May 11, 2020
Jeff Lowe in Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’
The filmmakers behind Tiger King are at work on more true-life big-cat content for Netflix. What may be coming, and how they’re going about it, sheds new light on the controversial hit.
The docuseries, which debuted March 20, was the pandemic’s first pop culture phenomenon, a lurid mix of outsized character studies and ranging spectacle set amid America’s exotic animal scene. It delivered more than 34 million viewers to Netflix, according to Nielsen, in its first 10 days of release, topping the streamer’s Stranger Things 2. Competing dramatic projects led by Nicolas Cage and Kate McKinnon have since been announced, while Rob Lowe has teased a third with Ryan Murphy.
Yet despite mostly positive reviews, it has been criticized as sensationalistic and glib in its portrayal of significant, intractable issues surrounding animal abuse.
Tiger King was directed by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin. Goode — who initially rose to prominence by developing on-trend New York City hospitality properties (including the pioneering 1980s club Area, as well as the Bowery Hotel and the Waverly Inn) — is a prominent figure in global wildlife philanthropy, having started the Turtle Conservancy in 2009 to protect threatened turtles and tortoises and their habitats.
Dr. James Liu, a wildlife veterinarian and field biologist who is the associate director of the Turtle Conservancy, contacted The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, requesting contact information for Chris Lawrence, a former tiger handler for Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas show. Lawrence received national media attention in March 2019 when he was profiled in THR about his 15-year battle with PTSD following the infamous attack, which left Roy Horn permanently injured. (The handler, who was onstage during the mauling, disputed what he termed the pair’s “romanticized” narrative of what had occurred, detailing a mix of Horn’s own operational failures and errors as the culprit.)
During the brief call on Thursday, Liu — who indicated he also served as part of Tiger King’s production team — said work was underway on a follow-up episode, under the Tiger King name, that Goode Films hoped would specifically act as a higher-minded corrective to both the original seven-episode series as well as comedian Joel McHale’s aftershow special, the latter of which was not produced by the filmmakers.
Liu wanted Lawrence to respond to Siegfried Fischbacher, who, months after declining to speak for THR’s coverage, had rebuked his former employee during an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America. It was unclear how such material would fit into the suggested new approach.
Horn died Friday, at 75, of complications of COVID-19.
In March, shortly after the release of Tiger King, Goode had expressed misgivings over the tabloid tinge of the production. “I went into this to explore a different side of the animal world in terms of wild animals in captivity,” he said to Vanity Fair. “After spending years with these subjects the project moved in a different direction. Netflix is very adept at making binge-worthy television and with these larger-than-life subjects that was pretty easy to do. However, my goal is and has always been the same, which is to raise awareness and help save the species.”
After speaking with Liu, a spokeswoman for Goode Films told THR it was “untrue that the direction is going in a more conservational route” on its forthcoming Tiger King sequel material. Netflix didn’t return a request for comment.
Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue and the nemesis of Tiger King protagonist Joe Exotic (aka Joe Maldonado-Passage), has complained of being hoodwinked into participating in the series, stating she was sold on a production more akin to the earnest, SeaWorld-harpooning Blackfish. Chaiklin responded in the Los Angeles Times that “we could have never known when we started this project that it was going to land where it did.”
Asked how Lawrence might appear should he opt to participate in the project, Liu told THR that final cut resided with those above him.