Rebecca Chailkin just took the world by storm.
Along with her co-director, Eric Goode, Chailkin loosed the Netflix series Tiger King upon the world this month. The docuseries chronicles the rivalries and shady dealings of big cat enthusiasts in the US, with attention paid to three in particular: Doc Antle, a combination zookeeper and spiritual guru with a harem of women; Carole Baskin, a conservationist who may or may not have murdered her vanished husband; and Joe Exotic, a gay, mullet-sporting gun-toting redneck in a polygamous marriage who may or may not have hired a hitman to murder his longtime rival.
Predictably, we’re hooked.
For Chailkin, success has been a long time coming. Tiger King marks her third foray into directing. Her earlier films Last Party 2000, Lockdown USA and Another World all focused on the intersection between social justice and the world of politics. Tiger King marks her first docuseries as director.
We caught up with Chailkin holed up in her New York country house during the COVID-19 pandemic to chat about overnight success, the phenomenon of Tiger King, and how to keep cool when surrounded by chaos. Tiger King streams on Netflix.
This is the best Netflix docuseries since Wild Wild Country. What’s the state of your life at the moment, with a new hit show and a pandemic?
Thank you, that’s so nice. [My life is] so unglamorous. I’m appreciating teachers more than ever, since I’m homeschooling [my child]. I have a country house up in Woodstock, New York, so that’s where I’m camped out. I’m doing a lot of Feng Sui between phone calls because I can’t deal with clutter in the house.
But it’s been super fun. I’m a complete Luddite when it comes to the social media world. So I have to say, being introduced to the Twittersphere in this way has had me rolling laughing. People are so clever with their responses to it. And it’s so unexpected, and it’s super fun, and Netflix has been wonderful. It’s been a wild ride, but I’m camped out homeschooling most of the day.
So I know you and Eric were working on another film about Joe when all this crazy started to unravel around you. He even appears on screen a few times in the film. How did you get hooked up with Joe, and what was the original concept for the series?
It was such a crazy trajectory. I worked for Eric who owns all these trendy hotels & nightclubs when I was in college. We became friendly, and I knew he had this double life. He was kind of a closeted reptile person in his personal life. Then we sort of drifted apart. Five years ago we were at a dinner party together, and he was telling me these outrageous stories about the underbelly of exotic reptile dealers in south Florida. I remember him saying this: “Imagine Breaking Bad, but instead of dealing meth, they’re dealing reptiles.” So that piqued my interest.
I understand why.
So we did a little reconnaissance. He had a lot of contacts. At that point, he had become a conservationist and was putting all his time and energy into conservation work. But he’d always been an animal person and understood the pathology of a lot of these people. So we went on this crazy trip to South Florida, thinking nobody would even talk to us. It’s a super secretive world. Everyone’s scared and nobody wants anyone to know what they have. Their collections are super valuable. They all get things illegally, and there’s a lot of smuggling.
So we go down there, and it was just as crazy as he said. We were at this exotic reptile dealer’s house. He was one of the few people to go to prison exotic animal trafficking in America, which is kind of shocking.
And this guy rolls up to buy a venomous snake. Half his thumb was hanging off his finger because he’d just been bitten by a venomous snake.
And that was enough for me. Then he opened up his van, and there was a snow leopard. I almost fainted. Eric just shut me up. I was like call the police! It’s really hot and there’s this beautiful animal in a van in August in South Florida! But Eric was much cooler than I was, and sort of began to feel out where he’d picked up a snow leopard. Literally, in that moment, our whole trajectory changed. We had to find out more about big cat people. And we went on our way.
As someone who has lived in Florida, I understand your shock. People sell reptiles by the side of the road there. It’s nuts.
It’s wild. I just couldn’t believe it. I had no idea how prevalent exotic animal keeping in this country is. And it’s super quiet, on the down-low.
The three main characters, so to speak, Doc, Joe and Carole, are all-natural showmen.
They certainly are. I think it goes with the territory of keeping tigers or lions.
Well what is that about? Why do the two go together?
Listen, I don’t know, but I would say the trait of narcissism seems to go hand in hand with a vast majority of people who keep collections of big cats. They love the spotlight. There’s something about having power over one of the most apex predators on the planet, and they use them to lure in, you know… One guy called it a “chick magnet.” Or for Joe, it was for young guys. And they’re amazing creatures, so of course.
They also seem to have cults of personality built up around them.
Joe has multiple husbands. Doc has, for all intents and purposes, a harem. Carole has this massive army of volunteers that don’t even see their families on Christmas because they’re too busy feeding tigers. Is this something endemic to cat enthusiasts? Or have they consciously constructed one?
I think it’s probably a bit of both. One, it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to care for these animals. They tend to create these ecosystems, and it’s dangerous. So they have to have a strict protocol and a certain amount of training. And you’re working crazy hours, and there isn’t a lot of money in it. Nobody is getting super affluent off of these. So that, naturally, if you look at cults, there’s sleep deprivation, and hard work, and no chance to do anything else—they had a lot of those inherent dynamics going on. And then they are big personalities. They definitely love having all these people serving them in their respective sanctuaries or kingdoms.
You mention Joe using the cats as guy magnets, which is pretty right on. The revelations about Joe’s romantic life are particularly shocked me—group marriage to straight men. I wonder, did you ever brooch the subject of his sex life? If he was married to two straight men, what did that look like?
The wonderful thing about Joe is he is his life is an open book. Nothing was off-limits. There were times where we were like no, we don’t need to go there. And he was like come on! He was a dream character, and I’m super fond of him. Some of the ways he took care of his animals were horrible, and I certainly don’t condone violence, but there’s something about him. I keep in very close touch with him. He’s a one-of-a-kind, even with all his flaws.
To say the least.
He’s in the middle of the Bible belt in rural Oklahoma, unapologetically who he is. That’s remarkable. It was not easy for him to find a lot of partners, and I think he felt really conflicted about it. It was interesting. He evolved over time. We first met him at the top of 2015. He told me that he was diametrically opposed to gay marriage.
I was like what?
And yet he was so proud. I could hear the reverberations of Bible school in the back of his head. He couldn’t make sense of it. And what he’s gone through was really tough. As a kid he’d been bullied. He did not grow up at a time where it was easy to be out. At a very young age, he was the victim of sexual abuse. So he was a very complicated character, and still is, and is still working through these things. Obviously, he eventually became much more comfortable and it was a wonderful thing to see society become more accepting and how that impacted him.
He provided an oasis for other gay people in an area of the country where there was not a lot of acceptance. I really applaud him for that. Even though he asks people to be part of his kingdom or his cult, he really did encourage people to be who they were and be proud.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t come off totally loathsome.
He’s super charming. His insatiable need for attention, which I think is a byproduct of what happened to him as a young man… He tried so hard to be straight as a young man. So hard. And he said he knew from the time he was eight that he was gay. His family was so unaccepting, his community, his church. Everything. And he’s so macho. He’s flamboyantly gay and was as tough a cowboy as you could ever meet. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
This series is totally bananas. Guns go off. Tigers attack. Everyone in this film is an accused criminal in one form or another. Did you ever get the feeling you were in danger? Were you and Eric scared?
I think towards the end. At first, we didn’t know. We were filming with Joe in Oklahoma with the FBI circling him. And we were there filming away and he seemed so completely normal. And this was, apparently, right when the hitman was departing for his mission, if indeed it ever was really a mission. I don’t know.
So it was very bizarre afterward to find out. And head-scratching: how were we so oblivious? We were with him around the clock. How could all that be happening? And yes, there are some sketchy characters. We never in a million years thought it would become what it has. We thought it was like Best in Show when we started, and there was just this crazy fatal attraction between Carole & Joe. It was humorous. There was like this satirical element to it. Eric and I would just be hysterical about their obsession with each other. So when it took a dark turn, it was hard to wrap our heads around.
About that absurdity, the eccentricity of these people—what is the Joe-Carole obsession about? All this because she put him on a website criticizing his zoo? What can they not let go of?
It’s interesting. Carole started with big cats with her disappeared husband. They had the largest private collection of big cats in America. They were ferocious. Joe started out with a lot less money taking in animals because he couldn’t’ afford to buy them. He always wanted to be a showman. So he started mall shows, first doing magic, then with tigers, then even more money with tigers as the advent of selfies came around.
People became obsessed with taking selfies with tigers. The problem is tigers can only be handled by the public for 8-12 weeks. So you have to constantly breed them. Then they become super expensive. Carole evolved in her thinking and became a sanctuary, and the day-to-day life of her tigers is not that different from Joe’s. They’re also in enclosures. But she doesn’t breed, and has worked endlessly to end private collections with big cats. So that’s the difference.
Joe, if you think about the fact that he was breeding 80-120 tigers a year, and there are less than 4000 left in the wild, it was pretty wild. It’s like a puppy mill for tigers. They’d take them away from their mothers as babies. They’d scream all day and all night. They’re supposed to sleep all day, and get handled instead by the public. And they get sick. It’s a miserable life for them, and it is pretty cruel. People like Joe and Doc and, though I’m fond of him, Mario [Tabraue, another cat enthusiast], are all engaged in this. Then the question becomes where do the tigers go?
Right, and that…
They’re super expensive to feed. The numbers don’t add up. So I won’t make any accusations, but the tigers are disappearing. We became really familiar a large swath of the big cat people in the country. It’s dark. They’re amazing animals.
They are majestic. And fascinating to watch. But it blows my mind that there’s a shadowy underground of people dealing exotic animals. I can’t wrap my head around that.
It’s huge. Globally, it’s the fourth largest black market in the world after drugs, guns and human trafficking. Tens of billions of dollars a year.
When you’re working on a series like this, particularly with a co-director and things are just out of control, how do you cope with the insanity of it all?
I mean…most of the time we were on the same page. Sometimes Eric would be like you’re too nice to Joe, or you’re too nice to Carole. It was tricky, a very tricky balancing act. But the project was also a really fun project. We had a lot of fun making it. It got stressful when things got dark at the end. We were racing to our delivery date, and the story kept unfolding. We had a big edit team, and I was working on structuring the series while Eric was out in the field sending endless amounts of footage back. But it was a good collaboration.
Any sensational moments that didn’t make it into the series?
Yes, but I’m not going to share them. We don’t know what we’re going to do with them.
Does that mean there’s a sequel or a second season?
But we don’t know what to do with them.
Interesting. Carole has been very vocal in saying that the series misrepresents her. Which is ironic to me, considering I couldn’t believe how fair you actually were to some of them half the time. You have hitmen and accused murderers here. When you’re dealing with subjects this explosive, and characters this outrageous, how do you make sure you’re not going to far? How do you keep balanced?
For us, we were just super honest with everybody and let them speak for themselves. We didn’t want to dictate. We wanted the audience to decide.
Tiger King streams on Netflix.