That was a fittingly bleak stroke of luck for this dark tale, as captive audiences can’t seem to get enough of its outrageous cast of characters — led by the Tiger King himself, Joseph Maldanado-Passage. He’s better known as Joe Exotic, a gay, polygamist zookeeper from Oklahoma currently serving 22 years for ordering a hit on his nemesis, Florida tiger sanctuary-owner Carole Baskin (painted by the series as a possible suspect in the 1997 disappearance of her husband Don Baskin), as well as multiple animal-rights violations (including the killing of five baby tigers).
The Hollywood Reporter spoke by phone Wednesday to the co-directors of Tiger King — Eric Goode, a New York City restaurateur and hotelier turned wildlife conservationist, and documentary filmmaker Rebecca Chaiklin — for a lively conversation that answers the series’ many critics, postulates on Baskin’s guilt and reveals at last who Joe Exotic himself hopes will play him in the Hollywood version.
Tell me a bit more about how you came into this subject and found each other.
REBECCA CHAIKLIN: I worked for Eric at one of his super groovy nightclubs when I was in college and we became friendly. Then we sort of lost track of each other. But then we were at a super posh dinner party where he started telling me about this crazy world and I was making documentaries and he merely captured my attention. I started hounding him about what he had told me and I’ll let him take it because he was sort of in this world way before I was and I knew nothing about it.
ERIC GOODE: I’ve been in the world of animals, exotic animals, my entire life. I was a kid that loved reptiles and eventually started an organization dedicated to saving turtles and tortoises, called the Turtle Conservancy, where we protect land and basically do species conservation around the world. But all of my life I was peripherally involved in these exotic animal owners and exotic animal dealers, primarily reptile dealers in the United States. I had been filming in a very ad hoc way around the world, filming smuggling in Madagascar and exotic animal markets and bush meat markets, markets in Asia, and after meeting Rebecca again after all these years at a dinner party, we decided to start filming in the U.S., in a world I knew very well which was reptile smugglers and dealers that had been in and out of prison.
Your background in turtle conservancy — was that an aid to you in getting these people to open up? What was the pitch to get them involved?
GOODE: Of course these people would Google me and they would see that I ran this organization. They would see that I obviously knew a lot about animals and they were wary because there is a war going on between animal rights activists and people that want to keep exotic animals in the United States. And they were worried that we were coming in and maybe infiltrating their operation and would portray them poorly.
But fortunately I spoke their language to a large degree and was able to get a level of comfort and often times it just took multiple tries. That was not true for Carole Baskin or Joe. Joe and Carole were easy access. Joe wanted any attention, all attention. He was an open book, and Carole obviously wanted to get her message out. But people like “Doc” Antle and [drug kingpin and private zookeeper] Mario Tabraue and [Joe Exotic partners] Jeff Lowe and Tim Stark and others were very guarded.
Carole Baskin claims you pitched this project to her as “a Blackfish“ for the tiger world. Did you ever say the word “Blackfish” to her in discussing what this story would be?
CHAIKLIN: I don’t think we said it. I think she said it — and to be quite honest, our [initial] intention was to tell a story with these colorful characters that focused on the issues that we both cared a lot about. There is a big-cat crisis in this country and we wanted to highlight that there are a lot of incredibly cruel practices that are taking place. In the course of making this endeavor, in a million years [who would have] thought the feud between Joe and Carole would escalate to the place that it did and take all these crazy twists and turns. We had no idea when we first started filming with Carole that she had the history that she had. So yeah, as we filmed a lot of things unfolded — but we hoped that people walked away from this with a understanding that their big cats don’t belong in captivity and they belong in the wild and if we want to protect them that’s where we should be focusing our resources to protect them in the wild.
GOODE: We knew that we didn’t want to make a film that was strictly advocacy and that was depressing. The bludgeoning or the torture of these animals — people have a low tolerance for that. And in other films that have been successful — even The Cove that won an Oscar — it’s hard to watch the killing of dolphins. So we wanted to figure out how to make this film interesting and really look at the psychology of the people that were involved, sort of like Best in Show or Grizzly Man, and really dive into that, but at the same time dive into the issues of the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
I think the most important thing is that we wanted people to see this series. Fortunately, I think that’s the silver lining. We have this captive audience in this bizarre time right now and I hope that people come away really understanding that this process of keeping big cats in captivity is exploitative and is something we didn’t advocate.
GOODE: Let me be very clear. There is animal rights and animals rights organizations like PETA, then there’s animal welfare, which is very different than animal rights. Animal rights can be as extreme as not riding a horse, or not wearing leather, not having a pet at all. Animal welfare advocates are preventing the suffering of animals. And then there’s conservation and species conservation and what conservation biologists do. My focus personally has been to be a conservationist, which is to save species, protect wild lands, sometimes bring animals into assurance colonies in the wild — like California Condors for example — and put them back in the wild. It’s very different from animal rights.
So Carole is very clearly an animal rights and animal welfare activist. She does very little in the way of conservation. More recently she donated a little bit of money to some conservation groups around the world, but in comparison to what she brings in, she’s really taking rescued cats and make them live out their lives on her property. And I’ve always posed one question to Carole, a controversial question, which is, if you really want to stop the ownership of big cats in America, why don’t you do what the humane society does? Why don’t you mainly euthanize these animals? Or I should say this: Is it better to keep a tiger in captivity for 20 years pacing and suffering in a cage when you know that a tiger needs hundreds of miles of habitat to roam, or is it more humane to put that animal out of its misery? I don’t know the answer, but I always posed that question to Carole and asked her if maybe it’s better to put your money into conservation programs around the world that actually protect these animals in the wild.
CHAIKLIN: I would just add very quickly that Carole’s doing a lot of good work in terms of raising public awareness around the fact that when you pet cubs you’re contributing to a puppy mill of tigers. The puppies can only be used from four to 12 weeks, maybe 16 weeks, and then they become unusable for the public to touch them and they become very expensive. However, the basic messaging issue problem was that she’s saying tigers don’t belong in cages — where she has a lot of tigers in cages, albeit some of her cages are a bit bigger. They’re certainly not what a tiger needs, and so at $10,000 a year she could to do a lot of work in countries like Nepal, actually saving tigers in the wild. I think that’s what Eric is getting at.
Rebecca, you have previously said that you across the board do not pay for interviews but did pay for certain life rights. Can you clarify what that means?
CHAIKLIN: Back in 2017, we bought Joe’s life rights for doing the documentary or a narrative piece and it also included his vast personal archives for exclusive use. It’s no different if you wrote an article that was like a great article and a filmmaker came along and said I’d like to option this to make a film out of or a documentary out of. It’s the same principle.
What about lesser subjects like Alan Glover or James Garretson. Did you pay for their life rights?
CHAIKLIN: No, we didn’t. I would think you would understand life rights is pretty standard in the industry.
So James Garretson and Jeff Lowe and Alan Glover, you didn’t pay them for their interviews?
No. We licensed some footage from Jeff Lowe, but no, we did not pay them.
As far as Joe Exotic, I know he’s excited about his celebrity, but has he watched any of Tiger King?
CHAIKLIN: No. He’s incarcerated and right now he’s been put into isolation for COVID-19, so he actually is not available. He’s been cut off from phones, but Joe is somebody who has always wanted to be a star, and so he’s very excited for this to have captured people’s attention the way it did.
To be clear, he didn’t actually contract COVID-19?
GOODE: He was transferred to a federal penitentiary in Texas and they had to put him in isolation when that transfer took place.
CHAIKLIN: And there was COVID-19 in the county prison that he had been held in since September 2018.
Has he expressed any desires as to who should play him if they made this into a scripted movie or TV show?
Who did he pick?
CHAIKLIN: He would like Brad Pitt or David Spade to play him.
He throws a wide net.
CHAIKLIN: He doesn’t refer to David Spade as David Spade — he refers to him as “Joe Dirt.”
Slate ran an opinion piece which argued that you gave Carole the villain edit, while being more sympathetic to the male figures in Tiger King. That essentially the series had a misogynist take on its subjects. How do you respond to that?
CHAIKLIN: It’s categorically untrue. I’m a feminist. I would never do that to a woman. I think what we did was we allowed people to speak for themselves and unfortunately the court of public opinion is not always kind. It’s not something we anticipated. Joe is super likable and charismatic and people have gravitated to him even though he did some really horrible things. And people have come down so hard on Carole. I’m not saying by any means she’s perfect, but she’s certainly doing much better by the cats, at least in her social messaging, than Joe. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think that’s true.
And where do you fall on what happened to her missing husband?
CHAIKLIN: We both believe strongly in the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. But there are huge, very suspect questions surrounding this case that seem to have not been investigated that well. I think the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department is the fifth-largest department in the country. They’re dealing with a lot and I think at that particular time there were other, higher-profile cases that took people’s time and attention away. There is a lot of stuff that [is circumstantial], but certainly we put a tremendous amount of time and energy researching this — and we were not able to come to anything conclusive, other than some super crazy questions that surround it. We’re very thankful that they are reopening the case now for the family.
GOODE: I would hope that Carole and [current husband] Howard would obviously embrace that because that cloud could be taken off of her, if we really got an answer to what happened to Don Lewis.
Was anyone featured in Tiger King happy with the results?
CHAIKLIN: Oh, lots of people. [Joe’s ex-husband] John [Finlay], [Exotic employee] “Saff” [Saffery] and [reality producer] Rick [Kirkham] and —
GOODE: Even Mario [Tabraue]. Certainly Joe. Of course, they’d all like the “perfect” portrayal — but I think many people are basking in the attention right now and the opportunity that this series is affording them.
Have you thought about what comes next. Say, a sequel?
CHAIKLIN: I say most of our thoughts right now are toward people’s safety and health and their importance of people staying home. These are things that are still unfolding and we’re thinking about it, but it’s kind of hard to say.
GOODE: We’re going to make a sequel — Locked Up With Joe. (Laughs.)
What do you make of the fact that this is the one piece of pop culture that seems to have really broken through and connected during this whole, horrible COVID-19 ordeal?
GOODE: Maybe Joe would have been president back in 2016 instead of Trump.
What do you mean?
GOODE: There’s a fascinating parallel that Joe ran for president alongside Donald Trump. I don’t think a lot of people knew that. And neither thought they would actually be president and maybe we would have ended up with Joe.
CHAIKLIN: But I think that it’s a very uncertain time and people want an escape, and this is a world that very few people knew existed, inhabited by some very colorful, charismatic characters. And so hopefully it provides some relief for people from the anxiety around what’s transpiring around us.
Some stuff has surfaced about Joe and the “N” word, revealing some of his more racist inclinations. Did any of that come up during the making of Tiger King and did you choose not to include it?
CHAIKLIN: Yes. Joe is a racist, I would say categorically. He said things when we were filming that were very unsettling.
Why did you choose to leave them out?
CHAIKLIN: They didn’t have a context in the story, but he has a lot to learn. I think most of it was ignorance and not having a lot of exposure, and I think he even evolved over the course of the time that we filmed.
GOODE: I would say it’s very important for people to know this, that there seems to be an overwhelming amount of empathy for [Joe’s current husband] Dillon. We had empathy for Joe, but Joe did a lot of horrible things. Joe committed some really serious crimes and Joe was not only cruel and inhumane to his animals, he was cruel to the people around him. I think it’s very important for people to understand that Joe is an actor and he tells people what they want to hear. As much as we have some empathy for Joe and found Joe to be such an incredible character — this mullet-wearing country singer in Oklahoma — he did a lot of horrible things.