‘We’d All Been Bitten, and We Kept Coming Back’: ‘Roar’ Star John Marshall on Making the Most Dangerous Movie of All TimeDrafthouse Films / Olive Films
This past Monday in Los Angeles, workers installing a security system in a house in Los Feliz discovered a mountain lion named P-22 in a crawl space under the building. By mountain lion standards, P-22 was already famous: About three years ago, he was featured in a National Geographic photo spread about big cats in urban areas, prowling with the Hollywood sign in the background. Now here he was, in someone’s basement, chilling like Chester Cheetah. According to the Los Angeles Times, officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife “tried for hours to coax him out from under the house by launching beanbags and tennis balls at him and poking him with a stick,” but were unsuccessful. Sometime in the morning on Tuesday, though, P-22 decided to vacate the premises on his own. And so ended one story whose moral is that lions will do whatever they want.
A few hours after a ping from P-22’s radio collar informed the National Park Service that the so-called Hollywood Cougar had returned to Griffith Park, John Marshall sat in the back of a restaurant a few miles away on Sunset Boulevard, waiting on a chopped salad. He was in the midst of a whirlwindish press tour and had spent the last week or so discussing the strangest chapter of his life story to gobsmacked reporters. His story goes like this: Around 1973, a teenage Marshall began shooting a movie called Roar. The writer-director was Marshall’s father, Noel, a former talent agent and the executive producer of The Exorcist. The film starred Noel; John; John’s brother, Jerry Marshall; Noel’s wife, Tippi Hedren; Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith; and more than 130 wild animals, including lions, tigers, jaguars, and an elephant. Noel Marshall plays a naturalist named Hank, who’s been living in Tanzania and sharing his home with a pack of big cats for some not-particularly-clear research purpose. Hank’s wife, Madelaine (Hedren), and their children (John, Jerry, and Melanie) fly to Tanzania from Chicago to visit him, but Hank is called away to deal with an emergency before they arrive. The family shows up at Hank’s house unaware that they’ll be sharing it with assorted wildlife whose collective attitude toward humans ranges from playful to scarily aggressive. Oh, and all the animals are real, and largely untrained, and when they paw and pounce on their human costars, you can see real terror in the actors’ eyes — like actual Oh shit please God no terror. Roar is a failed attempt at family entertainment that succeeds as a quasi-docu-horror-comedy, and also a farcical bookend to the early career of Tippi Hedren, who made her screen debut as a socialite menaced by avian wildlife in Hitchcock’s The Birds and wound up years later working with another obsessive director on a movie in which she’s literally thrown to the lions. Walking unprepared into an early screening of Roar (which Drafthouse Films is rereleasing this week) during South by Southwest last month was one of the most exhilaratingly weird moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Hedren and Noel Marshall (who died in 2010) had developed an interest in big cats in 1970, after Hedren shot two films on location in Africa. They’d raised several lions at their home in Sherman Oaks before relocating their expanding pride to a ranch in Acton, California; apart from one sequence involving a giraffe, the Tanzania scenes were actually filmed in Acton, with animals who’d grown accustomed to roaming free on the Marshall property. Roar’s nominal villains are a crew of rifle-packing Great White Hunter types, and the film ends with some title cards about the importance of protecting wildlife — among them “SHOW YOUR DISGUST WITH ANYONE WHO OWNS OR PURCHASES FURS OR IVORY” — but at no point do you fear for the safety of the animals onscreen. It’s the humans you worry about. What might have been a goofy Swiss Family Robinson romp is complicated and rendered both hilarious and terrifying by Marshall’s total commitment to verisimilitude. These aren’t “animal actors.” It’s clear that, to paraphrase Chris Rock, we’re just watching lions going lion and tigers going tiger. No one was killed on set. But more than 70 members of the cast and crew were injured, many of them quite seriously, including Griffith (who had reconstructive surgery after being mauled by a lion) and Hedren (who suffered broken bones after being thrown by the elephant). The film’s director of photography, future Speed director Jan de Bont, required 220 stitches after a lion ripped off his scalp. Widely regarded as one of the most dangerous of all time, the shoot for Roar was supposed to take six months to complete and instead became a nearly decadelong ordeal; Hedren and Marshall sold off nearly everything they owned to keep the movie going. They split up in 1982, one year after the movie opened in a few overseas markets, where it recouped only part of the $17 million it cost to make. Until now, it’s never been theatrically released in the United States. Here’s John Marshall on how it was made and how it came back.
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I’ve never seen anything quite like this movie.
Quite often, if I meet somebody new and go on a date, I’ll tell them a little bit about it, because it was a big part of my upbringing. Usually I’ll tell them, “Why don’t I give you a copy of the movie? If you want to go on a second date, you should watch this, because I’m not your average person.” Usually they’re fine with it. And it is really interesting, what we did. Nobody will ever do it again. We shouldn’t have done it.
Do you feel that way when you look back on this experience? That you shouldn’t have done it?
Oh no, I don’t regret it. I’m just saying, intellectually, this film should never have been done. These are wild animals. You should not be with wild animals. I think the reason that Tippi isn’t really participating [in the promotion for the rerelease of Roar] is because this is against everything she’s now preaching at Shambala, her nonprofit and her preserve, which is that these are wild animals and they’re not meant to be living with people. She passed a law in Congress1 saying you can’t breed these animals to sell them.
To keep them as pets.
Right. We did what we did, and we can’t regret it and we don’t regret it. But we don’t want a bunch of people now thinking, We should go get lions because that would be really cool. Y’know, If those guys [survived] … These animals should be left alone. They’re majestic and they’re wild and they’re amazing. But that said, we did live with them. We were raising them in Sherman Oaks. I think we probably raised 30 of them in the house. I lived there for maybe a year and a half when we were raising them. We had varying sizes — we raised cubs, one-day-olds. At one point there was a big photo shoot for Life magazine and a big lion was brought in from the ranch. But typically, at home, there were no lions over 8 months old and 150 pounds or something.
In the house?
Oh, yeah. Sleeping in bed with us. Running around the house. We had this one neighbor that kept turning us in. We had a routine. Whenever the doorbell rang at seven o’clock in the morning, you knew it was animal control. So Dad would answer the door, and Tippi, Melanie, and I would take whatever animals, whatever lions and tigers we had at the time at home, and we’d throw them over the fence. Our house was on a hill, and the house below us liked us. So we’d throw all the lions over the fence, and we’d be in our pajamas, climbing over the fence to keep them quiet. Then Dad would go to animal control and say, “Nope, we don’t have any lions.” We were caught many times. They knew we had the ranch, because we had all our permits and everything else, so finally one day, Dad said, “You caught me — we have lions.” They say, “OK, we know that. Let’s see them.” So Dad takes them down to the walk-in closet in their bedroom, and there’s four cubs that are three days old. And he goes, “We do raise these lions at home sometimes.” Then the guy goes, “I’m not coming out here anymore. These people [next door] think their kids are gonna get eaten?” Then Dad and Tippi got even with them. They got the cheetah. Which is legal.
It was legal to have a cheetah?
I think it might even still be legal to have one. I don’t know [whether] that law has changed. I don’t know the legalities of buying a cheetah. But the reason you’re allowed to have a cheetah in your house in L.A. County and not a lion is because cheetahs are the only cats that don’t have retractable claws. They have dog claws, so they can’t climb. Like, a leopard can climb a 100-foot tree. A cheetah could only climb 10 feet up a tree. And they think they’re more domesticated. I don’t think the cheetah ever bit anybody, but I didn’t like the thing because he humped my leg. I’d bring some girl over — I was really popular in high school. I’d bring these girls over, to play with the cats.
Then I moved out, I didn’t talk to Dad for a while. We had a disagreement. But then I came back into the picture, and I was raising a tiger in Marina Del Rey. I used to take him to a bar right over by the boats, and I’d tie him over by this railing because I knew the owner. These girls would come by and they’d go, “Can I play with the tiger?” And I’d say, “Oh, not right now, I’m leaving in a couple minutes, but if you give me your phone number, I only live two blocks away.” I knew it was unusual, and I played it up.
Sure, that makes sense. Was this always a shared passion for Tippi and your dad, or did one of them come to it first?
Dad and Tippi together. The way that it came about was, Tippi used to do movies in Africa. There was two or three years in a row that she did a movie there. And, after one of the movies, they went on safari to Zimbabwe and there was a house overrun by lions, and they thought, “That’d be pretty cool. Why don’t we make a movie about that? We’ll get the whole family together, just rent some lions, and we’ll do this movie.” So they come back, and all of us are like, “Oohh, we get to play with lions?” So that’s when that started. The goal was they wanted to use Hollywood lions that were trained, of course. We didn’t know what we were doing, so we interviewed some animal trainers. They all said that you can’t put two male lions together [in a scene]. And none of them got along with each other, and nobody was willing to mix their animals, so they finally said, “You should just get some [lions] of your own.” So Dad and Tippi got one cub. We thought that was really cool. So we got more and more and more lions. And then they got a pair of tigers, Ivan and Natasha. I remember saying, “Why do we have tigers [if the movie’s set] in Africa?” But by then we already had the tigers, and they were really cute.
Sure. Who doesn’t like a tiger?
Same thing with the mountain lions, but by that point it was snowballing. The vehicle we transported the lions in was an old station wagon, and the license plate said “44 LIONS.” So that’s how many we had. But we got up to 150 at one point.
What I love about this story, what I find fascinating, is that everyone’s attitude is “What’s the worst that could happen?” Even though obviously the worst that could happen is pretty serious. Someone could have had their face ripped off by a lion.
See, we didn’t think that was possible.
We were stupid — but if you thought that they were going to hurt you, that meant you had fear. And if you had any fear or showed any fear, you were dead meat, because they pick up on it. You have to believe you are a lot stronger than them and that you’re in no danger whatsoever. You have to show them who’s boss. Just like a dog. You can’t let them think they’re in charge, because then you’re gonna get eaten. We lived with them, we respected them, they respected us, and it was great. But the characters we play in the movie — Tippi, Melanie, Jerry, and me — we do all the things you’re not supposed to do. You shouldn’t show fear. You shouldn’t run from them. Don’t play hide-and-seek. And we’re running and we’re trying to hide from them and we’re playing hide-and-seek, and all of a sudden it became slightly a lot more dangerous.
How long was it supposed to take to shoot?
We thought it was gonna be nine months. We knew it was gonna be more challenging than most. But we didn’t plan on five years.
Was your dad financing this himself? He’d made The Exorcist, so he had some money, right?
A lot of the money went away before we even got started, because it kept taking so long to get the money, and by then we had 60 or 80 animals. You’d get behind on bills and you couldn’t feed them. The family started out with four houses, 600 acres by Magic Mountain, and the ranch where we shot. Through the years, all four houses and the property at Magic Mountain, all of that went away. They had investors that came in for $1 million, up front. That barely paid back what we were behind when we started filming. There was always deals going, but we’d get behind, and it was a big financial struggle. My father started a commercial production company and bankrupted that, taking all that money to keep feeding the machine. So when he had financial difficulties, that would shut it down, because I would have to fire the whole crew. Or when somebody would get injured that we couldn’t shoot around. There was snow, there were two floods, there was a fire or two. Very disruptive. It was very challenging. We all wanted to give up at one point or another. But when you’re three years into it, $10 million or $12 million into it? You’ve gotta do it. I took everything very personally, because I was in charge, especially in the beginning. We did two years of prep and I was the one who knew everything. I was the one that could work every piece of equipment. I did the electrical. So I never questioned it. It was like, “OK, we’ve gotta make this movie, otherwise my two years of prep is wasted.”
So how old are you at this point in the story?
Probably 19, 20.
So you’re starting your life out. Your dad has made some movies already, he’s had a career, but this is your first job.
I was an assistant director. I’m credited, I think, as a camera operator, a boom man — I got like three credits, because when I wasn’t in the scene, I did whatever it took. I was a grip sometimes, sometimes I was an electrician. I was doing assistant directing at the beginning, on and off, when our assistant directors would quit or we’d transition between them. The first couple days [of shooting] we did the big animal fight, and Dad got bitten through the hand. So we already had an injury. I think it might have even been Day 1. And then we do the scene where the family comes down the stairs, gets in the rowboat, rows around the lake, and the elephant destroys the boat. During that process, Jan got 200 stitches in the head. We figured he was gonna quit, but he came back.
I was doing a commercial once, about 10 years later, and when I met the DP onstage, when we were prelighting, he says, “John, I’ve worked with you before.” I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve done a lot of work in my career. What’d you do?” He said, “I worked a day on Roar.” I said, “One day? My rule was I wouldn’t even learn your name unless you were there 30 days, because the turnover was so big.” And then I said, “So, why only one day?” He said: “Well, it was the day Jan [de Bont] got bitten, and I remember I watched that happen, and once you got him on his way to the hospital, I went up to you, because you were clearly in charge, and I said, ‘John, I’m not gonna do this movie.’ And you said, ‘No! No! This is an unusual day.’ And I go, ‘You’ve only been filming for a month, and I’ve heard it’s not only Jan [who’s been bitten], it’s the director. I’m out of here,’ and you said, ‘Well, listen, just go up front and fill out the paperwork, and we’ll send you a check,’ and I say, ‘I don’t want any money, I just want you to take the money and send flowers to that poor guy, and good luck. You guys need it.’”
I remember — I don’t know if Jan even knows this, but we were interviewing other DPs. We didn’t figure Jan was coming back. But we’d all been bitten, and we kept coming back. Jan was amazing.
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So the mauling of Jan de Bont happened when, exactly?
That was the third or fourth weekend of filming, I think. And then we kept filming. I went to Jan and Dad at one point and had a meeting, and I said, “Guys, I might not know much about filmmaking, but I’m really good at math” — I had like 800 SATs in math. And I said, “I did some calculations. If you break the script down to eighths of a page, and the script is 120 pages, at this pace it’s gonna be 29.3 years before we finish the film. We either need to pick up the pace or the whole movie has to be about the family getting in the boat and rowing around the lake.” And that estimate didn’t even cover injuries, financial difficulties, floods, fires …
Right. You were just thinking about getting the animals to hit their marks.
We were smart. It doesn’t seem like it now, but we were smarter than most. We wouldn’t try to make the animals do something that they didn’t want to do, so every time we would set up a scene, it was what we thought the lions would want to do anyway. Like the whole motorcycle thing. Guess what. We figured out the lions liked chasing the motorcycle, and the elephant likes chasing the lions and the motorcycle. So OK, we’re gonna do that.
Because they weren’t movie lions. They were just lions. They were not trained to hit a mark like an animal actor.
We didn’t try to train them, we just tried to teach them not to bite.
Did you ever get sued?
Not that I remember. I remember this one guy — I don’t remember how it happened, but he lost the tip of his finger. I wasn’t there at the time, but whoever was driving him to the hospital emergency room, I don’t know who thought that this was a smart idea, but they throw the finger out, because it’s grossing them out. The guy gets to the emergency room and the doctor goes, “Well, where’s the tip of the finger?” And the guy says, “We threw it out!” He goes, “Well, go back and get it!” They couldn’t find it. So that’s the only one that I remember. There wasn’t a lawsuit, but the guy wanted money. I think I gave him 20 grand, which was a lot of money back then. And I bump into him eight months later, and his finger has grown back! Including the fingernail! I go, “I want my money back!”
You’re like, “C’mon, at least give me back 10 grand.”
Yeah. Give me half that.
“Keep 10 grand for your pain and suffering … ”
Half for pain and suffering, right!
I guess it was a less litigious time.
Much less. Everybody knew it was really dangerous. And everybody talked. We talked openly about our injuries, because that was part of teaching people what to watch out for.
Despite everything that happened, your dad never gave up on this movie. Why do you think he stuck with it? Was it just about him needing to get back the money he’d put into it, or do you think there was something he really wanted to say with this film?
I think it was all financial. But he did want to get a message out about conservation.
Which is in those title cards at the end of the film.
“Go to an African country that has good tourism.” They were really ahead of the curve.
I like the one that advocates showing disdain for people who wear fur.
My father once was in some restaurant in Beverly Hills and poured a bowl of soup on this woman because she was wearing a fur coat. And it turned out it was fake!
So you do this movie. It becomes a part of your life, a part of your dad’s life. Your whole family’s life. It takes all these years to complete. And then what happens? It does get officially released, right? Just not in America?
It was released, and I’ve never corrected this on IMDb, but they say the movie cost $17 million and it only recouped $2 million. The $17 million is accurate; I know that the $2 million is not. It’s absolutely wrong, because [the Japanese distributor] paid a million dollars for it, and it was the top-grossing film in Germany for a while. I know Australia paid a lot of money. The film didn’t do well in Australia, and the film didn’t do real well in England, but I know the numbers and $2 million is a long way off. My father told me that the film grossed $10 million.
What was it like after that? What did you do once this part of your life was over?
I ran away from that film. It had taken a lot more of my life than I had planned on. And because of the transition from living with the animals and loving the animals and respecting the animals to almost dying because of the part I was playing — I thought I was pushing my luck and it was time to move on. And I had a great career waiting for me in commercials. So I ran away from the film. Dad and Tippi divorced.
Do you think they divorced partially because of the stress of this experience?
Oh, absolutely. I think Dad got kind of obsessed. We all questioned whether we should continue, especially with the flood. We were like “Maybe this is a sign.” The sheriff shot the lead lion and all these things.2 In the Making of Roar documentary, she kind of implies that was the end for her. They knew they still had to finish the movie, but their marriage wasn’t going to survive that experience.
I have to see that documentary.
It was even fun for me to watch, because I wasn’t everywhere, and I had a different perspective than everybody else. One of the guys, I think he was in the editorial department, he told this funny story: You know that scene when Dad’s in the bathtub? There were tons of full-grown male lions in that room. I just happened to be walking by, and Jan says, “Hey, John, I’m in here with a lot of lions in these tight quarters. Would you come and watch my back?” So I said, “Sure,” and I grabbed a hog cane [to push the lions back], and I’m in there. They start filming, and Jan goes “Noel, I can see your underwear,” so Dad just pulls off his underwear. So now he’s naked in the bathtub. And there’s about 10 full-grown male lions around him.
So I watched this lion Donny, who had almost bit me a number of times, and had bitten Dad once before — Donny starts licking Dad’s neck. And all the animal trainers [on set] had been reprimanded so many times for interfering that they were all scared to ever say anything, because Dad would always say, “I wasn’t in any danger!” So I’m in there, and Donny’s licking him, and I’m not saying anything. Then Donny grabs him [pantomimes biting down] and starts pulling him out of the bathtub, and I just scream bloody murder to make Donny drop him, and all the other lions — 10 full-grown male lions, in a room smaller than this, all trying to get out of there. They’re just fucking flying everywhere. So Donny runs out the side door. And you can’t let an animal get away with anything. It’s like when a dog shits — you’ve gotta stick his nose in it. So Dad gets out [of the bathtub] and he’s chasing Donny to reprimand him. I’m in there with Jan and I’m not watching what’s going on outside. So in the documentary, this guy says, “So I’m taking these Japanese investors, we’re walking by the set house, we look up, and here’s the director with blood dripping down his neck, and he’s stark naked, running after this lion.” It was quite fun to hear everybody else’s stories.
Was that just the kind of guy your dad was? A person who would minimize danger in that way? When I read things about his career, he just sounds like a movie producer, but you see him in Roar and he’s this big Grizzly Adams kind of guy. Did he always have that side to him?
We built some houses when we were younger. He’d love to be very physical, he loved to dig ditches and he was very gung-ho. If you embrace this life, you have to be Grizzly Adams. I would turn into a different person when I was with the animals. You just have to because otherwise you wouldn’t survive.
Do you think he ever recovered from the experience of making the movie and then having it sort of disappear the way it did?
Again, Dad and Tippi separated. Tippi, amazingly enough, turned [the Shambala preserve] into a nonprofit [in 1983] and took it as her life’s career. Even though Dad was the one that really, really was hands-on with the animals. Suddenly he couldn’t be with the animals that he loved and raised. I think it was very hard for him. By then he and I had started to drift apart, and that’s when he then moved to Florida. When I was 42 or so, we had a big falling-out. I couldn’t afford to talk to him, is how I like to put it, because he’d always con me out of money.
Was he still trying to get something going and make movies?
He was always trying to get something going. We would all ask him every once in a while, “So what’s going on with Roar?” But you work on something for 10 or 11 years, and you put everything you own into it, and every dime that anyone you know owns into it, and you’re not doing anything with it because it’s impossible? I think maybe it was just too hard and he got disillusioned.
Do you miss it?
[Long pause.] When people ask me, “Do you go out to the ranch very often?” I’d say, “No, practically never.” It’s kind of like if you get to drive a Ferrari, and then one day somebody says not only can you not drive it anymore, you can’t touch it. And here’s the red rope, and you get to go look at it, just like everyone else in the general public. I don’t want to do that. I want my memories to be hands-on. Laying down with them, cuddling with them, hugging them and shit.
Are you happy that the movie’s getting all this attention?
It’s very strange. Whenever I watch the movie, because I don’t watch it very often, I usually get nightmares for two or three nights. It’s very hard and it has been tough for the last couple weeks. I have just been living and breathing. But last night I got a great night’s sleep for the first time. I think I’ve just been so exposed to it maybe that now it’s not affecting me as much anymore. And it’s kind of fun.
Would you say that this experience has made you more fearless? Do you think it made you a braver person?
Oh, absolutely, braver, stronger, everything. I say this in production all the time. People say, “Oh, that might be a little dangerous.” I say, “I’ll fucking go do that. I used to beat up lions and tigers for a living.” And I forget that a lot of people don’t know me. They go, “This guy’s a little [cuckoo sound].” And I say, “No, I lived with a bunch of lions and tigers. I’m not afraid of jack shit.”