At the height of the first lockdown a year ago Joe Exotic was almost as ubiquitous as Boris Johnson or Chris Witty.
With a vastly greater proportion of the population stuck at home, Netflix’s seven-part series Tiger King was perfectly placed to take advantage of a captive audience, desperate for a distraction from Covid-19 doom and spending even more time than usual firing hot takes over social media.
But Tiger King was just the latest and most bombastic in a long line of film-makers and podcasters that had been to investigate Joseph Schreibvogel, now Maldonado-Passage (Exotic), over the years, with the UK’s favourite Louis Theroux having done so back in 2011.
Following Tiger King’s success Theroux went back to look into the story nine years hence for BBC’s Louis Theroux – Shooting Joe Exotic.
Presumably aware of appearing to be jumping back on the bandwagon, Louis sets out his credentials early. The documentary opens with footage of Donald Trump being asked in a Whitehouse press conference about a letter from Joe Exotic asking for a pardon – from the 22-year prison sentence he received for conspiring to have rival big cat park owner Carole Baskin murdered.
As much as Louis would be a fool to pass up the opportunity to revisit a previous work that has become a cultural phenomenon, it turns out that in the same letter, Joe names Louis as someone who needs to be reached in order to tell the true story.
One of the main themes of the documentary is for Louis to revisit his previous work to take an introspective look at his own role in the journey Joe took from eccentric sideshow to infamous prison inmate, and to assess what clues had been there all along. The parallels with the Jimmy Savile situation from earlier in Louis’ career are obvious and were surely somewhere near the front of his mind.
We are shown various bit of previously unseen footage from the 2011 show, with portentous quotes from Joe such as: “You’re the first people here ever to do a film crew, and probably will be the last.”
In many ways this second Theroux documentary is as much for his own benefit as the viewers. We are taken with him as he comes to terms with the fact that he, just like so many others along the way, may have fallen for the act of a man that he clearly quite liked on a personal level. He needs answers for himself as much as we do.Embed from Getty Images
The unseen footage from a decade ago, much of which takes on a more sinister tone with knowledge of subsequent developments, almost seems like Louis breaking down a past relationship with the benefit of hindsight and feeling a combination of sadness at what became of things, and discomfort at having apparently missed what was right there in front of him.
While he had seen the story relating to the moral questions on Joe’s treatment and use of animals, the same story in relation to other people had been overlooked. Joe Exotic was ultimately convicted on elements of both, for the unlawful killing of five tigers and the murder-for-hire plot.
One piece of footage in particular where Joe talks about Baskin, who had long campaigned against his operations on animal rights grounds, needing to be killed when he thinks the camera has been turned off highlights Louis’ apparent unease. He says: “I had entirely forgotten this conversation with Joe, and at the time hadn’t even realised the camera was still recording.”
Louis meets some people who do not have many nice things to say about Joe, including his niece Chealsi who alleges that he got her falsify vet certificates and overcharge customers, and that it was money that changed his attitude towards people, adding: “I’m an idiot for not seeing it.”
Louis also visits Carole Baskin herself, along with husband Howard, who are interviewed at a distance in the first scene to give a distinctly 2020 feel to proceedings. Baskin comes across far better here than she did in Tiger King, something that is addressed when some of the thousands of abusive death threats she received in the aftermath are played. It is worth bearing in mind that the courts did essentially rule in her favour ultimately, including by awarding ownership of Joe’s old park to her which Louis later visits with the couple.
Now abandoned, empty, and covered in abusive graffiti directed at Baskin – left by interim owner Jeff Lowe and company according to Howard – the park over which this entire saga essentially originated is now nothing. Louis enters Joe’s old house with Carole, which he says still feels like trespassing, to find it filled with rubbish and discarded remnants of Joe’s previous life. There is a bleak sense of time moving on which leaves a feeling of pointlessness about everything that went before.
Louis does attempt to broach the elephant in the room of Baskin’s missing ex-husband Don, who Joe and his supporters accuse her of murdering, and whose previous family also do in the Netflix documentary. Where she has come across far more favourably otherwise, her attempt to brush the matter off as the inevitable culmination of risk-taking and mental health issues is less convincing. She says of Don: “He was crazy even at his best.”
Once Howard steps in to coldly draw a halt to the discussion, and Louis decides to ultimately back away, it makes for an uncomfortable moment that could easily be the understandable attempt of a man to defend his wife from continued painful accusations, but will probably only fuel the accusers.
It is not hard to imagine what Joe Exotic himself would make of Louis interviewing the Baskins at his old park, and entering his old house with Carole, but imagine is all we can do as Louis discovers shortly before this when he receives a letter from the Tiger King producers’ lawyers.
He is warned against making contact with virtually any of the main characters from the Netflix show, as they have exclusive contract, including Joe who it transpires is being paid in prison for these rights. A clearly miffed Louis calls the discovery “annoying” as none of the individuals had told him. He also highlights the fact that Joe had invited him back yet signed a contract making it legally impossible to speak to him.
It is not until the midway point of the documentary that Louis discusses Tiger King itself directly, and with it another central theme of this programme – the corrupting influence of modern society’s celebrity-crazed and media-manipulated culture.
Louis clearly has a fairly dim view of the Tiger King show and its creators, which can only have increased with the lawyers’ letter. A juror from Joe Exotic’s trial is shown saying what they were shown was very different to what was on the show; Louis reads some interviews with the directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin where they deny setting up Carole Baskin and putting a misogynistic slant on the show; and Howard Baskin says: “What they did wasn’t just unethical, it was downright cruel.”
Louis goes to meet the team behind Joe’s pardon campaign, consisting of a Texas-based private investigator, Eric Love, who also has an exclusive contract, and two lawyers, Francisco Hernandez and Jeff Hoover, who do not. A confusing back and forth ensues at Hernandez and Hoover’s offices when Love arrives, regarding whether he can be filmed and spoken to or not – it turns out he cannot.
While it is not entirely clear who is funding the campaign, it explains who Hernandez is, as we had first met him in the opening minutes of the documentary where he provided some suitably Trump-era quotes regarding Joe. “[He is] single-handedly, by far, the most popular prison inmate in the history of the United States” is a choice example.
The entire arrangement encompassing the campaign team and the exclusive rights contracts is somewhat convoluted and confusing, but it certainly adds to the sense that where celebrity is involved, positive or negative, there will always be a queue of people ready to use the situation for their own ends.
Although Joe’s conviction and the inability to get his first-hand perspective do contribute to a darker and more negative programme than the previous Theroux documentary, America’s Most Dangerous Pets, or the majority of Tiger King, it would be unfair to say there is no nuance to this film.
In a humanising segment later in the show, Louis runs through various events from the past which Joe has detailed in a letter from prison on why he is how he is, including the deaths of his brother Garold Wayne, whom he opened the GW park in memory of, and his first husband. Also mentioned is the harsh and apparently abusive childhood he had.
Louis visits Joe’s estranged eldest brother Yarri and his wife Wendy who dismiss any calls for sympathy towards Joe. Yarri sums up his feelings towards his brother by saying: “I hate that little son’ bitch.”
Of the allegations regarding abuse during his childhood they say he made them up, and the generally tough upbringing is no excuse for the way he is. Wendy says: “That ain’t what made Joe Joe, greed made Joe Joe.”
Much of the animosity seems to surround the death of Garold, which Joe purports to have been deeply affected by and driven to run the animal park in his honour, but where Yarri and Wendy claim he told lies to manipulate the whole situation for his own benefit. It is impossible to properly assess when it is only possible to get one side of the story first-hand. Louis sums up, whilst watching some old footage of Joe talking about Garold, that his emotion seems real, and that perhaps Joe can persuade others because he genuinely believes his own myths.Embed from Getty Images
The issue with the question of Joe Exotic seems to be one that is endemic in modern popular culture – the desire to see everyone as either a hero or a villain, as an abuser or a victim. Most of us are full of contradictions and Joe seems to be a particularly toxic combination: tortured and vulnerable; narcissistic and cruel; charismatic and personable; manipulative and greedy. Ultimately the decisions he made led to the negative sides taking prominence over the positive ones, making it hard to make excuses for him despite the likelihood that he has been affected by traumatic experiences in his life.
Louis shows a tense final exchange from his 2011 visit. Joe has become irritable at the animal welfare line of questioning, feeling that he has been tricked into doing a show about that when he thought it was about his park. “Isn’t that all part of it?” asks Louis, and while Joe essentially accepts that it is, the distinction he seems to draw is broadly whether it is pro or anti in regard to him.
This speaks to another element of the world of celebrity in modern times. As long as the attention and the scrutiny is on their terms nearly everybody can put on a show, but stray from that line and the attitudes can quickly change. Whether it be an agent, a publicist, a lawyer, or the individual themselves, in the end the message often is that they are here for what will benefit them. Any considerations for the wider truth of an issue are not their concern.
Both Louis and Joe seem to be genuinely a bit upset in the 2011 footage that the relationship has reached that point. The falling out, the manner of their subsequent make-up, and the final comments Joe makes regarding threats to his park, lead 2020-Louis to conclusions about Joe on a personal level and from a wider perspective.
Reacting to his offer of a hug to Joe after their disagreement Louis says: “I don’t often do that. That’s quite weird.”
Appearing to work out his own feelings he adds: “There was a part of me that liked him and was inclined to need to feel reassured that he was ok.”
This highlights the complicated nature of Joe Exotic, and what makes him similar to the rest of us. But the final on-camera threats he makes about the right to bear arms in relation to anybody who comes into his park in opposition to him, made in conjunction with the renewal of friendly relations with Louis, point to the fact that there is no simple answer in this or so many other stories. We are always looking to write off those who do bad things as some sort of unknowable evil. The truth is often far more complicated. Otherwise likeable and relatable people do bad things, often enabled or encouraged by the rest of society, and the answers are often a lot more uncomfortable and incomplete than we would like.
As a worn-looking Louis says upon watching these final exchanges: “I don’t really know what conclusion you draw from that.”
Louis Theroux – Shooting Joe Exotic is currently available on BBC iPlayer