Eric Goode, who directed the Netflix series with Rebecca Chaiklin, talked about its creation and its unexpected success during the coronavirus pandemic.
When he set out to investigate the inner world of exotic animal breeders, Eric Goode had no idea he would end up making the hit Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
Released less than two weeks ago, the series is already a sensation, immersing viewers in the lives and rivalries of vivid subjects like Bhagavan Antle, known as Doc, the bombastic proprietor of an animal preserve and safari tour in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of a sanctuary near Tampa, Florida, whose former husband disappeared in 1997.
And then, of course, there's the Tiger King himself, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, a flamboyant Oklahoma zookeeper, political candidate and aspiring celebrity who was sentenced in January to 22 years in prison for his involvement in a failed plot to kill Baskin and for killing five tiger cubs.
Goode, who directed Tiger King with Rebecca Chaiklin, said that he had been reasonably confident the series would be successful. "How can you not be fascinated with polygamy, drugs, cults, tigers, potential murder?" Goode said in an interview Tuesday. "It had all the ingredients that one finds salacious. So we knew that there would be an appetite for it."
But he could hardly have suspected that Tiger King would arrive during the coronavirus pandemic, during which audiences have had ample time to pore over its jaw-dropping plot twists while they shelter in their homes.
For some viewers, Tiger King has also been an introduction to Goode, 62, a founder of the fabled 1980s-era New York nightspot Area who is now an owner of downtown Manhattan establishments like the Bowery Hotel and the Waverly Inn. In an interview, Chaiklin said she first worked for Goode as a door girl and manager at the Bowery Bar and Grill. More recently, over a "crazy posh dinner," Goode first told her about the wild kingdoms they would end up traveling together.
"He said, imagine Breaking Bad, but instead of dealing meth, they're dealing exotic animals," Chaiklin recalled.
Goode, who is also the founder of the Turtle Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization, talked about the making of Tiger King, the cults and conflicts surrounding its subjects and his communications with Joe Exotic since the series debuted. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: You led a few different lives before you made Tiger King. Is there a thread that ties them all together?
A: I definitely have, on paper, an unorthodox career path. And from childhood onward, I was always fascinated by the outdoors and wildlife. I kept a few turtles and tortoises and maybe a snake in my apartment in New York City, off and on. Maybe sometimes against my better judgment. And I've always been fascinated with people who march to the beat of their own drums. Each one of them, whether it was Doc Antle or Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin, they all created their own little cultish worlds, which are oftentimes very creative and inspiring but also can become quite dark.
Q: Some of the subjects in the series, particularly Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, have received their share of media coverage in the past. What made you feel there was more to be said about them and the realm they inhabited?
A: I originally set out to do a project that was a combination of Best in Show, Grizzly Man and Blackfish. The core reason for doing this was, how do you create awareness about the suffering and exploitation of exotic animals but in a way where you can engage an audience? It was equally important for me to dig into the pathology of these characters as it was to expose the horrible practices of exploiting these animals.
Initially, I was doing a story on all these different subcultures, whether they were reptile people or primate people or bird people or tropical fish people. Then I teamed up with Rebecca Chaiklin and we started to focus on the United States. Ultimately I homed in on Joe and Carole because of that war that was ensuing between the two of them.
Q: Was there anyone whose participation was difficult to obtain?
A: I was able to make the people I was spending time with comfortable because I could speak their language. Joe was not difficult, as you probably can see. He's an open book and his narcissism and ego get the better of him. Carole was not difficult either. A lot of the other characters were quite difficult.
Q: What is it about big cats that makes some people feel magnetically drawn to them?
A: There's a fascination, overall, with exotic animals. Something that's dangerous and beautiful, all at the same time. That also has a lot do with ego and status: "Look at me, I have a tiger" is similar to "Look at me, I have a big boat." Or "Look at me, I have a Ferrari." There's a lot of machismo embedded in that. In America, there are also definitely parallels between "I have a right to have a machine gun or a semi-automatic" and "I have a right to have a tiger." And they are definitely used as sexual bait — in Joe's case, young men, and in Doc's case, young women.
Q: Do you think the operations run by some of the people in Tiger King were essentially cults?
A: There's a lot of brainwashing that goes on, whether it's intentional or unintentional. People fantasise about working with animals, and then they start doing it, and then they start to believe that they're indispensable and the animal loves them just as much they love the animal. Most of these people that landed in these places were very young when they got there, usually their teens or early 20s. They work seven days a week and get paid virtually nothing, and are never able to visit their families. These places have a lot of power over the people that became indoctrinated.
Q: How long did you spend filming the series?
A: It's been five years focused on filming people in the United States, and it ramped up over the last two years, where it really felt like I was on a plane every week because this story was unfolding contemporaneously [when Joe Exotic was arrested, indicted and put on trial]. There's some data that suggests that viewers get tired after a certain amount of episodes, and the sweet spot is probably between four and six. We just felt it deserved seven episodes in the end.
Q: Have you had any recent contact with Joe, and does he know about his latest flush of notoriety?
A: Joe is ecstatic. He'd call from time to time, from jail. He's been transferred to a federal penitentiary in Fort Worth. I lost communication — I think he had to go into quarantine because of the virus — but up until about three days ago, he was communicating with us. And thoroughly enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.
Q: Some viewers of Tiger King have criticized the series, saying that it exploits its subjects and holds them up as freaks to be mocked and pointed at. How do you respond to that?
A: We tried very hard to be honest and fair with all of the subjects in the story. Some of them are bigger than life, for sure. They told me what they told me and some of that landed in the series. Of course we wanted to bring out each character's unique qualities. Mario Tabraue [the convicted drug trafficker] was genuinely pleased with the outcome. He knew that he had a past that people would want to hear about.
In Carole Baskin's case, I felt that we had a responsibility to look into, to some degree, her missing husband. And I think if you ask Joe, he wouldn't feel exploited. That's exactly how Joe lived his life. People probably have different feelings about how they were portrayed, but overall I think we were very fair.
Q: Do you have your own theory about what happened to Don Lewis?
A: [Exhales.] I do and I'd rather not share that publicly. I'd prefer to let the [Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff's Office] speak to that. And Don Lewis' family. There were so many inconsistencies and too many coincidences that just made one question the disappearance, in a really deep way. I guess the Hillsborough police department is now getting tips and leads every day. I didn't set out to solve a murder. I set out to expose the issue with big cat ownership in America and where that exploitation lies. I would just say that.
Q: What was it like to be on the scene as the criminal case against Joe Exotic unfolded?
A: I'd filmed a number of times with Joe and Carole, but it wasn't until the summer of 2018 when I was filming Jeff Lowe, the new owner of the zoo, when he told me why Joe had disappeared. It was at that moment that I discovered that the FBI was after Joe and that he had allegedly hired a hit man to try to kill Carole Baskin. Up until that point, things didn't add up as to why Joe left. He was telling us that he had an epiphany and didn't want to keep these animals anymore, he was now aligned with PETA and wanted a new life. Obviously, what was really going on was that he was starting to become aware that he was in real trouble.
Q: Did you feel bad for him in any way?
A: I have a certain amount of empathy for Joe. There's parts of Joe that are fascinating and endearing. But on the flip side, I never thought that what Joe was doing was good. It was very clear that he was exploiting his animals, and there was a tremendous amount of suffering and mistreatment of animals. And also exploiting the people who worked for him and that he surrounded himself with.
Q: Do you know what your next documentary project might be? Do you have plans to follow up on any of your Tiger King subjects?
A: At the moment I'm not contemplating doing more on this at all. Let's see what happens. We're just taking a deep breath. Obviously, we're in this surreal time where it would be very hard to continue filming anything. But no, not at the moment. I happen to be in one of the worst businesses that one can be in at this time, the hotel and restaurant business in New York City. Being that they're all shut, with no date scheduled for an opening, it's an interesting time for me to think about making films. I've always liked filmmaking, and I did it in an ad hoc way, prior to this series. So maybe that'll be a good career move in light of what's happening today.
Written by: Dave Itzkoff
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