Cocaine Bear is one of those movies that does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s about a bear going on a cocaine-fuelled rampage after a drug smuggling operation went wrong, but despite its ruthless gore and violence, this monster movie is no Blood and Honey.
With 21 Jump Street’s Phillip Lord and Chris Miller on board as producers, this movie based on a true story has become a comedic caper that takes its stranger-than-fiction premise to a whole new level.
But if it weren’t for Jimmy Warden, the screenwriter who wrote Cocaine Bear on spec while goofing off from another project, this 2023 movie — which has already become an online sensation — might not have existed. So, The Digital Fix sat down with Warden to get the full story on how Cocaine Bear went from an urban legend to co-starring in a Variety cover shoot with director Elizabeth Banks.
The Digital Fix: You developed the script for Cocaine Bear on spec — what is it about this film/script that made it a risk worth taking?
Jimmy Warden: That’s a really good question. I think that it was just too perfect not to pursue, we had a story that was just stranger than fiction, with Andrew Carter Thornton, duffels of coke being dropped in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and a bear getting into it. We just took that as a jumping-off point, and instead of really kind of hitting the true story, making that what inspires kind of, like, the mayhem, and turning it into a monster movie.
And I think that first and foremost, it was just like, a movie that I wanted to see. So it was something that was different. I hadn’t seen anything like it. It’s a twist on something that definitely was sort of campy, but also, the fact that it would be inspired by a true story was really interesting to me, as well. It grounds it, in a certain way, so I really had to just follow that intuition.
TDF: How did you get involved with this project?
JW: It was a couple of years ago, around nine months before the pandemic, and I was procrastinating from doing other work on a different job. And I came across the story on while scrolling through Twitter. It was one of those things where I just couldn’t stop reading about it. And I was just thinking, is our launching pad of like, we start with Andrew Thornton. But it’s really about what happened when the bear did the cocaine, and went on this, this rampage. And then once I had, the script I was talking about it with a friend of mine, Brian Duffield — we met on a movie called The Babysitter. And he just found it incredibly entertaining. And it’s endlessly entertaining. Like, we still have a thread with all the producers wherewe’re constantly just sending each other drugs stuff, or bear stuff, or aything that we can come across. The topic is evergreen.
I gave him a rough draft to proof read, and he immediately took it to Phil Lord and Chris Miller from 21 Jump Street — who then immediately took it to Universal. From there, it was just off to the races. There was obviously some speed bumps with COVID and everything like that, but it’s the kind of thing where I still can’t believe that they made the movie.
TDF: With the movie being based on a true story, what kind of research was involved?
JW: I started by Googling, like, bear attacks. And I don’t recommend doing that [laughs]. So, I was doing that, and doing a lot of research on the real story, but at a certain point, I kind of let the real story go and just let my imagination take hold. So, I took some of these real stories about people’s run-ins with bears — pretty gory stories and videos on YouTube, I will never watch that again — and letting them inspire these huge action set-pieces.
A problem or hurdle, I guess, initially, was that black bears don’t fight. You don’t really have to be that scared of black bears. They’re not motivated by territoriality. Like, if you see one, you could probably fight back and get away safely. There’s a line in the movie that’s like, “If it’s black, fight back, if it’s brown lie down.’ And I think what’s funny is that, like, everybody just runs away, and then gets chased. But I think that what we have in our back pocket was like, even though the black bears aren’t necessarily thescariest of the bear, when they’re on cocaine they are. And that was key in developing a personality for the bear.
When it was on cocaine was a lot of fun, too. So it was like, taking all the stories that you’ve ever heard about your friends, on cocaine, or movies where you’ve watched people on cocaine, and it’s like, okay, how would the bear then act?
TDF: How do you write a character that can’t talk?
I mean, a lot of that is credit to the CGI team, Elizabeth Banks, and I remember, from the very beginning. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were like, “You have to give this bear personality.” So like, right at the opening scene, the bear has just devoured somebody, and then roars into the screen, and it’s a close up, and then all of a sudden a butterfly comes in, it gets distracted, and it runs away. I think that that is sort of the essence of what we’re trying to do: taking something that i pretty dark, and then pulling the rug out. And it’s like, “Oh,what? This is also funny.”
TDF: How do you feel about the social media enthusiasm surrounding Cocaine Bear?
JW: It’s great. Yeah, it’s been great. Crazy. I definitely, I knew that it was a good title, but I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to catch on like this, . But it’s been really fun. And again, people like are tagging me in any story that they could possibly find has a animal doing any sort of drug , or a bear acting weird. It’s awesome, because bears do act weird. Like, there’s something in England in the press the other day about a bear who took, I don’t know, 400 selfies of itself in the woods. There’s a thing that I was just tagged in of abear, literally opening the door to a truck and getting in; or my friends sending me photos of a bear in their pool. You know, so its like easier than I thought.
TDF: Ray Liotta’s an interesting choice for a film like this — what was it like working with him?
JW: He was like, exactly who you want him to be: who you want Ray Liotta to be like. He came to set with such enthusiasm and, like, for a guy that had been doing it for so long to come with that type of excitement […] it was contagious on set. So every day with Ray Liotta was an absolute delight.”
The new movie will be available to watch in cinemas from February 24, but if you want to know the full IRL inspo surrounding the eponymous bear, check out our guide breaking down the Cocaine Bear true story.