How 'Tiger King' Editors Spent 5 Years Crafting Docuseries' "Strange Material"

The larger-than-life Joe Exotic was one of the many wild subjects in Netflix’s 'Tiger King.'
Courtesy of Netflix

The larger-than-life Joe Exotic was one of the many wild subjects in Netflix’s 'Tiger King.'

When Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness arrived on Netflix just as captive audiences were adjusting to stay-at-home orders amid COVID-19, the bonkers docuseries provided just the right type of escapism.

The story of several big-cat collectors and animal-rights activists, centering on the eccentric villain Joe Exotic, immediately captured the cultural zeitgeist and went on to earn six Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding documentary or nonfiction series. It also landed a nom in picture editing for a nonfiction program. Editor Doug Abel (whose credits include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 and Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog of War) describes how the nominated team spent five years crafting the over-the-top story as it unfolded.

Did you expect the enthusiastic response to the series?

We really didn't. It's that kind of insecure thing as you're working on a project: "Is anybody going to care about this?" We really didn't know, and we weren't sure if people were going to make it past the first episode or two. We just thought, "This is just too weird." We had people telling us that they liked it, but we were in such a crunch on the schedule that we didn’t have time to do the typical kind of test screenings that you normally would want to do on a project. It is definitely a surprise to me and, I know, the whole crew.

You were editing as the story was unfolding. What was the original brief, and how did the series change along the way?

I believe it was a project that was being pitched to CNN as a multipart series, and each part was going to focus on a different [animal] species. There was going to be a section on trophy hunting, a section on big cats, a section on reptiles. It was all in the context of why humans feel that they have dominion over animals, that they can treat them this way. That was sort of the overarching theme. I believe CNN was mulling it over when we decided we had enough material to try to do a feature-length version. Then it came back as a pilot for CNN. This was right around the election, so everything kind of went on hiatus.

Around that time, one of the main characters met a tragic end — one of Joe’s husbands — and the story started to become much larger in scope. As [directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode] did more filming, they kept meeting other people, and threads developed. Before we knew it, we were looking at a four- or five-part series. And then Joe got arrested, and a whole other aspect of the production just kind of spiraled and [we] ended up with seven episodes.

Most of what you were working with was the material the crew shot?

It was, but we did get a lot of material from Joe. And then third parties who had been involved in different aspects — people he had hired to do his internet show or to do music videos — also provided us with footage. A lot of it was super dull: you know, Joe weed-whacking and eating lunch. He really did film everything. A lot of it was him trying to prove that somebody had done him wrong. We had a lot of very strange material. We would all of a sudden have 300 more hours, and the assistants would go crazy trying to find anything in it that seemed like it would be helpful. We were swimming in footage. And there were a lot of wild goose chases trying to find different things, and so we did end up with a lot of material — a lot of characters who didn’t make it in the cut at all.

What were some of the most memorable moments that did not make it into the final edit?

We did have a very funny scene where Joe sort of reveals he’s not actually the singer of his own songs. The only reason we didn’t include it is that there was a last-minute legal issue where we were worried that maybe he did actually partially sing on some of them, and we decided to not go down that road. It was very funny, but it seemed to derail the story. We maintain a list that we call the orphan list, and it was all these scenes that we knew were lovely and we’d love to get in but couldn’t.

During the course of the series, the audience meets a lot of characters. Which of the stories was the most challenging for you to tell?

Joe is challenging because he says so much, and so much of it conflicts. I think we just decided early on [to] establish him as somebody who you love to watch, but you can’t trust what he says. Joe is Joe, and it’s just hard to wrap your head around him at all. Carole [Baskin] was also a challenge. By her own admission, she’s a socially awkward person. She had a hard life and has gone through some hard things and is a super dedicated, super focused person. She’s maybe hard for people to relate to. As the show progressed, she became a little bit more withdrawn, and [her husband] Howard started speaking more for her. But we really wanted Carole’s voice and made sure she remained a presence.

Carole also became a central figure because she became Joe’s nemesis, and there was the mystery of what happened to her first husband. Were these items always in the story as well?

She was one of the folks who had been interviewed as an expert on tigers. They continued to interview her over the span of about five years. She had been an essential part of it for a long time because of her message that tigers should not be in captivity — that was very central to the general idea of the series from the beginning. Obviously her conflict with Joe was established fairly early on. The story about her missing husband, I think, came a little bit later. I don’t think she volunteered [to tell that story] per se, but I think that did come up as more interviews were done.

Carole said she felt betrayed by the filmmakers because they included details about her missing husband. How do you respond to that?

I don’t think the intent was ever to detract from her mission. I think the film stands behind her premise, which is that tigers should not be bred. We did a really thorough job; it was extensively researched, it was extensively fact-checked. We did try to make sure that any statement that was made had a counter statement so that it would remain balanced. I would say that we definitely stand by the proverbial reporting, and it doesn’t come to a conclusion. It is a mystery that persists. I certainly feel for Carole, and I understand why she, of course, is going to defend herself. We don’t come to a conclusion, we just present lots and lots and lots of information, and people have to make up their own minds.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.