Interview: ‘Tiger King’ co-writer and co-director Rebecca Chaiklin talks about the smash Netflix docuseries

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Carole Baskin appears in a scene from the hit documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” [Netflix photo]

Rebecca Chaiklin spent the past five years embroiled in the colorful world of big-cat owners, roadside zoos and animal activists.

The result was the smash Netflix documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

“It was immediately apparent that this world was a super-colorful world. It was a world that most people didn’t know about because it’s quite secretive and hidden, and it had incredible characters in it. But we also wanted to do something that really raised people’s awareness about the fact that there was a lot of cruelty to the animals going on,” said Chaiklin, who co-wrote and co-directed “Tiger King” with her longtime friend Eric Goode, in a phone interview.

“We always wanted to do something that would reach a larger audience than the converted … and then things just kept unfolding and kept unfolding and things kept escalating. And there we were.”

The seven-part series chronicles the bizarre life and murder-for-hire trial of Joe Exotic, the flamboyant former Oklahoma roadside zoo operator, big-cat breeder and presidential candidate who was convicted in 2019 of twice hiring someone to kill his nemesis, Carole Baskin, a Florida animal sanctuary operator whose nonprofit organization successfully sued him for more than $1 million for trademark infringement and other civil wrongdoing.

When they first started delving into world of big-cat owners, Chaikin said she and Goode never anticipated that the story would take a true-crime twist. Although some big-cat owners were difficult to access and reluctant to be filmed, “Tiger King’s” main characters – Joe Exotic and Baskin – were willing participants.

Joe Exotic appears in a scene from the hit documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” [Netflix photo]

“She has a very specific mission, and she was very open, accessible, super easy to film with whenever we needed to. And Joe, as you know, has an insatiable appetite for attention and stardom, so he was a dream character because he’s incredibly colorful. … Really larger-than-life character, with so many different contradictions,” said Chaiklin, whose previous credits include the political documentaries “Another World,” “Lockdown, USA” and “Last Party 2000.”

“Even though we had some reservations because he also did not treat a lot of the people around him that well and he certainly didn’t treat his animals well, it was clear that he could carry a film. … As things began to heat up between Joe and Carole and their sort of fatal attraction obsession with each other began to unfold, it just became clear that the people who are sort of immediately in that sphere, they were going to be the central throughline to the series – which we didn’t know, by the way, was going to be a series. We thought it would just be a feature doc initially.”

But “Tiger King” featured a veritable menagerie of vivid characters, unexpected twists and shady backstories packed into its initial seven episodes. One of the docuseries’ most surprising episodes delves into Baskin’s background, including her relationship with her second husband, Don Lewis, an eccentric millionaire and exotic animal breeder who mysteriously vanished in 1997, leaving Joe Exotic and Baskin’s other rivals, as well as Lewis’ ex-wife and adult children, speculating that Baskin was behind his disappearance.

“I think we started feeling that Carole Baskin had a lot of the right messaging, and then as we were filming with her, all these issues kept coming up around her background. And we began to do some research … and we suddenly were like, ‘God, we’re going to be really remiss as storytellers if we don’t investigate this a little bit more.’ And then as we investigated, we were like, ‘What?’ That was a shocking turn,” Chaiklin said.

“We knew the people they each had the way that they wanted to be portrayed and the reality of who they were. So, we expected that some people would be unhappy, but we just tried to let people speak for themselves and then let audiences make their own conclusions. And unfortunately, in some cases, the court of public opinion can be really like a tide that washes over and I think people get caught up in it. That’s unfortunate at times, that people can’t be a bit more thoughtful before sort of jumping on the bandwagon. But we’re super happy that the series has been as well-received as it has been.”

Released March 20, just as the coronavirus pandemic began confining many people to their homes, 34.3 million unique viewers in the U.S. tuned in to “Tiger King” within the show’s first 10 days of being on Netflix, EW.com reported, citing ratings trackers at Nielsen. That’s more than “Stranger Things'” hit second season, which earned 31.2 million unique viewers in the same time frame, but less than the horror fantasy’s smash third season, which drew 36.3 million unique viewers.

The success of “Tiger King” has spun off an eighth “where are they now episode” at Netflix, additional TV spin-offs, an upcoming comic book, musical tributes and countless memes.

“Overall, it’s been beyond our wildest imagination, the response and how many people have seen it. So, I’m super grateful and grateful to Netflix for having been the best possible partner that you could ask for on this,” Chaiklin said.

To read more of my interview with Chaiklin, click here.

-BAM

 

 

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