I love learning about behind-the-scenes of how films are made, I’m a real sponge when it comes to ‘making of’ stories. I want to know who came up with that line or who created that character. Whose idea was it to make the film in the first place and what inspired them. All of that kind of guff. When it comes to behind-the-scenes stories of filmmaking, I don’t think anything comes close to the making of Roar.
Released in 1981, Roar tells the story of a naturalist called Hank living on a nature preserve in Tanzania, Africa. On said preserve are several big cats, lions, tigers and such. Those big cats get a little rough when a committee arrives to review Hank’s grant to keep his nature preserve going. When Hank’s family arrive, the big cats soon become a very dangerous problem.
Basically, Roar is about a load of wild and very dangerous animals going, well… wild and becoming very dangerous. It is a film that could be seen as being made to jump on the coattails of the likes of Jaws, a good old-fashioned ‘when wild animals attack’ kind of thing. Still, even though this film was released after the success of Jaws, the idea for Roar came about before both the film or the novel of Jaws even existed. Oh man, what a story this is too.
The concept for Roar was the brainchild of married Hollywood couple, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren. Tippi was shooting Satan’s Harvest in Mozambique in 1969 and during a break in filming, she was taken on a tour of the area. While on the tour, Tippi saw an abandoned house in the Gorongosa National Park, which had been overrun by several big cats. As Tippi Hedren said when talking to Parade magazine in 2015:
“It was an amazing thing to see. The lions were sitting in the windows, they were going in and out of the doors, they were sitting on the verandas, they were on the top of the Portuguese house and they were in the front of the house. It was such a unique thing to see and we thought, for a movie, let us use the great cats as our stars.”
Tippi was told how the lions were becoming endangered due to poachers. After the tour had finished, she talked to her husband, Noel Marshall about the possibility of making one or more films where big cats would be the star. Noel was an agent, movie producer and one-time screenwriter actor and director. May as well mention this bit here. The one and only time that Noel was a screenwriter actor and director was on this film, Roar.
Anyway, the idea to make a big cat film was shared with Noel’s sons, Joel, John, and Jerry Marshall and Tippi’s daughter Melanie Griffith (yes, that Melanie Griffith), Tippi’s child from her previous marriage to Peter Griffith. Everyone thought it was a great idea and wanted to be a part of the film themselves. With the family onboard, the research into how just to make a film with wild big cats began.
Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren visited several lion and tiger handlers, they toured various wild animal preserves and asked a lot of questions while making many, many notes. The idea was to shoot the film in Africa but Noel was told that would be next to impossible because tame big cats were very rare there. So, they would have to shoot most of the film in the United States as it had many more tamed and trained animals to work with. Though several establishing shots were filmed in Kenya.
With some research under their belts, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren began developing the film in early 1970 with an estimated shooting schedule of six months and a $3 million budget. During the spring of 1970, Noel wrote the first draft of the script, which was simply called Lions. Another draft saw the title changed to Lions, Lions and More Lions (I think he added some more lions). While the film was going to be a drama about anti-poaching and feature a serious message regarding the preservation of wildlife in Africa, just as Tippi wanted, it would have a few comedic elements too. Some of the script was written to follow a very strict direction for the big cats, there were still elements of the script left open for the animals to be more ‘natural’ and do their own thing. Even the opening of the film states the following:
“Since the choice was made to use untrained animals and since for the most part they chose to do as they wished, it’s only fair they share the writing and directing credits.”
Yup, the animals were given a writing and directing credit on the film. Now, that bit up there does say that the animals were ‘untrained’, that’s not strictly true. Under the very sensible suggestion of one of the animal trainers, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren obtained several young cubs and even some older cats that they had gathered from zoos and circuses, and they raised them at their home in Sherman Oaks, California for a few years. This was done so that the cats would grow up and be used to being around humans and the humans around them. They may not have been ‘trained’ to perform, but they were still raised to be used to working with humans. However, having the animals brought about the first major issue with the making of Roar.
See, the script originally called for the use of around 40 to 50 big cats and having that many animals around your house could prove to be a bit of a problem. There was another issue, keeping big cats as (basically) pets was illegal, even for major Hollywood stars. In 1972, authorities learned that Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had been keeping the animals and they were ordered to remove the big cats from their home. How many of the cats they had at their home at the time is not known, but it was said to be a couple of dozen at least. Anyway, Noel and Tippi purchased some land in Soledad Canyon, California and had a specially designed house built for the big cats. It was a specially reinforced multi-storey structure inspired by African architecture. That specially designed and built house eventually grew.
The entire area was transformed from a piece of open land, to a closed and fenced-off 2,000 square foot home for the animals. There was a man-made lake, African plants and foliage, a mini-film studio, an editing suite, an animal hospital, a huge freezer to hold all the meat to feed the big cats and more. It was essentially its own big cat preserve complete with a full staff. The whole thing was built using non-union workers as Noel and Tippi couldn’t afford union workers and were worried that they may have been breaking rules, so wanted to avoid any possible legalities. Bearing in mind that this was still pre-production and the estimated budget of the film was $3 million.
Long story short and the whole thing grew to become the Shambala Preserve, an actual animal sanctuary. Then in 1983, Tippi Hedren founded The Roar Foundation to keep it funded. Yup, it is still in operation today. But, I am getting way ahead of myself now, back to the making of Roar. Building that home for the big cats made the budget for the film swell. It grew from a $3 million budget to around $17 million, that’s over $70 million today. Plus, the initial six months planned for the film became several years. I mean, they did have to raise numerous big cats from cubs to adults, pay a full staff to care for the animals and the day-to-day running of the Shambala Preserve and so on.
Because the animals had changed from the original idea of just having lions, to now having various big cats, the script was rewritten. Noel Marshall even got an elephant from the Okanagan Game Preserve. As the script was adapted to fit in a wider variety of animals, the title of the film became Roar. By 1976, Noel and Tippi had amassed (deep breath) 71 lions, 26 tigers, 10 cougars, 9 black panthers, 4 leopards, 2 jaguars, and 1 tigon (tiger-lion hybrid). (Another deep breath) 7 flamingos, 6 black swans, 4 Canadian geese, 4 cranes, 2 peacocks, 2 elephants and 1 marabou stork. All of the animals were housed and cared for at their specially built Shambala Preserve. They picked up a few more big cats (why not?) and ended up with around 150 in total. That’s 150 big cats, not 150 animals.
Still, to get to this point, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had to sacrifice a hell of a lot. They sold their homes and any land they owned. Noel’s production company went bankrupt. They sold personal possessions and so on. Any and everything was sold off just so they could keep the animals alive and cared for and keep making the film. Speaking to The Montreal Gazette in 1977, Noel Marshall said:
“You get into anything slowly. We have been on this project now for 5 years. Everything we own, everything we have achieved, is tied up in it. Today we’re 55% complete. We’re at a point where we just have to do it.”
Now, initial filming began in October of 1976 and was planned to last just six months. However, due to the African trees and plants turning brown and losing their leaves, filming could not begin again until the next year. Even then, they could only film a handful of months at a time and when the plants were fully bloomed. Then there were other production issues, of which I will cover soon. So, that six months of filming became spread out over several months and over several years. Including pick-up shots after the main shooting, Roar took a total of 5 years to film. However, from the original idea, writing and re-writing the script, building and maintaining the Shambala Preserve, amassing the animals, raising and caring for the big cats and other animals, editing the film and so on. Roar took 11 years to make it to the screen.
Now, Roar proudly claims that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. That’s not strictly true. 14 lions and tigers did die as a result of contracting airborne illnesses though. Not really anything to do with the filming per se, it was just one of those things. There’s another story that I’ll mention later of animal deaths. Still, while the film claims that no animals were harmed during filming (a lie), around 70 cast & crew were. Now we get into the real meat of the making of Roar, the many, many, many bloody accidents and injuries.
Even before filming started, John Marshall (Noel’s son) was the first to be attacked. A lion clamped down on his head and didn’t let go for around 25 minutes. John needed 56 stitches and returned to work on the film soon after. It has been said that 48 people were injured in the first 2 years of filming and at least 70 were injured by the time filming had been finished. However, In an interview with the XFINITY movie blog in 2015, John said about the number of injuries that:
“Tippi disputes the number. I believe that number is inaccurate, I believe it’s over 100.”
Now, I’m not going to cover all 70 (or over 100) injuries, but I will offer up some ‘highlights’… if you can call them that. Just as an aside, many of the animal attacks that did occur were filmed and used in the final cut of Roar. No humans died making the film, but very few make-up effects were needed because a lot of the blood in the film was real blood from real maulings and attacks.
Noel Marshall, playing the Hank character, took a great deal of big cat attacks. He had his hand bitten and doctors initially thought that Noel may have to have his hand amputated due to the damage. He suffered multiple punctures to his legs through numerous bites. Another attack left Noel with chest and face wounds. Eventually, he was diagnosed with blood poisoning, hospitalised and even contracted gangrene. It took several years for Noel Marshall to fully recover from his many, many injuries. And yet, like everyone else on the film, whenever he was injured and after some medical attention, he’d just keep on going as the cameras rolled.
Tippi Hedren had her head bitten by a lioness when doing a promo shoot, not even while working on the film itself. The teeth of the lioness were said to have scrapped along Tippi’s skull. After a hospital visit, several stitches and a tetanus shot, Tippi was back on the film. Later, an elephant called Tembo, fractured Tippi’s ankle by picking her up with its trunk. That injury caused Tippi to have an inflammation of the vein (phlebitis) and later contracted gangrene. That same elephant bucked its trainer off its back, the trainer hit a tree and broke her shoulder. Tippi Hedren had several more injuries including being bitten on her chest by a cougar and having her arm clawed by a leopard.
Melanie Griffith (who originally dropped out of filming but later changed her mind) received one of the worst injuries of the entire production. She was severely mauled by a lioness and sustained many serious injuries. Her face needed around 50 stitches and at one point, it was thought that Melanie could lose an eye. After some facial reconstructive surgery (and lots of recovery time), she returned to the film.
Cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped by a lioness while filming, by the same lioness who attacked Tippi Hedren during the promo shoot. A hospital visit and 220 stitches later, Jan came back to finish the film. Jan de Bont was in a hole dug into the ground and he was operating a camera to get a shot of the family running away from some attacking lions. The shot was to be filmed so that the humans and lions would run over Jan’s head as he was hiding and filming in the hole in the ground. John Marshall remembered the incident when talking to thedailybeast.com in 2017:
“Jan’s [injury] happened very quickly – and he deserved it. We’d had a specially made football helmet that we’d cut out so he could operate [the camera]. And he goes, ‘I don’t need any fucking helmet!’ All the lionesses came and jumped over him, and he’s an amazing cinematographer and doesn’t want to miss a shot, so when he has an empty frame he pans over to catch the family in the boat. Well, the lioness that jumped over him went, what was that? She bit at ‘it’ [De Bont’s head] – thus, the 200 stitches. Literally, his scalp was hanging in front [of his face] and we just threw it back to get him to the hospital.”
Assistant director Doron Kauper had one of the lions bite his throat open and also left him with scalp, chest and leg injuries. The attack was first reported as being ‘near fatal’, but Doron Kauper was later reported as being conscious and stable after surgery. There were dozens and dozens of other big cat attacks, way too many to cover here. You could always check out the Tippi Hedren co-written book Cats of Shambala for many more details on the making of Roar.
The attacks got to a point where a lot of the crew walked off, worried about their own safety. Apparently, the turnover for crew members on the film was very high for the 5 years that it took to shoot it.
Still, one of the worst incidents to happen on the film didn’t even come from an animal attack. In order to create the man-made lake that was on the Shambala Preserve where the film was shot, workers dammed off the nearby Aliso Creek. In February of 1978, there was a massive rainstorm which caused damage to the dam, which eventually burst. The whole property was hit by a 10-foot flood and caused mass destruction.
Parts of the completed film were destroyed, though the negative had already been sent to be edited. There was extensive damage to the specially built house. Several of the crew had to be saved from the flood. The water also destroyed cages and fences holding the animals. As a result, some of the panicked big cats escaped and had to be killed by the sheriff and local law enforcement. Three lions were shot dead, including the lead lion called Robbie, who was replaced with another lion for the rest of the shoot. So yeah, some animals were definitely harmed in the making of Roar. Maybe not by the filming directly, but most definitely due to the film being made.
The flood caused around $4 million in damage (still in 1970s money here). It took a year for the area to become usable again (one of the reasons this took 5 years to film). Filming equipment had to be replaced, the house/set was rebuilt, around 700 African trees and plants had to be replaced and more. All of which took around 8 months of work and a lot of money, ballooning the film’s budget. If there was ever a sign that this film should never have been made, this was it. However, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren had poured everything that they had into the project. They had to finish the film and see it released just so they could hope to make their money back, maybe a bit of profit too.
Eventually, the film was completed and set for a mass release. However, there was another major setback. Roar was not released in North America, the film’s biggest market. Why Roar was not released seems to vary depending on who is asked. According to Tippi Hedren, the studio that was set to release the film wanted the ‘lion’s share’ of the profits. Something that Noel Marshall and Tippi refused to agree to as they wanted the money to go to helping the Shambala Preserve and care for all the animals. I would also assume that they wanted a good chunk of the profits too as they had spent $17 million (closer to $40 million today) making the film. There has also been stories that the reason that the film was not released in the US was due to the fact that Noel Marshall hired non-union workers.
So yeah, Roar was not even released in the US. It did see get into cinemas internationally though. Countries such as the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia did see the film released in cinemas, where it made a whopping $2 million, against a $17 million budget.
Roar was a gargantuan flop and in 1982, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren eventually separated and divorced, the pressure (and danger) of making the film and its haemorrhaging of money was one of the main reasons.
It all worked out well for the animals though as (previously mentioned), Tippi Hedren founded the non-profit The Roar Foundation and the Shambala Preserve grew and grew. As of writing, Tippi is still very much alive, now aged 93 and is still an animal rights activist. Noel Marshall died in 2010 aged 79. Sadly, Noel never did see Roar released in the United States… because it eventually was. In 2015, Drafthouse Films purchased the rights to Roar and gave it a limited theatrical run in April 2015…
Tippi Hedren was asked to make comment of the film’s eventual American release, which she refused. It has been said that she refused to talk about the film due to how Drafthouse Films chose to promote it, with a bit of a ‘funny’ slant. See the trailer above. The lines of: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 members of the cast and crew were”, the way the actors (Tippi’s then-husband and daughter) are shown in the trailer or the false claim that Robbie the lion was unharmed, when he was shot dead due to the flood, etc. Apparently, Tippi felt Drafthouse Films were not taking the film seriously and using sensationalism to promote it. So, she refused to talk.
Roar is an absolutely crazy film and honestly, there’s a great deal I’ve not covered just to keep this article at a reasonable length. Read Tippi Hedren’s book Cats of Shambala for more details. There were so many more animal attacks and incidents that I’ve not mentioned. It really is amazing that no humans were killed. The animal attacks in the film are 100% real and whereas ‘normal’ films would use stunt doubles, specially trained animals and make-up effects to portray something like a lion attacking a human, Roar did none of that.
The film showed real animals actually attacking Noel Marshall, Tippi Hedren and their children. There were no stunt doubles or protective clothing. Fake blood was not used as that was their real blood in the film. Roar is about as close to a real ‘snuff film’ that you will probably ever see. The story behind its making is absolutely bloody insane. Roar is one of the most distributing horror films made… and it’s not even a horror film. It was meant to be a family drama with a heartfelt message about animal activism.
Tom Cruise once broke his ankle doing his own stunts on Mission Impossible, did he? Ahhhhh, didums. Melanie Griffith had her face ripped open by a lioness and her family fought off around 150 big cats, while suffering and surviving multiple maulings, and still came back to finish the film. Tom Cruise is a pussy.