Cocaine Bear

The ‘Cocaine Bear’ ‘I Never Thought Anyone Was Going to Make This Movie,’ says screenwriter on sequels, extreme gore, and 12-year-olds trying cocaine.

Jimmy Warden was a youngster growing up in Chicago who ended up seeing “a lot” of horror movies when he was “much too young,” he says.

“I became used to seeing people’s guts eaten or torn out of their corpses, something like that,” he chuckles over Zoom. “So that’s where a lot of my tastes are at the moment.”

Warden’s sensibility is on full display in his screenplay for “Cocaine Bear,” Elizabeth Banks’ R-rated action-comedy loosely based on the true story of a black bear who died in 1985 after consuming a mountain of cocaine during a botched drug smuggling operation. Warden discovered the account while skimming through Twitter in the mid-2010s while “not doing things that I should have been doing,” and understood immediately that “there was something there.”

But Warden wasn’t interested in writing about the drug trafficker who had slung dozens of bags of cocaine across the Appalachian Mountains and then perished when his parachute failed to open, or about a bear who died from a cocaine overdose.

He instead created “my warped dream of what I wish truly happened after the bear did all that cocaine,” he claims.

Warden initially sent his script to Lord Miller, the production firm created by directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – Warden’s first employment in Hollywood was as a PA on Lord and Miller’s live-action directorial debut, “21 Jump Street,” in 2012. Despite their reputation for crafting films that transcend norms, from “The LEGO Movie” to “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Warden had no expectation that his story would ever see the light of day.

Instead, Universal produced “Cocaine Bear,” with Weta FX receiving the majority of the $35 million budget to build a photo-realistic, cocaine-addicted black bear. Warden, 33, has already completed his directorial debut, “Borderline,” starring his wife, Samara Weaving. Yet, as he tells Variety, he envisions a bright future for “Cocaine Bear.”

Was “Cocaine Bear” always the title?

Yeah. If I’m fully honest — and perhaps I shouldn’t say this — I never imagined this movie would be made. When you have a script, you want as many people as possible to read it. Thus there was never any doubt in my mind that the film’s title would be “Cocaine Bear.” If you had asked me back then, I would have said, if it ever gets made, I assume people will want to change the name. Nevertheless, Universal never did.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Banks, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and their producing partner Aditya Sood, they all stated unequivocally that they would only create this film if it was titled “Cocaine Bear.”

That’s because they’re far wealthier than I am. I would have been happy if someone wanted to make this movie and label it whatever they wanted. And there are some things in there that, if I were a betting man, I would have bet would be removed. They just stood up for those things the whole time.

I’m assuming you’re referring to the part in the movie where two 12-year-olds dare each other to try cocaine?

Yes, it’s that sequence — which was the first scene in the original script. I figured if you start there and people keep reading after 10 pages of 12-year-olds doing coke in the woods, you’ve got them.

Was there anything else you expected to be removed?

I purposefully made it very violent. I’m not sure how much of a gore fan you are, but there comes a point where it becomes so messed up that you can’t help but giggle. It’s not the kind of brutality that makes you feel sick to your stomach, but it does become its own genre in certain ways. This is far from the first film to do so. But I believe Liz executed in such a manner that this film absolutely crosses the boundary in terms of gore, but I don’t believe it alienates the audience.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like when you wrote this script, you saw it as a calling card to gain more work, but you didn’t think it would ever be picked up by a reputable studio.

I suppose I wouldn’t call it a “respectable studio.” I’m not sure if that’s the correct narrative, but it’s close to reality. It was maybe going to attract some attention from individuals who read tracking boards. Perhaps simply another specification that I would toss into the pile of many that no one ever reads. I’m not sure if this is the ideal thing for me to say in terms of publicity, but I don’t care. Well, I didn’t imagine any serious studio would film a movie named “Cocaine Bear” and maintain what I’d written.

I mean, I’m part of the Just Say No generation that grew up in the 1980s and seeing the movie, there was a part of me that couldn’t believe it existed at all — there was a moment not long ago when this movie would’ve been a major scandal.

According to Phil, Chris, and Aditya, there is a nice spirit in this film as well. I wrote about those kids doing [cocaine] with love because they were so particular and clear in my memory. I’m ten years younger than you. But I still had D.A.R.E. officials visit my school every week, and there was a strong anti-drug attitude at my school. So I never believed someone could include cocaine in the title and have it be as successful as this film.

What were your thoughts when you heard Elizabeth Banks was interested in directing?

I was excited because I believe there is a darker, smaller version of this film. And in order to justify the millions of dollars required to produce this bear, we needed someone who could push the tone envelope and ensure that it was something that everyone would want to see. Not just horror aficionados or gore junkies. She took those funny elements and expanded on them.

The film concludes with what appears to be a recommendation for a sequel, but given that you didn’t think this movie would be made, do you have a sequel concept in your head?

Yes, absolutely. It’s not merely a sequel. There are numerous sequels. “Cocaine Bear in Space” is probably where we’d end up.

I’m not sure if you’re joking or not.

No, I’m not joking about “Cocaine Bear Goes to Space.” But I absolutely have ideas for the sequels. In this film, the bear is not the antagonist. What transpired was the result of circumstances and terrible decisions made by others. I believe that is a story that we can tell again and again. I’d be thrilled to inform you since we have some very great ideas for future films.

Finally, please let me know if this is too personal, but did you write this script based on any personal experience with cocaine?

And this is official. (Pause) Sure, of course. I had firsthand knowledge of both halves of the term. I’ve seen bears in the wild, and who hasn’t heard of cocaine? I’m not sure how much [my publicists] will want me to reveal in Variety that I’ve done cocaine. But I suppose that’s correct. Liz, on the other hand, hasn’t. She flatly refuses.

“Cocaine Bear” hits theatres on February 24.

This interview has been trimmed and reduced for clarity.