Insanity

04.11.15 10:45 AM ET

‘Roar’: The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made

Remember that insane movie in which a lion mauled a teen-aged Melanie Griffith? No? Now you can see it.

“The worst was when I got 56 stitches and it took six guys 25 minutes to get the lion off of me,” recalled John Marshall of the harrowing time he found his entire head trapped in the jaws of a male lion named Tongaru while filming 1981’s Roar, one of the most insanely ill-conceived animal adventures of all time and a serious front-runner for the most perilous home movie ever made.  

Narrowly escaping a snack time beheading by a lion with just a few bloody bites was par for the course for Marshall, who co-starred in Roar with his brother Jerry, their teenage stepsister Melanie Griffith (pre-Body Double and Something Wild), and her mother, Tippi Hedren. They were all in for the craziest family project in Hollywood history—co-starring with hundreds of wild lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and elephants in Roar, a film directed by their wild-eyed family patriarch, The Exorcist producer Noel Marshall. No animals were harmed, but plenty of humans were. 

It was the 1970s: Born Free had blown up the box office and nabbed Oscar love and a sequel, and the animal-loving members of the Marshall-Hedren clan were game for embarking on a cinematic adventure together. Hedren, the star of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Marnie, had fallen in love with Africa and its wildlife in 1969 while shooting the film Satan’s Harvest.

She and her manager-turned-husband Noel Marshall returned home to Los Angeles from a trip to Africa with an idea inspired by a vision of an abandoned plantation house they’d seen overtaken by a pride of lions. A feature project was born, in which Noel Marshall would star as a researcher living among hundreds of wild cats, while Hedren and the kids would play the estranged wife and three grown children who come to visit him, only to find themselves running for their lives from hundreds of massive lions and tigers. 

The couple started living with big cats in their own home, drawing complaints from their neighbors in Sherman Oaks before they bought a ranch outside of Los Angeles that would serve as the set for Roar and, eventually, become home to 150 wild lions, tigers, and other predatory cats. The idea to simply rent trained animal actors for the film was discouraged—they needed many more furry co-stars to fit Marshall’s vision—and it was suggested they simply start collecting and training their own exotic beasts for the purposes of the film. Why not?

Written and directed by Marshall, Roar took 11 years to complete, went millions over budget, sank his finances, ended his marriage to Hedren, sent his film career down the tubes, and traumatized many of the cast and crew for years.

“In hindsight, it was not very smart. But it was a great experience,” smiles John Marshall, who was lanky, bearded, and in his early twenties when Roar began as a modest outdoor adventure that was originally scheduled to shoot for just nine months. Now clean-shaven and many years wiser with grown children of his own, he wavers between fond remembrance and shaky disbelief at the danger his family and their revolving door of crew members put themselves in to make the film. 

On his father’s set, the big cats reigned supreme—even above the tyrannical Noel Marshall, who was prone to bellowing at his cast and crew with the same aggressive intensity it took to show dominance to the big cats and stave off being seen as dinner. “The handlers didn’t want to do anything because they’d get yelled at [for ruining a take],” Marshall explained, taking out his phone to play an audio outtake from the set of his late father, screaming and cursing like a madman on set at his crew and his family. “He was intense.”

Maybe he had to be, since you couldn’t exactly give a lion or a tiger stage direction or character motivation, let alone tell an entire horde of wild animals how to play a scene without harming their human co-stars. Cameras had to be camouflaged, while the handlers coaxed scenes out of the animals or waited for them to do something that could be worked into the plot. “Some days we only got one shot,” Marshall said. 

As a result, much of Roar takes place within a sprawling open-air house, with Hedren, Griffith, and the younger Marshalls fleeing from room to room past snarling, swiping, and wholly unpredictable big cats as a lilting, Swiss Family Robinson-style score contrasts with the terror in their eyes. In one scene of meta-insanity filmed on the first day, Noel Marshall hurtles himself into a fight between two alpha lions, one of which bites through his hand as the camera picks up his all too real injury, blood dripping from his arm. 

John Marshall, like just about every other cast member and a number of unlucky crew, suffered plenty of claw and bite injuries during the five years it took to film Roar. [But] “the rule was, if you didn’t have to go to the hospital, it didn’t count as an injury,” he laughed. “I was really good with butterfly stitches! I broke a finger in the motorcycle scene, and I think I broke my feet two or three times. My ribs were constantly (hurt)—but you didn’t think about them.” 

According to Roar lore, Griffith famously required reconstructive facial surgery after a run-in with one of her four-legged co-stars. “It was a claw mark,” Marshall explained, drawing his hand across his eye like a lion’s paw. In another cringe-inducing scene in the film, the young Griffith screams and cries as Hedren tries in vain to pull a giant lion off of her as it mauls her on the kitchen floor. 

“No blood was drawn, but the lion grabbed her hair and pulled her back,” explained Marshall, who said he was able to make the lion let Griffith go in the scene by throwing himself onto the floor as a distraction after his father refused to yell “Cut.”  

“We had safe words, and the safe word was ‘Noel’—my father’s name,” said Marshall. “So Melanie’s down there and she’s yelling, ‘No, no, NOEL!’ He didn’t do shit. Both Tippi and Melanie would try to be in scenes with me because they knew I could stand up to Dad, but they also know I would make sure they wouldn’t get hurt.” 

Stunt stand-ins were rarely used and most of the family did their own dangerous scenes, ranging from driving a motorbike through packs of lions and tigers and off a roof into a lake to a scene of Hedren being picked up by an elephant that resulted in her suffering a crushed leg. When crewmembers dropped out of the project for fear of their own safety, everyone pulled double duty. 

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“We all grew up in Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills, and I’m out there with a pickup truck and a gun rack going, ‘Why am I doing this?’” said Marshall, who added animal wrangler, set mechanic, boom operator, and camera operator to his acting duties. “I’m doing veterinarian work, because there were times there was no money, so if it was doing shots and drawing blood, I did that. It just wasn’t a question—there was nobody else that could do it. So I just always did it.” 

Years later Hedren would marvel that nobody died during the making of Roar. Assistant director Doron Kauper came pretty close when a lion mauled him, biting him badly in the throat. “I chased the lion away and these other two guys were dragging him out, when the lion got around and bit him on the ass on the way out, just for good measure,” said Marshall, apologizing as he laughed. “I drove him to the hospital myself.” 

Jan De Bont, the Dutch cinematographer who’d go on to lens films like Cujo, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, and direct Speed, made his Hollywood debut as Roar’s director of photography. He survived a scalping in the process. 

“Jan’s [injury] happened very quickly—and he deserved it,” remembered Marshall of the day, three weeks into filming, when De Bont was hiding in a hole in the ground to capture footage of the family fleeing the house for the safety of a nearby river as dozens of lionesses follow in hot pursuit. 

“We’d had a specially made football helmet that we’d cut out so he could operate. And he goes, ‘I don’t need any fucking helmet!’ All the lionesses came and jumped over him, and he’s an amazing cinematographer and doesn’t want to miss a shot, so when he has an empty frame he pans over to catch the family in the boat. Well, the lioness that jumped over him went, what was that? She bit at ‘it’ [De Bont’s head]—thus, the 200 stitches.” 

“When Jan was in the hospital we were dialing for DPs thinking he wasn’t coming back, but he came back and finished it for five years. Literally, his scalp was hanging in front [of his face] and we just threw it back to get him to the hospital,” Marshall said. “He doesn’t want to revisit this. Nobody wants to revisit it.” 

Roar tanked upon release in 1981, making a reported $2 million internationally, and Hedren and Marshall split the next year. The film’s rocky production had lost its financiers along the way, forcing the couple to float the eventual $17 million budget with their own finances. According to John Marshall, the family lost several houses and properties to the film, which suffered from floods that wiped out the ranch sets and the skyrocketing costs of feeding and caring for their 150 animals. 

The elder Marshall left show business and later ran marketing for an HMO in Florida and was working on a new script when he died in 2010, his son says. Hedren went on to lead the Shambala Preserve based out of the family’s Roar ranch, a nonprofit sanctuary for endangered exotic cats. 

Through a rep, Hedren declined to discuss Roar’s rediscovery and this week’s theatrical re-release. “She’s not involved and had no idea it was coming out,” her publicist told me, also contesting claims that as many as 70 documented injuries were suffered during the making of the film. 

“Tippi won’t participate in the film, because she’s passed one law in Congress and she’s trying to pass another one that says people shouldn’t own wild animals,” said Marshall. He says he’s still in touch with Griffith, who is also traumatized by the experience, he says. (Griffith was unavailable for comment.) Hedron's "the founder and the main spokesperson of Shambala and it’s against everything that she stands for. That’s why she can’t really embrace this.” 

Marshall, meanwhile, spent his post-Roar years working in production and trying to get the film seen. The famed film disaster came back into notoriety after he sent two models in Roar t-shirts to the American Film Market in Santa Monica armed with DVDs, a ploy that eventually led to Austin-based specialty distributor Drafthouse Films adding it to their roster of unearthed cult discoveries. 

These days he’s focused on another passion: Inventing. “I have a golf tee made of fertilizer,” said Marshall, who’s now developing a UV light for public bathroom door handles that he calls “The Germinator.” And despite the fact that Roar still gives him nightmares and a lingering case of claustrophobia, he’s excited to see it finally reach the audience it deserves.

“I’ve been shot at three times—that’s too long a story—but I wasn’t afraid of that because I used to beat up lions and tigers,” he smiled. “I tell people, ‘I lived with 150 lions and tigers for 7 or 8 years.’ They move on, then say, ‘Wait—you were serious?’”

“Why would I make that up?”