The 1981 film stars Tippi Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith, 132 lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, and jaguars, and a 10,000-pound bull elephant named Timbo.

By Clark Collis
April 07, 2020 at 03:00 PM EDT
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Did you think the footage of people interacting with big cats in Netflix's Tiger King documentary was insane? Then it's likely you haven't seen the 1981 film Roar which, EW can exclusively reveal, the Alamo Drafthouse is rereleasing for a "virtual cinema" run via Vimeo’s VOD platform beginning April 15th.

Roar was the brainchild of an agent-turned-film producer named Noel Marshall and his actress wife 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 in 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 (yes, you read that right. No, we're not making any of this up). Theoretically, this was for reasons of safety. Marshall and Hedren cast themselves in the movie alongside three of their children: Marshall's sons John and 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. “In hindsight, I know how stupid it was to do this film,” John Marshall told EW in 2015. “I am amazed no one died.”

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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 for long. After an animal control officer gave Marshall 24 hours to de-big cat his house, he bought property about 30 miles away 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?’” John said. “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.’”

Principal photography on Roar started on October 1, 1976, in 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 told EW.

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.”

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, which didn't come. 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 originally released the film in 2015 with the tagline, “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. 70 members of the cast and crew were.” The cinema chain is now rereleasing the film at a time when the public's fascination with big cats and the people who keep them is at an all-time high.

“Roar is so singular, so breathtaking... you've never seen a movie like it, and there will never, ever be a movie like Roar again,” said Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO, in a statement. “I’m delighted we’re able to bring it straight into people’s homes.”

The VOD release will feature a video Q&A with John Marshall. Alamo Drafthouse is also aligning with fellow exhibitors and partners like Studio Movie Grill, Showcase Cinemas, Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, The Broad Theater in New Orleans, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and Seattle’s Scarecrow Video so that they can host their own virtual screenings. Advance tickets are on sale now via Alamo Drafthouse and participating locations.

Ten percent of ticket grosses at all theaters will be donated to the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation’s Pioneers Assistance Fund, which is dedicated to helping people who work in the motion picture industry. Currently, the PAF is providing financial assistance to theater employees furloughed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Watch the trailer for Roar, above.

For the latest information on coronavirus (COVID-19), including how to protect yourself and what to do if you think you are sick, please visit coronavirus.gov.

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