SOLUTIONS FOR TV, FILM & MEDIA PRODUCTIONS
Epitome is a U.S.-based risk management company,specializing in COVID-compliance& safety support for tv & filmproductions.
RISKY BUSINESS: The Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
This article is part of an on-going series designed to highlight the importance of risk management in film and television by showcasing notoriously dangerous productions. In this series—Risky Business—we will consider how movies and television shows can be made safer by incorporating risk management as early as possible.
Halloween is the time for scary movies. This Halloween, however, we are not going to talk about vampires, zombies, werewolves, or even masked murderers. Yet we will be discussing what is—by many accounts—the scariest movie ever made: 1981’s “ROAR.”
Called “a snuff version of ‘Swiss Family Robinson,’” “ROAR” is widely considered the most dangerous movie ever made. While that sounds like a marketing gimmick (and it became one for the film’s 2015 re-release), it is not a joke. There is no definitive ranking of most dangerous films ever made, but if there were, “ROAR” would rank near the top.
Filmed with over 150 untrained, untamed lions, tigers, jaguars, and cheetahs in confined spaces—plus a few elephants on set for good measure—“ROAR” is infamous for injuring at least 70 crew members. The director’s son, John Marshall, claims the number of injured is closer to 100. Several of them nearly died.
Current film and television regulations would make filming a movie like this today impossible. Still, we shouldn’t need to rely solely on regulations to make our film sets safe places to work. Film and television productions can, and should, be safe, injury-free endeavors. By looking at an extreme example like “ROAR”, we can more easily identify how to make our own sets safer.
Remember: This is a Risky Business, but it doesn’t have to be.
A Wild Idea
“What began as a dream about making a film that would spur people to become more involved in animal activism turned into an eleven-year-nightmare that nearly killed many of the cast and crew.”
IMDb sums up “ROAR” this way:
A naturalist living with big cats in East Africa expects a visit by his family of four from Chicago. A mix-up leaves him searching for his family, who have been left in the clutches of wild lions.
That does not really do the film justice. Watching the film, you immediately feel a visceral sense of danger. It is like watching a nature documentary where the antelopes have been replaced with people. Nothing looks or feels safe; that’s because none of it was.
“ROAR” was the brain-child of married couple Noel Marshall and Tippy Hedren (yes, that Tippy Hedren). The two had the idea after wrapping production on a film in Africa. They wanted to make a movie that would draw people’s attention to the struggles of lions, tigers, cheetahs, and jaguars in captivity and the dangers of over-hunting big cats.
So, naturally, they bought a bunch of big cats, put them in captivity—on their own Los Angeles-area ranch—and set about making a movie where the lions over-hunt the humans.
What came next was an eleven-year odyssey of carnage and extreme levels of irresponsibility, and what can only be described as the gold-medal winner for worst bring-your-kids-to-work-day ever.
An Odyssey of Carnage
“At three o’clock in the morning, when you’re passed out, they could kill you.”
Reports vary on the exact number of people injured on set. The nature of those injuries is also not cataloged. But the following list of significant injuries and incidents is undisputed:
- 70 attacks were documented during filming. Most of them were not only captured on camera; they remain in the finished film. Much of the blood in this movie is real.
- A lion bit the head of cinematographer Jan de Bont and ripped off his scalp. It took 220 stitches to reattach the back of his head. (He survived and went on to be the DP on “Die Hard” and “Speed” among many other films.)
- Melanie Griffith (daughter of producer/star Hedren) was mauled in the face by a lioness. It was feared that she would lose one of her eyes, but 50 stitches and several facial reconstructive surgeries saved her vision and her face.
- Hedren was bitten in the head by a lion and felt its teeth scrape across her skull.
- Patricia Barbeau, trainer of Tembo, the elephant, broke her shoulder when Tembo bucked her off.
- Days later, Hedren fractured her ankle, broke her hand, and developed phlebitis and gangrene when Tembo bucked her off his back too.
- Hedren had her arm clawed by a leopard.
- Hedren was bitten in the chest by a cougar.
- Assistant Director Doron Kauper was mauled by lions. They bit open his throat, tore his jaw, and nearly ripped off his ear. Kauper survived.
- A lion bit John Marshall (son of director Noel Marshall) in the head and wouldn’t let go. It took 25 minutes to free John from the jaws of that lion. John needed 56 stitches.
- Noel Marshall (the director) was bitten through the hand by lions and, as a result, almost had to have his arm amputated.
- Noel Marshall was clawed by a cheetah.
- Noel Marshall was bitten in the leg by a lion and was left with 8 puncture wounds.
- Noel Marshall was bitten over 20 times during the production.
- Noel Marshall developed gangrene from his many wounds.
- Jerry Marshall (son of the director) was bitten in the thigh by a lion.
- More than half the crew walked off the set on several occasions. Never to return.
- 14 lions and tigers died from airborne illnesses that could have been prevented.
- The set was destroyed by a 10-foot flood. Four crew members had to be rescued. 15 lions and tigers escaped during the destruction. Three were killed by local law enforcement.
- Over $3M in damages was caused by the flood. It delayed production for a year.
- The entire film took 11 years to complete and cost $17M.
It is truly unbelievable that no one died while making this movie.
“ROAR” should never have been made in this way. No one should have suffered any of these injuries. No animals should have died. It may be an extreme example, but “ROAR” showcases several issues present in many productions.
To the Rescue
“Knowing the back story of the production, you can see perpetual terror in the eyes of the cast as an army of lethal predators close in around them.”
“ROAR” is not the only dangerous film. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 370 entertainment industry workers died on the job from 2015-2018. The unofficial (and incomplete) list of accidents on film and television sets is heart-stoppingly long. Risk on set is nothing new, but it can be managed, and it should be avoided when possible.
Risk management can help in four significant ways. It can:
- Save lives
- Save money
- Save time
- Save you from yourself
Let’s look at each of these and see how “ROAR” might have been improved with a little risk management.
The first and most obvious benefit of risk management is that it can save lives. Granted, no one died in “ROAR,” but I think we can all agree after reading the list of injuries that its lack of fatalities was by luck alone.
Watching the film, you see hundreds of times where a person could have died. The truth is the lions were the ones in charge of that movie. They didn’t feel like killing anyone, so no one died.
“ROAR” is a flawed concept. If a professional risk management team had been brought on board during pre-production, they could have flagged safety issues and offered Marshall and Hedren alternatives. This is why it is essential to onboard risk managers during pre-production.
“ROAR” had a starting budget of around $3M but ended up costing $17M. Much of that extra money was spent on animal feeding, surgeries, delays, repairs, and reshoots. Proper risk management could have saved nearly all that overage.
It starts with a safer concept for the film, developed in collaboration with the creative team. That concept would obviously involve fewer big cats, more space, more human control of the situation, and far less (if any) interaction between the principal cast and these apex predators.
Risk managers would also help to ensure that the set is not built on a flood plain, and that the animals are not being enticed into action by starvation or temptation.
Shots that involve risk must be planned and rehearsed. Far too often on “ROAR,” the shots were spontaneous. This lack of planning and concern for safety ultimately cost the producers millions of dollars.
One of the biggest reasons we hear for productions choosing not to hire a risk management company is the cost. The truth is risk management saves you far more money than you spend on it. But most of the time, you never see the money saved because the accidents—and the millions they would have cost—were avoided.
Another popular excuse for not using risk managers is that risk management takes too much time. Managing risk does take patience and planning, but most of the time spent on it can be allocated to the pre-production process. This is why we advocate for the early onboarding of risk management personnel.
Before the director and DP have finalized their storyboards, we need to bring in risk managers. If we account for safety at that early period, we won’t “lose” time on the filming days to account for it. Often, risk managers are brought on too late to save time, and so they are seen as a drain on the schedule.
“ROAR” is a text-book example of how time could be saved by pre-production risk management. Much of the film stock was wasted shooting lazy lions doing nothing at all. Mountains of film and months of production time were flushed down the drain because there was no planning involved.
Not only was it wasteful, but it was also unsafe. “ROAR” is a double-whammy of negligence. Still, this double-whammy is surprisingly common, even in productions that don’t involve wild lions biting people.
Save You from Yourself
By far, the most common excuse we hear for not hiring risk managers is that the creative team does not want someone on set who can tell them “no.” This is a misconception of what it is risk managers do. Risk Managers are there to help. They can even save you from yourself.
Productions are often a stew of egos, with many people worried about their authority. This is understandable. Production budgets can climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars, bringing with them a lot of pressure. A professional risk management team is there to relieve some of that pressure, not add to it.
First, by onboarding risk managers during the pre-production phase, we side-step on-set authority issues. Risk managers are not here to tell your directors, “no.” They are here to offer alternatives and to keep everyone safe.
If they can be consulted during the project’s conception, risk managers can be on the same page as the creative team. The risk will be ironed out long before the cameras are rolling, and then the risk managers can more readily help the team achieve its desired goals.
Second, if we look at how “ROAR” was made, we can see that several people are wearing far too many hats. Noel Marshall alone was the director, writer, producer, actor, animal wrangler, stunt driver, and son-puncher. Hedren was a producer, actor, animal wrangler, backhoe operator, and in charge of wardrobe. When so few people have so much on their plates, something is bound to get missed.
Safety is the first thing to fall through the cracks when people are multitasking. On a movie set, when safety falls through the cracks, people get hurt. In the case of “ROAR,” animals died, and people felt a lion’s teeth scraping across their skull. A professional risk management team can help ensure the responsibility is spread across more plates.
It is important to note that Marshall and Hedren never hired union crews. And while they tried to employ many different animal trainers and tamers, nearly all of them backed out when they learned how out-of-control the production would be. Instead of seeing this as a sign that something might be wrong, Marshall and Hedren chose to take on the additional responsibility themselves and push forward with the project.
This is what I mean when I say that risk management can save you from yourself.
We all know what it feels like to have a great idea. We know what it feels like to try and make that idea a reality. And we have all heard the narrative of “fighting through adversity” to achieve our goals. But sometimes, we need someone there to tell us that our idea needs a little more work. That our idea is maybe a little dangerous. Hopefully, they can tell us all of that before we start rolling film (and long before lions are ripping people’s scalps off).
ROAR Shock Test
“I had nightmares for many years.”
“ROAR” is a frightening film. It is far scarier than anything our most talented horror directors could imagine because it was real. When we watch the movie, we see real people bleeding. Real humans are screaming in agony. Real men and women are dragged across the ground and torn to shreds.
While this might be some people’s idea of a great guilty-pleasure watch, it should not live on as entertainment. “ROAR” is a cautionary tale. It is shocking and disturbing for all the reasons movies should not be.
Filmmakers get into this business to tell stories, to build new worlds, to make-believe. There is nothing make-believe about a lion ripping a man’s throat open.
“ROAR” perfectly illustrates the importance of risk management. Lives, time, and money (not to mention scalps, faces, eyes, throats, ankles, legs, and hands) could all have been saved if safety had been as important as the final product.
Happy Halloween, everybody, and remember; be glad you don’t know what it sounds like when a lion’s teeth scrape across your skull. Sleep tight.
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.