The young lioness pinned me against a tree. She stood on her hind legs, while her front paws tightened around my neck. I could smell and feel her hot breath as her powerful jaws opened inches from my face. I was powerless to prevent her from… licking and kissing my face. The lioness didn’t want me for dinner, she was just a “teenager” wanting to play.
Roar, the Movie
This was a typical day for me working on a movie called “Roar” in the summer of 1978. Some days were much more frightening, but I survived working for 6 months on this movie, arguably the most dangerous feature film ever made. It’s a little known film, even though it starred Tippi Hedren (“The Birds”) and her daughter, Melanie Griffith. Why was it so dangerous? Well, you would have to blame that on the cast of 150 large felines – including lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and cougars. The video below introduces some of the lion characters.
Inspiration to Reality
The saga of Roar began when Tippi Hedren and her husband, Noel Marshall (producer of “The Exorcist”) came up with the idea of making a movie about lions. They were inspired on a trip to Africa when they saw a former game warden’s house taken over and inhabited by a pride of lions. They were also passionate about communicating the plight of wild animals that were losing their natural habitat.
They originally wanted to “rent” Hollywood trained lions. They soon discovered this was impossible on the scale that they imagined. Noel and Tippi bought a large ranch outside of Los Angeles and began the long process of collecting and raising lions along with their family (Melanie Griffith, Joel, John, and Jerry Marshall). Most of the first lions were rejects from zoos, circuses, and private owners unable to cope with the responsibility. After many years, their labor of love evolved into one of the largest private collections of big cats (approx. 150) in the world. Although tigers, cougars, and jaguars are not found in Africa, Noel found a way to write them into the story – so they could be in the film as well.
From inception to completion, the creation of Roar spanned a period of over 10 years. It took 5 years just to complete the photography. The result is an amazing feat of highly risky filmmaking. Although Roar doesn’t rank in film history as a classic movie, it deserves recognition for having the most amazing and epic footage ever filmed of lions interacting with humans – both loving and violent.
Roar did not utilize any special visual effects. It was produced well before the days of computer generated trickery. Although clever editing was sometimes employed, it’s obvious that what you are seeing is real. Lions are fighting each other and people are really tackled by lions. Occasionally, the blood is real; a few actors were actually bitten (not by plan) on camera! The following scene demonstrates the incredible risks and the consequences. When Noel charges in to break up a fight between male lions, one of the lions bites his left hand (:26 sec). It happens quickly, but you can see the blood when Noel shakes his hand and briefly looks at it (:29 sec). This isn’t your average “Disney family film.”
Did I mention that the big cats weren’t trained? After spending years raising lions, Noel understood that lions could be trained to do simple “tricks.” But the problem is they get bored easily with their “trained performance” and therefore, they don’t look very natural or spontaneous. As the director and lead actor in the film, Noel made a bold choice that was definitely more dangerous and time consuming. Even though it was a narrative film, much of Roar was shot documentary style. Oh sure, there was a script and a general storyline, but every scene involving lions was improvised and photographed with at least 4 cameras. Some scenes were covered with as many as 8 Panavision 35mm cameras!
Since the lions were not “trained” to do anything, no one knew exactly what the lions would actually do. We just kept running cameras until the lions “performed” some spontaneous behavior that might fit the scene. No wonder it took so long to complete the movie. Noel’s lions were quite “method” with their performance philosophy. They refused to hit marks, and they would often lie around sleeping until they felt right about doing the scene. They weren’t “Acting,” they were Being. And Coppola thought Brando was difficult on “Apocalypse Now!” This improvised approach did yield some magical moments that could not be planned or duplicated. Watch the “cub conversation” below.
Big Break or Big Bite
Although the big cats were familiar and somewhat friendly with their human owners (Noel and Tippi’s family), they only tolerated the crew making the film – including me! It was my first professional film job and I was desperate for the experience, credit, and the money. Today, it’s hard to believe that I was anxious to risk my life for a starting salary of $125 a week!
But Roar was a great opportunity for me to break into the business without a lot of experience. It was an ongoing feature project that was often hiring new crew members due to the long schedule and high turn over (stress and injury). Fortunately, no animals were injured during the making of Roar, but many of the people involved weren’t so fortunate. Over 70 crew members and actors were injured during the filming. I was one of the lucky ones. I made it 6 months with only minor “play” scratches. In just the third week of shooting, a lioness bit the cinematographer, Jan DeBont, in the head – effectively “scalping” him! After receiving over 200 stitches, he courageously continued with the film until it was finished.
Roar was an incredible experience I’ll never forget. As you can imagine, I now consider my work with dogs and cats, for clients such as Animal Planet, a piece of cake! I’ll be sharing more amazing stories about Roar and my personal experiences on the film.
After being unavailable for many years, “Roar” and “The Making of Roar” can now be purchased on DVD at http://www.roarthemovie.com. The website is run by John Marshall, son of Noel Marshall, and one of the actors in Roar. The website has free video clips and more information about the film. Proceeds from the DVD sales goes to the Shambala Wildlife Preserve, a non-profit sanctuary formed by Tippi Hedren to care for exotic animals no longer wanted by zoos, circuses, and private owners. You can read all about Tippi’s commitment to allow these animals to live out the remainder of their lives in a beautiful and tranquil setting: http://www.shambala.org/