By Rebecca Nicholson.
In March 2020, in the early days of the first lockdown, word began to spread about a documentary so outrageous, so packed with astonishing twists and turns, that it almost defied belief. Just a month later, 64 million households around the world had gawped at Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, Madness, a seven-episode Netflix series that more than delivered on its title. It told the wild story of Joe Exotic, the gay, polyamorous proprietor of a big cat wildlife park, GW Zoo in Oklahoma, and his extraordinary rivalry with Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist and proprietor of her own big cat sanctuary, which ultimately led to his downfall and eventual imprisonment for animal abuse and hiring someone to kill Baskin.
Like so many others, Louis Theroux sat down to watch Tiger King last year, but he was closer to the story than most, having had his own run-in with Exotic and the GW Zoo during filming for a one-off documentary for the BBC in 2011. America’s Most Dangerous Pets (which is available on iPlayer) offered a wider look at the people who keep and breed big cats and monkeys for profit and pleasure but, while Exotic loomed large, he wasn’t its focus. Now, a decade later, Theroux is revisiting the Tiger King carnival for a new, feature-length documentary, Shooting Joe Exotic.
So has he talked to Exotic again? “Mmmmm. No, basically,” says Theroux. But Exotic has reached out to him, despite the fact he’s serving a 22-year prison sentence that was handed down in 2018. “Joe is an indefatigable campaigner on his own behalf,” Theroux explains. “He sent a letter through someone else, in which I was mentioned, asking for my help. I think a couple of emails went back and forth, and then that line of communication got shut down.”
Instead, the film draws on new interviews with those around Exotic, as well as a wealth of footage left over from the 2011 trip. Fittingly, Theroux had arrived in Oklahoma in the middle of a tornado and suspected there might be a longer film in what was happening at the zoo.
Theroux says he had forgotten just how much they filmed. “It just felt chaotic and extraordinary. [Exotic’s] feud with Carole Baskin was very much ongoing at the time, so I interviewed him about all of that, and talked to his husband and their boyfriend, and in the end, although he was a significant presence in that film, very little of that material was reflected in the finished programme.”
Theroux considers how he feels about the Netflix series. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’ve done a great job of making this compelling. It’s a romp, and it’s obviously connecting with people.’ Given how much material there was, it’s no easy job to make a seven-hour documentary which is really complicated and has lots of different layers and sources of material.”
Did he have any qualms about how lurid it seemed, particularly given that he had spent time with some of the people involved? “I don’t know that I’d call them qualms. I had some niggling concerns about aspects of the storytelling, which, to some extent, I chalked up to the understandable urge on the part of the film-makers to make it as compelling as possible.”
He hasn’t watched it again but remembers feeling as if it made Baskin’s facility look similar to Exotic’s, “in terms of the conditions of the animals. She is dedicated to getting rid of breeding [big cats], whereas Joe breeds, which is a really important distinction. I felt a kind of moral equivalence had been made between Carole and Joe that wasn’t justified, and that many people were watching thinking that Carole was basically just like Joe.”
When Tiger King was released, Baskin called the series “salacious and sensational”, claiming she had been “betrayed” by the directors. In another near-unbelievable twist, Baskin has now taken possession of the GW Zoo; Theroux arrived to meet her about a week after she and her husband Howard had become the new owners. “I gave her a tour, in a weird way, because I know the park better than Carole does,” says Theroux. He says he felt sympathetic towards her, knowing that she had been viciously trolled in the aftermath of the series.
“At the same time, if I’m honest, what’s extraordinary about Carole is how she seems able to shake off a lot of that, which, paradoxically, can have the effect of feeding it. I might be wrong, but because she tends not to show whatever pain she might be feeling, perhaps that’s harder for some people to empathise with. Whereas Joe clearly is the opposite. He wears his pain very obviously. He sort of specialises in leveraging his own angst for social influence.”
Theroux has said before that he felt protective of Exotic. He’d visited the park three times in 2011 and, during their last day of filming, the two had a confrontation. “I knew that he was p**sed off. He thought that I had an animal rights agenda. I also knew that I needed an ending for the documentary and needed to be seen to be holding him to account in some way, or at least posing some fairly pointed questions.”
They had a conversation and, in the middle of it, Exotic lost his temper. “He ripped off his microphone and said, ‘F*** you. F*** Carole Baskin. F*** Tippi Hedren. F*** PETA. Yes, my animals are happy. Yes, I’m going to go on breeding.’ He had a tantrum. Any time someone rips their mic off and tells you to f*** yourself… I won’t say it’s never happened before, but it’s not something you typically forget.”
Until he saw the old footage, Theroux had forgotten what came next. “I said, ‘Joe, I’m just asking these questions. I don’t mean to upset you. Can we just keep talking?’ He came back on camera and we finished the conversation, and I said, ‘Are we buds again?’ And he goes on, ‘I guess.’ And I said, ‘Can I have a hug?’, and went over and I hugged him. What struck me was the fact that I seemed to need some emotional reassurance that he was OK. I felt protective of him, and I didn’t like the fact that I’d upset him. It’s odd. But that’s actually a big part of how he functioned, and now he’s sort of done that on a global scale. There’s hundreds of thousands of people around the world who want to give Joe a hug.”
Theroux’s new film deals with the murder-for-hire plot, “which makes virtually no reference to Tiger King, the series. It’s something like a programme I might have made if Tiger King hadn’t existed.”
But it also has to deal with the post-Tiger King world of fame and notoriety for those involved. Several dramatisations of Exotic’s story are in the pipeline, one of which will see Nicolas Cage playing Exotic himself. Since Theroux was there in the early days, will he be a character in any of them?
“I highly doubt it,” he says. “I’d love it if I was. Any claim I can make on being part of television history or whatever that is. Joe said at the time, ‘You’re the first crew that we’ve had at the park, even though the park had been there for nine or 10 years… Story needs [to be] told, story needs [to be] told.’ ”
Now, that story is such a cultural phenomenon that there was even talk of President Trump pardoning Exotic before he left office. “I thought there was a chance of it happening, actually,” says Theroux. “You know the term they use now, ‘brand adjacency’? Brand Trump and Brand Joe are fairly adjacent, so I thought that would make sense.” Does he think Joe should be free?
He takes a moment to think. “No. No, it was a solid case.”
Tiger King is just the latest example of Theroux seeming to find himself on the edges of a strange story, circumnavigating an odd situation that later turns out to have been far bigger than it first appeared. “Uh oh, I know where this is going,” he says.
For his When Louis Met… series, he made programmes about the late, disgraced PR mogul Max Clifford, whom he caught lying on microphone, and, most notoriously of all, Jimmy Savile, years before it emerged that the TV and radio presenter had been a prolific sex offender and predator. What does it feel like to be there before the bigger story breaks?
“Maybe I’m more insecure than you might imagine. What occasionally flips through my head and gives me a pang of momentary disquiet is the idea that maybe I’m talentless, maybe I’m not particularly good at my job, maybe I’ll be unmasked and be out of work. But when I see a story hit the headlines after I’ve made a programme about it, mainly I feel a sense of vindication. Like, ‘Oh, wow, look at me, I called it. I was right, there is a good story, or there was something there.’ ”
Theroux is at home in London, locked down with his wife and three children and finding this one to be “the worst of the trilogy”. “I can’t even be bothered to pretend that this will end up being morally strengthening, that in some way this will be a salutary experience because we’ll value life. I just feel miserable, and quite angry, at no one and nothing in particular.”
Even so, he has had a busier year than most, travelling to the US in November to make Shooting Joe Exotic, as well as catching up with some of his old subjects for his Life on the Edge series, and creating a hit interview podcast, Grounded with Louis Theroux. Is there anyone he hasn’t interviewed yet that he’d like to? “I’m feeling an urge to say, [rapper] Cardi B. I think it’s about the mix, isn’t it? I’d like [author] Kazuo Ishiguro. Bob Dylan would be amazing. But then he might be so boring. They say be careful of meeting your heroes, right?”
He’s also set up Mindhouse, a production company with his wife, director Nancy Strang, and executive producer Arron Fellows, which has just finished making a three-part documentary, provisionally titled Gods of Snooker, about the glamorous golden age of the sport. “I’m not in Gods of Snooker,” he says.
You’re not a “God of Snooker”? “I’m not even a demigod. It’s about the heyday of snooker in the 1980s when I was in my teens, and it’s showing every sign of being brilliant.”
Mindhouse is also behind Sex Odyssey, another three-parter, about modern sex and sexuality, presented by Alice Levine. “I’m 50, you know, no one needs to see me with my shirt off. I’m not saying Alice is going to take her shirt off, by the way. But back in the day, I might have done programmes a bit like that. I did programmes about trying to be a porn performer and so forth. So this is a way of getting involved in programmes that I would love to watch, but having a behind-the-scenes presence.”
Theroux has been fronting his own documentaries since 1998. Does this mean he’s moving out of the limelight after almost a quarter of a century? “I think a balance is good. I’m not saying I’m not going to be on camera any more, but it feels like a big departure. Going back to that idea of me feeling insecure, it makes me feel like, ‘Oh yes, I’m a programme-maker. I’m not just a presenter.’ I’m actually one of the people down in the engine room, making sure everything works.”
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