking, “Wow, there’s no better metaphor for the chaos surrounding my life than this bear that’s high on cocaine.”  Making this movie was almost like a way to tame that chaos a little bit, you know? And have a sort of cathartic communal experience or collaboration with a bunch of my friends in the woods, and just go like, “Woo! We can get through this together!”

I was really afraid of it (though).   I’ve never made a film where the lead character, the titular character, is never going to be on set.  I can’t control that at all.  There’s many aspects of filmmaking that I feel very confident about, but I cannot computer generate an animated bear (laughs). That’s not in my skill set.  I had to rely on Weta (Digital Workshop).  My partners.  I had to rely on Universal for the right resources, and the right support.  And I’m so happy that it all worked out.  It was a scary endeavour to just give up a lot of control here at the beginning in order to put these pieces together, and then take back a little bit of that control at the end.  It came together beautifully.  It was something that felt chaotic in the beginning until I really settled into the checklists of the daily work that was putting this movie together.

Was not having that control of the bear being there the most difficult practice on screen?

I’m a producer on this movie, as well as the director, and anytime you make a movie it’s all problem solving.  Every day is problem solving.  There’s always some logistical thing that you can’t predict.  Usually we think that’s going to be, like, the weather, and you have kind of back-up plans for those things.  I could not have predicted that on the island of Ireland, where we made this movie that’s supposed to be set in 1985 America, that they would not have any vintage cars that would work for our movie, because they drive on the other side of the road.  Every steering wheel was on the wrong side.  They had no ambulances that looked like our ambulances.  We have a major set-piece in this movie that required an ambulance, and getting that ambulance took more effort, time and money than I ever could have anticipated.  So, if we’re really being honest, the biggest challenge of the movie wasn’t the bear, because Weta handled that.  It was getting a god-dang ambulance to Dulski, Ireland (laughs).

Given that this movie is based on a true story, was there any talks with scientists or professionals to vet how cocaine could impact a real bear?  Was there research or was it all imagination and creative liberty?

Well, the fact of the matter is that nobody quite knows how a bear would react on cocaine in real life.  We have the necropsy report, the autopsy report from the bear, Pablo Eskibear, who died, and in that case that bear (overdosed) on nearly 70 pounds of cocaine.  Every function inside the bear collapsed.  What we did instead was we looked at hundreds of hours of real live bear behaviour.  Bear videos, bears doing weird things…thanks to the internet you can find a bear doing just about anything.  We’ve treated that cocaine like a special sauce.  We’ve sort of said, “Look, that’s going to be the bear’s superpower.”  It allows us to stretch the truth of the behaviour just enough so that the audience feels like this bear is little bit like a superhero.  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.  We’d ask how far close is it? How far is it? What can we get away with?  Should the eye twitch more? Frankly, when we attempted to give the bear more, for lack of a better word, tweaking on cocaine behaviour, it felt too animated.  It didn’t feel real.  It felt like we were just adding human behaviour to the bear.  So, we actually ended up pulling a lot of that back out of the movie.  At a certain point it was stretching reality for us too much.

I’ll geek out about the soundtrack, just a little bit.  Hearing “Jane” (by Jefferson Starship) at the beginning of this film, and having that connection to Wet Hot American Summer, was there any influence for you with this soundtrack? I’m not too sure about how a director chooses music for their movie, so could you expand on compiling music for Cocaine Bear?

I have a great music team that I’ve been using since the very first Pitch Perfect, so I rely on them a lot.  When I read the script, the young girl in the movie, she’s 12-years-old in 1985, and I was a 12-year-old-girl in 1985, so I was obsessed with Madonna and Depeche Mode, and all of that.  All the songs in the movie were songs from my childhood.  I had one rule (though), which was you could not put a song in the movie that had not been released by September 11th, 1985, because that’s the day this movie takes place.  So we really looked for what songs were on the radio (and) what people were listening to in the summer of 1985.  That was what influenced a lot of it.  Here’s the thing with “Jane”.  David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer director) picked a perfect opening song for (that movie).  When I was cutting the opening of (Cocaine Bear) we tried several songs, and I just tried “Jane” and, god-dang it, it was such a good idea (that) I just had to use it.  I called David up and I said, “Listen, I’m going to steal this and put it in the opening.  It’s an homage.  I hope it’s okay?”, and he said, “Please.  It’s not my song.  Go for it!”  It captures that time period of the early 80’s so beautifully.  It drops you right into it.  It’s a banger.  It gets the audience ready to go!  I also believe that’s the song a character like Andrew Thornton would have been listening to when he was throwing cocaine out of the plane.

Cocaine Bear is screening in Australian theatres from February 23rd, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.