Graphic by Catherine Buchaniec
When filmmaker Fisher Stevens was asked to help with a documentary about world wildlife trade, he didn’t know he was getting sucked into a world of animal exploitation that would dominate the cultural zeitgeist for weeks. Netflix’s “Tiger King,” which premiered on March 20, is a true-crime documentary series following the life and murder-for-hire plot of zookeeper Joe Exotic and his feud with big cat conservationist Carole Baskin. The Chicagoan and former Evanstonian sat down with The Daily to chat about working on the documentary that graced televisions in over 64 million households.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Daily: How did you first get involved with this documentary?
Stevens: My background is making more environmental films about how we need to preserve the natural world, whether it’s animals, trees or stopping carbon from being pumped into the air. And this was an extension of that because I think it was important for the world to know that there are more tigers living in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild. I had just made another film on Discovery called “Tigerland,” which was about two people who risk their lives to save tigers in the wild. It was ironic that the next thing I got involved in was about people who bred these tigers in captivity and exploited them. We all thought it was important to show the world what was going on and the true nature of what these people are doing to these animals.
The Daily: What was the process like collaborating with Netflix?
Stevens: I had a pretty great relationship with the network. I called a friend of mine, Chris Smith, who had just done the Fyre Festival documentary for Netflix, and I thought he would be perfect to help put this thing over the finish line. (Directors) Eric (Goode) and Rebecca (Chaiklin) had shot all this amazing footage, but it still needed to be broken out into episodes. So Chris and I brought the project to Netflix at Sundance 2019.
The Daily: What has your reaction been to the overnight success and Internet fame of this documentary?
Stevens: It’s exciting. I mean, it gave people something else to talk about other than, like, (coronavirus). I didn’t think it was going to be this popular, though. I think many, many more people are watching (shows) on subscription services because nobody’s going out.
The Daily: Are there any plans to film new episodes in the future?
Stevens: I can’t say definitely, but we’re hoping to make a few more episodes with the same group.
The Daily: How was the filming of the documentary affected by Joe Exotic’s murder-for-hire plot and imprisonment?
Stevens: Well, I think that’s what made it much more exciting. When we started filming, he wasn’t in prison. We were basing the documentary on his anger and hatred for Carole, and Carole trying to close him down, but that’s the beauty of documentaries: you just don’t know where it’s going. We were just lucky — or unlucky, for Joe — but it was great drama that he got busted. He had a great relationship with the filmmakers, and they continued to call Joe while he was in jail. You can hear those voiceovers in the show. I think the beauty of what Rebecca and Eric did while filming is they didn’t judge any of these people, they just let them be who they are. I think that’s the key to great documentary filmmaking. I think they presented everybody in a very honest way.
The Daily: What was Joe Exotic’s reaction to the documentary’s success?
Stevens: He’s thrilled. He’s got people trying to get him out of jail now. He may still serve 22 years, but now there may be a shot he can get out early. You should look at the clip (of Donald Trump) online, it was ridiculous. He was in a press conference where they were talking about coronavirus and someone brought up Joe Exotic.
The Daily: How has Carole Baskin reacted to the documentary?
Stevens: She’s not happy with the documentary, so no one’s spoken to her.
The Daily: What else are you focusing on post-“Tiger King”?
Stevens: I’ve been very politically active for many years, mostly about environmental issues. I think it’s really important that people vote this clown out of office. We have to start reconfiguring and recalibrating how we’re going to treat each other in this country and how we’re going to behave because this (administration) is just unacceptable and it’s so sad that we’re in this place. And that we still don’t have testing. This is what’s on my mind right now, is how I can help in any way to change the way things are in this country. I’ve been acting on the TV series “Succession,” but we don’t even know when we’re starting that up again, so it’s all in the air.
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