‘Cocaine Bear’s Elizabeth Banks on ’80s Easter Eggs and the Bloody Kills

Feb 21, 2023

Director Elizabeth Banks’ star-studded dark comedy, Cocaine Bear, is fast approaching. Since it was first announced, the buzz for Pablo Escobear’s big-screen debut has been nonstop. Not only is the premise pretty far out there and something new for audiences to sink their teeth into, but it also boasts a pretty phenomenal cast. The movie stars Keri Russell, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys, Kristofer Hivju, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, and the late, Ray Liotta. Still, even with such a talented group, during an interview with Collider’s Steve Weintraub Banks admits that her main concern was her nonexistent lead.

Loosely inspired by true events that took place in the mid-eighties, Cocaine Bear gives a blow-by-blow account of the unbelievable mishap… only, with a lot more blood. When a drug runner drops an outstanding amount of cocaine on the aptly-called Blood Mountain in Georgia, a 500-pound black bear ingests a brick of it before it can be picked up. Coked up, the bear goes on a rampage, leaving a trail of gore in its wake. Unlike what actually happened, if this bear is going down, he’s taking dug dealers, tourists, and cops down with him.

During her interview ahead of Cocaine Bear’s worldwide release in theaters on February 24, Banks talks about the biggest risks with a project like Cocaine Bear and working with Wētā to bring the bear to life. She also shares a moment from Whitlock Jr. that had the entire crew rolling that made it into the movie, ‘80s Easter eggs to look out for, and keeping the runtime efficient and wild. For all of this and more, check out the interview in the player above, or you can read the full transcript below.

COLLIDER: I want to start with, thank you for making me laugh like a crazy person. I appreciate it.

ELIZABETH BANKS: That was one of the goals.

And you did it. Before we get into Cocaine Bear – I love saying the title – if someone has never seen anything that you’ve acted in before, what is the first thing you’d like them watching, and why?

BANKS: Wow. I think Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games because I love the journey that she makes, especially in Catching Fire. I would watch the second one, Catching Fire, because she really, for me, goes on an incredible journey, and she looks good doing it.

Image via Universal 

Those costumes were very good. [Cocaine Bear] is one of those projects that I really can’t believe got made. The title, I can’t believe it was approved, I can’t believe the MPAA let this happen. So was there anything that almost derailed this? Someone saying, “We can’t make this…”?

BANKS: You know, the only thing that could have derailed it, frankly, was if we didn’t believe that Wētā could deliver the bear. Because everything else was about being bold, it was about being audacious. It was about challenging people to create something that lived up to the title of Cocaine Bear, right?

To me, the biggest risk of the entire endeavor was, I had no lead character. The bear was never going to be there, and it had to work, it had to be real. It had to be like [a] photorealistic, documentary of a bear in the woods. I didn’t know if it was gonna work out. Of course, I had great partners in Wētā. Wētā delivered the most beautiful bear I could imagine and an incredible performance for that bear. You know, the collaboration was just a dream. It’s the only way the movie works is if the bear works.

Wētā does do incredible work, and with the challenges of the VFX industry, it’s great you had a great partner like that.

BANKS: They were excited to do it. They’re used to doing superheroes flying through space and time and warps, and this was like old school like, “Can you make this bear look like… I want people to ask me if there was a real bear on set like that’s how real it has to be.” And I really think they did it.

There are some fantastic kills in this movie that are bloody that I was very much enjoying watching in the theater. Did you have a favorite of the kills or one that you are really excited for audiences to see?

BANKS: I hate giving things away, but I will say this, I wanted to make sure the audience remained surprised, and I did not think that the bear should kill everybody. I felt that the humans, the hubris of the humans is really the villainy in the picture, right? It’s about humans thinking they can control nature and their level of greed, and their sense of superiority. That’s what the villainy was. So anytime we could play with somebody’s bad instincts and turn it, and murder someone because of it, those were the surprising ones that made me the most happy.

Image via Universal

What was it actually like showing it to the MPAA for the first time? Did they ask you to pull back on anything?

BANKS: No it was R-rated from jump. I mean, they didn’t ask us to do anything. Honestly, I was never worried about the gore or the blood or the kills or the action because that’s in many, many other R-ated movies. I was worried about the kids, like what were the kids doing? You know, being with the drugs, but at the end of the day everybody was okay with it. I mean, it’s R-rated, it’s for adults, but I did not have to make any sacrifices for the movie. Everything that I hoped would be in the film is in the film.

I’m fascinated by the editing process because that’s where it all comes together. So how did the film change in the editing room in ways you didn’t expect?

BANKS: Honestly, it’s that I had to give up so much amazing stuff with these actors. The original introduction of [Keri Russell’s] character, she was singing in her kitchen, this Mamas & the Papas song, and she was so nervous about singing – she’s never sang on camera before — and she had done this incredible work, and it’s not in the movie. So to me, the worst part about the edit was all the amazing stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor.

That said, my goal was to tell this story in 95 minutes. You know, I just think this concept, it should be done efficiently. It should be fun, it should be wild, and then you should go have a drink after and talk about it with your friends.

I won’t lie, when I found out the runtime, I was like, “Oh, this is perfect.”

BANKS: This movie doesn’t need more time than it took, you know? So, that’s what I mean by the editing. The script actually had a lot more character development. It was really beautiful, but at the end of the day, people want to see a bear on cocaine killing people. So that’s what we did.

Image via Universal 

100%. You have a joke in the movie for Pines Mall, which is a little nod to Back to the Future. Can you talk about that?

BANKS: We have those kinds of nods all over, little Easter eggs throughout the movie. That was one of them. Thank you for picking that up. Also, for instance, when you meet Deedee in her bedroom, there’s a poster of Madonna. I was a 12-year-old girl in 1985 so I very much related with Deedee. She basically had my room. I had that Papasan chair that everybody had with the afghan blanket that your grandma knit for you. But more importantly, she’s obsessed with Madonna, which I was also. There’s a poster of Madonna on her wall wearing black overalls and a white t-shirt and the rubber bracelets, and then Brooklynn [Prince] wears that outfit throughout the movie. So it’s little things like that, you know? “Jane,” the opening song, was an homage to Wet Hot American Summer.

I didn’t realize that, but yes. With Isiah [Whitlock Jr.] in the movie you have the whole, “Sheeeit.” How much debate was there with that? Because it’s an iconic line that he was famous for.

BANKS: We did debate it. He did do it on set, he loves doing it. It’s his favorite thing to do. But at the end of the day, the thing that got the biggest reaction was him on the roof making those noises when he can’t climb down. The entire crew fell out laughing. I mean, I couldn’t call cut. It was so enjoyable watching him do that and while he was, when it was happening, I thought to myself, “This is going to be in the movie,” and it is.

Do you know what you’re going to direct next? Are you looking at scripts?

BANKS: I’m always looking, sure. I mean, you never know, you know? You never know when something’s going to pop up. This came truly out of nowhere, and so I am always looking, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna take a really long nap, Steve. I’m gonna nap for like three weeks after this comes out hopefully.

Cocaine Bear rampages into theaters, worldwide, on February 24.

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