The Grandeur of Roar: An Essay by Drafthouse’s Tim League

Drafthouse Films announced today a partnership with Olive Films to re-release the 1981 film Roar by director Noel Marshall. An action-adventure film set in a wildlife reserve populated by real-life beasts, Marshall’s film was a bizarre multi-year undertaking that bombed at the box-office. Drafthouse CEO Tim League has penned an essay on why the distributor is revitalizing this forgotten labor of love, and we reprint his words in full here.

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At L.A.’s legendary Cinefile Video, my favorite shelf is labeled “Holy F***ing S***.”  There you’ll find rare discoveries that are beyond comprehension, movies so outlandish and surreal that you cannot fathom the divine providence that allowed such mind-bogglingly singular films to exist. One of our primary missions at Drafthouse Films is to source and rediscover forgotten classics that are worthy of this shelf. Miami Connection resides here, as does The Visitor. I am proud to share that we are partnering with Olive Films to unleash what I consider the next Holy F***ing S*** masterpiece: Tippi Hedren (The Birds) and Noel Marshall’s (The Exorcist) Roar.

Roar began while Tippi Hedren and her husband/manager Noel Marshall were shooting in Africa. After wrapping production they toured several safari wildlife preserves and were struck by the scene of an abandoned plantation house overrun by a large pride of lions. The image took root and inspired the epic 11-year journey to create Roar.

Hedren and Marshall quickly became devoted to raising awareness about the overhunting of wild lions, tigers and jaguars, as well as the inhumane treatment of big cats in captivity. They were convinced Roar would raise awareness about what was fast becoming their purpose in life. Upon approaching animal trainers for support, they were told their idea was a suicide mission and were dismissed as “brainsick” and “completely and utterly insane.”

Undaunted, Hedren and Marshall soon learned that big cats were extremely territorial and would never coalesce unless they were raised together. In response, they began covertly adopting and breeding lions in their lush Beverly Glenn home. For six years, Hedren and her daughter—the emerging young actress, Melanie Griffith—along with Marshall and his three sons lived, slept and ate with a growing pride of lions inside their home.

As their big cat collection rose to over 100 animals, the shadow of Beverly Hills became too restrictive: The entire Hedren-Marshall family created Shambala, a nature preserve 40 miles north of Los Angeles, and began shooting.

Due to their familiarity with the animals, the entire cast was comprised of Marshall, Hedren, their four children and a few seasoned animal trainers. Emerging European cinematographer Jan de Bont (Speed) was recruited to shoot the film, his first American production. What followed was five years of the most terrifying and dangerous filmmaking ever committed to celluloid.

The cast and crew endured countless injuries, with over 70 bloody attacks documented. While nobody was killed, there were several close calls, most notably de Bont being scalped by a lion resulting in 220 stitches on his head. Hedren endured a fractured leg and deep scalp wounds. Griffith was mauled by a lion, resulting over 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery. Noel was gored so many times that he was eventually hospitalized with gangrene. Maintaining a consistent crew became virtually impossible as injuries and safety risks kept them from returning to set. The production also endured multiple floods (including one that wiped out the entire set), wildfires, a feline illness that decimated their cat population and non-stop financing woes.

Financiers pulled out two years into production, forcing Hedren and Marshall to sell virtually everything they owned to personally finance what would become a massive $5 million dollar production. Prior to producing, directing, writing and starring in Roar, Marshall was an executive producer on The Exorcist, the proceeds of which partially funded the production. As disaster after disaster plagued the set, crew began to believe that Roar had fallen prey to the legendary “curse of The Exorcist” by its financial association.

Refusing to yield to the intense adversity, de Bont, Hedren, Marshall and their family continued to heal wounds, rebuild sets, and hire crew after crew to wrap the production. The infamously disastrous production stories of Apocalypse Now and The Island of Doctor Moreau pale in comparison to the danger and chaos that was overcome on the set of Roar.

When the movie finally debuted in 1981, Roar was deemed by Variety as the “most disaster-plagued film in the history of Hollywood.” It was also a financial disaster. Fortunately, the passage of time affords us the perspective to view Roar for what it truly is: the most epic and amazing animal thriller ever made. It plays out like a fever-dream Disney movie. 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. At numerous times Marshall drips blood as he fends off ferocious advances from jaguars and tigers alike. Melanie Griffith’s real-life mauling is on display in the final cut. A jaguar licking honey off Tippi Hedren’s face was an untested idea that could have easily ended very, very badly. Knowing the backstory of the production, you can see perpetual terror in the eyes of the cast as an army of lethal predators close in around them.

Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren pulled off the impossible: For 11 years they crafted a movie that everybody said couldn’t be made. And in so doing, they managed to contribute significantly to the methodology for humane treatment of big cats in captivity. To this day, Hedren and her Shambala reserve work to build trust and understanding with big cats through constant, loving human contact.

You’ve never seen a movie like Roar and there will never, ever be a movie like Roar again.

We are extremely proud to expose Roar to a whole new audience and salute its esteemed place on the “Holy F***ing S***” shelf for all the right reasons. MM

Roar still courtesy of Drafthouse Films. Roar will open in theaters in April 2015.

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