“Tiger King”: It’s the docuseries everyone is watching. At least everyone with a Netflix account, which at the end of 2019 was more than 167 million people. And given that it is the age of a pandemic, with families forced to stay inside, those numbers may have grown in the past few weeks alone.
“Tiger King” is Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode’s seven-part portrait of big cat enthusiast and Oklahoma zoo owner Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, who is currently serving 22 years for animal welfare charges and the murder-for-hire plot of one of his rivals in the big cat world, Carole Baskin.
The in-depth look at this larger-than-life world — which also includes polygamy, meth, the potential murder of Baskin’s former husband Don Lewis, and an actual 2016 presidential run — has been in the Top 10 programs on the streamer since a day after it debuted on March 20. It has been in the No. 1 spot for the past week.
When Chaiklin and Goode first set out to make this docuseries five years ago, they couldn’t have known a pandemic called coronavirus would sweep the globe, creating a captive audience. At the time, they were interested in telling such a story because Goode, co-founder of Turtle Conservancy, had an “in” into the exotic animal world. Goode, who has his own amphibian and reptile preserve, is a former New York nightclub impresario, while Chaiklin is a veteran documentary director and producer.
“I told Rebecca about this world, primarily the exotic reptile world and the smuggling and the dark underbelly. We decided to dive into that world five years ago and begin filming some of these characters that I had known for many decades,” he tells Variety.
As they were filming what they thought was going to be a venomous snake sale, they happened upon a snow leopard in the guy’s van. “We were surprised because, to me, that would be like buying a panda bear — the holy grail of animals that is untouchable. How can someone just buy a snow leopard?” says Goode. “That set us on this journey to investigate the big cat world in the United States.”
The series certainly covers the animals in that world, but it also spins down a rabbit hole of personalities even bigger than the cats they set out to help. Maldonado-Passage, for example, turned his love of animals into owning and operating the G.W. Zoo. But soon the small-town taste of fame he received wasn’t enough, and he began looking for his star to rise beyond the animals, from an online television series to his runs for president and governor of Oklahoma. All this transpired before he was tried and convicted for conspiracy to kill his rival, of course.
“We were very fortunate in that we had the narrative through-line in this escalating feud, but when we started we had no idea where it would go,” says Chaiklin. “It was this somewhat humorous feud that had a very fascinating show quality to it, but we never in a million years expected it to take this true crime twist.”
Although “Tiger King” is centered on Maldonado-Passage, the other people in the big cat world provide equally colorful commentary. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, for example, runs his own big cat zoo but is also notable for filling that zoo with devoted female employees; Antle says on the show his lifestyle is “complicated.” Meanwhile, entrepreneur Jeff Lowe took ownership of the zoo, now known as the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, when Maldonado-Passage went bankrupt. He is now being sued by Maldonado-Passage for encouraging government witnesses to lie under oath, among other accusations.
“It so far exceeded anything in [Eric’s] explanation of the world,” Chaiklin says, “which was already pretty dramatic. You can’t even believe these characters; they’re just crazier than fiction in each and every one of these worlds. And as you see with the big cat people, you can’t make this stuff up; it’s wild.”
Here, Chaiklin and Goode talk with Variety about the process of putting together this docuseries, including covering animal cruelty accusations against many of the big cat enthusiasts, how they approached the LGBTQ themes within the series, and what other followups they hope to see now that the series has prompted sheriffs to look further into the disappearance of Lewis.
What determined how you wanted to structure the storytelling in “Tiger King”?
Rebecca Chaiklin: We laid out the structure of the story based on how events unfolded and then there were pieces — because Joe filmed every single hour of his life, even if a lot of it was lost in that fire — that we were able to use as archives to illustrate moments when we weren’t there. We had the people who were there narrating that part of the story.
How did Joe’s presidential run throw a curveball in the story?
Eric Goode: We didn’t really start filming Joe until right after his presidential run. But what makes it challenging was the contemporary aspect of it: We had to keep filming; I feel like I was on a plane every week last year. The story continued, and we had to keep up with the story. We were filming it as it was happening, which made it sort of mind-boggling.
What went into getting these enthusiasts to agree to be apart of the docuseries? Were they just looking for promotion for their zoos?
Goode: Unlike accredited zoos like the Bronx Zoo, San Diego Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo, these are private menageries, and these people are frightened and there is an existential fear that they are going to be shut down by the government, by PETA, by HSUS, by animal rights groups. So they, generally, are very guarded. They don’t want people coming in under the guise of doing a great story on them because maybe they’re not doing a great story on them. They’re very wary, for the most part. So I’d say that the Doc Antles, the Jeff Lowes, these people were very guarded. Carole Baskin wasn’t and Joe Exotic, wasn’t, obviously, because he’s such a narcissist and an egomaniac that he did so many things against his better judgment. Because I was peripherally in this world, I generally knew people that knew these characters, and I could speak their language. But there was a courtship that had to take place, and there was a trial and error with some of them, and so that was probably the most difficult part of the project — the access.
How different was it to convince people like Joe’s ex-husband John Finlay and Cheryl Maldonado, whose son Travis was also married to Joe and accidentally shot himself on Joe’s property, to be involved, given their more emotional connection?
Chaiklin: I think a lot of these characters are people who are on the fringe, and they haven’t really had a voice in the rest of their lives. So for somebody like John — and he told me this many times — it was super therapeutic for him to talk through some of these things. His relationship with Joe was quite abusive — he was so young — and so for him to begin to talk through and begin to process some of what happened to him, it was really helpful for him. He’s sober now — he has been for a while. He has a full time job; he has a girlfriend he’s in love with; he’s doing really well. But he was a really damaged young man and he had really been through [it]. Joe is a tornado of a man in and of himself; he’s an amazing character for a film, but he’s certainly not an amazing partner, by any means. And Cheryl, too, she has a lot of issues she’s contending with in her own life with addiction and whatnot, and she lost her son — the love of her life — and she has such deep pain and sadness around that.
Goode: To be fair, most of these people, and particularly the ones in Joe’s orbit or Joe’s roadside zoo, were very young, desperate people — either coming out prison or suffering from addiction or poverty, and Joe took them in, but he also indoctrinated them into his world, which damaged them in all kinds of ways. He was owning them in a cultish way by giving them money and toys and drugs and guns. It was a very selfish way with his staff and his animals. And to some degree the same relationship occurred with Doc Antle and the way he would indoctrinate the young girls and make them change their names and have them be within 20 pounds of their perfect athletic weight and force them to watch “The Devil Wears Prada” to learn the culture and only allow them to leave if they were very sick; they could not see their families. These people, let’s not make any mistake about it, were taking advantage of young, wayward kids — and their animals.
Whose idea was it to have John be shirtless in his interview?
Goode: It was very hot in Oklahoma and John likes his tattoos!
Going back to the drugs, the docuseries does bring up the idea that Joe was supplying his husbands with drugs and that’s why they were with him, but it doesn’t seem like there was a real-world investigation into him in that arena. Is there more to be uncovered there; do you expect or hope to see more charges against Joe?
Goode: I wish people did get that after watching the series, and maybe we’ll see what developments happen in the coming months. Joe absolutely victimized the people that worked for him and almost unanimously, with the exception of a few, they felt terrorized by him and abused by him. He also victimized the animals that he was keeping. If you keep more 230 tigers, it’s like having 230 children, you don’t really love them, you’re just collecting them. He wanted to be the guy with the most tigers — the tiger king. So I hope that resonated in the series.
Chaiklin: Joe had a really abusive childhood, and he always talked about the fact that his father never said he loved [his children]; they were treated as farmhands. He also was flamboyantly gay in the Bible Belt at a time when that was not accepted and he had a lot to prove — and he was super conflicted about it. I remember when we first met him, he told us unabashedly that even though he was married, he didn’t believe in gay marriage — that he thought it was a sin. It evolved over time, but there were so many contradictions and he was damaged from everything he had been through: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse as a child. And he, as most people do if they have not worked through those things, inflicted some of the same abuse on the people around him — and the animals. People are very complicated, and I have a lot of empathy in some ways for Joe because he’s been through a lot and he’s a super unique, creative, colorful, abusive, horrific person all at once.
Goode: I have to say, Joe was unique, we all know that. But blaming your sexuality or your past on your current acts is really unfair. Sure, he’s gay, but just think about how many other gay men are in Oklahoma and every other state in the country. To say that that makes it justified is really unfair, frankly. I think that Joe was just an absolute egomaniac and narcissist who inflicted a terrible amount of pain on people and the animals. And that’s what matters. To blame your sexuality or your relationship with your family is not an excuse. So I have to say, for people who are looking at the series, saying Joe is an antihero or Joe should be released from prison — Joe did real wrong. I’m not one who thinks that people should be locked up and thrown away the key. Joe should pay for those crimes, and I think he should be reformed, and I don’t like that the justice system is a punitive system, rather than a reformative system, but I think he needs to do his time and really think about this.
What was your approach to depicting sexuality within the show, especially with the allegations that John and Travis were with Joe because of bribes or drugs?
Chaiklin: Unfortunately most of the sexuality that we encountered while making this project was more about power and asserting power over people than it was about real love or relationships. And yet I also feel as though it takes two to be in that relationship — there may not be a balance of power, but we wanted to show that and not dictate to the viewers, but let them come to their own conclusions.
Goode: Like any demographics, there were plenty of people that were gay. Josh Dial was gay, Joe’s current husband Dillon [Passage] was gay; they wore their gayness on their sleeves and were openly gay. And then it was said that John Finlay and Travis were probably not gay — that they were seduced into a gay relationship by all of the gifts and guns and four-wheelers and computers and drugs and whatever else Joe was baiting them with. Who knows? I think they were very young and desperate when they met Joe.
Given that you have people in the docuseries saying John and Travis were not gay, but they were married to Joe, what conversations around their sexuality did you have with John and Travis?
Chaiklin: Listen, they were in a relationship, whatever that relationship was. They, let’s say, struggled with it. I don’t know if it’s up to us to judge. If I’m in a relationship with a woman, am I gay? As we know now sexuality falls on a broad spectrum and people can have lots of different relationships, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to try and say whether somebody is gay or straight or bi.
Not to put it on them, but did you ask them how they identify?
Goode: If I could segue to what I think is the more important point here is that these roadside zoos were basically, in many ways, cults, and they created their own world with their own sets of rules. These people lived outside mainstream society, and they ultimately, in Joe’s case, created this world and had a staff who drank the Kool-Aid and he was the charismatic leader and he ultimately was his own worst enemy. He didn’t play by society’s rules in any way, shape or form, and that caught up to him. And Doc Antle did the same thing, and Carole, in her own way, did it slightly differently. But at the end of the day they were very selfish in how they used the animals and the people that they seduced into their worlds. It’s very attractive to fantasize about being a tiger keeper, a tiger trainer or an exotic animal keeper and raise chimpanzees. It’s easy to bring people into these worlds and indoctrinate them and get them hooked and pay them virtually nothing. That’s the bigger point that we wanted to address [in the docuseries]: How did he do this?
So, looking at these people who claimed to be lovers of these animals but had allegations of abusing animals around them, what did you develop as a guiding principle for the storytelling and how to show the animals and the allegations without necessarily showing acts of animal cruelty, which could turn a viewer away from watching?
Goode: From the very outset we were interested in the pathology of these people and the relationship with these animals in more the way “Best in Show” or “Grizzly Man” looked into the psychology of Timothy Treadwell. We recognized, of course, that people do not want to see the bludgeoning of dolphins or seals — people don’t want to see animals horrifically treated. We had to thread that needle carefully so at the end of the series, it wasn’t preachy or the voice of god telling you how to feel about the cruelty and isolation of the tigers. We wanted people to come to their own conclusions at the end and decide for themselves, and we hope they came away with the outcome that this was a very cruel and abusive practice.
Similarly, we don’t technically see Travis shoot himself; we see only Josh’s reaction. Was that also to be sensitive to viewers?
Goode: The honest answer is we didn’t have footage of him killing himself directly. But actually, we probably would not have showed that anyway. The footage we did have spoke volumes.
Chaiklin: There is a group that works on issues of suicide that has very specific guidelines, and we consulted with them on that and made sure that we were not in any way infringing upon their guidelines.
Goode: We had footage of people shooting horses and cows in the head, and we also decided not to keep those in as well.
Chaiklin: One of our executive producers had produced “The Cove,” which had very, very brutal footage in it and very low viewership, and so we really wanted to get the message out about issues and keeping wild animals in captivity to a wider audience. And so we opted to take a path where we hopefully would engage people and wouldn’t have tons of people turning off within the first 15 minutes.
Given how much there might still be to say about this world and certainly how involved Jeff was in what happened in the plot against Carole, are there things on which you want to check back in or update?
Chaiklin: There’s lots of things we could check back in on, but our nation is in very uncertain, uncharted territory right now, so it’s hard to say what anybody will be doing.
Do you have plans to update the chyrons for Saff, who was referred to by a full name that doesn’t match his gender identity?
Chaiklin: I had a long talk with him yesterday about this. He has children with his current girlfriend [and they] refer to him as “Dad,” but otherwise, he was saying to me, this is not something he had given much thought to — and there were lots of identities that he was unaware of up until this all came to light. He’s very relaxed about it and really, to him, it doesn’t matter. I reached out just out of respect because if it’s problematic, do we need to make these changes? And that was the conversation we had.
It has to be so hard for people who were private people to suddenly be characters the public is now talking about all over social media. And with that, the public is also labeling people as antiheroes or villains. Do you think such labeling is a short-sighted way of viewing these people?
Goode: I think, for the most part, the people Rebecca and I have been keeping up with are basking in their 15 minutes of fame and embracing the attention they’re receiving. I know Jeff Lowe is making “Tiger King” t-shirts that he’s selling at his roadside zoo.
Chaiklin: I think so. This is very Shakespearean, this whole story, and I don’t think anywhere in life things are completely black and white. There is one group in this story that don’t really have a say or a voice, and that’s the animals. And we hope people come away from this understanding that wild animals belong in the wild. If we want to protect them for future generations from going extinct, let’s protect the natural habitat — let’s put the focus on the habitat and the communities that surround the habitat so they can’t poach and pillage those areas. And let’s, as another species on the planet, have more respect for all of our brethren species and not just exploit and pillage every other species on the planet.
“Tiger King” is streaming now on Netflix.