In the Wild Tale of ‘Cocaine Bear,’ an Apex Predator Is the True Star

Jimmy Warden wanted his bear to have its full 15 minutes of fame — while it was still alive.

A few years back, Warden, a screenwriter, stumbled upon the tale of a 175-pound black bear that had dropped dead in a Georgia forest after ingesting cocaine that the drug smuggler Andrew Thornton had thrown from a plane. Thornton had parachuted out, weighed down with $14 million worth of the drug along with firearms and survivalist equipment. He was found dead on Sept. 11, 1985, wearing a bulletproof vest and Gucci loafers, on a driveway in Knoxville, Tenn.

The bear’s corpse, stuffed and christened Pablo Escobear, supposedly ended up at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Ky.

Some believe that’s how it happened; others think it’s an urban legend.

But Warden was more intrigued by the bear than the smuggling, and he let his imagination run wild. The result is the new comedy “Cocaine Bear.”

“I took the story and was like, ‘What if it didn’t die?’” he said in a video call from his home in Los Angeles.

Besides, he felt bad for the bear and thought, “Let’s give this bear a win by way of mauling a couple of people in the woods.”

The way Warden saw things, the bear wasn’t the villain — it was the victim.

Warden invented a 500-pound version of the black bear that, high on cocaine, goes on a blood-and-guts rampage terrorizing campers, a ranger, children and other sundry visitors to the woods.

He sent the script to a friend, who gave it to a producer at the production company Lord Miller, who handed it off to Universal executives, who bought it. And in about a week, Warden’s professional life became a very different creature.

Keri Russell, left, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale in a scene from “Cocaine Bear.” The film is loosely — very loosely — based on real events.Credit…Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

The script landed with Elizabeth Banks, and she immediately recognized an antidote to the world’s pandemic and climate-change woes: a funny, crazy tale that reminded her of “Pulp Fiction,” with its edgy blend of intricately woven story lines, drug dealers and gore, sprinkled with some “Stand by Me” moments.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, there is no greater metaphor for the chaos going on in nature,” she said on a video call. “And not only that, it was the humans that did it. They’re the real bad guys.”

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Banks started contacting friends and acquaintances, while others made their way to her.

She asked Keri Russell to read the script. “It just felt like a complete, ridiculous, stupid, amazingly funny departure and relief from life,” said Russell, who plays Sari, the divorced mother of a 12-year-old girl missing in the woods with a friend.

And when Russell learned that Banks wanted to cast Margo Martindale, her former co-star on “The Americans,” as the ranger, she said, “Oh, I’m in,” because she could see Banks’s desire to keep the story real.

“You don’t cast Margo Martindale if it’s going to be a flat-out silly comedy the whole way,” Russell said.

Just silly enough.

“It would be a severe close-up on me screaming about the bear attack,” Russell recalled, “with Banks screaming in the background, ‘OK, now the bear is ripping his leg off and blood is squirting everywhere and he’s screaming and now his torso falls out of the tree!’”

“That’s the thing with these movies — you can’t just half-ass it,” she added. “You’ve got to go for it, and the bigger you go, the better it is.”

Russell was packing for Ireland, where the film was shot in 2021, when her husband, Matthew Rhys, decided he wanted in on the action too — specifically the role of the smuggler.

“Text her right now, tell her I want to do that part,” Rhys urged Russell. She did, and he was hired (making for a mini-reunion of stars of “The Americans.”)

When O’Shea Jackson Jr. read on Twitter that Banks had secured the rights to “Cocaine Bear,” his first thought was, “There’s no way they’re going to get a movie like this made.”

But he retweeted the announcement, his excitement obvious. Banks got wind and signed him up as Daveed, the trusted fixer for the drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) and former best friend of Syd’s son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich). Jackson and Ehrenreich developed such camaraderie off the set that their story was rewritten to give it a more heartwarming arc.

And working with Liotta, in one of that actor’s last roles before his death in May, “was an unexpected blessing in my career,” Jackson said.

The shoot was not without its drawbacks: bees and mosquitoes attracted to fake blood; remembering lines in an ice-cold river.

Ray Liotta — with, from left, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich and Ayoola Smart — in one of his last roles.Credit…Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures, via Associated Press

But it was also the first movie in which Jackson’s character underwent a mutilation that required prosthetics. “I really dug that part of it,” he said.

Warden was pretty much in heaven with Banks’s approach.

“It was just like, ‘Hell yeah, we’re going to rip off this guy’s hand now and then we’re going to have this severed leg fall to the ground and the bear is going to do a line of coke off of it!’” he said. “To collaborate with somebody who was down to do all that stuff was a dream come true.”

Even Liotta, Banks recalled, was game. “This movie is crazy, so the idea that I was like, ‘Can you get on these wires and fight a bear performer?’ — I don’t think Martin Scorsese ever said that to him. But I got to, and he delightedly did it.”

Which brings us to the beast that Banks and her crew lovingly called Cokey.

“Cocaine Bear” was going to require a computer-generated apex predator as formidable as its name. And Weta FX, the New Zealand special effects company that had worked on “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Planet of the Apes” films, understood the need for a photorealistic, documentary-credible bear. But because it was high on cocaine, there were opportunities to stretch in little ways to create a superpowered character.

That’s when Allan Henry, a motion-capture and stunt performer, arrived on set to help bring Cokey to life.

Suited up in black spandex and gloves with bits of fur, Henry wore arm extenders and stilts, depending on whether Cokey was on four legs or two, that enabled him to move like a quadruped. He also wore a helmet with a silicone bear snout attached to two telescoping rods and Ping-Pong balls for the eyeline.

That soft snout allowed him to nuzzle or sniff actors without injuring them, and gave them a sense of weight and scale to play opposite, whether he was crashing into an ambulance or dancing.

But what is a bear without its voice?

Allan Henry in spandex and silicone snout on the set of “Cocaine Bear.”Credit…Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

“Oh, I made so many noises,” Henry said. “I tend to vocalize anyway, no matter what performance I’m doing, because the breath and the vocalization energizes your body. I can’t roar like a bear, but I can definitely be loud and I can kind of snuffle and grunt and sneeze and make weird noises in the bush.”

He could even play a coked-up Cokey.

“E.B. has great ideas,” Henry said of Banks. “She was like, ‘Maybe you jump a little bit higher, or maybe you crash this way, or maybe you don’t notice this thing because you’re so focused on the bag.’”

“The idea was to have a heightened performance that didn’t go over the line,” he said.

About two months before she learned of “Cocaine Bear,” Natalia Martinez, an investigative reporter for WAVE News, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, had begun working on a documentary about Andrew Thornton and the cultlike following of Pablo Escobear.

Martinez drove to the store that claimed to have the real bear. Then she spoke with the medical examiner who had performed the necropsy in 1985 and learned two things: The bear had consumed about six grams of coke, according to tests. And its carcass was a heap of bones, hide and fur. No stomach left to back up claims that it had eaten millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine. No head to attach to another bear’s body.

“There’s no absolute way that this bear could have been taxidermied,’” the medical examiner told her. Agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Natural Resources agreed.

“Blow: The True Story of Cocaine, a Bear and a Crooked Kentucky Cop,” which begins streaming March 10 on YouTube and other platforms, also delves into the missing 200 kilos of cocaine and a plane that the F.B.I. thought had been sabotaged by Colombian smugglers.

Whatever the true story, Martinez, the executive producer of the documentary, sees only good in the two films’ serendipity.

“I think I owe them a kidney,” she said, laughing.

“Cocaine Bear” had its Kentucky premiere in Lexington on Thursday. Pablo Escobear was in attendance.

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