With the poster for Elizabeth Banks’ new movie causing bear-sized ripples across the Internet earlier this week (partly because it made the titular creature look like he was in a leftover promo image from Robert Rodriguez’ ‘Sin City’ movie universe, now comes the first footage of the film via the trailer. And what a wild ride ‘Cocaine Bear’ promises to be.
The jumping off (or should that be jumping out, for reasons that will become clear shortly) point is an already unlikely––yet true––story. In 1985, a drug runner named Andrew C. Thornton, who had spun his years in drug enforcement and then as a paratrooper into this new career, flew to Colombia for a regular shipment of cocaine.
His usual MO was to drop the drugs in a spot in the States and then bail out, parachuting safely to the ground while the plane ditched in the Atlantic ocean. This time, though, it went badly wrong: Thornton plummeted, dying on impact in some poor person’s driveway while his payload found its way to the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, on a mountain called Blood Mountain.
There, a black bear got into the drugs haul and, after a predictable reaction, died. Banks’ movie picks up what could have happened in the 24 hours before the poor creature expired. The result? A blend of comedy, horror and thriller as various characters, from a drug kingpin (the late Ray Liotta) to a family (including Keri Russell, Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery) encountering the bear that the production nicknamed “Cokie”. Things tale a predictably intense, gory turn from there.
With a cast that also includes Margo Martindale, Kristofer Hivju, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Kahyun Kim, Shane Connellan and J.B. Moore, the movie promises to be a step beyond your average comedy thriller.
Moviefone had the chance to catch an early look at the trailer and an extended clip of the movie with Banks in attendance, the director talking up both her reasons for wanting to make it, her intent with the tone and her inspirations.
Originally written by ‘The Babysitter’s Jimmy Warden, who was convinced after reading an article on the story (this one, in fact) that a take on the tale could be funny (and was encouraged by fellow screenwriter Brian Duffield, who is a producer here, alongside comedy veterans Phil Lord and Chris Miller), the script found its way into Banks’ hands.
“My movies have mostly been about underdogs,” says the actor-turned-director who has so far made the likes of ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and 2019’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’, “and no matter who you are, if you meet a bear that is high on cocaine, you’re the underdog in that situation. That presented a lot of opportunity for comedy.”
Citing Sam Raimi and John Carpenter as her primary inspirations given their expertise in weaving together horror, comedy and character, Banks was committed to doing as much of the film in camera as possible, commenting that she didn’t want to be working in a “green box” for three months.
But the one main element that had to be created digitally? The bear, of course, as no real bears were present on set. “Cokie” was physically acted by Allan Henry, a veteran of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies who got extra education in his art by Andy Serkis. “Allan knew how to walk as a quadruped, which requires special prosthetics and looks like it’s backbreaking. And he also had to throw people around.”
With the reference footage of Henry on set in the can, Weta Digital stepped in to bring the animal to virtual life. “The bear was as photorealistic, Nat Geo documentary style as we could make it, but when it got into the cocaine, that was the little magic sprinkle dust we could but on it and get away with a couple of things,” says Banks. “But nearly everything that you see, all the behavior is based on a reference from real bears. I’ll let you in on a secret, though, some of the references are sun bears and not black bears. Sun bears have the most facial expressions and are the happiest seeming bears!”
Another big touchstone for the director? Steven Spielberg’s work in the likes of ‘Jaws’ and, particularly, ‘Jurassic Park.’ “Those were films that I referenced when I talked about making this movie early on,” explains Banks. “When you see a bear across a field, you don’t immediately think to run away, you think they look cuddly. Spielberg did such a good job of taking that sense of wonder and awe at seeing something and then turning it into horror that it could eat you. That was the feeling that I wanted to get out of the audience with this movie.”
And yet there was also the sense of wanting to show respect to the real-life bear, who after all was simply a victim in a scheme driven by the increasingly dubious “war on drugs” of the 1980s. Growing up in the era, Banks was all too aware of the D.A.R.E. program, and catchphrases such as “crack is wack”, and looked to offer some social commentary in the film buried under all the running, screaming and bear action. “It was really upsetting to me that this bear was collateral damage in the ‘war’,” she says. “I wanted to show the bear’s revenge story.”
As for the clip, we were treated to an extended version of the scene glimpsed in a couple of moments in the trailer, where emergency medical personnel show up to a ranger station that has been ravaged by the bear––with the animal still inside. What follows is pure chaos, culminating in a bear-on-ambulance chase and Margo Martindale’s injured ranger swearing up a storm.
Banks sees this as a mini ‘Fast & Furious’ scene, albeit one with a twist. “One car is a bear, and the other is an ambulance being driven by an idiot.” If that’s not enough to get you to see the movie, we don’t know what is.
‘Cocaine Bear’ will be bounding into theaters on February 24th.