Surviving 'Roar': The Most Dangerous Film Ever Made
Surviving 'Roar': The Most Dangerous Film Ever Made
The young lioness suddenly froze when she noticed me hiding in the shadow of a tree. Dark, feline pupils in yellow eyes dilated to better reveal me. Instinctively, I understood that I was prey. I backed up slowly as she stalked closer and closer. Suddenly without warning, she leaped and pinned me against a tree. Balanced on her hind legs, she thrust her front legs onto my shoulders. Her deadly paws closed tight 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 with her long sandpaper-like tongue. The lioness didn’t want me for dinner, she was just a big teenager wanting to play.
Me and my buddy Boomer
This was a typical day for me working on a movie called Roar in the summer of 1978. Some days were much more frightening, yet I survived working for six months on this movie. Roar was my first professional film - and it turned out to be the most dangerous feature film ever made. It’s a little known film, even though it starred Tippi Hedren (Hitchkock’s The Birds) and her famous daughter, Melanie Griffith. Why was the movie so dangerous? Well, you would have to blame that on the co-starring cast of over 100 large felines – including lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and cougars.
From 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. This led to a devotion to the struggle of wild cats around the world. The population of these beautiful creatures was crashing down, due to being hunted and forced from their natural habitat. Noel and Tippi thought that a movie about lions in Africa could help raise awareness around the world. They also intended to use proceeds from the film to help improve the lives of big cats in captivity.
Noel and Tippi originally wanted to “rent” Hollywood trained lions. They discovered this was impossible on the scale that they imagined. So, they began the process of acquiring and raising their own lions along with their family (Melanie Griffith, Joel, John, and Jerry Marshall). Most of the lions were rejects from zoos, circuses, and private owners unable to cope with the responsibility. Their first lions actually lived, slept, and ate with them in their suburban house in Sherman Oaks, CA**.**
Tippi at home chilling with Neil, her first lion
As you can imagine, the neighbors and the local authorities weren't too thrilled. Eventually, they bought a large secluded ranch 40 miles north of Los Angeles in Soledad Canyon that would accommodate their lions and serve as the “African” set for their film. After several years of breeding and acquiring other species of cats, their labor of love grew into one of the largest private collections of big cats 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, it took 11 years to make Roar a reality. 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 – with both loving and violent behavior. Drew McWeeny of Hitfix says “Roar feels like Walt Disney decided to make a snuff version of ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ It may be the single most irresponsible thing I've ever seen as a movie, and I have seen it three times now. I may watch it again tonight. I am that fascinated by this record of absolute madness.” Tim League, CEO of Drafthouse Films, called Roar “the most epic and amazing animal thriller ever made. The lighthearted slapstick of the surface masks one of the most intense, white-knuckle, nail-biting thrillers ever seen. The cast is in constant mortal danger as dozens of adult lions ‘improvise’ around them.”
By today’s standards, what is most impressive about Roar is the absence of visual effects. It was produced well before the days of computer generated trickery. Although creative editing was sometimes employed, it’s obvious that what you are seeing is real. Lions are really fighting with each other and actors are really grappling with lions and tigers. The following scene demonstrates the incredible risks taken and their dire 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). Occasionally, the blood is real; a few actors were actually bitten or clawed (not by plan) on camera! This certainly isn’t a typical family film like Born Free.
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. One scene was covered with 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 the “method” actors as far as their performance philosophy. They refused to hit marks or repeat action for continuity. On some days they would just lie around sleeping until they felt right about doing the scene. They weren’t “acting,” they were “being.” And Francis Ford Coppola thought Marlon Brando was being difficult on Apocalypse Now! This improvised approach did yield some magical moments that could not be planned or duplicated. Watch the “cub conversation” in this video clip.
Big Break or Big Bite
Although the big cats were familiar and somewhat friendly with their human caretakers (Noel and Tippi’s family), they only tolerated the crew making the film – including me! Every day was an exhilarating and stressful experience. So, why did I join such an insane production? Well, I’ve always had a keen sense of adventure, but the truth is I was young, foolish, and extremely ambitious. Roar was my first paid 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!
Despite the risks, Roar was a great opportunity for me (and many others) to break into the film 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.
Melanie Griffith and Tipi Hedren on set of Roar
In just the third week of shooting, a lioness bit the cinematographer, Jan DeBont, in the head – effectively “scalping” him! Even after receiving 220 stitches, he courageously continued to photograph the film. He stayed with the project for the entire 5 years until it was finished. Actress Melanie Griffith was also seriously hurt during filming. Her face was accidentally clawed by a lion, resulting in over 50 stitches and reconstructive surgery. This incident was caught on film and the scene can be seen in the final cut of the film. Her Mom, Tippi Hedren, suffered a fractured leg and scalp wounds. This occurred after an elephant bucked her off its back while she was riding it. She was also bitten in the neck by a lion and required 38 stitches. Noel was injured numerous times - often seriously.
Jan De Bont after 220 stitches
The film project nearly collapsed permanently in December of 1978 when Noel was severely bitten in the leg during filming. He was hospitalized, but he developed gangrene from the nasty bite. Roar’s bad luck didn’t stop there. While Noel was in the hospital, monsoon rains came and flooded the ranch. Most of the African set was flooded and ruined. Mudslides wiped out a series of fences, allowing lions to escape. Concerned for public safety, nervous sheriff deputies shot and killed one of the star male lions. Even worse, a mysterious feline disease broke out and decimated their cat population. Later, wildfires erupted and burned portions of the ranch. It took over a year for the set to be rebuilt and the exterior environments to grow back enough to resume filming. It’s no wonder that Roar was deemed by Variety as the "most disaster-plagued film in the history of Hollywood.”
It was also a financial disaster. Right from the start, Roar’s budget quickly ballooned. Financiers pulled out two years into production, forcing Tippi and Noel to sell virtually everything they owned to keep the film going. Prior to producing, directing, writing and starring in Roar, Noel Marshall was an executive producer on The Exorcist, the proceeds of which helped fund the production. As disaster after disaster plagued the set, crew members began to believe that Roar had fallen prey to the legendary “curse of The Exorcist.” Because of the many delays and other financial woes, Roar’s final cost was $17 million. Unfortunately, the film only returned $2 million worldwide.
Noel fighting wildfires to keep his film alive
After being unavailable for many years, Roar is about to have a well-deserved second life. Drafthouse Films has plans to re-release Roar. The film will have a limited theatrical release across the US starting this month and will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand platforms later this summer.
If you can’t wait for summer, Roar and The Making of Roar can now be purchased on DVD at https://www.roarthemovie.com. The website is run by John Marshall, son of Noel Marshall, and one of the actors in Roar. Proceeds from the DVD sales go 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: https://www.shambala.org/
Life Altering Experience
Roar was an incredible project I’ll never forget. It was the most exciting, frightening, and intense experience I’ve ever had. Since then, I’ve photographed other animals for clients such as Animal Planet and National Geographic. As you can imagine, I now consider working with domestic cats and dogs a cake-walk!
Let me know what you thought of this article. If you liked it and want to hear more Roar stories, please comment and share! What are your thoughts about Roar? Was I irresponsible for working on this film? Would you work on a crazy film like this? Is it worth the risk?
*Like this blog post? Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email etc) by using our social media buttons at the top of the blog. Or post to your personal blog and anywhere else you feel appropriate. Thank you.*As always, Randolph is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below...
About the Author
Performance Coach and Career Mentor I’m a Performance Coach and Career Mentor for both aspiring and established filmmakers. I have a long and successful track record of helping many individuals break into the film and video industry and quickly advance up the business ladder. I specialize in bo...