In Universal’s Beast, out Aug. 19, Idris Elba is hunted by a ferocious lion. That creature is entirely computer-generated. But in 1981’s Roar, the beasts mauling Tippi Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith (then 19) and the rest of the cast were real.
Often cited as the most dangerous film production of all time, Roar began in 1969, when Hedren — who’d starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds — was filming in Mozambique, accompanied by then-husband Noel Marshall. They stumbled on an abandoned plantation house that had been overrun by a pride of lions. Their guide told them the local wildlife was becoming endangered by poaching, and, to encourage conservation, the couple decided to make a film about wild animals and humans cohabitating in harmony.
Back in L.A., they consulted animal trainers, who told them the number of big cats they wanted to put onscreen — they envisioned up to 40 — was a recipe for disaster. But one trainer told them if they acquired and raised their own animals, the cats would learn to get along. So Hedren and Marshall began buying young lions from zoos and circuses and keeping them in their home in Sherman Oaks. In 1972, they were ordered to remove the animals, so they bought land in Soledad Canyon and housed the menagerie (which grew to include two Siberian tigers and an African bull elephant) there.
Filming began on that ranch, later named Shambala Preserve, in 1976, with Marshall both directing and co-starring. The tone of the film is lighthearted, making the behind-the-scenes action all the more horrifying. Hedren was bitten multiple times, including in the head, and had an ankle fractured by an elephant; Griffith received 50 stitches after a lioness attack which nearly cost her an eye; Marshall was attacked over a dozen times and developed blood poisoning; and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to great success directing Speed, was scalped by a lion, requiring 220 stitches.
Despite all the pain and bloodshed, Roar failed to get a North American release until 2015, when Drafthouse Films distributed it with the tagline: “No animals were harmed during the making of Roar. But 70 members of the cast and crew were.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.