‘This Could Be a Career Ender’: Elizabeth Banks Risks It All for the Gory, R-Rated ‘Cocaine Bear’

‘This Could Be Career Ender’: Elizabeth

You’re not going to believe this, but Elizabeth Banks has never done cocaine.

“I took ‘Just say no’ to heart,” Banks says over breakfast in Beverly Hills. Growing up in western Massachusetts and moving to New York City to break into acting, the 48-year-old Banks had many opportunities to, you know, do some blow, but she claims she never took them. She says it was just too risky. “Being a goody-two-shoes played into it,” she says. “Personal safety played a big role in it. I was a cocktail waitress for years. And I was not interested in not being sober for the shit I saw.”

Photographs by Art Streiber; Visual Effects by Weta FX

Banks has no such reservations, however, when it comes to filming a giant hairy mammal ingesting a boatload of coke. That is the wild premise of her latest film as a director, “Cocaine Bear.” The dark, R-rated action-comedy is loosely based on the true story of a 175-pound black bear living in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia that, in the mid-1980s, gorged itself on 70 pounds of cocaine dropped in an aerial drug run gone bad. In real life, the bear overdosed and died. But the movie posits a much different scenario, in which the coked-up animal rampages through the woods on a voracious hunt for as much blow as possible. Woe to any humans who get in his way.

After the rousing success of her directorial debut, 2015’s “Pitch Perfect 2,” about an all-female team of a cappella singers, Banks’ second film, 2019’s “Charlie’s Angels,” about an all-female team of covert spies, based on the late-’70s TV show, was the kind of humiliating flop that young directors, especially women, often don’t recover from. It wasn’t just that the $48 million film, which Banks also produced, wrote, and starred in, returned only $73.3 million worldwide — she stepped into a social media firestorm when an interview about how women in action films are received was interpreted as her blaming the film’s poor reception on sexism. After the film opened, Banks tweeted, “Well, if you’re going to have a flop, make sure your name is on it at least 4x.”

“I took full responsibility for ‘Charlie’s Angels’ — certainly no one else did,” Banks says, fixing me with a hard stare. “It was all laid on me and I happily accepted, because what else am I supposed to do?”

With “Cocaine Bear,” though, Banks has found a way-outside-the-box opportunity to come back strong.

Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley is betting on her. “She wasn’t afraid of the material,” Langley says. “She wasn’t afraid of how gonzo it needed to be. In today’s marketplace, really what you have to be is bold and fresh and different, and ‘Cocaine Bear’ certainly checks those boxes.”

High off the success of “M3gan,” Universal hopes “Cocaine Bear” can be another blockbuster that rides the wave of its viral trailer all the way to the box office. But the recent performance of high-concept, R-rated comedies — from “Bros” to “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” “Long Shot” to “Tag” — ranges from disappointing to downright depressing. “We do enter the comedy space with a lot of trepidation these days,” Langley says. “It’s why we make fewer of them than perhaps we did a decade ago. Nobody knows anything about what’s going to draw an audience except for perhaps dinosaurs, minions and superheroes.”

“Cocaine Bear” is budgeted in the mid- to high-$30 million range, with most of the money going to Weta FX — the Peter Jackson-owned company that brought Pandora back to life in “Avatar: The Way of Water” — to create the furry drug addict with CGI. It was an opportunity for Banks — who was interested in directing 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” but never heard back from Marvel — to prove herself in a cinematic space that women are rarely invited to enter. “I definitely wanted to make something muscular and masculine,” she says. “I wanted to break down some of the mythology around what kinds of movies women are interested in making. For some bizarre reason, there are still executives in Hollywood who are like, ‘I don’t know if women can do technical stuff.’ There are literally people who are like, ‘Women don’t like math.’ It just persists.”

That kind of creative pragmatism has been a constant throughout Banks’ two decades in Hollywood. In 2008, for instance, she played Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s political biopic “W.,” and starred opposite Seth Rogen in Kevin Smith’s profane rom-com “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” The diametrically opposed roles signaled to the industry that she could do anything. The following year, she launched Brownstone Prods., the company she runs with her husband, Max Handelman, with whom she has two sons, ages 9 and 10. While she produced the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, which earned $589 million globally, she also played Effie Trinket in the multibillion-dollar “Hunger Games” franchise. Right before shooting “Cocaine Bear,” she made 2022’s “Call Jane,” an indie docudrama about abortion rights she starred in opposite Sigourney Weaver.

Banks is candid and charming, regularly deploying her trademark robust laugh, the kind that can fill a room. Sometimes, though, an edge peeks through her affability. She’s aware, at times extraordinarily so, of the effect her words could have on her career, especially with a movie as outrageous as “Cocaine Bear.” The film represents something new and potentially perilous for Banks: a chance to establish her own original filmmaking voice — and the possibility that audiences could reject it.

“‘Cocaine Bear’ is a ginormous risk,” she says, breaking into a peal of that laughter. “This could be a career ender for me.”

In other words, gone are the days of just saying no.

One day a few years ago, screenwriter Jimmy Warden was scrolling through Twitter when he came upon a photo of a stuffed black bear with the caption “Pablo Escobear: the cocaine bear.” “I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’” Warden says. “I went down a complete rabbit hole, just clicking and clicking and clicking.”

Warden learned about how a drug trafficker named Andrew Thornton II had died in a parachute accident in September 1985, during a botched drug drop over the Appalachian Mountains. He was found dead in a driveway in Knoxville, Tenn., wearing Gucci loafers and strapped to roughly $15 million of cocaine. Four months later, the remains of a black bear were discovered in northern Georgia near 40 packages of cocaine from that same drop; they’d all been torn open, presumably by the bear.

Photographs by Art Streiber; Visual Effects by Weta FX

Warden felt immediately that he wanted to tell the story, and not just Thornton’s side of it. “I knew that the central character had to be a bear who did drugs,” Warden says. “I had personal experiences with both halves,” he adds. “I’ve seen bears in the wild, and as for cocaine, I mean, yeah, who hasn’t done it?”

Warden sent the finished script to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller at their production company Lord Miller — he’d been a PA on the duo’s 2012 comedy “21 Jump Street,” and he thought it might mesh with their sensibility for zigging when the rest of the industry zags.

“It was one of those things where you hear the concept and you’re like, ‘That’s interesting, but is there a real movie in it?’” Miller says. “But Jimmy did a great job making it into something that would be fun — better than you’d imagine for something called ‘Cocaine Bear.’”

Lord and Miller took the script to Universal, where they have a firstlook deal. Despite the increasingly challenging landscape for original comedies, Langley committed to making it. “The script just felt like a bold choice to cut through the clutter and to make some noise,” she says.

But Langley had other reservations. “Having a title like ‘Cocaine Bear’ means that it’s going to be restricted from certain avenues of marketing that we might ordinarily use,” she says. The initial announcement of the project in December 2019 didn’t include a title.

In the early months of the pandemic, Banks’ agent got ahold of the script and sent it to her.

“The movie flashed before my eyes,” Banks says. She had a good history with Lord and Miller from voicing Wyldstyle in their 2014 animated film “The Lego Movie” and its 2019 sequel, so she set up a meeting — and made vividly clear where she wanted to take the material. “She had a pitch deck, and it was pretty gory,” Miller says, laughing. “It had a lot of body parts and internal organs in it.”

Indeed, Banks did some particularly graphic advance research. “I don’t recommend anyone do this, but if you go down the internet hole of looking at actual animal attacks on humans, it’s fucking gnarly as shit,” she says. “I love gore. I grew up on ‘Evil Dead.’ The gore is part of the fun of the ride.”

Banks’ embrace of the carnage in “Cocaine Bear” also stems from her conviction that the movie would work only if the audience believed the animal was real. “It had to feel like a NatGeo documentary about a bear that did cocaine,” she says. “It couldn’t be something silly. It couldn’t seem animated in any way.”

Most crucially, when Banks looked into the real story, she came away with what she describes as “a deep sympathy for the bear.” “I really felt like this is so fucked up that this bear got dragged into this drug run gone bad and ends up dead,” she says earnestly. “I felt like this movie could be that bear’s revenge story.”

Photographs by Art Streiber; Visual Effects by Weta FX

Langley was impressed and was already predisposed to working with Banks again after hiring her to direct “Pitch Perfect 2.” “She knows where the joke is, she’s got an amazing eye for casting and she’s also muscular — you know, she can direct action,” Langley says.

Banks had one stipulation: If she was going to direct the movie, the studio had to commit to calling it “Cocaine Bear.” “I lived through ‘Zach and Miri Make a Porno,’ and the title was a problem,” she says. “But I think ‘Zach and Miri Make a Porno’ now would be like, ‘Whatever.’ I don’t really think anyone would even shy away from it. Because words don’t matter anymore.” She laughs. “Words really don’t matter anymore.”

One happy surprise after the financial failure of “Charlie’s Angels” was that Banks never went to movie jail like so many other female filmmakers with flops before her. “I wasn’t that worried about it,” she says. “I mean, I do a lot of things.”

No kidding. Between when she first read the “Cocaine Bear” script in April 2020, when she shot the film in Ireland in the fall of 2021, and its theatrical debut on Feb. 24, Banks also hosted two seasons of the game show “Press Your Luck” on ABC; starred in three features, including a comedy, “The Beanie Bubble,” and a drama, “A Mistake,” both due this year; produced the 2023 LGBTQ teen rom-com “Bottoms”; produced the TV series “Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin,” which just premiered its first season on Peacock; and joined a wine company, Archer Roose, as co-owner and chief creative officer. That’s on top of marshaling nearly a dozen more projects Brownstone has in various stages of development.

“My husband will say, ‘Babe, are you stressed out about blah blah blah?’” she says. “And I look at him and I’m like, ‘I think you’re stressed out about it. I’m not that stressed out.’”

Banks has always been at ease with managing chaos. “She loves throwing game nights at her house,” says Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays a conservationist in “Cocaine Bear” and has been friends with Banks for more than 20 years. “She is the person who’s going to dictate the night. She’s going to make sure everyone’s drinks are filled and all the games go off without a hitch. She’s going to be the master of ceremonies, and she’s going to curate this evening that is going to be so fun for the entire group of people that she’s chosen to bring into her home.”

Ferguson stayed in Banks’ guest house when he landed his first sitcom in 2006, just as she and Handelman were getting Brownstone off the ground. “I was like, what’s this mission control center you have going on,” Ferguson recalls. “I was just so impressed with how she was juggling all these balls and learning all of these new things on the fly. She’s never stagnant.”

It’s not lost on Banks that she’s among the generation of actor-directors who had to fight for every opportunity in a pre-#MeToo industry. In fact, even after #MeToo, the statistics for women directors remain grim — there’s still a small list (Greta Gerwig, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Chloé Zhao, etc.) being considered to direct studio tentpoles. “Even if you’re an ambitious, talented, creative person who likes the work that they’re doing, Hollywood is not handing out paydays to women in their 40s and 50s,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how slow progress is. I can only push so much, but I will keep pushing. For me, that’s really what it comes down to.” She pauses for a long time. “Just being a little more quietly revolutionary is maybe what I’m going for.”

In Warden’s original script for “Cocaine Bear,” the movie opened with a scene of two 12-year-olds who come upon one of the packets of cocaine and dare each other to try some. From there, a motley ensemble of vacationing hikers, park rangers, EMTs, teenage delinquents and drug dealers get mauled, mangled and ripped apart in increasingly imaginative ways, collateral damage in the cocaine bear’s insatiable quest for its next bump.

When Banks came on board to direct, she shifted the film’s opening scene to Thornton (played in a nearly wordless cameo by Matthew Rhys) tossing the cocaine out of the plane. But that scene with the kids sampling from a brick of snow? That’s still very much in the movie.

Photographs by Art Streiber; Visual Effects by Weta FX

“It was definitely controversial,” Banks says. “There were conversations about, should we age up these characters? We all kind of held hands and we were like, ‘Guys, they’ve got to be 12.’ It’s their innocence being tested. That’s what was interesting to me about that scene.”

Adds Miller, “It’s the naïveté of the kids that makes it OK. It’s what makes it so tense and funny. It doesn’t work if they’re teenagers. It has to be that age where you don’t know anything, but you want to pretend like you do.”

When asked about the film’s envelope-pushing approach to drugs, Langley says, “You know, it’s a caper and a romp. It’s really designed to be that and nothing more. It didn’t really occur to us to politicize it at all.” At the same time, she says, the whole reason to make “Cocaine Bear” is to be so audacious that audiences can’t ignore it.

Lord agrees. “It has to be a proposition that you haven’t seen before,” he says. “It has to feel a little bit transgressive — like, this is too naughty to watch at home.”

It was up to Banks to navigate the tension between making it playful and brazen, engaging and provocative. She felt she was up to the challenge. “It’s tone,” she says simply. “That’s what I do as a filmmaker.”

Banks was particularly clear on how far she wanted to push the violence in the film, especially after she learned about what happens after a bear captures its next meal. “They don’t kill their prey before they eat it,” she says, leaning across the table in a conspiratorial whisper. “They just start eating it alive.”

When asked about shooting Ferguson’s gruesome death — after, as revealed in the film’s first trailer, the cocaine bear chases his character up a tree — her face lights up. “It’s the greatest,” she says. “Makes me so happy.”

Ferguson had a similarly droll memory of Banks directing the scene, telling him what should be going on in his mind as he’s being attacked: “She’s saying stuff like ‘How is this happening?! This bear is your friend — why is it doing this?! Beg for it to stop!’” he says. “And then: ‘The life’s draining out of you! Make your eyes go dead! No, don’t cross your eyes!’”

Banks and the late Ray Liotta on set
Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures

Once she saw the first full cut of the film, Banks says she “definitely took gore out,” but only sparingly so. She took particular care with a scene between the cocaine bear and the film’s real villain, a drug dealer played by Ray Liotta. The actor died in May 2022, just a week after he rerecorded his dialogue with Banks. “He came to Ireland with the best attitude,” Banks says as her eyes well up. “He had a great time. He came for ADR and saw the film, and was like, ‘Oh, my God, the bear looks so good!’”

In 2016, Banks withdrew from directing “Pitch Perfect 3” after delays pushed the start date for the Georgia-based production to the fall, when her eldest son was starting school. “I was like, if we can shoot it in L.A., I would’ve enjoyed doing it,” she says. “But that was just not ever even a consideration.” Yet another hurdle that probably wouldn’t stop a man from directing a movie.

There’s a sense in talking with her that Banks has spent so much time clawing out her own variegated space in the industry that she doesn’t really see any other way to move forward. When she reveals she once inquired about pitching to direct “Thor: Ragnarok” for Marvel Studios, she adds, “Nothing ever happened. No one called me. Taika Waititi got the job. Rightfully so.” I ask if she’s reached out to James Gunn, who directed Banks in his 2006 sci-fi horror comedy “Slither,” now that Gunn is co-running DC Studios. She laughs and shakes her head, no. “I had a pitch for a Catwoman movie a while ago that I don’t think will fit into the mandate right now,” she says. “But maybe someday.”

She sighs. “I don’t get approached that much about doing anything,” she says. “But I’m open for business. That’s the thing: I’m open for business.”

And yet she really doesn’t see herself as a director for hire. “Cocaine Bear” is the first film Banks has helmed that she didn’t in some way generate herself, and she relished the opportunity to make it her own. “I can’t do someone else’s vision,” she says. “I really want to bring my sensibility to things.”

Suddenly she says, “OK, I brought up ‘Thor.’ You’re going to clickbait me in that fucking article now.” Her expression is a cross between a smile and a grimace. “I never should have said it out loud.”

As the plates are being removed from the table, Banks is still smarting. In the run-up to “Charlie’s Angels,” the media pounced when she called comic book movies “a male genre” in an interview, ignoring her larger point about how action films outside that genre that are centered predominantly on women never get the same kind of financial backing. The experience, and others like it, have clearly left her wary.

“This article will be disastrous for me on some level, no matter what,” she says. “Someone will find something to put in some headline to get clicked on, and I’ll get in trouble with somebody. It’s fine. It’s part of it. Always happens.”

Something about how true this is reminds me of earlier, when Banks said she wants to be quietly revolutionary. I point out that she’s never struck me as naturally quiet: She’s the kind of person who says the thing.

“My experience is that I’m doing something quietly revolutionary, and that’s not what gets paid attention to,” she replies. “What gets paid attention to is ‘But you’re a woman who gets to do male things! That’s amazing!’ That’s not that amazing. I don’t purport to be the first who’s doing it. I’m not revolutionary. Jodie Foster exists. Drew Barrymore directed a movie. I’m more interested in the work — in ideas that speak to the audience.”

Styling: Vanessa Shokrian; Production: Michele Romero; Props: Scott Stone; Makeup: Jo Strettell/Walter Schupfer; Hair: Ben Skervin/Walter Schupfer; Look 1 (cover image): Gown: Reem Acra/Sho + Co Showroom; Earrings: Roseark; Ring: Goshwara/Roseark Showroom; Look 2 (directors chair): Gown: Steven Khalil/Maison Privee Showroom; Shoes: LeSilla; Earrings:Roseark; Diamond ring: L’atelier Nawbar/Roseark Showroom; White Gold Ring/Goshwara/Roseark Showroom; Look 3 (black dress): Gown: Steven Khalil/Maison Privee Showroom; Earrings: Roseark; Black Ring: Goshwara/ Roseark Showroom; Diamond ring: L’atelier Nawbar/Roseark Showroom

From Variety US