Tiger King: How Was It Made

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
Hey all you cool cats and kittens! Have you ever wondered how Netflix's Tiger King got made? Well, we have all the answers you'd ever need. From Joe's previous husbands to the death of Carole's husband, we've got all the behind the scenes goodies! What was your favorite part of the documentary series? Let us know in the comments!
Tiger King: How Was It Made?_X5J7N4

Make way for the King of shocking documentary series. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be discussing Tiger King: How Was It Made?

In this video, we’ll be taking a closer look at the production of the hit Netflix original “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness”. For the uninitiated, this true crime documentary series follows Joe Exotic, the eccentric owner of G.W. Exotic Animal Park, and explores his conflict with Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, while shining a light on the thoroughly strange world of big cat collectors in America.

When filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin first embarked upon this project, they were envisioning it as an entirely different feature documentary film. Their initial subject was an animal smuggler and reptile breeder operating out of Florida. But a chance encounter with a white leopard in a van led them down a very different path, one centered around a key concept: America is home to more captive tigers than there are left in the wild across the globe. The project that would become “Tiger King” evolved into something else yet again once the key players revealed themselves. As it turns out, the central characters of the big cat debate have even bigger personalities.

The series might revel in the insanity of its subjects, but for all its shock value, conservation is a constant underlying theme threaded throughout the narrative. Co-director Eric Goode comes from a background of animal conservation, being a member of a number of respected groups. In fact, with a few exceptions, his filmmaking career has been devoted, almost exclusively, to the subject. His passion, in particular is the wellbeing of turtles, a subject that he has explored in feature documentary films like “The Argentine Tortoise” and “In Search of the Okinawa Leaf Turtle”, among others.

Though Goode largely kept himself out of the story, he’s not without his own quirks and larger than life anecdotes. Before getting into documentary filmmaking, he directed music videos for Nine Inch Nails, among other artists, throughout the ‘90s. Goode is an entrepreneur who has played a major role in shaping the nightlife scene of NYC dating back to the 1980s. The nightclubs, hotels and bars to his name include Area, B Bar & Grill, The Park, Waverley Inn, Bowery Hotel and Gemma. Over the years he’s partied with Madonna and dated Naomi Campbell.

It’s safe to say that Goode is a man of many hats who isn’t shy about his passions. And turtles just so happen to be among them. In 2003, he began working with John Behler of the Wildlife Conservation Society who encouraged him to pursue wildlife philanthropy. Behler inspired Goode to open the Turtle Conservancy, which protects turtle and tortoise habitats. The Turtle Conservancy’s breeding facility for threatened species, the Behler Chelonian Center, was named in his honor. It was also the subject of Goode’s first documentary film.

Given his varied background, Goode was able to bring a unique perspective to “Tiger King”. He recognizes this obsession with exotic animals for what it is - a subculture. Or rather, a whole collection of them separated by the specific animals that people covet, each unified by the psychological profile of these collectors. In the case of those who are driven to own big cats, there’s a need to achieve “the status of having a tiger and the attention that gets them.”

Goode and Chaiklin had stumbled upon a subject the likes of which most documentary filmmakers can only dream of. But telling this convoluted story was no small feat. Archival footage proved essential to piece together the narrative in a digestible way. And lucky for them, even with the destruction of the footage intended for the would-be reality show, there was a wealth of self-documentation. As Chaiklin explains, “narcissism was a common thread” and so not only were their various subjects happy to appear on camera, but they had already been filming themselves for social media and other projects, like Joe’s web series, for years.

Though inflated egos seem to be universal in this world, Joe Exotic’s hunger for stardom loomed largest and so he became the central figure of the increasingly surreal narrative. And believe it or not, as chaotic as the series is, Goode and Chaiklin still had to leave certain facts on the cutting room floor. Joe’s music videos appear throughout the series, but what doesn’t get addressed in the series is that Joe doesn’t actually sing those songs. As reported by journalist Robert Moor, he’s lip-syncing in the videos, and it's a group called the Clinton Johnson Band who both wrote and recorded his material. Moor also claims that when Joe’s cats died, he would sell their skeletons to a museum in Oklahoma City.

Perhaps the biggest bit of backstory not to make into the series, relates to Joe’s husbands. You see, John, Travis and Dillon weren’t husbands 1, 2 and 3, but rather 3, 4 and 5! Joe’s first husband, Brian Rhyne, sadly died of HIV-related illness. Exotic then took a second husband, JC Hartpence, who was notably young and seemingly straight. He’s currently in prison for for two separate crimes: molesting a young girl and murder.

Rick Kirkham, the producer of Joe Exotic’s would-be reality series, features prominently at the beginning of the series before being relegated to the background. Overshadowed by Joe, Kirkham’s own remarkable story goes largely untold. During his career as a reporter, Kirkham became addicted to crack cocaine, an addiction that he eventually used as the subject of a 2006 documentary, “TV Junkie”. He allegedly once interviewed George H.W. Bush about drug abuse while high! After his studio at the zoo burned down, he moved home to Dallas only for his home to burn down months later. He now lives and works as a reporter in Norway.

In order to make “Tiger King”, Goode and Chaiklin had to maintain a sense of neutrality which, given their respective commitments to animal conservation, was likely difficult. Goode does say that he regrets never having had the chance to really confront his subjects -or rather not doing it more aggressively. But getting access to these individuals was a feat unto itself, and so the filmmakers had to avoid losing access. Goode appealed to their thirst for attention and ingratiated himself with these strange characters while Chaiklin took the lead on editing. Because of the sheer volume of material, and the fact that the narrative kept changing, they needed a seven-person editing team. Filmmaking duo Josh and Benny Safdie, directors of the indie hits “Uncut Gems” and “Good Time”, helped out during production, while they were wrapping up their 2014 film “Heaven Knows What”.

The filmmakers did attempt to follow a number of plotlines to their conclusion, but without luck. They endeavored to solve the disappearance of Don Lewis, but were unable to do so, and instead presented their findings in Baskin-focused third episode “The Secret”. The question as to who set fire to the studio and alligator pit, also remains unanswered. As for the plot to murder Carole Baskin, for all of Joe’s willingness to open his zoo to them, the filmmakers were completely unaware of this sinister plan until months after the fact when Joe came under investigation.

Though there are many aspects of this story that warrant further investigation, Goode and Chaiklin have made it clear that continuing the series is extremely unlikely. They have extra footage they could release in some form, but a sequel or second season seems to be out of the question. As Goode put it ““You could keep going. I just think my intellectual curiosity has kind of ended”.