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Thank Leprechaun and Puppet Master for Cocaine Bear

Photo: Universal Pictures

Cocaine Bear screenwriter Jimmy Warden never thought his script would actually make it to the big screen. He based it on a real-life premise (a bear getting into a duffel bag of cocaine dropped in the woods), but while the actual animal died not long after his binge, Warden’s story imagines what might happen if the titular bear were to not just survive, but embark on what Bilge Ebiri describes as “a savage, indestructible, coke-fueled rampage through the Georgia woods.

On this week’s episode of Into It, he describes the surprise in hearing that his movie had, in fact, been green-lit, as well as the process of writing comedy-horror rooted in absurdity and working with director Elizabeth Banks. Read an excerpt of that conversation below, and listen to the full episode of Into It — which includes a segment of Into It/Not Into It about Warden’s favorite pop-culture bears — wherever you get your podcasts.

I hear you found the Cocaine Bear story on Twitter.
I was a couple decades late to the party, but I found it on Twitter, and then I went down a rabbit hole where I couldn’t stop clicking links. I found this story on Andrew Carter Thornton, who was a drug runner, and he was dropping duffle bags of cocaine into the Chattahoochee National Forest for his partners in crime to pick up, and a black bear got into it. I thought, Wow, that is an insane premise for a movie. So I wrote it.

In real life, the bear ingested the cocaine and died not long after, right?
Yeah. It’s kind of a bummer. I don’t know that much, but I do know as a screenwriter that a bear dying three minutes into the movie would make for a very short movie. And also a bummer. I thought we could tell the truth of the inciting incident, which is interesting in itself. The actual true story I figured I would leave up to true-crime documentaries and podcasts. The story that intrigued me was how this bear ended up doing all this cocaine, and I left the rest up to my imagination.

The first decision I made was: I want the bear to live. Liz [Banks] always talks about the redemptive aspects of this story. At a certain point, you’re rooting for the bear, and we gave it the story that I’m not sure the other people in the movie deserved, but it’s maybe what the bear deserved.

Photo: Araya Doheny/FilmMagic

What was the hardest sell: Getting someone to green-light a film with this premise, or getting a studio to actually let you call it Cocaine Bear?
Surprisingly, neither were that tough of a sell.

Oh, really?
Yeah, I wrote the script thinking it was never going to be something that got made, so that freed me up creatively to do whatever the hell I wanted. But with a title like that and a concept like this, I was definitely surprised at how people just accepted it with open arms. I wrote the script. I passed it to a friend of mine who’s a producer on the movie — Brian Duffield. He gave it to the good people at Lord Miller, the production company, and it felt like they walked it into the studio and then it was sold within a couple weeks.

Did that surprise you?
It still surprises me.

What do you think that says about the state of the industry?
Universal is hungry for original IP. They did M3GAN and they also just did Violent Night. They take swings, man. It’s pretty awesome to see. You hear everybody complain and lament about the state of the industry, how it’s just sequels and franchises and IPs. You wouldn’t know that when you talk to Universal. They’re just like, Give me original stuff and we’ll put our weight behind it. That’s what happened with Cocaine Bear.

All those films — M3GAN, Violent Night, Cocaine Bear — lean into the absurdity of their premise, and that’s the point. They’re exactly what they set out to be. They’re not asking me to know origin stories; they aren’t asking me to apply a greater sense of meaning on top of the plot. They’re just good romps that are a little absurd, a little out there, kind of crazy, and it works. I want more of it. Let your movie be what it needs to be and nothing more.
I mean, amen. The thing that’s proven over the last couple months is that people want to laugh and be entertained and maybe not take everything so seriously. Especially after the past few years we’ve all had. That was an objective of mine right from the onset. I took a dumb premise very seriously in writing the script, and Liz did too. It’s definitely saying something about where we are right now that people are actually going out to the theaters just to laugh their butts off, not think that much about anything, maybe escape a little bit and have some fun.

What was the biggest inspiration for Cocaine Bear the movie? What was your Cocaine Bear before Cocaine Bear?
I’ve always loved gore and violence on film. I watched a lot of movies probably way too young. So movies like Leprechaun, Puppet Master, that are just gory movies. And I also, when I was a kid, I used to watch this show called Rescue 911, which used to just scare the absolute shit out of me.

I like taking those types of things and blending them with comedy. There’s gross-out horror where someone covers their eyes. And then there’s that horror or gore that just gives you a sinking feeling in your stomach where you just feel sick. Those movies cross the line to such an extent that it’s just way over the top, like Cocaine Bear. And I love that Liz kept that in from the script and even heightened it herself. She was like, “We have to cross the line. How can we continue to outdo ourselves?” Because at a certain point it comes full circle where it becomes funny again.

Oh, totally.
Straddling that tonal line is something that she did such a great job of. Those weird older movies, horror movies, were definitely an inspiration to me growing up. I know that’s not the smartest answer to give. Leprechaun and Puppet Master. But obviously when thinking about this movie we were like, Okay, there’s a lot of Sam Raimi in this. There’s a Spielberg nature to the kids and the premises and ensemble, so it gives you a lot of wiggle room to make distinct characters and have some fun. Because when you set up those characters early on and they’re going through their own thing, when they’re confronted with the bear, it just makes it that much funnier.

I want to hear about that working relationship with Elizabeth Banks. I’m intrigued by her as a director. She keeps shooting for the rafters and winning. What was that relationship like?
She only heightened it. She came in after we set it up at Universal, but from our first phone call, we were on the same exact page about where the comedy wanted to be, about toeing that tonal line just between comedy and gore and the thriller aspects of it all. We were right in line with each other from the very beginning. This movie was not by any means a slam dunk. It’s not like you could have just plugged anyone in there and the movie would’ve been a giant hit. It needed the type of leadership that she provided.

Liz Banks walks in the room, everybody just shuts up and listens. And then it turns out that she’s extremely collaborative and fun to work with, and she’s so good with actors because she’s an actor herself. It was a blast. I mean, she did such a good job. This movie could have been an absolute disaster.

Was there anything cut from the movie that you wish had stayed in, or anything that you were surprised they let stay in the final cut?
I mean, again, I’m surprised that there was even a final cut. In terms of the scenes that were cut, in the original draft there was a lot more character exposition and backstory. But when you throw actors up there and they’re saying their lines, you forget how much you can learn about a character just by being with them. So there was a lot of extra stuff in terms of setup and backstory and exposition that it turned out that we didn’t meet need. I wasn’t disappointed that a lot of that ended up on the cutting-room floor.

I’m definitely surprised that the scene where two 12-year-olds are doing cocaine in the woods is still in the film. I love that. It’s digestible partially because they’re so innocent. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not bad kids. And Brooklynn [Prince] and Christian [Convery] knock my socks off in terms of their performance. They completely understood the assignment, and given the adult nature of this film, they were all over it. They understood everything, including the comedy most importantly. I don’t know if people are angry about that scene. I have stayed away from those Reddit boards.

Photo: Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

Talking about people who understood the assignment, you know who understood the assignment for your movie? One Margo Martindale.
Oh my God.

She was spectacular the whole way, and she committed to the bit. I kept saying, “They’re not going to do that to Margo Martindale, are they?” Then y’all did it. Then I’d be like, “They’re not going to do that to Margo Martindale, are they?” Then y’all did it. Was she down to clown from the start, or was there some convincing having to be done?
A hundred percent down to clown. I couldn’t have been more excited and surprised that she was so game for everything we threw at her. And she is the nicest human being in the world. She had so much fun. She was the captain of the crew. We were staying in a little town called Dalkey that’s outside of Dublin where we were shooting the movie, and she was the mayor of that town.

Ireland? Y’all shot Cocaine Bear in Ireland?
I know. It takes place in Georgia, and a lot of movies are shot in Georgia, but for some reason we didn’t. But it’s lucky that we didn’t, because we got to spend time in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

If you couldn’t have called Cocaine Bear Cocaine Bear, what would you have called this movie?
That’s funny. I never had any alt titles. I probably should have been prepared for somebody along the way to be, “I think that in order to open this movie, we got to call it something else.” But nobody ever really took that seriously. We were crossing our fingers that maybe nobody would notice we were calling it Cocaine Bear. Just keep walking, don’t look back — it was that kind of energy among the entire producer pool. That’s the most fun way to make a movie, too. It’s like you’re getting away with something.

Go big or go home.
Weirdly, the mountain that the coke fell onto was called Blood Mountain. I actually considered changing the name of that because I thought it was just stranger than fiction — if I were making this story up, 100 percent I would never call it Blood Mountain. But that’s where it happened.

Last question for you: You have to make another movie about a wild animal on drugs. What is a new animal and what is a new drug?
What’s so fun about this premise is that you get sent everything that involves cocaine or drugs and everything that involves a wild animal and how to blend those two things. Recently in the headlines, before we were coming out, there was that story about how all that cocaine was dropped into an ocean, so it became a joke of maybe this is the spinoff, Cocaine Shark.

It’s been such a joy to watch the internet go crazy and come up with their own ideas for what these other things could be. I’ve seen Ketamine Koala. Marijuana Mongoose. I get sent all these ideas about how to blend one drug with a different animal. At a certain point we could just make an animal kingdom, like that first scene in The Lion King, where you see the giraffes and the buffalo poke their heads up, but it’s after doing a line of coke.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Into It with Sam Sanders

Thank Leprechaun and Puppet Master for Cocaine Bear