Chicago native writes ‘Cocaine Bear,’ with trailer that has Internet snorting with laughter

Francis W. Parker School grad Jimmy Warden fashions a madcap comedy based on real-life 1985 incident, despite having ‘no experience with wildlife.’

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In “Cocaine Bear,” a furry predator goes on a rampage after ingesting too much blow.

Universal Pictures

You can’t make this stuff up: In 1985, a drug trafficker botched a cocaine airplane drop over the Appalachian Mountains, accidentally dumping 40 containers of pure white nose candy into the deep wilderness.

He was later found dead as a result of a parachute malfunction. But it wasn’t until four months later that authorities discovered the corpse of a black bear near those 40 containers, now torn open and strewn about.

Much remains a mystery about the behavior of this presumably coked-out bear. But, upon stumbling into this news item a few years ago, screenwriter and native Chicagoan Jimmy Warden couldn’t help but visualize how it might have gone down.

The bear “runs a little faster, it bites you a little harder, it gets a little angrier,” says Warden, who grew up in Lincoln Park and attended Francis W. Parker School. “The bear can’t fly, it’s not ever going to get on a skateboard. As unrealistic as this movie sounds, it’s still grounded in a true story. What I’ve always loved about the story is that it’s plausible.”

“Cocaine Bear,” written by Warden and directed by Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect” series, “The Hunger Games”), arrives in theaters Thursday. The trailer, in which a CGI black bear tweaks and terrorizes Keri Russell (“Felicity”), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”) and the late Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”), has captured the collective attention of the internet.

Growing up in Chicago, Warden says he had little exposure to the Hollywood system — it wasn’t until recently that the “industry” established itself here — but loved movies and grew to love comedy. His childhood home was not far from Second City, and his obsession with the theater intensified after he learned that his former summer camp counselor, Brad Morris, was a Second City cast member. He hounded Morris for free tickets at every opportunity. The two kept in touch, and today Warden and Morris are a Los Angeles-based writing team.

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Growing up near Second City helped foster Jimmy Warden’s love of comedy.

Nick Chalmers

“For a long time, I basically thought comedy was only Chicago,” Warden says. “My favorite movies are John Hughes movies and Harold Ramis movies. All of my favorite comedians came out of Chicago. … What else are you going to do other than try to be funny in a place that has terrible weather for nine months out of the year?”

The tone of “Cocaine Bear” is part madcap ensemble comedy, part fish-out-of-water and part CGI showcase. Warden modeled “Cocaine Bear” after one of his favorite movies as a child: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), starring Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman and Milton Berle. Like “Mad,” “Cocaine Bear” splinters its narrative into many concurrent ones and cuts among each until the characters coalesce into the film’s final moments.

“I have no experience with wildlife growing up in Chicago, so [the film involves] throwing me, or people like me who are completely unprepared, into a situation facing a bear who is high on drugs,” says Warden, who is married to actor Samara Weaving (“Ready or Not,” “Nine Perfect Strangers”).

The script for “Cocaine Bear” came about as a lark. After learning the harrowing real-life tale of the titular bear, Warden texted Brian Duffield, writer of 2017’s “The Babysitter” and producer of the 2020 follow-up “The Babysitter: Killer Queen,” co-written by Warden, Morris and Dan Lagana. Duffield jokingly agreed to produce a script about a bear high on cocaine that Warden was jokingly threatening to write.

It was all a joke, until it wasn’t. Recalling his college job as a production assistant on “21 Jump Street,” Warden wrote the script and sent it to the film’s directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”). They forwarded it to Universal Pictures, who passed it to Banks.

“Cocaine Bear” has garnered plenty of hype, but Warden says that spec screenwriters, particularly Chicago-based aspirants, need to try to please themselves before attempting to please a faceless audience. Hype is a natural byproduct of a passion project, not something that can be manufactured, he says.

“You really have to believe in it if you’re going to take the time to write something for free and chances are it’s never going to get made,” Warden says. “Knowing the odds are against you but still doing it — it’s a very Chicago thing, like rooting for the Cubs.”

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