Over its opening weekend in theaters, the low-concept animal-attack horror-comedy Cocaine Bear snorted up a surprisingly robust $23 million in ticket sales to become the second-highest-grossing movie in wide release (behind Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). Like Sharknado and Snakes on a Plane and Piranha 3DD before it, pretty much everything a potential viewer might need to know about the third directorial outing by Elizabeth Banks is crystalized in its title. A 450-pound American black bear ingests kilos of coke (that have fallen from the sky into the wilds of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest courtesy of a bungled drug-smuggling operation); mayhem ensues.
“Inspired” (in the loosest possible way) by true events, the $35 million Universal Pictures release paws a genre-blurring line between When Animals Attack!–styled gore, splatter humor, and magical realism — or, to be more specific, photorealism in the form of the rampaging CGI mama bear concocted by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop. And no sequence better encapsulates Cocaine Bear’s signature mortifying hilarity than when the gacked-up animal chases down and mauls the terrified occupants of a fleeing ambulance.
The scene begins with a pair of bickering emergency medical techs (played by Scott Seis and Kahyun Kim) stumbling on a scene of ursine carnage inside the forest’s ranger station. There, the partially mauled Ranger Liz (veteran character actress Margo Martindale) is loaded onto a gurney. Mistaking the paramedics’ medical-supplies bag for a duffel filled with cocaine, the bear flies into an even more murderous rage while the three escape. As the ambulance peels out of the parking lot, the beast gallops after them with yayo-enhanced superspeed — backdropped by Depeche Mode’s ’80s synth-pop bop “Just Can’t Get Enough.” No one survives.
In many ways, the ambulance-chase sequence is the heart of the movie. We see both the fearsome potential of this animal and an anything-can-happen quality where viewers aren’t exactly sure what to expect; it treads this line between comedy and horror. Talk me through your creative decisions and how you plotted out that scene.
Most of our sequences had a theme while we were putting things together. This sequence was The Fast & the Furious — but one of the cars is a bear. That was how we first approached it.
I never wanted the bear to be responsible for all the death in the movie. The bear to me was a metaphor of chaos. If there’s a bear on cocaine, then it is chaos and it creates chaos. So how do we present something that feels very chaotic and is going to surprise the audience with how people are going to die? And how do we make the bear not the cause of death for everyone? Those were the parameters.
Jimmy Warden wrote a funny sequence, but we really had to build this thing out. I had to figure out how I was going to get Margo Martindale, who’s 71 years old and not a stunt performer, to fly out of the back of the ambulance. In the script, I don’t believe she scraped her face. Jimmy and I had an initial conversation where I said, “You know how when you’re 7 years old on your bike and you scrape your knee on the pavement? Everybody can relate to that feeling. So I want one of these kills to be relatably horrifying.”
I wanted to show the demise of Ranger Liz in a close-up of that. Getting Margo out of the back of the ambulance and onto her belly and scraping across the road — that was shot in multiple locations. We built multiple rigs for Margo and, basically, a movable wall for her to stand on that we could angle backwards and forwards. And we strapped her to it like a gurney.
Then we used the camera angles to make it seem like she was flying farther toward the camera than she actually ever had to. So that alone was five departments working: costumes, visual effects (measuring if we wanted to have her face replaced or if we wanted to use her whole body), camera, lighting, and then plates that we had to shoot just for the ambulance driving away.
The best part is we did a test where we took a real gurney and popped it out the back of a van to see what it would do. It bounced a little on its wheels. It didn’t just bounce and flip over; it kind of bounced and fell down. That detail ended up in the movie. So we did a lot of tests on things. It was a very complicated piece, this one little scene with the ambulance.
The bear’s cocaine superpowers are peaking in that scene.
I don’t use slow-mo in the movie. I reserved it for the one moment when the bear is jumping in the back of the car. We don’t have a lot of super-wide shots of the bear doing things. We have the wide shot of it going down one tree and fast up the other. I call those the key frames for the movie. What are the iconic moments for the bear going to be? Dragging the hiker back, that was a key frame. That’s bear power. You barely even see the bear. And then the bear roaring for the title — those are touch points of visual excitement.
I knew we were going to drive away from the door and pull the camera away from Scott Seiss, who’s running out the door yelling, “Go, go, go!” That’s the first key frame. Another was Margo in close-up scraping her face on the ground. And Kai — I wanted her to come through the windshield right at camera and land at camera. That was technically hard to do. We ended up digging a ditch for the camera to rest in. And that was all Kai. There was no stuntperson.
How much of what the actors say during the ambulance chase was in the script and how much was made up on the spot?
Every sequence started with storyboards and pre-visualization, which means animation or an animatronic was created by Weta for us to track through every shot. But in this sequence, I left everything with the characters inside very loose. There was tons of improv. I would say 75 percent of the dialogue in that scene was improvised.
Kai’s line, “What the fuck’s wrong with that bear?” was in the script. “Why is that bear chasing us?” was in the script. But everything else — “Shut the door, you fucking dumbass!” and Scott’s line, “Not the tree, the big fucking bear!” — that was all improv on the day.
I don’t want this to sound like a glib question, but I need to know: Is the bear addicted to coke? Or has it had a taste and decides it likes to party but it isn’t quite at full-blown addiction yet?
It’s only been 24 hours. So I don’t think this bear’s in full-blown addiction. This bear’s gotten into some cocaine and kind of frolicked around and had a great time and ate a hiker and then was like, “Wait, where did that cocaine go?” And then starts wandering back toward this den and then finds another bag — or sees the red bag that the EMTs in the ambulance have — and thinks, “Oh, that’s the bag. That’s where I’ll find this taste of something.”
You have publicly stated that you have never done cocaine. How did you decide how you wanted the bear to behave under the influence if you don’t really know what “the influence” is?
We felt we had a lot of leeway for that exact reason — that nobody knows what a bear would really act like on drugs. We tested out some of the human behavior that we associate with cocaine and some of the tweaking behavior when the bear’s coming down off of the high. And we really felt like it made the bear seem too animated. Our whole goal here was to create a bear so photorealistic that you almost felt like you were watching a documentary. So all of its behaviors had to be based in some realities.
We looked at a lot of bear videos — the internet is just filled with them. I believe the team at Weta went to the zoo and photographed and made videos of bears and watched them eating and playing with toys so we could approximate what it’d be like for the bear to play with the bag, for instance. A lot of research went into it!
So if Weta dummied up a CGI sequence where the bear is tweaking too hard, you were like, “No, this is not acceptable”?
Exactly. We did that on the tree climb. Obviously the bear is searching for cocaine in that scene. So that was a good scene for us to test it out. When I say “tweaking,” I mean, how fast is it blinking its eyes? Chomping? What are the behaviors bears normally do? And what happens if we speed them up, or make the bear seem a little more agitated — frankly, more animated? Sometimes it came off great and felt like, Ooh, this bear is really kind of going crazy. Other times we crossed the line. So that’s how we figured it out: trial and error.
A lot of very serious thought went into putting something on that screen that seems ridiculous.
We treated it with scientific precision and I never felt that anything we were doing was ridiculous.
Your screenwriter has said the bear is not the bad guy in this movie. So where did you draw the line at how much violence we see the bear inflicting? How concerned were you that if you went too far, the bear would lose the audience’s sympathy?
I was never concerned with losing the audience’s sympathy. Here’s the thing: The bear is a peaceful creature. The character played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson even says, “Bears are peaceful creatures. You must have done something to upset it. What did you do?!” That’s the question of the movie. The bear would’ve left everyone alone except for the fact that this drug deal went wrong and the drugs ended up in the hands of the bear. I blame the humans.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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