Comedy horror movie Cocaine Bear tells the story of a terrifying grizzly, who causes carnage after accidentally ingesting millions of dollars' worth of cocaine. The film is directed by actor-director Elizabeth Banks and it’s partly based on a true story. Shooting took place in Wicklow and Dublin back in 2021. Alongside the human cast, it stars a host of Irish animals like Wicklow sheep and deer; none of which were harmed in the making of the movie. Partly funded with help of the Irish government, the success of the movie provides yet another Irish selling point for Minister Catherine Martin to add to The Banshees of Inisherin and An Cáilín Ciúin when she meets with industry chiefs ahead of this Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Joe Duffy spoke on Liveline to local providers of animals to the movie, as well as to Irish crew on the film and fans of Ray Liotta, who plays Syd the drug runner in the feature. It was Liotta’s final completed film role before he died last year. Joe also heard from the Drimnagh upholsterer who fitted the ambulance with specially gore-resisant leather seat covers; and he spoke with costume technician Róisín Ní Ghabhann who worked on Cocaine Bear as a dresser.
The true story of Pablo Escobear (yes, really) involved an American black bear consuming a massive cocaine haul back in 1985, which hapless drug traffickers had chucked out of a plane while flying over Tenessee. Unlike in the movie, that unfortunate bear died pretty quickly and is not known to have killed or eaten any humans before he died.
Róisín Ní Ghabhann says she took the costume job on the movie thinking that she might encounter a real bear on set. It was only when she started work that she found out the "bear" would be made up of movements made by a human actor and finished with the help of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery):
"Well, I was thinking about it. I mean, I guess I didn’t know. They had a good laugh. No, there was no bear."
A good chunk of the approximately $35 million budget for the film was spent on the CGI Bear, which was created by Wētā FX; a special effects company based in New Zealand. Róisín said the actor who "played" the bear was very impressive:
"We had a great person who was dressed in all green and he would fake the movements of the bear and he had these big long fake arms on him, that he would walk and it would make him look bigger. He studied animals for years. He did other things, like he did The Planet of the Apes and he’s done a lot of films where he’s been different animals. He studies how the animals move and then he does that. He acts as animals."
Róisín says the performer brought so much authenticity to the role that it helped the other actors to react:
"He was able to do all the different movements and sometimes noises and everything – he got really into it. It was amazing to watch and to see. He added something to the film that it wouldn’t have had, because it gave the other actors something to work with, something to bounce off."
Joe was particularly impressed with the bear’s horizontal dance moves when he first took the cocaine; Róisín says it’s not intended to be 100% realistic or taken too seriously:
"It is meant to be funny. It is meant to be a black comedy. You’re just meant to laugh at it. It’s a bit gory and a bit mad."
Scanning the reviews for the movie, Joe finds that the response is mixed. But the internet doesn’t care about the critics - there’s just something about an apex predator jacked up on coke that is driving people wild. The director Elizabeth Banks smashed box-office records as a first-time director with her 2015 debut Pitch Perfect 2, so she clearly knows a thing or two about how to market a movie. A quick glance online reveals lavish photo shoots with the director in exquisite gown appearing to powder the nose of a giant bear. The bear has her own Twitter account, and the film has spawned countless memes on TikTok, as well as copycat creatures like #cocainecat #methgator and #crackodile.
Joe spoke with one Ray Liotta fan who said she definitely won’t be watching Cocaine Bear. It just doesn’t fit with her image of her idol. While comedy horror is not to everyone’s taste, the benefits to young Irish film crew of employment on productions like this in Ireland are clear. Róisín says she loved working with an artist of the calibre and experience of Elizabeth Banks. She says it was great to work with a female director for the first time:
"She just gets everything done, I think. It’s really nice to see her in charge and also to have a female figure in charge, because I think the other films I worked on, they were all male directors. She was the first female director I worked for."
Listen back to the full segment on Liveline here.