In an interview with the New York Times last September, actor-filmmaker Elizabeth Banks shared a piece of career advice from Lorne Michaels that’s been of enduring value to her.
“Don’t do things unless you think they’ll be part of the cultural conversation,” Banks recalled the SNL boss saying. “I’ve tried to make choices based on that. I’m getting older, and I want to stay relevant and be in the conversation.”
This, she’s certainly achieved with Cocaine Bear — an R-rated horror-comedy for Universal Pictures marking her third directorial effort, which has been much anticipated since its announcement on this site almost two years ago.
Seemingly predestined for viral, word-of-mouth success, given its adrenalized title alone, Cocaine Bear is among the recent titles serving as a much-needed reminder that the moviegoing experience can offer something unexpected — and fun. Based loosely on real events that took place in 1985, the film watches as a duffel bag’s worth of cocaine drops from a drug smuggler’s plane and winds up in a Georgia forest, becoming a favorite snack for a hulking black bear, with an electric set of unfortunate souls then being subject to his murderous rampage.
Cocaine Bear was a growth opportunity for Banks as a director-producer, on the heels of her 2015 debut Pitch Perfect 2 and subsequent effort Charlie’s Angels, given the chance it afforded her to direct more muscular and horrific action, and to work with an ursine lead who would never step on set, instead being brought to life by way of a human stand-in and Weta-driven CGI. (The latter move has been much applauded by animal rights org PETA, which today bestowed her with their “Beary Best” Award.)
In conversation with Deadline ahead of the film’s February 24 release, Banks discusses her draw to Jimmy Warden’s out-of-the-box script; the pitch to Universal that landed her the project, which she’d strive to make as “bold and audacious” on screen as it was in name; her experience directing the late Ray Liotta; the status of her Peacock series Red Queen, based on the YA fantasy bestseller by Victoria Aveyard; and the work that needs to be done to bring comedy back as a theatrical draw.
DEADLINE: How often have you come across scripts that have resonated with you as strongly as Cocaine Bear as potential directorial vehicles?
ELIZABETH BANKS: It’s rare. It’s definitely rare to read something that you think, “Oh, I can’t wait to commit two and a half years of my life to this.” [Laughs] You’ve got to really feel that there’s some passion behind it, and I just fell in love with the characters in this script. I mean, I love, obviously, the big idea. The rampaging bear on cocaine was a great hook, but I knew that the opportunity here was to make something with these grounded characters that the audience would fall in love with. I was in love with them on the page, and then I got this incredible cast, and that’s what really kept me invested the whole time.
DEADLINE: To my understanding, you also saw the project as a way to expand your expertise in areas like VFX, and to subvert limiting perceptions, as far as both the interests and abilities of female directors…
BANKS: I mean, yes. It felt very risky to me because, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear this, but directors like to have a sense of control. [Laughs] And I was endeavoring to make something where the lead character of the movie was never going to be on set. I had never trusted that process before. So for me, it was a real learning experience of just, you have to get over that. I had amazing partners with Weta, and that collaboration was so fun and interesting, and a great learning curve for me. Because that’s what convinced me I could do it.
If the bear didn’t work, I just knew that the audience would leave us and the movie wouldn’t work. So when I say this movie was risky, when I say that I was scared of it…Look, I can bring great actors to set. I know how to run the set; I know how to create comedy in these moments. I can put together the set piece. I cannot computer generate a bear. I had to rely on other people to do that, and that loss of control was really scary.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the pitch that landed you the project. I know you put together a grisly pitch deck.
BANKS: It was just about frankly setting up the tone of the movie and us all sort of holding hands together and going, “Look, this is how I see it. If everybody sees it this way, then we should jump in with both feet.” But if anybody has reservations about how I see it, I just wanted to get that all on the table very early in the process. I want everybody to be excited about the movie that we’re about to make. I need those partners to get behind it, and so I love putting together presentations like that. It’s how you get everybody to be the cheerleader for it.
[As far as] the gore, I just felt like the title is bold and audacious. The script is bold and audacious. I didn’t want to make choices that were not also bold and audacious. Like, the audacity of the choices, they have to live up to the title. The movie can’t live up to the title if we shy away from anything. I was like, “We need to lean in full on.” And bears don’t kill their prey before they eat them. They eat things alive. It’s intense, so that kind of led us. Just a little bit of research led me. It was like looking at somebody who’d been attacked by a bear in Romania…”Well, their literal body parts are no longer together. Okay. So, that’s what we’re talking about.” You know?
DEADLINE: Obviously, no real bears were exposed to cocaine or otherwise harmed in the making of this movie. That being said, I’ve heard stories about CG-created animals whose verisimilitude has prompted PETA to reach out to filmmakers. Did they inquire about your filmmaking methodology here?
BANKS: I’m proud to say that PETA did reach out to us at the very beginning to ask how it was going to work. We said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to use a single real animal.” And we just got a thank you note from PETA, saying “Thank you for showing the way.” [Laughs] So, that’s a first in my career.
DEADLINE: While horror films are still among the most successful in our contemporary marketplace, it’s increasingly rare to see comedies made for the big screen, despite the fact that comedy is something fundamental to the human experience that is enjoyed communally in its best form. What do you think it will take to see audiences once again regularly coming out to theaters to enjoy them, like they did, for instance, in the heyday of Judd Apatow in the 2000s?
BANKS: To me, you answered the question, which is “in its best form.” You’ve got to make things that are truly a fun experience in the theater where people feel represented, that the characters are relatable, and that the comedy comes from those characters. That’s what Judd did really well, and that’s what the best comedies are always about. I mean, I love comedy. I’m never going give up on it. Everything I do has some sort of sense of humor inside of it. I’m a joyful person.
This movie, at the end of the day, was partially about chaos in the world that we’re living in right now. I don’t think there’s anything more emblematic of chaos than a bear high on cocaine, and being able to put my characters into a situation where they’re all dealing with their own relatable, real, situational problems, right? “I’m a mother that’s trying to connect with my daughter. I’m a husband grieving the loss of my wife and trying to connect with my son. I’m a father trying to hold together the family business.” You know, these were very relatable ideas in the character journeys, and I just knew that the gap between those grounded, relatable ideas and a bear high on cocaine, in that space is where the fun happens. That’s where it’s hilarious. Because how would anyone deal with that?
DEADLINE: In what ways has your depth of experience as an actor informed your work behind the camera?
BANKS: Well, it’s just my experience of being on sets. I’m so lucky that I’ve worked with some incredible directors and other actors, and I take everything as a learning experience. And I felt really ready to direct Cocaine Bear when it came across my desk. I was excited to do it. It was like, “All right, I get to learn a new skill set set and sort of level up with this CGI stuff, to be able to run an entire VFX unit on a movie.” That was really exciting to me. But that’s the experience that I’ve gathered through years of being an actor and just an on-set participant.
I sit in video village. I’m sort of the annoying actor. I’m never in my trailer. I like to be on; I like to be up in everybody’s business on set. [Laughs] I’ve always been that way because I think it’s so fun to constantly be learning, “Oh, how are they going do that? How is Special Effects going to come up with the blood? How are they going to blow up that car?” I mean, I just love it. I love all of the collaboration and technical aspects that go into it. I’m constantly trying to improve myself and learn more.
DEADLINE: Cocaine Bear marks one of the iconic actor Ray Liotta’s final projects. You’d gotten to work with him in the 2011 film The Details, but what did you most enjoy about directing him?
BANKS: When I first met Ray, it was so clear to me how charming he was, what a big heart he had, and that he had a really good sense of humor. And I don’t think he’s well known for those things, you know? [Laughs] So for me, just the opportunity to present him…You know, he’s of course a villain in the piece. But at the same time, he’s also a comically unfit grandpa. There’s more going on there, and I just knew that he would be very game. And that that was it. He came joyfully to set every day. He never said no to me, and he was such a gift. It was such a blessing that he was there, sort of setting the tone for everybody, and just a consummate pro.
DEADLINE: What was one of your favorite days on set, or aspects of the experience with Cocaine Bear?
BANKS: Gosh, I had a lot of favorite days on set. I mean, the combination of Keri Russell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale, the three of them got on like a house on fire. Jesse had never met Keri and Margo, who are close friends from The Americans, and I knew both of those ladies, and so bringing my friend Jesse into that scenario and then just watching them play and crack Keri up…I mean, Keri could not keep a straight face for any takes. She just would fall into giggles every time they talked, and that was a delight. They just were entertaining the crew nonstop. I mean, every take was fresh and funny.
DEADLINE: The film has some pretty memorable death scenes that must have also been interesting to work out.
BANKS: Well, Keri was saying this earlier today…I kind of forgot this, but you know, there’s no bear. They just have to react, and so a lot of my directing was [saying] like, “Okay, the bear, it’s eating your leg. It’s chomping you.” [Laughs] Like, describing what’s happening to my friends. “The blood is pouring down your face. You can’t breathe. Breathe slower; breathe faster. Yell out.” It was just so fun that that was how I was able to get the performance, was just describing you being eaten alive.
DEADLINE: You’ve often talked about your goal of nesting comedies within other genres — like horror, in this case. Do you see further concrete examples of how you might capitalize on the idea going forward?
BANKS: I don’t know. I’ve got to figure out another genre to attack. Maybe it’ll just be a comedy-comedy next time, I’m not sure. You know, look. I like to go to the theater and be entertained. When you look around and think about these movies that become classics because they affect you in your heart, I find that for me, those always have some humor in them. They approached a life event or a traumatic thing with humor. I’m just someone who’s like, there’s trauma all around, and we can laugh our way through it, or cry our way through it, or laugh-cry our way through it. But for me, I’m always going try and present the more entertaining way, I guess.
DEADLINE: As a director, you’ve so far gotten to tackle a nice balance of original and franchise films. In considering how IP-focused the business is, are there particular pieces of it that you’re particularly fond of and would like to adapt for the screen? Or is there anything you can share, otherwise, about what you might make next?
BANKS: No. [Laughs] Truly, I’m open to everything. There’s a lot of great characters, there’s a lot of great IP, there’s a lot of great books, there’s a lot of great properties out there. And if I can continue to put my stamp on things, I’ll consider that a success.
DEADLINE: Anything to add in terms of the slate you’re producing via your company, Brownstone?
BANKS: We’re excited about the new season of Bumper in Berlin. We’re excited about Red Queen, which is an IP that we’ve just loved and loved. And we’re working with Peacock on that, as well. We’v got lots of things sort of bubbling around that we’re excited about, but nothing that I want to confirm or deny to you today. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: What stage of the process are you at with Red Queen?
BANKS: We’re in the script stage. We’re getting excited.
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