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Fifty Shades of Grrrrrr: The insane story of 'Roar'

In 1971, Tippi Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith began raising lions for an adventure movie. Forty-four years, 72 hospital trips, and one case of gangrene later, ‘Roar’ is being released from its cage

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Drafthouse Films and Olive Films are promoting the limited theatrical release of the 1981 adventure spectacle Roar with a memorably eye-catching tagline. “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie,” declares the advertising slogan for the film, out April 17. “70 members of the cast and crew were.”

As the production of Roar involved lions, tigers, and other dangerous animals, it is unsurprising to learn that people were injured during the production. But 70 sounds like an exaggeration. In fact, one of the film’s stars, John Marshall, confirms the math is inaccurate. “Actually I think it was 72,” he says.

Roar was the brainchild of John’s father, an agent-turned-film producer named Noel Marshall, and his stepmother Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. In 1969, the couple traveled to Zimbabwe, where Hedren was shooting the thriller Satan’s Harvest. At one point, the pair visited a game preserve in Mozambique and saw an old building which a pride of lions had made its home. They came up with an idea for a film about a scientist living in harmony with big cats, his attempts to protect them from hunters, and the hijinks which ensue when his family arrives at his lion-filled house when he’s away.

Marshall and Hedren decided the film would be set in Africa but shot in California—and in 1971 started to raise lion cubs at their three-bedroom house in Sherman Oaks. Theoretically, this was for reasons of safety. Marshall and Hedren cast themselves in the movie alongside three of their children: John, John’s brother Jerry, and Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, the future star of Working Girl (and the future mother of Fifty Shades of Grey actress Dakota Johnson).

The couple believed that raising both the big cats and their own offspring under the same roof would minimize the risk of cast members being attacked when shooting began on the film, which was to be Noel Marshall’s first (and, as it turned out, last) movie as director. If this sounds absolutely insane to you, then John Marshall is not about to disagree. “In hindsight, I know how stupid it was to do this film,” says Marshall, 61. “I am amazed no one died.”

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Los Angeles in the 1970s was an infamously crazy place—but it wasn’t crazy enough that people could keep a pride of lions in a residential neighborhood. After an animal control officer gave Marshall 24 hours to de-big cat his house, he bought property in Santa Clarita for the lions—and the jaw-dropping array of other wild animals with which he intended to populate his movie.

“I was about 15 when I said, ‘Why do we have tigers?’” says John. “Because tigers aren’t in Africa. I was the voice of reason. I would say, ‘Why do we have mountain lions? Those are from North America!’ Everybody would go, ‘That’s a stupid question.’”

But Marshall discovered there were side benefits to keeping big cats, particularly when it came to meeting members of the opposite sex. “I had this tiger that I absolutely loved, called Nicky,” he says. “I would take him down to a local luncheon-bar place, and girls would go, ‘Oh my God! Can I play with your tiger?’ I’d say, ‘Well, not right now. But if you give me your phone number…’” 

Principal photography on Roar started on October 1, 1976 at Santa Clarita, where most of the movie was filmed. By this point, the animal cast numbered 132 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, and jaguars, as well as a 10,000-pound bull elephant named Timbo, which Marshall and Hedren acquired from an animal park in Canada. The shoot was scheduled to last six months but stretched to three years, thanks partly to periodic shutdowns as Noel Marshall hustled to finance a budget which ultimately ballooned to $17 million.

At other times, shooting was halted so that the film’s human actors could recover from the multitude of injuries they received at the hands—well, paws—of their animal counterparts. In Hedren’s 1985 book about the making of the film, The Cats of Shambala, the actress recalls that she hoped the movie would “show the possibilities of human-big cat relationships.” In fact, the movie’s production revealed the dangers inherent in those relationships. Hedren herself developed gangrene after Timbo crushed her leg between his trunk and tusk; Griffith was clawed in the face; John Marshall was sent to the hospital following an incident in which a lion decided to treat his head as a chew-toy. “It took six guys 25 minutes to get it off of me,” he says.

Most dramatically, the film’s director of photography Jan de Bont—later the director of Speed and Twister—needed 120 stitches after being essentially scalped by a lioness. “I got him on the way to the hospital, and I went into the office and said, ‘Okay, we need to get a DP,’” says John. “Because I figured that DP was not coming back. And he came back and finished the movie! I was amazed. Jan was a trooper.”

ROAR – Jan de Bont injury

The stress of making the film terminally damaged the relationship between Hedren and Noel Marshall; the couple would divorce in 1982. “’Stressful’ is kind,” says John. “We had floods, we had fires, every one of us wound up in the hospital. There were times when we would get together as a family and we would go, ‘I think we should give this up.’ But we never gave up. It has to do with dealing with lions and tigers. You can’t show fear. If you show fear, you’re dead. You have to be stronger than them—you have to be stronger than anything in life.”

Roar was a hit in several foreign territories, including Japan and Germany, but Noel (who died in 2010) kept holding out for a richer domestic distribution deal. In fact, it isn’t clear if the movie was ever properly released in the U.S., adding another layer of weirdness to this already eccentric tale. Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League was unfamiliar with the title until Greg Marcks, who directed the 2003 Hilary Swank movie11:14 , hipped him to the movie when they were both waiting in line for a screening at last year’s Telluride Film Festival. “He sent me a DVD and it just blew my mind,” says League.

The Drafthouse boss struck a deal with Olive Films, which now holds the rights to Roar, and the movie screened last month at the SXSW Festival. League says the audience reacted strongly to the many scenes that feature members of the Marshall-Hedren clan in what looks like obvious real-life danger. “There were gasps, there was horror, there was laughter,” he explains. “Everybody was on the edge of their seats for this entire film. It’s this great little undiscovered treasure that we’re hoping to find a whole new audience for.”

ROAR – John Marshall

One person apparently hoping that the film doesn’t secure that new audience is Tippi Hedren. Through the decades, the actress has continued to look after big cats at the compound in Santa Clarita, now named Shambala. But according to John Marshall, the Birds star has changed her mind about the wisdom of promoting the idea that humans can live with lions and tigers.

“I think the premise of this film is contrary to what she now feels,” he says. Neither Hedren nor Griffith were available to be interviewed for this article, but John indicates that his former stepsister has a more positive view of the project. “I sent Melanie a DVD and wasn’t sure how she was going to accept it,” he says. “You want to forget something that was that stupid and that fearful. Three weeks later she said, ‘Can I get 10 more copies?’”

Following Roar, John decided, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the actor’s life was not for him. Instead, he became a highly successful producer of commercials. “I did a couple with Jan as a director,” he says. “He just really didn’t want to relive it.” 

John himself is thrilled that the movie is getting a U.S. release, even if seeing the film still gives him the heebie-jeebies. “Every time I watch Roar, I have nightmares for two or three days,” he says. “It’s like, ‘F—k, who thought that was smart?’ [But] we’re part of history. No one is ever going to make a movie like this again. It’s just so much fun because—because I’m alive. And I shouldn’t be!”

You can find the list of theaters where Roar is screening at the Drafthouse Films website.