The bridge from Netflix’s Tiger King series in 2020 to a new unscripted series premiering on Saturday (Nov. 13) featuring Carole Baskin was just one Instagram message.
Adam Reed, Thinkfactory Media CEO, tells Realscreen that after watching the hit true crime docuseries last year, he and his development team began talking about characters in the series they could develop projects around. Without knowing any other way to contact Baskin, a Thinkfactory development executive cold-messaged her on Instagram.
“There were about 40 other producers that had also reached out to her, wanting to do some iteration of an unscripted project with her. But ultimately it ended in our favor, because we got on the phone with her,” Reed says.
“I think she was pitched a lot of different things from a lot of different producers, and I think she liked our angle and our pedigree… we were off to the races quickly when she decided we were the ones.”
Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight, premiering on Discovery+, follows Baskin, a big cat activist and business owner as she works with retired homicide detective Griff Garrison to investigate the G.W. Zoo out of Wynnewood, OK, previously ran by Tiger King subject Joe Exotic, to find evidence of animal trafficking and abuse.
“Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight really digs into Carole’s side of the story for the first time. Whether you are a fan or not, it’s undeniable that Carole is a tireless advocate for big cats and will go to great lengths to protect them,” says Amy Introcaso-Davis, executive vice president of development and production for factual programming at Discovery.
Ahead of Carole Baskin’s Cage Fight premiere, Realscreen chats with Reed to discuss the new series and working with Baskin amid the media buzz since Tiger King transformed her into a celebrity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
How did the original idea for the series evolve once Baskin came aboard?
The interesting part of our show, and even before Tiger King, is she’s been doing this for 25 years. She’s been going after bad actors that are endangering animals, she just didn’t get any notoriety until Tiger King came out. Our pitch to her was we want to tell an honest story: ‘I want to come at this and I want to bring cameras and show what you do.’ That of course brings challenges with it, because she and her very resourceful team kind of operate in the shadows, and when you add a production crew into it, it doesn’t make the ability to operate in the shadows as easy. And then you add on top of it, to exacerbate the challenge here, that she has a level of notoriety after Tiger King that amps up the challenges when she and her team are operating in the shadows, and we’re trying to figure out a way to cover that.
So for us, in producing the show, it was a very delicate dance. We’ve done a lot of law enforcement programming, so we’ve had a background in how to be respectful to the process, but also make a great TV series, and I think it was walking that delicate line and trying to figure out here’s what you and your team do, here’s how we can work around that, and how can we make the best series while balancing each other’s needs in the process.
How hands-on was Baskin in the production of this series?
Carole, as you can imagine, is hands-on in her day-to-day job of what she does, and this was a new experience. Because this wasn’t a piece of the series, this was a series about her.
I would say in the beginning, making sure her and Howard (Baskin) were comfortable with the process, [and they] knew exactly what we were doing and how we were doing it, she was very hands-on. But I will tell you about a week into the process, once she felt comfortable that we were in fact telling an honest story of what she does and how she does it, she really stepped back and let us do what we do.
What did you want to accomplish with this series to ensure it could gain attention and exist outside of the shadow of a massive hit like Tiger King?
The key here was showing Carole doing what she actually does. In her mind, she had not been represented to the level that she felt she deserved to be. Is there overlap of some characters from Tiger King and likely Tiger King 2? Of course, but that’s only because her work predates all of that, so that is inevitable. But I can assure you what you will see in our series is unlike anything you’ve seen in Tiger King or you will see in Tiger King 2. And that’s [because] Carole has not had cameras embedded with her and her team to the level we were able to do with her.
From a production standpoint, we’re used to creating and producing unscripted shows … and so we’re used to adjusting and morphing and evolving as we go. But with this one, it was super interesting, because Carole and her team get tips, literally hundreds of tips a week from people all over the world about people doing bad things to animals. So there would be storylines we were following, and suddenly a tip would come in and we’d have to adjust because that tip comes in and either [we] follow something more pressing or that would evolve the storyline instantly.
What kind of challenges did you face embedding cameras into Baskin’s work?
You want to make a small footprint wherever you’re going, and you also want to make sure you’re respecting what can be done on camera and what cannot be done.
But here’s the big challenge. Before Tiger King, maybe it could have been Carole or Howard going a bit undercover in this world. After Tiger King, she and Howard can no longer be the face of this. Then you have to watch how she has her web of volunteers and advocates that she works with to go undercover in various ways to get this information out. So she has to oversee it and kind of be in the war room with Howard and try to connect all the dots. But then she can’t be in the field really. If she’s in the field, she has to be hiding in a car or a van somewhere around the corner. And you’ll see that in our series, she’s rarely right on site, but there are people, volunteers and advocates she works with, that are reporting back to her, as close as she can be without being in the action.
How difficult was it working with someone who had the level of media buzz around them as Baskin has had in the past year and a half?
Sometimes when we produce unscripted series, it’s fairly easy to throw cameras behind someone and document it. Here, you have every single level of scrutiny that you can imagine in any sort of production process, from safety protocols to legal protocols to story protocols to network protocols. The process is exacerbated because you have such a high-profile personality. But not only do you have a high-profile personality, she’s doing things that at times can be dangerous.
Was there an element in making this series of Baskin wanting to reframe the narrative about her and her career after Tiger King?
No, and this is super important for everybody to understand. What I told Carole and Howard was I don’t want to do this unless we’re telling an honest portrayal of you. We’re not going to manufacture a narrative around a personality that does not exist. If you’re not willing to be the real you, then we don’t want to do this. It was that black and white, and she said the same thing to us: “If you’re not going to show the real me, then I don’t want to do this.”
So from that perspective, it was very black and white for all of us. She did not mandate she had to be portrayed a certain way or “you can’t show that.” It was open access the moment she felt comfortable with us. And trust is not easy. She feels she’s been burned in the past. So building that trust was crucial, but we were not going to make a series that was going to whitewash or construct a personality that does not exist.