Director Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear” has become a horror-comedy hit. Her third-directed feature film has surpassed $50 million in the box office since its release in late February against an estimated $30 million budget.
Banks, who has also produced the film, attributes the film’s success to making it into a vindication tale for the bear. “When I read this script, I thought, ‘This is the redemption story for that bear. This is great because of course we want, at the end of the day, the titular character [to] be the hero.’”
Banks’ film is very loosely based on the true story of a bear who died after ingesting a large amount of cocaine dumped from a drug trafficking airplane in the 1980s.
In “Cocaine Bear,” a coked-out bear goes on a murderous rampage, attacking everything in its path. The film features Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Ray Liotta, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The call of destiny
Banks first heard that producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) were searching for a director to tackle the movie that writer Jimmy Warden had developed a spec script for. The duo then took it to Universal Filmed Entertainment Group’s Chairman Donna Langley.
From there, Banks’ agent sent her the script and said he thought she would like the story. She read it around April 2020 in the midst of various Los Angeles wildfires and the global pandemic and she heard the call of destiny. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, no greater metaphor for the chaos all around us than a bear high in cocaine,’” she declares.
Once she finished reading the script, she felt something cathartic. “[I] just let out a deep breath, and everything seemed right with the world again. That was the energy,” she says. “It was just very exciting…It was what I wanted to see in a theater during a pandemic.”
While it’s difficult for female directors to break into action movies, Banks notes that Universal has a better track record on that front, and that Langley gave her a shot with the horror-comedy.
“[Langley] has always been very supportive of me and I find her truly inspirational,” she says. “And the fact that she's willing to back these really interesting ideas for movies, I think is paying off and it's really fun to be sort of in her orbit.”
Releasing the gory, R-rated horror-comedy in theaters
Banks secured the gig, but getting the R-rated horror-comedy released in theaters was risky. For one, the title on the cover page of the script, “Cocaine Bear,” made some people, including Langley, nervous about its marketing potential.
Banks, however, loved the “bold and audacious” title, so from the beginning, she asked Michael Moses, Universal’s Chief Marketing Officer, to do his “due diligence” to keep the title name before they started filming.
“He said yes and gave me the confidence that they were going to stick with the title, despite the fact that it did have some limitations,” affirms Banks.
Another obstacle was with the R-rated, raunchy nature of the movie, which has been battered lately. Banks, again, saw an opportunity to make “something really unique.”
She decided to incorporate comedy inside a horror film. “I knew that genre pictures were things that people, maybe, would go see in the theater. I like to see them, so the horror and the gore of this movie, that's what really excited me.”
However, Banks admits that using this mixed-genre strategy has not always worked. In 2006, she was cast in “Slither,” a James Gunn horror-sci-fi-comedy film. Audiences were confused, and the film “didn’t do that well.”
While directing “Cocaine Bear,” Banks became wary of walking that line between comedy and horror. “I really leaned into the genre stuff… It was all about making something that was truly entertaining, gory, jump-scary, horrific, if you will,” she explains, adding she didn’t shy away from being audacious. “Every decision that I made, [I] had to live up to that level of boldness. I was leaning, never take your foot off the pedal.”
Only in the third act of the film, however, she started to pull back from the horrific because she wanted the audience to connect with the characters, “so that we could bring it to a satisfying conclusion.”
Working with Ray Liotta
Banks also talks about the shock of learning about Liotta’s sudden death. Only eight days earlier she had seen him recording his dialogue joyfully. She describes him as a delight to work with.
“I had a really special bond with Ray. I thought he was so charming,” she notes. “He totally got the tone of this movie, and he was such a gift to me. I'm forever grateful that he came to play with us.”
Doing the best she can
Banks has been working in Hollywood for 25 years as an actor (“Call Jane,” “Mrs. America) and producer (“Press Your Luck”), so she understands that things don’t always go according to plan. After finding success as a director of “Pitch Perfect 2,” her first feature film, she faced disappointment with the box office performance of her 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” reboot.
More: Actress, producer, director Elizabeth Banks on making it in the mainstream
When asked about how she would process and deal if “Cocaine Bear” didn’t work, she explains she has learned to let go of expectations.
“There's only so much control I have, and I recommend to everyone to try not to control the things you can't control and not worry about the things you can't control,” she remarks.
“There's billboards all over Sunset Boulevard, so I think it is okay,” she remarks. “It ultimately worked out.”
In dealing with disappointment, Banks also remembers an important lesson she learned from the beginning of her acting career. After over a week of shooting in New York City, and having “an incredible experience” on the set of the 2000 remake of “Shaft,” she took her parents, friends to see her first credited feature in a theater, but she appeared for “literally five seconds” in the film.
“I learned [at] the point [that] this business is like doing the job itself. That was a great experience, and if people get to see the work and also get excited by it, or moved by it, or entertained by it, or whatever it is, that's the cherry on top. But you can't count on it,” she affirms.
Now, Banks says she has learned to do the best she can.
“I just love doing the work. That's what I take pride in. That's what keeps me going, [and] the relationships with the actors and the crew, and getting to make things and collaborate. That's the best part of this job,” she says. “Everything else is out of my control.”
“Cocaine Bear” is in theaters now.