Cocaine Bear producer Max Handelman and his wife, director Elizabeth Banks, remember fondly their experience working with Ray Liotta on what became one of his last movies.
The Goodfellas, Field of Dreams and The Many Saints of Newark actor died in his sleep in May 2022 at the age of 67. Cocaine Bear was filmed the previous year, in the summer of 2021.
“It was surreal, in many ways, working with Ray. For a man of a certain age like mine, guys like me literally grew up on Goodfellas,” Handelman tells MovieMaker. “Obviously, Ray’s performance as Henry Hill was iconic and will forever be remembered. So to see him in our movie Cocaine Bear, it just was surreal. He’s just such an iconic presence and turned out to be the nicest guy and just so eager and excited to work on a film like this. And I don’t think Ray had worked on too many films like Cocaine Bear. I think he was very excited by that opportunity here.”
Cocaine Bear tells the story of a bear that consumed bricks of cocaine that had been dropped out of a plane in a botched drug run in 1985. In real life, the bear was found dead of an overdose in the mountains of Georgia. Cocaine Bear takes the story several steps further, imagining what might have happened in the drug-addled bear had come into contact with people.
Banks and Handelman have worked together as director and producer on previous films, including Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie’s Angels.
Liotta played Syd, a drug kingpin who is on the hook for all that missing cocaine that’s been eaten by the bear.
Though Cocaine Bear is set in Georgia, it was actually filmed in Ireland, where Liotta had recently learned he had quite a bit of ancestry. Handelman recalls an impassioned speech that Liotta gave on one of the last days of filming on the Emerald Isle.
“Before he came to Ireland, he had done a 23andme or genealogy test like many people have, and he discovered that what you know while he majority of people who know him and his work assume that he’s Italian, he actually found out that he was, 90-plus percent Irish,” Handelman says.
“It was his last day of shooting or maybe the second to last day of shooting. He was kind of laying on the ground, and he just kind of propped himself up on his elbow, and when we picture wrapped Ray Liotta, he just gave the speech to the predominantly Irish crew saying what an amazing time he’d had in Ireland and he’d had this opportunity to discover history and heritage. It was very moving, and I think the Irish crew was incredibly touched by it and of course, loved to have that connection to Ray Liotta.”
Banks had previously worked with Liotta on the 2011 movie The Details starring Banks and Tobery MacGuire as a married couple with problems coming out of the woodwork.
“The thing I liked about Ray is that he came very joyfully to the job. He really was having a great time,” Banks says. “That’s what I’m going to remember, and hopefully honor with the movie. It’s like, this guy played Henry Hill. Goodfellas will be the main thing people remember of Ray hopefully, but I really love that he was game for anything.”
Banks and Handelman were also aware of how the context of Liotta’s character’s final scene in Cocaine Bear — which, spoiler alert, involves being disemboweled and mauled by the bear — might be viewed in a different light after his death.
“We were mindful of the goriness of that scene before we even shot it, and after the events that happened, we did we did reel it in,” Handelman says. “He bought fully into the entire disembowelment and goriness of it, so his performance was tied to that reality. So you don’t want to change the reality too much in post because it just doesn’t fit his performance, but we didn’t want it to feel exploitative or unnecessary. And so we did modify it a bit.”
Banks also said they were really careful to make sure Liotta’s final performance in the movie felt right in the context of the movie. She also confirmed that Liotta was all-in on the tone of his final scene when he performed it.
“It was really difficult because of course, it’s the performance that he gave and he did it all, like I say, joyfully. We did pull back on some of it for sure,” Banks says. “So at a certain point, it was all about the calibration of it, right? Like, let’s make sure that he really was the villain that deserved what he got by the end, which is what he and I spoke about in terms of the film.”
Cocaine Bear is now playing in theaters.
Main Image: Ray Liotta and Elizabeth Banks on the set of Cocaine Bear. Photo Credit: Universal Studios.