What is it about big cats that makes some people feel magnetically drawn to them?
There’s a fascination, overall, with exotic animals. Something that’s dangerous and beautiful, all at the same time. That also has a lot do with ego and status: “Look at me, I have a tiger” is similar to “Look at me, I have a big boat.” Or “Look at me, I have a Ferrari.” There’s a lot of machismo embedded in that. In America, there are also definitely parallels between “I have a right to have a machine gun or a semiautomatic” and “I have a right to have a tiger.” And they are definitely used as sexual bait — in Joe’s case, young men, and in Doc’s case, young women.
Do you think the operations run by some of the people in “Tiger King” were essentially cults?
There’s a lot of brainwashing that goes on, whether it’s intentional or unintentional. People fantasize about working with animals, and then they start doing it, and then they start to believe that they’re indispensable and the animal loves them just as much they love the animal. Most of these people that landed in these places were very young when they got there, usually their teens or early 20s. They work seven days a week and get paid virtually nothing, and are never able to visit their families. These places have a lot of power over the people that became indoctrinated.
How long did you spend filming the series?
It’s been five years focused on filming people in the United States, and it ramped up over the last two years, where it really felt like I was on a plane every week because this story was unfolding contemporaneously [when Joe Exotic was arrested, indicted and put on trial]. There’s some data that suggests that viewers get tired after a certain amount of episodes, and the sweet spot is probably between four and six. We just felt it deserved seven episodes in the end.
Have you had any recent contact with Joe, and does he know about his latest flush of notoriety?
Joe is ecstatic. He’d call from time to time, from jail. He’s been transferred to a federal penitentiary in Fort Worth. I lost communication — I think he had to go into quarantine because of the virus — but up until about three days ago, he was communicating with us. And thoroughly enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.
Some viewers of “Tiger King” have criticized the series, saying that it exploits its subjects and holds them up as freaks to be mocked and pointed at. How do you respond to that?
We tried very hard to be honest and fair with all of the subjects in the story. Some of them are bigger than life, for sure. They told me what they told me and some of that landed in the series. Of course we wanted to bring out each character’s unique qualities. Mario Tabraue [the convicted drug trafficker] was genuinely pleased with the outcome. He knew that he had a past that people would want to hear about.