Cocaine Bear Producers Lord And Miller On Bears, Cocaine, And The 'Magic Of Cinema' [Exclusive Interview]

"Cocaine Bear," a movie about a bear on cocaine who murders a lot of people, is pretty much as bats*** as you're expecting. When the script came across Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's desk, the duo behind "The LEGO Movie," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" and "21 Jump Street" couldn't help but be intrigued.

"You really didn't know what you're going to get when you opened page one," Miller told me in an interview with him and Lord in the days before the film's premiere. "Is this going to be silly? Is it going to be dark?" The result is a movie with a tone that, as Miller describes it, "isn't too schlocky or too winking." It is, in other words, an earnest film, but it's also a film that knows it's about a bear getting coked up and tearing people to shreds.

I talked with Lord and Miller, who produced this film, about making sure the tone of the movie that's loosely based on true events stayed on track, and how the creative process for capturing the essence of "Cokey" (the titular CGI-created character) isn't all that different from creating Miles Morales or any of their other animated characters from other projects. Read on for our full discussion.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'We were all in great concert knowing the very unique and special tone this movie has'

The tone of "Cocaine Bear" is unique. It's definitely a balance between horror and comedy. It knows what type of movie it is, if that makes sense. When you first saw the script, what attracted you to it? And once you were in production, was there any touchstone you had to make sure you kept that tonal balance right?

Miller: We were intrigued right when [writer Jimmy Warden], who had been a PA on "21 Jump Street," gave us the script titled "Cocaine Bear." First, very intriguing title, and knowing it's a true story, or at least inspired by a true story, was exciting. But you really didn't know what you're going to get when you opened page one. Is this going to be silly? Is it going to be dark? And the tone in the script fit a nice balance where it didn't feel too schlocky or too winking. It took itself seriously. It was a real movie. But it also knew what it was, and that is a lot of fun, and was balancing gore and laughs, but keeping the world real and not turning it into a parody of a movie. So that was our north star.

And [director Elizabeth Banks] immediately got the tone exactly. She knew exactly what it was and what it wasn't. And when it came to casting, when it came to setting up the action sequences, all along the way, it was very clear what was this movie and what it wasn't. And it's great when everybody's rowing in the same direction, because then you don't have one person trying to make one kind of movie, and another person trying making another kind of movie. So we were all in great concert knowing the very unique and special tone this movie has.

Were there any specific scenes where you were veering one way or the other and you had to course correct? How did you know when that was happening?

Miller: Well, often when it was in development we were like, "Well, what if Cokey" — that's what we would call the bear —"did this?" And we're like, "Ah, that seems a little too schlocky or just silly for silly's sake." Or when we were talking about casting, picking actors like Keri [Russell], and Margo [Martindale], and Alden [Ehrenreich], who are all really good dramatic actors as well as funny people who are in on the joke. There were moments where people were like, "What about this person for casting?" And we'd go, "I think it would tend too much towards a parody movie than a real film." But it was a really great experience having everybody going for the same thing.

Lord: I think it's about just saying lines like, "Cocaine Bear is back!" with absolute conviction, which they did really well.

'We did not feed any real bears cocaine. That would've been morally irresponsible'

Speaking of Cokey, I know the production didn't use any real bears. And obviously, you both have experience creating animated characters with your other projects. How did creating Cokey compare, to say, creating a character in a "LEGO" movie or in the "Spider-Verse"?

Lord: I mean, it's the same thing, which is how do you convey character through movement and behavior? We talk about the same thing on all three movies: What can we observe about how a character might behave in the situation, and can we convey that to the audience with just enough [nuance] that they can see it? Usually, that means deleting extraneous movement just so that we can really focus your attention on that one really special thing that the bear is doing, or that Miles Morales is doing, that conveys their internal thought process. That's the same thing here. It's like, how can we tell you that the bear is curious or frustrated or in many cases indifferent to the people around it? It's all the same muscle.

Miller: And Elizabeth was very passionate about making sure that it felt like a very real bear at all times. And our partners at Weta are the best in the world at making realistic animals in an environment. So they understood the physiognomy of bears and were able to design one that had a distinctive enough look that felt like its own thing but was very much a real-feeling bear. Then it was about how far can we push it, in its coked-up fueled rampage, that you still believe it as a real bear but you get to have all the fun of seeing a bear being on cocaine.

Totally. And you probably didn't have any real-life examples for that. I hope not, at least.

Miller: We did not feed any real bears cocaine. That would've been morally irresponsible. And, honestly, I've never done cocaine myself, so we have to use our imaginations. We've made a lot of films about people or animals on drugs for doing very few drugs ourselves. We're living vicariously through our films.

Lord: That's what the magic of cinema can give you. And no hangover.

I didn't think about that. Good point. And we're all getting older.

Lord: Yeah. Also, it won't give you a heart attack.

'You get to have it both ways where you're playing it for fun, but you're also feeling the real feelings'

One of the things I thought worked really well in the movie was the music. There's an '80s through line in it that I noticed, as a child of the '80s especially. And also, when there are really gory scenes, the dramatic overtones of the music just made me laugh. I wanted to talk to you about the process for getting the score together and the decision to really amp it up during the gory scenes.

Miller: Well, it was Mark Mothersbaugh, who we've worked with on many films and television. And the great thing about Mark is that he's very versatile, but he also is in on the joke. He's a funny guy and he innately understands what's funny about a sequence, but also the emotion of a sequence. So you get to have it both ways where you're playing it for fun, but you're also feeling the real feelings.

Lord: And he knows how to delight an audience and he's a really intelligent guy, so he knows how to be in two places at once — like playing a charade, but with just enough of a wink that you know he's in on the joke. And he is a surprisingly emotive composer who writes really nice, memorable melodies. I think most people think of his scores as really quirky, but I think that the through line is that they're all really emotional and it sneaks up on you with him.

'You've never met a funnier person in your life'

For my last question, you talked a little bit about casting before, but I couldn't help but notice there was a little bit of a "The Americans" reunion with the cast. Was that something that was serendipitous with casting, or was that something you had in mind when you were casting the picture?

Miller: It was a little serendipitous, although the Matthew Rhys part was came after Keri was on board. And by the way, he's done these very dramatic roles that are very awards-worthy. But as a person, you've never met a funnier person in your life. He's one of the funniest people you'll ever meet. I feel like people don't get to see that side of him. And in this movie, they get a brief window into how funny he is as an actor and the level of his range. I think Elizabeth had good relationships with both Keri and Margo. Being an actor herself, she really understands actors and knows how to protect them and get their best performances out of them. So they felt very safe with her.

Lord: Game recognized game.

"Cocaine Bear" arrives in theaters on February 24, 2023.