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35 Things We Learned from the Roar Commentary

Roar
By  · Published on November 4th, 2015

Roar is an accidental gem of suspense and absurdity that really has to be seen to be believed. Part terrifying animal attack film, part goofy family film, it’s an epic of entertaining irresponsibility.

The film bombed in 1981, but thankfully Drafthouse Films CEO Tim League and friends recognized it as a movie worth saving nearly thirty five years later. They cleaned it up for a theatrical release, and now Olive Films is releasing it upon an unsuspecting home video audience. Even a bare bones disc would be a blind buy for fans of big cats, slapstick, intense tension, brilliant theme songs, and/or WTF insanity, but happily the new Blu-ray also includes a commentary track featuring League and star John Marshall.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the Roar commentary.

Roar (1981)

Commentators: John Marshall (star and son of writer/director Noel Marshall) and Tim League (Drafthouse Films CEO and all-around fantastic guy)

1. The opening establishing shots were among the few actually filmed in Africa. Additional pick-ups were shot later, but the majority of the film was shot in Southern California.

2. John’s brother, Joel, doesn’t appear in the film but did work on the film as the production desire. Since the film takes place over two days but was filmed across five years the California shots needed constant continuity checks meaning Joel was in charge of painting leaves to keep them consistent throughout the film. “Also, he was not fond of the lions and tigers,” adds John.

3. Noel and Tippi Hedren, husband and wife until 1982, took trips to Africa, and on one visit witnessed a warden’s house overrun with big cats. The image became central to their vision of this film.

4. They initially considered using trained lions for the film, but they were told repeatedly by trainers that they couldn’t use more than two or three together in a scene. Luckily for us viewers they saw the futility of taking a professional’s opinion as fact and instead began a pride of their own. “At the height we had about 150 lions,” says John.

5. The actual Togar was part of a group called “The Wild Bunch” and wasn’t used in the film as he was actually too mean. The lion they cast as Togar was a sweetheart until he had a lioness near him. “When we needed him to be bad we put a female nearby him and then we’d pretend to take the female away and then he’d want to kill you.”

6. They interviewed several actors for the sidekick role and chose Kyalo Mativo because he was up for the demands of the film ‐ mainly interacting up close with numerous big cats ‐ but he had one stipulation. He told them he’d do whatever they needed, but that unlike them he didn’t want to be the lions’ friend, didn’t want to live with them, and didn’t want to sleep with them. “He was the only one of the main stars of the film that didn’t get bitten badly or go to the hospital.”

7. Johnny the lion was named after John who also raised the cat from a cub. “Johnny never hurt anyone,” says a proud John.

8. John used to show some of the dangerous-looking clips of the film to girls he wanted to date.

9. This was cinematographer Jan de Bont’s American debut.

10. John points out a guy in the background at 14:08 ducking quickly out of view. “He’s one of the handlers.”

11. Noel’s major hand injury occurs at 14:21 when he’s bitten right through the hand. “That was like the first or second day of filming. He shakes his hand off, but he comes right back in.” They were filming this big brawl scene so early n production because they were already out of money and needed to show something cool to raise more.

12. The aggressive animal play occurs most often when a new cat is added to the mix. “So you start with two and they figure it out, and then you add the third one and they fight. So you just keep adding and adding.”

13. The three guys in the boat that’s sunk by the addition of the tiger were some of the main handlers at the reserve. “They were as professional as we got.” Unlike most of the rest of the film, the blood on these three guys as the scene comes to a close is staged.

14. Tigers in the water are dangerous, but apparently they have a tell. “If you watch really closely, when their ears are back is when it’s really dangerous. When their ears are up you’re not going to get as bitten nearly as bad.” Good tip John, good tip.

15. It’s not in the film, but Noel’s bathtub sequence actually ends with a lion biting him and dragging him out of the tub by the neck. Trainers and handlers were wary about interfering as Noel would frequently chastise them “not very nicely” for blowing a take, but John “screamed bloody murder” when he saw it happen. The lions scattered at the sound, but since the cats need to be reprimanded when they bite a bleeding Noel chased the culprit (Donny) outside to give his nose a swat. “A group of Japanese investors was walking by, and they look up [to see] their director and one of the stars with blood dripping down his neck running naked on the porch chasing this lion.” League asks if the investors doubled down with their money after glimpsing this, but John says “that wasn’t a good day for investing.”

16. The original budget was $3 million and ended up reaching $17 million. They were constantly on the hunt for more investors and actually managed to get free cameras from Panavision and free processing from MGM. Budgetary woes affected personal finances too as at the beginning of production the family as a collective had four homes and some additional property, but by the time they wrapped “all four homes, two in Beverly Hills and two in Sherman Oaks, all four of them got sold, the property got sold, everything got sold, and nobody had a nickle by the time we were done.”

17. Noel was a producer on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but “all that money went into it also.”

18. It may just be coincidence, but the film did very well in Japan and Germany where it was marketed as a scary movie. In English-speaking countries it was marketed as a family film ‐ “a furrocious comedy!” ‐ and was a bomb. Those other regions also played a version of the film featuring a shot cut from English prints where Noel is bitten in the leg and dragged off-screen.

19. Melanie Griffith backed out of the film right before production began, so the for the first few months of filming they used her best friend Patsy. When they got together for Christmas that year Melanie told them all she wished she had done the movie, “and dad goes ‘We’ll just fire Patsy and redo some shots!’” John says they never heard one word from poor Patsy after this, so he makes plans to look for her on Facebook. John points out a visible Patsy at the 58:36 mark.

20. Noel told the kids (John, Melanie, Jerry) that during the scene with the lions bringing dinner into the house one of them had to say “Look what the cat dragged in!” but none of the them would do it. “So Tippi would alwas get stuck with whatever,” he says.

21. They waited a year and a half for a zebra to die of natural causes, but none did. Instead, a donkey passed so Jerry was tasked with painting it to look like a zebra.

22. John is in the locker that collapses against the railing, but their efforts to get the lion to look in the slats kept failing. Eventually they had John hold a small pig in there with him that he would shake periodically to make squeal. “It is not mean by any means,” he says. “And then the pig just went on to have a good time at a friend’s place.”

23. The intent was for the film’s budget and success to fund the animals’ retirement, but its failure got in the way of that plan. “Because the movie went so far over budget and over time there wasn’t any money left over, so god bless Tippi she took it on as her mission to take it on as a charitable organization.” She learned from this production, and her message became that wild animals and people should not mix in close proximity. “This is completely wrong what we did, it’s dangerous and stupid.”

24. Apparently in the ’70s you could order lion cubs from the back of magazines.

25. When the family suddenly appears to all be wet around 42 minutes in it’s because there was an entire scene excised involving an amphibious vehicle. “They cut that sequence out because the movie was just too much running and chasing.” The scene was filmed over five weeks.

26. Another cut sequence involved an African vulture which was tied off with mono-filament during its scene but broke it easily when he took flight. Cast and crew proceeded to follow it for two days in the hopes of retrieving the bird. “You get in a lot of trouble if you release non-indigenous animals in California. The thing was spotted in Malibu, but we never got him back.”

27. A worker once broke a fence with his truck but didn’t want to admit it so it remained unfixed until a lioness escaped. Production was shut down for four days while they attempted to find her, and since it was before cell phones they used CB radios to communicate. So as not to alert other possible listeners they referred to the search as location scouting. “’I think I found the perfect location’ meant we’d found her.”
Drafthouse Films

28. A fair amount of time was spent training the tigers not to jump out of a moving car. One of the pair, Nicky, was raised by John and blind in one eye. That prevented him from having depth perception which made it easier for him to do things the normally skittish species would avoid.

29. The scene where the elephant takes hold of Tippi and flips her up to its head is actually the film played in reverse. “She was actually dropping down, and her leg was crushed between the trunk and the tusk, and she got black gangrene.”

Drafthouse Films

30. The safe word on set was “Noel” to be said when an actor needed out of a situation. John points out the scene where Melanie is being gently mauled by the lion in the kitchen, and you see and hear her say “No, no Noel!” at 1:05:43. “But he [Noel] didn’t stop! He didn’t stop take, so we didn’t think the safe word meant anything.”

31. The sequence where the poachers shoot a few of the big cats was timed to their annual blood draws when the needed to be tranquilized anyway. The very effective shots of them dazed and dying are actually them just high on drugs.

32. Melanie had her face clawed while filming the happy ending scenes where the family is all smiles with their felines friends. She required plastic surgery, but as these scenes were filmed early on in the five year shoot she gamely returned to continue filming.

33. The Wild Bunch mentioned earlier, the group that the real Togar was a part of, came from a group of satanists. John isn’t 100% sure, but they might have belonged to Anton LaVey himself.

34. Ted Cassidy ‐ Lurch from The Addams Family ‐ was a client of Noel’s and helped him with the script.

35. John first heard that Drafthouse Films had picked up Roar for theatrical release when his son emailed him with the news. “What’s a Drafthouse?” was his initial response, but he’s incredibly thankful to League, Drafthouse Films, and Olive Films for giving this movie a second chance at life. “It’ll be cited for a hundred years as what you shouldn’t do with lions and tigers.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

Final Thoughts

As insane as Roar is ‐ and great googly moogly is it insane ‐ the commentary offers a glimpse into the even crazier happenings behind the scene. For better or worse, Noel was clearly a passionate man who put himself, his family, and his crew through ridiculously intense and stupid situations. We should all be thankful that he did though as the film is a one-of-a-kind classic.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.