The newest Netflix sensation is Tiger King, a true crime docuseries that everyone is talking about. But when Tiger King was first being filmed, in 2014, it wasn’t supposed to be about tigers, murder, and leopard-print sequins. Though the series ends up following notorious wild cat collector Joe Exotic and his nemesis Carole Baskin, a big cat sanctuary owner, the directors of The Tiger King originally hoped to focus on something with a few more scales.
Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin set out to profile a reptile breeder and wild animal smuggler — a subject that’s near and dear to Goode’s heart. Goode is a big-time hotelier, nightclub, and restaurant owner and also the founder of the Turtle Conservancy. He owns a 5-acre compound in Ojai, California dedicated to raising endangered turtles and tortoises.
With that in mind, the film crew arrived in Florida to film a reptile transaction. As the documentary shows, that's where they witnessed a snow leopard in the buyer’s hot, cramped van. Goode decided to shift focus to those breeding wild cats for profit, and the abuses that were taking place, partly because, in many states, there are simply little to no regulations around wild animal rights.
“That was a very honest way the story unfolded. Rebecca and I started in South Florida with a guy that I had interactions with over 30 years, but wasn’t close to him. He had been extradited out of Central America back to the U.S., he was a smuggler and a reptile dealer," Goode explained to IndieWire. Goode told The Guardian, “It just blew my mind" and that made him want to figure out the puzzle behind big cat owners.
Filming took about five years, beginning in 2014 and wrapping up in early 2020 after Exotic was given his 22-year prison sentence, according to Netflix.
Chaiklin told IndieWire in the above interview that, although there were countless twists and turns, the source material was easy to get because the subjects “were obsessed with filming themselves.” She called it "the gift that kept on giving for us." In Chaiklin and Goode’s last year of filming, much of the narrative was still being glued together, like Exotic’s trial and sentence. “I probably spent about 40 percent of 2019 on a plane and filming,” Goode told Indiewire.
So while the docu-series has provided Netflix viewers with days of viewing material, it's the work of a solid half-decade of filming.