Long before Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin became household names, before Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness turned into one of the most successful documentary series of all time, directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin embarked on something they little suspected would become a cultural mega-hit.
“We sort of thought it was our own little story that maybe a few people would be interested in, and we were certainly fascinated by it,” Chaiklin recalls. “But we never in a million years expected it to be received the way that it was.”
Tiger King is part true-crime story, part bizarre slice of Americana involving eccentric people who raise big cats in private sanctuaries. The tale was strange enough to begin with but only got more so as filming progressed, culminating in the arrest and conviction of Joe Exotic for allegedly hiring a hit man to bump off Baskin, Joe’s sworn enemy and rival big cat person.
Nielsen reports the seven-part Netflix series registered 5.3 billion streaming minutes in its first month of release alone. Tiger King is now contending for Emmy nominations in multiple categories, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
DEADLINE: Tiger King dropped on Netflix on March 20, just as coronavirus lockdowns were going into place in many states. That stranded millions of Americans at home, who became eager for entertainment. Do you think that’s partly why so many people got into the series?
ERIC GOODE: I think we all must assume that that’s part of it, sure, for sure…For whatever reason the Tiger King series connected…It obviously went viral in many ways.
REBECCA CHAIKLIN: It was crazy historical times because of what we’ve been going through with the pandemic, so there were audiences probably well beyond what any other series being released has had the opportunity to have—sort of a captive audience.
DEADLINE: How did the project come about?
GOODE: I was always an animal person, so I have a little bit of that DNA in me. In my case it wasn’t big cats, but it was a fascination with reptiles and that sort of thing, otherworldly aspect of these animals…I began filming somewhat ad hoc initially maybe 15 years ago and then more seriously maybe five or six years ago all of these subcultures—people that ranch rhinos, people that breed monkeys for medical research, people at bushmeat markets in Southeast Asia, reptile smugglers. I ultimately veered in on this story between these big cat owners, but it was an evolution.
CHAIKLIN: I knew nothing about the exotic animal world, and Eric, who was an old friend, sort of lured me in, because I was making documentary films. And he was like, “You’re not going to believe this.” And he warned me that it was a very secretive world, so we might not be able to get access. But he had connections and knew the world well.
DEADLINE: So many of the characters in the series are at war with each other or in conflict. Did you lean toward sympathizing with particular ones?
GOODE: What we tried to do in the series was really let the viewer make their own conclusions, both about the ethics of the people and their character, but also the ethics regarding the tigers and big cats. And I hope people came away with the right message in the end.
DEADLINE: What do you see as the right message?
GOODE: I think tigers and animals like this should be living in the wild, in a perfect world… Obviously it’s nuanced because, of course, we live in an imperfect world where at times animals need to be brought into captivity to continue their survival.
CHAIKLIN: I feel pretty strongly that wild animals don’t belong in cages and that we really have a responsibility to protect natural habitats so that they have a place to live…I really hope the takeaway is that people understand this is not a good practice and I absolutely support legislation that would place some regulations around it, because it’s a miserable life for these animals, and it’s cruel.
DEADLINE: Some of the characters in Tiger King have expressed unhappiness with how they were portrayed, including Baskin, John Finlay (Joe Exotic’s ex-husband), and Bhagavan “Doc” Antle (another big cat owner/breeder). How do you respond to that?
CHAIKLIN: I do feel strongly that we really allowed these people to speak for themselves, and I feel badly if they are unhappy, but I think it was an accurate portrayal…And hopefully if they’re not happy, instead of lashing out, maybe it’s time for some self-reflection on their lives.
GOODE: We sincerely just interviewed everybody for who they were. And there’s a lot swirling out there suggesting otherwise, but we interviewed each person, and they answered the questions. They are who they are, and this is not reality TV, this is not fiction. These were real people leading real lives, and they are who they are, and I would just leave it at that.
DEADLINE: As Deadline reported previously, there is a Tiger King fictional adaptation in the works, based on a Texas Monthly article, with Nicolas Cage attached to star as Joe Exotic. There’s a separate adaptation, based on a podcast, with Kate McKinnon attached to play Carole Baskin. What do you think of efforts to create fictionalized TV series out of the story?
GOODE: Nothing against those that are trying to do it, but I spent a lot of my life making this story, and I never envisioned trying to do a scripted version. I found that it would be hard to do justice to the characters by employing actors to embody them. I think they speak for themselves, and they’re so unbelievable and interesting. That’s enough for me.
CHAIKLIN: I’m always open to whatever somebody’s artistic interpretation is, but I have to say—having experienced it firsthand—it was stranger than fiction, the real-life version of it. So I think it would be incredibly challenging, but I’m sure in the right hands it could be done. And Kate McKinnon is brilliant, as far as I’m concerned. I’m curious to see where it goes.
DEADLINE: What about the talk of you doing some kind of Tiger King: Siegfried & Roy spinoff?
GOODE: I would simply say [we] categorically are not doing this documentary series involving Roy Horn or Siegfried. I have met Siegfried and visited his cats in Vegas and him, but we are categorically not doing a story on Siegfried & Roy or anything that really has anything to do with them…I am working on other projects that involve our relationship with animals, and I think there was some confusion as to what it was, maybe…But I can certainly tell you we’re not doing anything, certainly as of yet, about Siegfried & Roy.
DEADLINE: Joe Exotic is in a federal penitentiary serving a 22-year sentence on murder-for-hire and other charges. Do you know how he has responded to Tiger King?
GOODE: The last I spoke to Joe was right when [the series] was coming out. It might have been right after it came out. He was ecstatic, and he was just bathing in his 15 minutes of fame and loved the fact that there were billboards on Sunset Boulevard and Times Square with his face. And even the prison guards were singing to him and praising him. So he was basking in the glow of that, which is something Joe always wanted.