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Think It’s Totally Insane ‘Cocaine Bear’ Got Made? So Does Its Screenwriter Jimmy Warden

"I mean, Jesus Christ. I can't stress it enough, I never thought this movie was getting made," he tells IndieWire of his wild, crazy, gory, and extremely funny movie.

Writer Jimmy Warden arrives for Universal Pictures premiere of "Cocaine Bear" at Regal LA Live theatre in Los Angeles, on February 21, 2023. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Writer Jimmy Warden arrives for Universal Pictures premiere of “Cocaine Bear”

AFP via Getty Images

It’s the sort of title that sells itself: Cocaine Bear.” It’s about a bear…who does cocaine. Who says the movies aren’t original anymore? But while that tempting two-word title sure sounds funny and frisky and different, imagine being the guy who pitched the initial story. If you think it’s wild that a film called “Cocaine Bear” got made — and is in theaters right now — you’re feeling a bit like its own creator: screenwriter Jimmy Warden.

Just picture those early pitches. “I think everybody was like, “OK…great,’ when I was writing the movie, like, ‘Good luck with that,’ and then as it just kept gaining momentum, they have gotten pretty excited,” Warden said in recent interview with IndieWire. “I actually will say, to their credit, when I pitched it to [my family] — you know, because you go home for Thanksgiving or whatever it is and they’re like, ‘What are you working on?’ and I was like, ‘Well, I do have this idea for this movie called “Cocaine Bear” — they were really into it. So, at that point, that was a pretty good sign.”

The film is Warden’s second produced film — the first was McG’s Netflix slasher “The Babysitter: Killer Queen” — and was born from every writer’s favorite activity: scrolling the internet and avoiding actual work. As crazy as “Cocaine Bear” sounds, it is based on a true story. In the winter of 1985, convicted drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton III dumped a bunch of cocaine out of his plane (he had, alas, too much cocaine, and the payload was too heavy), where it promptly landed in northern Georgia and was eaten by a black bear. The bear died immediately. (The now-stuffed bear is on display in Kentucky.)

“I was just scrolling through the internet, doing absolutely nothing, I should have been working probably, and I was sitting at my desk, not looking for a movie idea,” Warden said of his initial inspiration. “I was just like, ‘Fuck me, let’s just get through the day.’ And I found the story of Andrew Carter Thornton and the Cocaine Bear, and then I just couldn’t stop clicking on links. I was like, ‘OK, this has to be a movie.'”

The film, directed by Elizabeth Banks and produced by Universal Pictures, takes some liberties with that story, thanks to Warden’s own sense of where this story could go. First up: his bear doesn’t die. She actually gets tangled up with a motley crew of various humans (including stars Keri Russell, Alden Ehrenreich, and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) who all happen to be traipsing through the Georgia forest where the drug-addled bear is going absolutely nuts.

COCAINE BEAR Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Margo Martindale,

“Cocaine Bear”

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The first decision that I made was like, ‘OK, I want to tell the true story, but I don’t really want to tell the true story at the same time,'” he said. “I definitely didn’t want to have the bear ingest cocaine and then die 30 seconds later. But I was like, what an awesome jumping-off point, but then it was like, ‘You have to live up to the title and the promise of the premise.’ Don’t limp through a movie that you’re calling ‘Cocaine Bear’ and the premise is like a bear does cocaine and it goes on a rampage.”

Warden didn’t want to ever lose the goofy wonder of the true story, a writing prompt of the highest order. “A drug plane over the Chattahoochee dropped duffle bags of cocaine, basically they land in this bear’s lap, and what else is the bear going to do other than eat it. That actually happened!” he said. “That was what was mind-blowing to me. It just launched us into this insane story. Great first half, great opening, basically, and then I was like, ‘Let me just try to entertain myself first and foremost.’ I definitely did that. I probably went overboard in a couple cases.”

The writer, who previously co-wrote McG’s Netflix slasher “The Babysitter: Killer Queen,” is pleased that little was cut from his finished script. “With [producers Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller, with Elizabeth Banks, and with Universal behind it, there wasn’t much in there that I wrote that they were like, ‘You just went too far. We’re not doing that,'” he said. “It would’ve been, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t have 12-year-olds do cocaine in the woods.’ Every time when I was hitting these set pieces, I was like, ‘I just need to one up. I want somebody to tell me to tone it down.’ And they never did.”

OK, so there was one thing that got cut, but that was mostly due to logistical reasons. “I think the craziest thing, and obviously there’s reasons why we didn’t put it in, but there was a scene where Alan Jackson was shooting his music video for his song, ‘Chattahoochee,’ and the production crew was attacked,” Warden said. “So there’s that kind of thing that was like, I know at a certain point that’s for the spec, that’s for the reader, but to everybody’s credit, I never thought the movie would get made.”

And not just made, but made with a director who really gets the weirdo line Warden was hoping to walk. The film is Banks’ third feature outing, following “Pitch Perfect 3” and her “Charlie’s Angels,” and her twinned interest in comedy and action made her a natural fit for the gig. Warden couldn’t ask for anyone better.

“Any writer loves when a director comes on, and they say that they like your script,” Warden said. “But then a lot of people are told one thing and then the opposite happens. But Liz just understood it. She totally understood the comedy. She understood the genre blend. The fact that you can go so far over the line and then bring it back with the joke, there aren’t many people that are able to do it. I could say that it’s all in the script, but it was execution-based. You could have really alienated an audience with how far we were trying to go with the gore. She made it a commercial movie. The movie is, I think, what it was destined to be, what it was supposed to be. It lives up to what I was thinking about three years ago when I was writing the spec.”

COCAINE BEAR, Brooklynn Prince

“Cocaine Bear”

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Banks also didn’t balk at the level of gore Warden wanted — this is a film, after all, about a coked-up bear on a rampage, there’s gonna be some damage — but also intrinsically understood how that could be funny, too.

“I write a lot of movies like this, where it’s like you can take it up to a certain line, and if you straddle that line, you’re going to make people feel uncomfortable, but if you go over that line, you’re going to make people laugh,” Warden said. “So, with the gore, in a certain respect, if we toned it down at all, it may not have worked as well with the comedy. It was kind of just crossing that line by 10 steps, so instead of giving you a pit in your stomach, it makes you belly-laugh. Again, you have to live up to what the movie is. You can’t make a movie about a bear doing cocaine and going on a rampage throughout a national park in 1985 and not just go for the throat. Liz did that. We did that. Everybody from top-down. I mean, Jesus Christ. I can’t stress it enough, I never thought this movie was getting made.”

The horror stuff has been part of Warden’s media diet for as long as he can remember, and he readily admits he might have been a bit too young to consume some of the stuff he did as a kid. Formative stuff? He pointed to early screenings of everything from “Puppet Master” to the show “Rescue 911,” which once featured a segment in which a family’s home burnt down because, as Warden recalls, “This ceiling fan fell down on a lamp, and then a bunch of kids died.”

He laughed. “I’d be sitting there at night, the ceiling fan going above my head, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,” he said. “I mean, I’ve written a movie where a ceiling fan falls on somebody’s face. But I was definitely in the too young, too soon.”

But the best example, Warden said, goes back to John Travolta.

Cocaine Bear

“Cocaine Bear”

Universal Pictures

“I was obsessed with John Travolta when I was a kid. ‘Grease’ was my favorite movie, absolutely favorite movie,” Warden said. “I saw that he was in this movie coming out called ‘Pulp Fiction’ [when I was just five years old], and I remember my parents went to see it. Like, I was going with an older brother to go see a different movie, and my parents walked in to go see ‘Pulp Fiction.’ I was like, ‘You’re going to see the John Travolta movie without me?’ And then it finally came out on VHS, and I don’t think my dad was paying attention to Blockbuster and I rented it. I watched it. It just like, well, I definitely didn’t understand any of it at the time.”

Next up, Warden goes behind the camera to direct his wife, the actress Samara Weaving, who he previously worked with on “Killer Queen,” in “Borderline.”

The film is, per Warden, “a home invasion that takes place in Los Angeles in the ’90s.” He added, “A pop star’s home gets invaded, and the man, played by Ray Nicholson, is an obsessed fan and he thinks that he’s going into his wedding. So he manipulates all these things to make it feel like it’s his wedding. We’re calling it a violently romantic comedy at this point.”

Before that, however, he’s got to get through this “Cocaine Bear” media cycle. And, yes, his family remains supportive, even if they’re still a little shocked by some of it.

“It came out that I was quoted saying that I have dabbled in cocaine before, so it’s that type of thing that I text my parents and I’m like, ‘You guys haven’t written me in a couple hours. What’s going on? Everything OK?'” he said. Perhaps they didn’t catch that interview? “Oh, they saw it!” Warden said with a laugh “They’re alright. They’re fine!”

A Universal Pictures release, “Cocaine Bear” is now in theaters. 

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