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“When it says Cocaine Bear on the cover, you’ve at least got to read the first page,” confirmed producer Phil Lord of getting the script for his and Chris Miller’s latest project. The Universal film, directed by Elizabeth Banks, follows, quite literally, a black bear that consumes a significant amount of cocaine that is dropped in a forest, launching a murderous rampage against cops, criminals, tourists and teens.
Written by Jimmy Warden, it was inspired by the true story of a bear that overdosed on cocaine dropped by drug smugglers in 1985, and yes, Cocaine Bear was always going to be the title.
“We were sure there was going to be pushback on it, but it turns out that Universal is cool,” Miller joked at the film’s Tuesday night L.A. premiere. “And we were careful, we didn’t announce the title right away. It was ‘Untitled Bear Comedy’ for a while,” added fellow producer Aditya Sood, as Lord chimed in, “You don’t want someone to swoop in and steal your idea. Believe me, there’s several Sundance films called Cocaine Bear.”
The bear (which has been dubbed Cokie) was designed by Peter Jackson’s Weta FX company, which has been behind creatures in King Kong, Lord of the Rings and Avatar. “It was very important to us and very important to Elizabeth to make sure that you really believe the bear, because if you didn’t then the whole movie is pointless,” explained Miller. “They studied actual crazy things that bears do, bear movements and stuff, and then we goosed it a little bit.” Banks continued that she wanted “a photorealistic bear that was basically a documentary of a bear that was on cocaine — and I think we succeeded.”
During filming, though, the star-studded cast — which includes Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson — worked opposite an actor playing the bear, who wore a bear head and had elongated attachments on his arms, walking around on all fours and staying in character in between takes.
“And wearing a unitard, that also happened,” Russell teased of the bear stunt performer Alan Henry. “But better than that is Banks on our close-ups yelling back from video village in the woods, going, ‘And now he’s eating his leg off! He’s eating his face off! And blood is squirting all over! And now his body is falling!’ And then Jesse and Margo just laughing at me. We would take turns making fun of each other, I was like, ‘I don’t think this is the way this is supposed to go, but I think the Oscars should consider it.'”
Ferguson, whose character is seen in the trailer getting mauled in a tree, added that there was no way for the performer to get up to him, so he was “just going off of Liz sort of saying, ‘The life’s draining out of you! Your leg is falling off! This is your friend! Why is he doing this to you?’ I was just trying to react to her instructions which were really ridiculous and hilarious and dumb.”
When seeing the CGI bear for the first time, the cast said they were impressed. Noted Ehrenreich: “It was fun that they did what a bear would sort of be doing in that way — not really, but it wasn’t like the bear was winking at the camera,” while Jackson joked, “This is not a Windows 98 situation. We had to have top-of-the-line. And when you’ve got someone like Universal backing you, you’ve got the best of the best, and that’s what they delivered. Cokie is the star — you can’t have the ship looking crazy in Titanic.”
As for the possibility of a cocaine animal franchise continuing after the film, Miller said, “One can only dream,” while Banks revealed, “The bear is alive at the end of the movie, so to me, the sequel is just more bear.”
Inside the premiere screening, held at downtown L.A.’s Regal L.A. Live, Banks told the crowd she’s worked with “Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. I’ve been part of franchises like The Hunger Games and Lego Movie.”
“I launched a franchise in Pitch Perfect,” she continued. “I relaunched a game show in Press Your Luck, I got Emmy-nominated for 30 Rock, and I’ve directed a few films along the way, but I’m fully convinced that everything has brought me to this moment in my career, the pinnacle: the rich and deeply cerebral Cocaine Bear.”
Cocaine Bear lumbers into theaters on Friday.
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