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‘Tiger King’: How Two Directors Untangled the Thorny Web Around Big Cat Owners

The pair of filmmakers behind the Netflix series set out to explore exotic pet ownership. What they found was a treasure trove they're still sifting through years later.

Tiger King Netflix Tiger Photo

“Tiger King”

Screenshot/Netflix

[Note: The following interview contains information about the ending of the Netflix series “Tiger King.”]

There’s a surprising truth that bookends the new Netflix documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” that helps explains why the project exists in the first place: There are currently more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild.

As series co-director Rebecca Chaiklin explains, before any of the elements of the show’s subtitle came into play, that reality helped drive the start of her and co-director Eric Goode’s mission.

“We started going around to places in Florida, where every few houses somebody has some crazy exotic animal in certain areas in their backyard. It was really stunning to me how pervasive this was. We thought it would be much more issue-oriented and we had no idea that it would take the twists and turns that it would end up taking,” Chaiklin told IndieWire.

What began as a feature documentary evolved as the project delved deeper into the day-to-day lives and operations of the individuals the show puts at its center, chief among them Oklahoma tiger entrepreneur Joe Exotic. Goode is active in a number of animal conservancy efforts, so advocacy for the conditions of the big cats at private parks and collections always remained a focus. But how that was presented began to shift once he and Chaiklin realized the kind of personalities they’d encountered.

“It was also recognizing just how colorful this subculture is, whether it’s people that own tigers or reptiles, or Monkey Moms or whatever exotic pet subculture you’re talking about. They’re almost unbelievable,” Goode said. “So we first dove into that, really looking at the pathology of people that keep these animals in much the way ‘Best in Show’ does it with dog shows. Then of course, we stumbled onto this story that led us in a whole other direction.”

Sometimes, the moment that can change a documentary happens off-screen, with some kind of discovery that arrives when the cameras aren’t rolling. But when one interview at the beginning of this process eventually culminated in Goode standing at the back door of an unmarked vehicle, the scope of “Tiger King” changed with it.

“That was a very honest way the story unfolded. Rebecca and I started in South Florida with a guy that I had interactions with over 30 years, but wasn’t close to him. He had been extradited out of Central America back to the U.S., he was a smuggler and a reptile dealer,” Goode said. “One day when we were there, a guy showed up wanting to buy a Gaboon viper, a venomous snake. He subsequently showed us what he had just bought in his van. He slid the van door open, and Rebecca and I saw this snow leopard in a little cage. It was 100 percent humidity and very hot that day in Florida. We were shocked.”

Tiger King Netflix White Tiger

“Tiger King”

Screenshot/Netflix

Juggling the fates of these individuals and the big cats they controlled was made easier by the endless supply of archival footage that these people filmed and preserved. Internet show broadcasts, social media posts, reflective solo testimonials — all became instrumental in showing both the public and private faces of Joe Exotic, his chosen nemesis Carole Baskin, and the web of people in both of their orbits.

“We were blessed in this project in having subjects that were obsessed with filming themselves. Narcissism was a common thread, and all of them constantly wanting to be on camera was every filmmaker’s dream,” Chaiklin said. “So there was this plethora of footage, and it was just the gift that kept on giving for us. Honestly, there was so much archival that we probably, to this day, have not watched every second of it because it was so overwhelming.”

Over the course of the last year of filming, as parts of the story were still locking into place, Goode and Chaiklin often led a divide-and-conquer approach to honing the final product. “I probably spent about 40 percent of 2019 on a plane and filming. There were a few times where we missed an event, but for the most part, we were capturing it as it was happening,” Goode said.

“It has been really, really beyond consuming because it was unfolding, and we were on an intense deadline, and it was seven films, not one film. When something changes in Episode 7, you have to then begin moving things around, shuffling things backwards. Once you start moving material into it, that can derail your whole arc. We were filming up until we locked picture and even beyond.”

Goode and Chaiklin were not alone in this venture, working with a seven-person edit team to help shape the various threads of the story before and during the home stretch.

“Managing it was huge. We had a story that was unfolding every day, practically. If somebody was in the field, all the footage was coming in from shooting 18 hours a day. Then having to make decisions and get it into the edit, it was kind of wild,” Chaiklin said.

Tiger King Netflix Joe Exotic

“Tiger King”

Screenshot/Netflix

Part of the challenge of wrangling that immense amount of potential footage was fighting the temptation to just make a longer series. Capping the episode count at seven sometimes increased that pressure.

“We never wanted to milk this into more episodes. Some people argue that this could have been 10 episodes, that we should go deeper into certain issues or certain characters,” Goode said. “We even heard that you could do an entire series just on [Myrtle Beach-area park owner] ‘Doc’ Antle. But we tried to pack as much as we could in each episode.”

That desire to not want to overstay any welcome also extends to any potential follow-ups. The series’ final on-screen epilogue hints at some possible developments that may continue the changing landscape laid out in “Tiger King,” but in some ways that filmmaking door is shut.

“We do have footage that we shot since we locked, and maybe it’d be interesting to put that out there in some way,” Goode said. “You could keep going. I just think my intellectual curiosity has kind of ended. Most of these people now are not going to continue to give us access. I think it’s very clear that this is not a story that we can continue to chronicle with our main characters.”

Even though their filmmaking involvement may have reached its end, Goode and Chaiklin are still in contact with various “Tiger King” subjects. One of them — maybe not surprisingly, depending on how you view the series — is a big fan of the show.

“The reactions are going to be broad and varied and unexpected to some degree. Other people, you know, are really fearful of this,” Goode said. “Interestingly enough, the person that received it the best is Joe, who called me from prison. He was just ecstatic that he was famous, that the guards were praising him as a rock star, and the fact that his name and image is in lights in Time Square on Sunset Boulevard, He’s tickled to death. Sometimes it’s unexpected who is going to love the attention. I think for now, he’s riding that wave.”

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is now available to stream on Netflix.

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