When Jimmy Warden was a kid growing up in Chicago, he wound up watching “a lot” of horror movies when he was, he says, “far too young.”
“I became used to seeing people get their guts eaten or torn out of their bodies, stuff like that,” he says over Zoom with a wry chuckle. “So that’s where a lot of my taste is right now.”
Warden’s sensibility is on robust display in his screenplay for “Cocaine Bear,” the R-rated action-comedy, directed by Elizabeth Banks, that is loosely based on the true story of a black bear who died after ingesting a mountain of cocaine in 1985 from a botched drug smuggling operation. Warden stumbled on the account in the mid-2010s while scrolling through Twitter, “not doing work that I should have been doing,” and instantly realized that “there was something there.”
But Warden wasn’t interested in writing about the drug trafficker who scattered dozens of bags of cocaine across the Appalachian Mountains, and then died when his parachute didn’t open, nor was he keen on writing about a bear who dies from a cocaine overdose.
Instead, he says, he wrote “my twisted fantasy of what I wish actually happened after the bear did all that cocaine.”
Warden first sent his script to Lord Miller, the production company founded by filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — Warden’s first job in Hollywood was as a PA on Lord and Miller’s live-action directorial debut, 2012’s “21 Jump Street.” Still, despite their reputation for making movies — from “The LEGO Movie” to “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” — that delightfully defy conventions, Warden had zero expectation that his script would ever make it to theaters.
Instead, Universal made “Cocaine Bear,” with most of the $35 million budget going to Weta FX to create a photo-realistic, cocaine addicted black bear. Warden, 33, has already shot his directorial debut, the indie thriller “Borderline,” starring his wife, Samara Weaving. But as he explains to Variety, he also sees a promising future for “Cocaine Bear.”
Was “Cocaine Bear” the title from the start?
Yeah. If I’m being completely honest — maybe I shouldn’t say it — I never thought anybody was going to make this movie. When you have a script, you want to do anything to get people to read it. So there was never any question in my mind that the movie would be called “Cocaine Bear.” I think that if you asked me back then I would have been like, if it ever gets made, I assume people are probably going to want to change the name. But Universal never did.
In talking with Elizabeth Banks as well as Phil Lord, Chris Miller and their producing partner Aditya Sood, they were all very clear that they’d only make this movie if it was called “Cocaine Bear.”
That’s because they are a lot richer than I am. I would have been fine if somebody wanted to make this movie and call it you know, anything. And there are some things in there that, you know, if I were a betting man, I would have bet were going to get taken out. They just championed those things all the way through.
I assume that one of the things you’re talking about is the scene where the two 12-year-olds in the movie dare each other to try cocaine?
Yeah, it’s that scene — which, in the original spec, was the first scene of the movie. I figured, if you start there, and people continue to read after 10 pages of 12-year-olds doing coke in the woods, then you kind of have them.
Was there anything else you thought would be taken out?
I made it overly violent on purpose. I’m not sure how much of a gore fan you are, but at a certain point you cross the line and it becomes so messed up that you can’t help but laugh. It’s not the fringe, pit-of-your-stomach sort of violence; it becomes its own genre in a certain way. This is certainly not the first movie to do that. But I think that Liz executed in a way that this movie definitely crosses the line in terms of gore, but I don’t think it really alienates the audience.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like when you wrote this script, you saw it as a calling card to get other work, but you didn’t think a respectable studio would ever make it.
I guess I wouldn’t say “respectable studio.” I’m not sure it’s the right narrative, but that is kind of the truth. It was maybe going to get me some attention that people would read on tracking boards, possibly? Or just another spec that I would just throw on the pile of many that no one ever reads. I’m not sure if this is the best thing for me to say from a publicity perspective, but I don’t really care. The truth is, no, I didn’t think that any respectable studio would make a movie called “Cocaine Bear” and keep all the shit that I had written.
I mean, I’m part of the Just Say No generation that grew up in the ’80s, and watching the movie, there was a part of me that just couldn’t believe it existed at all — there was a time not that long ago where this movie would’ve just been this massive scandal.
What I learned from Phil and Chris and Aditya is that there’s a good nature to this movie as well. I wrote those kids doing [cocaine] with love; they were just very specific and vivid in my mind. I’m 10 years younger than you are. But I still had D.A.R.E. representatives coming to my school every week and just so much anti-drug culture around my school. So I never thought that anybody could put cocaine in the title and have it be as massive as this movie wants to be.
What did what did you think when you heard that Elizabeth Banks was interested in directing?
I was excited, because I think there’s a dark and smaller version of this movie. And in order to warrant however many millions we were going to need to build this bear, we needed someone that was able to push the envelope in terms of tone and make sure that it was something that everybody was going to want to see. Not just horror fans, not just gore freaks. She took those comedic aspects and continued to build on them.
The movie ends with what feels like a suggestion for a sequel, but given that you didn’t think this movie would get made, do you have an idea for a sequel in your head?
Yeah, for sure. Not just a sequel. Many sequels. “Cocaine Bear in Space” is where we would probably end.
I can’t tell if you’re pulling my leg or not.
No, I’m fucking with you about “Cocaine Bear Goes to Space.” But for the sequels, I definitely have ideas for that. The bear’s not the bad guy in this movie. What happened is a product of circumstance and everybody else’s poor decisions. I think that is a story that we can continue to tell over and over again. I’d be excited to tell it because there are some really good ideas that we have for the subsequent movies.
Finally, and please tell me if this is too personal, but did you draw from any personal experience with cocaine in writing this script?
And this is on the record. (Pause) Yeah, of course. I had personal experiences with both halves of the title. I’ve seen bears in the wild, and as for cocaine, I mean, yeah, who hasn’t? I don’t really know how much [my publicists] will want me to say that I have done cocaine in Variety. But yeah, I guess that’s true. Liz hasn’t, though. She refuses to.
“Cocaine Bear” premieres in theaters on Feb. 24.
This interview has been edited and condensed.