On the occasion of the anticipated release of her new documentary, “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” CSQ sat down with actress, producer, and documentarian to discuss the project. The film debuts in Los Angeles on Thursday March 8 (International Women’s Day) and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on March 27.
CSQ Where did you grow up and – as a child – what were your professional aspirations?
Leslie Zemeckis I grew up in Southern California and from a young age I wanted to be an actress.
CSQ What are some of your earliest memories of “Hollywood?”
LZ Old black and white movies. I loved watching movies from the 40s and 50s. The slow story telling, and the beauty of the films all felt very special to me.
CSQ Talk to me about your interest in documentary filmmaking? Is this a medium you are recently passionate about? What are some noted documentaries that inspired you?
LZ As a story teller it is a perfect medium for me (along with books). I discover interesting women in pop culture, I can dive into their lives and tell the truth. I don’t have to – nor want to – make anything up. There is plenty of drama in our lives. Take Mabel Stark for example. She was told she couldn’t train tigers in 1911 but she went ahead and did it anyhow. I couldn’t make up her story. Ken Burns is my idol. He makes thoughtful, careful, and well-researched documentaries. I like documentaries with a beginning, middle and end – like a good book.
CSQ How did you come to learn the story of Mabel Stark? What specifically drew you in?
LZ I’m basically the historian of original American burlesque. After 15 years of research and lectures (and a book and movie), I came across her name. She danced briefly in the “cooch” show which had me intrigued. I thought, what does it take to get into a ring with a tiger? I thought it would be about courage but it ended up being about love. She loved her tigers more than anything in this world. she didn’t fear them. She didn’t blame them when they attacked her. She devoted over 50 years caring for them with love and patience. I wanted to get into her head and her point of view. I did that through her written word and current day tiger trainers.
CSQ Talk to me about working in entertainment and then producing a documentary heavily based on the entertainment industry? What challenges did this result in? What were the benefits?
LZ The challenges are always in the research and how “old” the subject is. Mabel started in 1911 and worked til 1968. I wondered if I could find enough footage and photos of her. I did find a substantial amount of footage, radio interviews, and things she had written so I could reveal her point of view to the audience. I was really embraced by the circus world who was familiar with me because of my last documentary – Bound by Flesh – about Daisy and Violet Hilton – Siamese twin superstars in vaudeville and the freak show.
CSQ What about Mabel’s story most surprised you as you put together the film?
LZ Her childhood, which I don’t want to reveal here. But she always said she was an orphan. She felt, because of her hard childhood, that people betrayed her. But her animals never did – though she was scarred head to toe by the cats. People were not to be trusted in her estimations. I was also moved by the 24/7 care she provided these cats, which still goes on in the circus today. We followed a couple circuses and were given full access and the love these trainers have for tigers is remarkable. The tigers come first in their lives. It was beautiful to see.
CSQ What do you hope people will take away from this work?
LZ That a strong determined woman can and will do anything. Mabel was told no woman could train tigers. She got an act with 21 tigers up and became a huge star. She doubled for Mae West. She is an icon in the circus world. She made something of her life. The same can be said for anyone with determination and grit.