“There was never a question in my mind,” says writer Jimmy Warden. “Why wouldn’t we call it Cocaine Bear?”
Warden’s movie is about a black bear who ingests copious amounts of — you guessed it — cocaine and goes on a murderous rampage. Says the writer of the movie that is roaring at the box office this weekend, “It’s not every day that a title comes your way that describes the movie in two words. You understand exactly what it is and what you want it to be.”
Warden came to the true story that inspired his screenplay by way of Twitter. As the tale goes, a black bear was found in the forests of Georgia in 1985 surrounded by 40 opened containers of cocaine. The drugs were traced back to Andrew Thornton, a convicted drug smuggler, who was believed to have piloted an aircraft loaded with the illegal drugs, some of which he off-loaded over the forest. Thornton was found dead in the backyard of a Tennessee home, wearing a parachute, believed to have jumped from his overburdened plane.
At the time, the incident received small write-ups from the New York Times and the Associated Press, but largely went unremarked on. For his part, Warden wanted to fill in the blanks and answer the age-old question: What would happen if you gave an apex predator narcotics?
“I think the goal in writing the script was: Don’t disappoint the audience,” says Warden. “Don’t call the movie Cocaine Bear and then make it about the drug trade.”
Warden expanded the ensemble beyond the titular bear, adding local detectives and drug kingpins to unwitting hikers and a single mother looking for her lost kids, and added imaginative killings and inventive gore. “It’s kind of the fantasy of what might have happened. What could have happened,” explains Warden. But there were a handful of plot points that the writer kept as is: “There were some things that were too perfect. The mountain is literally called Blood Mountain!”
After consulting with his wife, actress Samara Weaving, and manager, Warden decided to write the screenplay. Thusly, Warden began his research which largely consisted of “Googling bears,” he says with a laugh. “It does get pretty horrific the deeper you go in terms of bear attacks,” says the writer, who found out a particularly interesting fact: black bears, like the one at the center of his movie, aren’t very dangerous. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, black bears are rarely aggressive, and even rare is a black bear attack. But, Warden figured, “Black bears on cocaine are probably kind of dangerous.” He adds: “I’ve known people like that. The person’s not dangerous at all, but you give them some cocaine and, you’re like, ‘watch out.’”
Warden found himself with a finished screenplay based on a kind of true story, a handful of Wikipedia entries, and a whole lot of imagination. “I just wanted to entertain myself,” Warden says. “Screw a studio— I didn’t think people would read it.” The someones that would come to read it were Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Warden had worked as a production assistant on Lord and Miller’s 21 Jump Street.) The duo are known for pulling off the impossible like turning a long-forgotten ’80s TV show (Jump Street) or jumbles of toy bricks (the Lego movies) into successful movie franchises.
The movie was set up at Universal and found a director in Elizabeth Banks. Kerri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margo Martindale, and Ray Liotta (in one of his final performances) make up the cast. As posters and trailers were released, Cocaine Bear became a slow-rolling Internet obsession. It’s been praised for its extreme originality, sandwiched between Marvel movies and various franchise fare in the 2023 release calendar.
“One minute you’re chuckling at a zingy one-liner, the next you’re muttering “what the fuck” under your breath,” reads review of the movie. Cocaine Bear is expected to earn an impressive $23.1 million this weekend.
For Warden, the win came much earlier. He says, “The victory was getting a movie made called Cocaine Bear. We’re already playing with house money at this point.”