Cocaine Bear – Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine, and the black bear that ate it, the wild dark comedy Cocaine Bear’s transition from 1980s curiosity to multiplex spectacle for the masses began four years ago when screenwriter Jimmy Warden busied himself with doing what writers do best: Not writing. “I was procrastinating on doing other work and I was scrolling through Twitter or maybe it was Instagram,” Warden says. He stumbled across a fragment of the tale that inspired him to dig deeper. “I went down a rabbit hole and didn’t stop clicking links until I got the entire story. I was not disappointed.”

As Warden ripped through lines of unrefined information on his screen, the stuff that piqued his interest the most wasn’t an infamous drug smuggler’s sordid travails, but the relatively unexplored question of what happens to an animal when it gets totally blitzed on cocaine.

On Reddit, Warden came across a post that said, “There was probably about a five-minute window before [the bear] died where [it] was the most dangerous apex predator on any fucking continent.” An idea was born.

“That was the inspiration for writing the movie,” Warden says. “But l knew I wasn’t just going to have the bear die of a drug overdose. That’d be kind of a downer. So, I thought it could kill a lot of people instead. Building this script was such an insane journey. The instant I came across the story of the cocaine bear, I knew I had to write it. How could I not? Dreaming up different ways for a bear on cocaine to kill people in the woods is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a script.”

Jimmy Warden

Inspired by the 1985 true story of a drug runner’s plane crash, missing cocaine, and the black bear that ate it, this wild dark comedy finds an oddball group of cops, criminals, tourists and teens converging in a Georgia forest where a 500- pound apex predator has ingested a staggering amount of cocaine and gone on a coke-fueled rampage for more blow … and blood.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s AngelsPitch Perfect 2) and written by Jimmy Warden (The Babysitter: Killer Queen), 

Warden’s screenplay is faithful only to the inciting incident of Andrew Carter Thornton II littering a national park with cocaine. Everything else in this dark comedy is fiction.

Warden transmogrified the unlucky 175-pound bear into a 500-pound killing machine with incredible metabolism.

He populated the Chattahoochee with an eclectic spread of people for “Cokey,” as he dubbed his bear, to terrorize and graze, fleshing out each of them with meaty conflicts and juicy personal missions. These included: 1) a single mom searching the woods for her lost daughter and the girl’s smitten friend, 2) a forest ranger trying to capture the heart of a PETA inspector, 3) a pair of criminals trying to repair their friendship after a tragic loss, 4) a detective with an emotionally ambiguous relationship with a Maltese, 5) some Norwegian hikers, some brave paramedics, a gang of artsy-fartsy punks with a jones for 20th-century French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (because of course), and more.

Further inspiring Warden in his writing of this 1980s tale were the movies of the Eighties, specifically escapism of the Amblin kind, with everyday people having close encounters with extraordinary, inexplicable things. “Steven Spielberg movies were highly influential on me as a kid,” says Warden. “I loved the idea of high-concept danger, but grounded with real characters overcoming real-world struggles.”

Warden asked his friend, producer Brian Duffield (himself a screenwriter), to help advise on the project. Duffield saw the film as an outrageous allegorical critique of America in the Reagan era, especially the dubious War on Drugs and its despoiling, destructive consequences. It’s also, Duffield says, “and about a bear who eats a lot of cocaine and ruins a lot of lives.”

Duffield recommended the script to producer Aditya Sood, president of the production for Lord Miller. He read it in one night and bought it the next morning.

“What Jimmy wrote was so far above anything that any movie named Cocaine Bear had any right to be,” says Sood. His acquisition created a reunion for Warden and Oscar-winning filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Warden had worked as a production assistant on their hit 21 Jump Street.

“We always say that we think of the movies we work on as pranks,” says Lord, “and we thought the ultimate prank would be to make a really good movie called Cocaine Bear.” Says Miller: “Jimmy is very thoughtful in what he does. So what’s crazy about this movie is that it has a really sweet heart, even though it has a, uh, lot of bear murder.”

To pull off this particular prank, Lord and Miller needed a director who could not only execute entertainingly savage animal violence but also handle a tricky mix of modes and moods. They turned to a talent they knew well: Elizabeth Banks, who helmed Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels (2019), and who, as a celebrated actor, has worked in every possible genre of film, including both of Lord-Miller’s LEGO movies. “Elizabeth has been our friend for a long time, and we have a terrific shorthand with her,” says Miller. “She knows all sides of the business. She’s really great with actors. She thinks about movies in a really smart way. So, she’s a real dynamo.”

For her part, Banks was just as thrilled to work with Lord and Miller again. “We know each other well enough that we know each other’s sense of humor really well,” says Banks, who also agreed to produce the film alongside her producing partner and spouse Max Handelman. “Phil, Chris, and I all saw the same thing in the script, and I knew I was never going to have to worry about not being on the same page with them about tone or jokes. They have impeccable taste. I’m an absolutely ginormous fan of theirs.”

For screenwriter Warden, the experience was a dream scenario. “It’s surreal writing something like this, then watching some of the most talented people in the world put everything they have into making it come to life,” Warden says. “From Elizabeth’s direction to the wonderful group of producers to the spectacular cast and crew, everyone did such a beautiful job bringing Cokey to the big screen.”

Elizabeth Banks grew up watching and loving late ’70s and ’80s movies, and she immediately saw the potential with Cocaine Bear to pay homage to that era, but also to create a hilarious, gory, entertaining ride for audiences.

“For me, as an audience member, and as somebody who had aspired to make films, I have always loved horror and comedy together,” Banks says. “Horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin to me. The best thing you can do is take the audience on a real roller coaster, making them laugh, making them scream, making them jump. That’s what the goal was in making this film. I really felt like this was the opportunity to layer real true comedy, laugh-out-loud moments, with a real sense of suspense and a lot of gore, and have a great time with this big, bright, broad idea of this bear that’s going to fuck some people up.”

Director Elizabeth Banks © 2023 Universal Studios

That mix of dark comedy and horror is rare on screen, largely because it is difficult to execute well. If the film is too scary the comedy doesn’t land; if it’s too campy the audience never feels scared. But Banks was not only up for the challenge, she was eager for it. “I think what I do best as a filmmaker is walking a fine line of tone,” Banks says. “I essentially make comedies, but I put them inside of other movies. My first movie, Pitch Perfect 2, was a comedy inside of a musical. Charlie’s Angels was a comedy inside of an action movie. This is a comedy inside of a horror movie. To me, it felt like we could do something special and unique like the Coen brothers meet Evil Dead.”

It was also an opportunity to work on a film with a huge number of visual effects. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to direct it,” Banks says. “I think a lot of women don’t get the opportunity to do things with a lot of green screen and effects and action because of this assumption that women aren’t interested in that sort of thing. I wanted to prove that that’s a myth. That was one of the reasons that I really liked the idea of doing it. I just love the challenge. And I really wanted to learn a new set of skills.”

Throughout the process, she delighted in the details of special-effects testing. “It’s one of my favorite things about making movies,” Banks says. “It’s figuring out, ‘How’s this going to work? How thick is the blood? How thick are the guts? How thick is the brain matter? What does cocaine look like? How does it move when you blow on it or sniff it? How big are the bricks of cocaine and what will it look like when we cut it?’ Everything is talked about ad nauseam, in multiple meetings, so we can bring it all to set and bring it to life.”

Indeed, for Banks, it was important that for all the bloody mayhem caused by Cokey on Cocaine Bear, most of the death is the result of human folly and the long tail consequences of their flawed choices. Cokey is seen as a corrupted innocent and represents a reckoning for humanity’s exploitative abuse of the environment. “It was really important to me that the bear in our film become the hero of the movie,” says Banks. “In real life, the bear was a victim of something that people did. It’s tragic, actually, how this story came to be, and I wanted to honor that. There was so much collateral damage in the war on drugs on eighties, and beyond that, to the destructive way we treat the Earth, and we have not fixed it yet. You can’t blame the animal for going crazy. You can’t blame nature for turning on us, when all we’re doing is fucking with the planet. We think we can get away with this. That’s our hubris. And now it’s come back to bite us in the gut.”

The greatest challenge Elizabeth Banks and her production team faced in producing Cocaine Bear was getting the “Cocaine Bear” of it all right.

No real bears would be used for the film, so the animal would need to be created. “I knew if the bear wasn’t real, if we lost the audience with a fakey looking bear, that the movie wouldn’t work at all,” says Banks. “So we needed the best in the business to work on this bear.” Enter Weta, the New Zealand-based special effects company founded by Peter Jackson, renowned for their work on The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and The Planet of the Apes franchises, to bring the title character to life. “They got the tone,” says Banks, “and they understood that a bear could have really interesting behavior, because it’s high on cocaine. That was the bear’s super power, if you will, the magic that we could literally sprinkle onto our bear.”

The first step was deciding on Cokey’s appearance. Banks wanted a photo-realistic, National Geographic nature documentary-quality bear. After considering dozens of different species in the Ursidae family, Banks and company decided to model their animal on a female sun bear. The sun bear is an omnivore that’s fond of trees and has excellent climbing skills, with a stocky physique, sable fur with sun-bleached auburn highlights, muscular limbs, curved paws with sharp claws, and a short snout. The short snout, science tells us, is an asset in fighting and hunting, but also limits a creature’s sense of smell, which, in turn, can limit its ability to discern between naturally occurring forest foodstuffs that are safe and healthy for them to consume and, say, cocaine.

The sun bear, by its design, just looks cooked, you know?” says Weta FX visual effects supervisor Robin Hollander (Eternals). “They’re sort of lopsided; they have a long tongue; they’re quite ferocious when they eat things. So, it was really interesting for us to get onboard early and try and shape the character by taking cues out of real life and then saying, ‘Okay, when she’s high, she could do this, and when she’s really coked out and she’s tired she can be doing that a little bit more.”

To make Cokey even more distinctive, she was given a scar on her snout and a nicked ear. “We wanted to give her some really specific attributes so the audience always understood that there was only just one bear on cocaine in the movie, not two or three,” says Banks, adding that in doing so, Cokey gained even more personality than simply being the world’s newest and most interesting drug addict. “This is not somebody that you mess with,” says Banks. “She’s a survivor.”

The task of performing Cokey fell to ALLAN HENRY, a veteran motion capture/stunt performer who has played a wide variety of fantastic beasts, alien creatures, and assorted in wildlife in such movies as The Jungle Book, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Avengers: Endgame. “When I first got the job, they just said, ‘We need someone who can be a bear in Kentucky and rampage through the forest and maul people,” says Henry. “Weirdly enough in this industry, that is not an odd thing to hear for a job.”

To prepare for the role, Henry studied videos of bear movement, though they didn’t offer much insight into how to incorporate the feature that makes Cokey different than the average bear. “Being a bear is hard enough,” says Henry. “But being a bear on cocaine… well, that’s a challenge. There’s not a lot of research about bears on cocaine. No one’s really had any time to interview a bear on cocaine, either. It was a lot of guesswork on my part, honestly.”

© 2023 Universal Studios

The Story Behind the Legend

Sometime around 1 AM on Sept. 11, 1985, Andrew Carter Thornton II, an Army paratrooper-turned-racehorse trainer-turned-narcotics cop-turned-DEA agent- turned-lawyer-turned-cocaine smuggler (oh, and alleged CIA operative, too), made a series of bold choices under possible duress while flying higher than a kite—literally, and maybe figuratively, too—that would set in motion a chain events which, nearly four decades later, now culminates in a major motion picture.

Nicknamed “The Cocaine Cowboy” and remembered for his “Rambo” personality and fancy footwear, Thornton had a well-honed m.o. of flying cocaine into the country from south of the border and dropping illicit cargo into wilderness areas in the Southeastern United States to be retrieved later with the assistance of associates. On this 9/11 morning in the Just Say No 1980s, Thornton was piloting a twin-engine five-seat Cessna carrying 880 pounds of Colombian flake (street value: at least $14 million) bound for Knoxville, Tennessee, while wearing a khaki jacket over a bulletproof vest, black gloves and gray-laced Gucci dress shoes. His traveling companion was reportedly Bill Leonard, karate instructor, bodybuilder, and sometimes bodyguard-for-hire, who claimed that he had been tricked into making the journey with Thornton and didn’t initially know the purpose of the trip; legend has it that prior to takeoff, they dined on parrot in The Bahamas, and during the flight, Leonard got sick and puked all over the cockpit.

While it wasn’t uncommon for Thornton to bail out of his planes with his coke drops and let them crash in the ocean, it’s unclear if that was his intention on this trip. According to a 1990 interview Leonard gave to The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Thornton became convinced they were being tailed by feds as they entered U.S. airspace over Florida and took action. They tossed three duffle bags of cocaine, each weighing 70 pounds, give or take a brick, overboard; they would land intact in the Chattahoochee National Forest of Northern Georgia. Thornton then gave Leonard a brief tutorial on how to operate a parachute—Leonard had never skydived before— and pushed him out the door. (Leonard landed safely and was never charged with any crime). But others speculate that Thornton did what he did because the Cessna was having mechanical difficulties—or that Thornton might have been plotting to fake his own death. Only God now knows.

What’s certain is that as the plane approached the intersection of Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas at an altitude of 8,400 feet, Thornton engaged the autopilot and decided to follow Leonard to the ground. With the pockets of his cargo pants stuffed with $4,586.76 in cash and coins, six 1 ounce gold Kurggerands, and notebooks scribbled with secret codes and telephone numbers, Thornton made himself even bulkier with a professional-grade skydiver’s parachute and two pieces of luggage: A gray nylon bag containing a Browning 9mm assault pistol and extra clips, a .22 Derringer, assorted ammunition, night-vision equipment, rations, a survival knife, and an altimeter; and a black nylon bag, tied to his waist with a 10 foot rope, containing 35 yellow plastic packets of cocaine, each weighing 2.2 pounds (77 lbs. total), a $1.225 million pinch of the total haul. He then donned goggles and jumped (or perhaps hit his head and fell) into dark sky over Eastern Tennessee. Sometime between 1:30 AM and 2:30 AM, the Cessna crashed into an ivy-covered ridge roughly 60 miles away in the Natahala National Forest of North Carolina.

What went wrong during Thornton’s fall is unknown. The police would find the parachute’s main canopy half a mile away from his body; apparently, it separated from the harness without ever unfurling. He did manage to deploy a back-up chute, but it didn’t do any good; the speculation is that he was too heavy for it. And so it went that The Cocaine Cowboy landed in a gravel driveway in a residential neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee, and died on the spot with blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Happy Trails, Fancy Rambo.

Thornton would, sadly, not be the only casualty of that flight. Four months later, it was discovered that a black bear, weighing about 175 pounds, had been lumbering through Chattahoochee wilderness near Blood Mountain when it bumbled upon a duffle that Thornton had pitched overboard, took some sniffs, and decided to consume the contents of the bag. When the bear’s corpse was eventually found, an autopsy revealed that it had succumbed to a combination of cerebral hemorrhaging, hyperthermia, respiratory failure, renal failure, and heart failure. The bear’s stomach was filled to capacity with cocaine, upwards of 35 pounds, although only four grams of booger sugar was found in its bloodstream. (It would take almost twice that amount to kill a person of the same weight, says the Internet.) Because all 40 yellow plastic packets of cocaine—an estimated 77 lbs.—contained in the duffle were found ravaged and empty at the scene, authorities suspect that other foolish animals, including some of the human variety, helped themselves to the majority of the Colombian windfall in the four months between when the bag landed in the woods and the discovery by authorities of the bear’s body.