When is a true story not a true story? When it’s “Cocaine Bear,” now playing in theaters courtesy of Universal Pictures. Directed by Elizabeth Banks and penned by Jimmy Warden, the not-quite-true story concerns a black bear minding her own business who stumbles upon cocaine dropped from a drug-smuggling plane. The bear gets high on the supply and eventually threatens to turn a dozen or so small-towners into lunch meat.
“Cocaine Bear” is very loosely based on a true-life crime story that occurred in the forests of America in 1985. A 175-pound American black bear was found dead in northern Georgia having overdosed on cocaine. The drugs were dropped out of a plane by smugglers in Tennessee, and the unlucky bear stumbled upon the ill-gotten goods, sampled the product and promptly dropped dead. The so-called “cocaine bear,” also known as “Pablo Eskobear,” was stuffed and displayed at a mall in Kentucky.
Screenwriter Jimmy Walden, in a discussion with TheWrap, admitted he only used the true story as a jumping-off point for his own wild flourishes. The ’80s set horror comedy deftly mixes Sam Raimi-style terror with Steven Spielberg-style middle class melodrama amid a crime comedy straight from the Coen Bros.
Note: The following contains “Cocaine Bear” spoilers.
“I came across the story on Twitter and I could not stop reading about it,” Warden said. “It’s believable how the bear could come across that cocaine.” He elaborated further, explaining that the film is the “most fun version of the story where the bear doesn’t die after 30 seconds but instead goes on a rampage and kills a bunch of people.”
While Warden discarded most of the non-fiction elements, the finished film feels spiritually authentic as a small-town, 1980s melodrama dramedy that gets interrupted by this horrific bear attack.
“I thought it was best to leave the real history to true crime podcasts of the world,” continued Warden. “Very little of my research, done mostly out of my own curiosity, made it into the script. The true story was just a jumping-off point to let my imagination take over in terms of what could happen.”
The film offers up lost drugs, cops and robbers in hot pursuit, and a few bystanders, such as two kids ditching school and an angry mother chasing after them, in their own narratives. And into this ensemble piece of interlocking destinies Warden “cannon-balls a bear that’s high on narcotics.”
The film does the work in terms of building sympathetic and relatable characters, even some of the drug dealers, so viewers might be torn between wanting to see bear-focused carnage and not wanting these folks to become bear-food.
“I thought of this movie as an ensemble but centered around the ‘cocaine bear,’” continued Warden. “We made sure, especially in terms of comedy, that when people died horrifically, they were at least somewhat annoying.”
This is Alden Ehreniech’s first feature film since “Solo: A Star Wars Story” five years ago, although since then the “Beautiful Creatures” and “Hail, Caesar” star has headlined Peacock’s “Brave New World” miniseries. He plays what may be a standard type, a grieving widower who is also now a single father, but with a twist.
“We gave Alden Ehrenreich a classic story of a guy who lost his wife and doesn’t know what to do or how to be a good dad,” stated Warden. “Instead of him having a stiff upper lip or having to muscle his way through it, he’s crying for the first act.”
He also noted attempts to create a skewed buddy-cop relationship between Ehrenreich and O’Shea [Jackson) as two of the more benevolent drug dealers, noting that the characters in this ensemble could have been the stars of their own movies even before the bear shows up.
He credited director Elizabeth Banks for her work, alongside WETA, in crafting the film’s impressive set-pieces and action scenes, as well as in keeping him an active participant throughout production.
“This is not always the way it works, but everyone was very inclusive,” stated Warden. “I was there every shooting day in Ireland. Everybody was great in allowing me to participate.”
That said, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who checks out Does the Dog Die before seeing an animal-specific movie, you might want to keep reading.
“The one line,” Warden declared, “that we couldn’t cross was killing the bear.” He continued, “I wanted people to root for the bear. I thought that what happened to [to the bear] in real life was unfair. He didn’t break into some drug dealer’s apartment and then find a duffel bag of cocaine. The drugs literally fell from the sky.
Indeed, the picture plays out as a kind of Tarantino-ish revisionist history, showing the story not as it occured but, relatively speaking, maybe how it should have gone down.
“This version of the story was revenge, it was like retribution,” Warden said.
As far as how much revenge, the screenwriter discussed how to balance comedy and violence, specifically how much gore audiences would witness in the unapologetically R-rated caper.
“No one was ever trying to pull us back. The script was extremely graphic. We needed to cross the line by 100 feet, to bring the audience to a place where they could laugh.
Then you can bring it back down, and you can undercut it with the joke. I think that sometimes going too close to that line and not going over it can cause a pit in the stomach. Completely crossing the line will hopefully result in an unapologetic belly laugh.
As for the limitations Banks, Warden and company placed upon themselves, there were two big no-nos.
“There were two rules. Don’t kill the bear and don’t kill the kids.”