Tiger King: Part 1. What gets you hot?
This week we’re going to be talking about Tiger King, the most appropriate possible topic for this crazy time. It’s most appropriate because it’s been a source of escape for a whole country who desperately needed one, and it’s also most appropriate because it shows the power we have as artists to shape reality, for better or for worse, and the risk we take when we let go of the ethical implications of every word we write.
We’re going to be talking about Tiger King as a documentary. But we’re also going to be talking about Tiger King as a film. We’re also going to be talking about Tiger King as a miniseries. We’re also going to be talking about Tiger King as an adaptation of a true life story.
We’re going to talk about why people got so hot and enthusiastic about it as a story. And we’re going to talk about why people got so hot and angry about it’s ethical and political failings.
As many, many articles have pointed out, Tiger King does not function like a typical documentary, in that, well, not everything in there is, um, exactly, true…
Rather, Tiger King has been rewritten like a work of dramatic storytelling, with the repurposing of certain clips and the exclusion of others, in order to make you fall in love with a character who you probably should be reviling.
It’s one thing when that happens in Breaking Bad, with a totally fictional main character. But what is our responsibility as filmmakers when the subjects of our documentary are real people with real lives? When the issues at stake are real issues that are actually happening, right now, in the world?
So we’re going to look at the ethical implications of Tiger King, and the ethical implications of writing any movie or TV show. But we’re also going to be looking at Tiger King without judgment, just like we do every film we analyze, to discuss what we can learn from it as screenwriters, documentarians, TV writers, and adapters of true stories.
Because there’s a reason Tiger King is successful. And that success has actually shockingly little to do with the questionable ethical decisions of its directors. Rather, it has to do with certain foundational ideas of screenwriting. And those are the ideas we want to learn from the film.
Whether you’re writing Tiger King or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Save The Tiger or Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, what your audience is coming for is a feeling.
We call that feeling “a genre experience,” and it is the only reason anybody ever comes to see a movie or turns on a television.
Because it is the only reason you ever go to see a movie, or ever turn on a television.
You turn on the television or you go watch a movie because you want to feel something. And our genre experiences, our genre preferences are very strong.
Oftentimes when we think about genre we break it down into categories like; romantic comedy, drama, documentary, thriller, horror film. But this is the most oversimplified possible way to think about genre.
And if you are making a documentary you know that Super-Size Me and Bowling for Columbine and Tiger King are as far different as three documentaries could be that in fact they live in completely different genres.
If you are writing a TV series, you know that Westworld and Succession, even though they are both TV dramas, are as far away from a genre perspective as they could possibly be. You know that Fleabag and Arrested Development are as different genre wise as TV series could ever be even though they are both TV comedies. And similarly, you would recognize that A Quiet Place and Chucky are as far apart genre wise as two horror movies could be.
And you start to realize that genre is not a label that you put on a movie, it is a feeling.
The easiest way to find your genre as a writer is to start writing and to create an experience for yourself, and to notice what experience you are responding to and to do more of that.
If you are making a documentary, the way you find your genre is you start shooting and you get curious and you wonder, “Where does the story lie? Where do I feel that emotional connection? What’s the feeling that I’m looking for? What feels truthful?” And then, you do more of that.
Tiger King has come under fire from a lot of people for its ethical concerns. People are fairly asking, “How can you make a documentary about tigers and barely deal with the conservation issues?”
In fact, one of my dear students sent me a really beautiful email after I mentioned to her I was going to do this podcast saying, “Hey you have to talk about these ethical issues because the miniseries really glossed over them. Everybody is talking about saving Joe Exotic but not enough people are talking about saving these tigers that are still being bred and living in captivity.”
And that concern is correct, and I think most people share that concern. And I think most people think it is wrong to distort the facts in order to make your horrible protagonist seem more likable.
So why did so many of these same ethically minded people enjoy Tiger King so much?
I’m going to make a positive assumption about the American people and assume that most people don’t feel it’s right to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of animals. And I’m going to suggest that the reason so many of these people were able to enjoy Tiger King is not because of the distortion of facts. It’s because of the genre experience.
At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, none of us were thinking “I would really like to watch a documentary about the horrible treatment of animals and how that needs to change.” We were all thinking “I need to escape from this horrible apocalypse for a while.”
The person who wants the “wild escapism” feeling right now is completely different from the person who wants the “this needs to change” feeling right now. Even if it’s the same person.
If you deliver the “wild escapism” feeling your “wild escapism’ audience came for, they will happily accept your “this needs to change” message. And if you deliver the “this needs to change” message that your “this needs to change” audience came for, they will happily accept your “wild escapism.”
But if you don’t deliver the feeling the audience came for, they will eat you alive. And you can see how both sides of that happened in the aftermath of Tiger King.
The “this needs to change” audience finished the documentary ready to kill. And the “wild escapism” audience finished the documentary ready to personally liberate Joe Exotic from prison.
Now, does that mean that if you write a “wild escapist” story you’re going to have automatic success? Or that if you write a “this needs to change” movie you’re going to have automatic failure?
Absolutely not. Think of the success of movies and shows like Spotlight or Bowling For Columbine or An Inconvenient Truth or Chernobyl or The Wire and you’ll see that it wasn’t the genre that determined the success of Tiger King. It was the times!
Tiger King hit at the perfect time; it hit at a time when we all needed an escape from reality. We all needed something light, and fun, and crazy that we could just take us away from the reality of being locked in our homes and frightened for our loved ones.
Nor was it necessary for Tiger King to take the creative leaps it did with the truth. As you can see as you get a little deeper into the documentary and the political issues about the treatment of these tigers (and the true darkness of this world) do start to emerge, they go down effortlessly with all that sugar.
This is why you never write the genre you think others are looking for. Times are always changing faster than you can write. You always write the genre that matters to you. And then you wait for society to catch up.
Once you understand the feeling you’re creating, your job as a writer is really simple. Whether you’re writing a feature film, a TV show, a documentary, a miniseries, a webseries, a novel or a play. Your job is to keep delivering that experience. To make sure that every seven pages or so, you’re hitting that feeling, so that the audience gets what they paid for.
If you do this, you can get away with pretty much anything else in between If you hit the genre feeling that you promised your audience, that they bought their ticket for or spent their time watching Netflix for, if you deliver that genre experience you can get away with your deep political message.
You can get away with making your audience think, you can get away with your political commentary, you can get away with pretty much anything, you can get away with your experimental film-making. You can get away with almost anything, if you deliver the feeling that you promised.
The challenge Tiger King had was that it appeared to make two different promises to two different audiences. One audience thought, finally a documentary about the exploitation of tigers. And the other thought, oh cool, tigers!
But the challenge was that the film never made those two promises totally weave together. It ultimately served one audience without serving the other.
And I want to point out that this is a choice we all have to make sometimes, because your film can’t be all things for all people. But we also have to make sure the choice we’re making is the right one for what we believe in, that we’re actually telling the truth. Because ultimately you need to make sure you’re delivering the feeling you want.
And this is very different than trying to deliver the feeling that they want, because you don’t know what they want, because they don’t know what they want. Because what they want is changing all the time.
Sometimes you’re dying for Chinese food, other times you’re dying for Indian, and sometimes you just want a burger.
You don’t know what they want because what they want changes all the time. You don’t know what’s going to be hot or what’s going to be popular.
But here’s what you do know- What do I want to feel right now? What’s the feeling that connects me to this movie that I’m writing, this series that I’m writing, this show that I’m writing, this documentary that I’m creating?
What connects me, what makes me feel sad, what makes me feel laughter, what makes me feel concern? What pulls me in?
So the first person you’re trying to take on a genre experience is yourself. The second person you’re trying to take on that genre experience is your character; you’re trying to create a feeling for them.
And the third person, once you’ve done all that, then you think about, “How do I shape that genre experience for my audience so that they can have the same cool experience watching that I had writing or shooting or editing or creating?”
If all of us were good filmmakers, genre would be all you’d need, because genre is all that anybody is ever buying. All anybody ever wants to buy is genre. In other words, why do you go to see a movie? You want to feel a certain way.
If you’re writing a feature film, what Michael Moore says is probably true. Most people go to a feature film on a date, which means they want to feel hot.
And different experiences get different people hot. Some people get hot over action movies, some people get hot over a good romance, some people get hot over a movie that makes you feel like you don’t want to be a person anymore.
Some people get hot over an issue movie. Some people get hot over a horror film. Some people get hot over a psychological thriller. Different people have different experiences that they connect to.
So the first question you’re going to ask yourself as a writer is, “What gets me hot?”
TV works a little bit differently, for most people TV is not a date night, for most people TV is a ritual.
But the ritual is also designed to create a feeling. The feeling is important. There is a reason why you are watching Tiger King and Curb your Enthusiasm right now. Because right now, there is a part of you that just wants to escape, and so it is natural to be drawn to this genre experience. I can’t remember the last time I watched Curb Your Enthusiasm prior to this crazy crisis.
So different moments bring up different genre needs and that’s why you can’t ever time the market because you never know what’s going to happen, you never know what’s going to be hot from a genre perspective. And the thing that made no sense yesterday makes total sense today.
But you can go inside and you can find: where do I connect? What do I love about my script? What do I love about this terrible scene I just wrote? What’s the one element that I love? What’s the feeling that that element gives me? Okay, cool, how do I create more of that? How do I push that further? How do I explore it?
In television, we show up in the same way. We want to feel the same way every time we watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, we want to cringe and laugh at silly neurosis. Imagine if you watched a Curb your Enthusiasm and it ended in tragedy and you cried, you would be pissed off, you’d feel robbed.
Imagine if you watched an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and it ended like an episode of Succession. You’d be upset. And imagine if you showed up for an episode of Succession and suddenly Kendall couldn’t get over some little quirk that his assistant had, you’d be like, “What?”
So now you understand the hook of Tiger King and you understand why people (all kinds of people) got so hot about it.
At a different time, a documentary like Tiger King might not have had the same commercial success. But it still would have had the same structural success.
And that’s what we’re going to talk about next episode. Why did audiences fall in love with this unlikely, unlikable character, and how, regardless of its ethical flaws, was the structure of the miniseries designed to make you do that.
If you’ve been struggling to get your writing going again during this crisis, I would like to make you aware of a couple of things we have going on for our students.
The first is a free quarantinis happy hour of writing lessons, exercises and community, every Thursday night 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific. I host along with fabulous guest teachers, and you can come for free. If you can afford to make a donation, we will match your donations and apply them to our scholarship fund.
The second is that for every full priced class that is sold during this period, we are giving away two scholarships that allow people who’ve been affected by the crisis to come at 50% off.
So if you’ve been affected by the crisis you can can self-identify and you’ll get a scholarship instantaneously if you need to take a class.
And if you are able to afford a class you can know that your money is not only going toward pursuing your own passions but also toward helping other people pursue theirs. You can find more information here.
*Transcript edited for length and clarity.