A Q&A with The Elephant in the Living Room director Michael Webber

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An Ohio native, director Michael Webber first worked in television as a commercial director. He later served as writer, director, producer and visual effects supervisor on hundreds of television and motion picture projects and spent several of those years producing feature film projects for the bigwigs at Twentieth Century Fox and Lionsgate. But in 2008 after a friend loaned him a few books about people who keep exotic animals as pets, he decided it was time to make his own damn film. The resulting documentary, The Elephant in the Living Room, is a film he directed, produced and shot. A sometimes harrowing look at exotic animals and the people who own them, it focuses primarily on the relationship between Outreach for Animals director Tim Harrison and lion owner Terry Brumfield. In addition, it includes hidden camera footage of exotic animal sales and conventions and shows the lengths to which some people will go to own a dangerous pet. The film has been making its way around the festival circuit and screens at 2:20 p.m. Friday, March 26, at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27 and at 9:20 a.m. Sunday, March 28 at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Webber, who will be in town to attend a film forum after the Saturday screening, recently answered a few questions via phone from his Los Angeles home.

How’d you end up going from producing other peoples’ movies to making one of your own?
I had never done a documentary before but I wanted to. I like films based on true stories and documentaries are the epitome of that. Sometimes when you’re producing other features, they’re not your personal taste. I wanted to do something more personal. I thought the documentary would be a good fit. I couldn’t find something that would interest me. A friend of mine had told me about the topic and gave me a coupe of books on the subject. I read the books and they were written by Tim Harrison, a police officer in Ohio who was the epicenter of this issue. I decided to explore the topic. I contacted him, and I thought it was fascinating. I spent a year doing research and discovered the topic was bigger than I imagined. It’s happening all over the country and the world. At that point, I thought it was what I wanted to take on.

A majority of the film is based in Ohio. Are there a larger number of exotic animals being kept here or is the state simply representative of what’s going on across the country?
Rather than just explore the topic, I wanted to explore the characters. One of them was Tim Harrison and the other was lion owner Terry Brumfeld. A large portion of the taping occurred in Ohio because of those characters. The story is much broader than that. It’s a snapshot of one year in the United States. We went to California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and all over the country for about a year. It’s happening all over the place.

You focus primarily on the actions of Tim Harrison, an Ohio public safety officer who both captures and rescues these animals. I was intrigued by the fact that he both sympathizes and criticizes exotic animal owners. Talk about that a bit.
I think both of the characters were complex and not one-dimensional. The lion owner was very honest about not knowing if he was doing the right thing. Tim Harrison was honest, too. I liked exploring those areas in those two characters. You see the complexity of the people and the issue.

It was often hard to watch the lion and its cubs living in captivity.
You’re right about seeing the animals in the cages and it was thoroughly fascinating. Being next to them and around them, I was in awe of these animals. But then the conflicting part is that I was attracted to that aspect. You’re around them but the other side is that once you start to get over that, you start to feel bad when you see an animals pace in the cage. You look at that tiger and you think it will never run and hunt. It can’t do the things it was designed to do. You feel like you are documenting someone in prison. The full spectrum goes from fascination and awe to by the end I was no longer interested in filming animals in cages.

What did you decide to show or not show?
One approach I took was that I was learning about this world. I wanted it to feel how bizarre it was, especially when the animals were being sold at auction. It was heavy and tense and I felt like we have to go through those scenes in order to come out on the other side. In the beginning, I just wanted to show what happens and have that balance between reality and being tasteful and not forcing the audience to experience more than is necessary. I just wanted to show what was real. If we don’t go through the valleys, you can’t get back up to the mountaintop.

What is your personal opinion on keeping exotic animals as pets?
I want to let the film speak for itself. I was not interested in telling people what to think. In the end they can make up their own mind. There’s no narration. I wanted to explore both sides. When I started the film, it wasn’t an agenda film. I do want to explore something in a fair way. My point is that I was more interested in asking questions than answering them. The people in the film have agendas, but I stay out of it and follow their stories. The stories would end where they’d end. The film is called The Elephant in the Living Room because it’s this huge thing that no one is talking about. We’re not going to solve the problem or answer the question but rather just shine some light on it. I was more interested in having a film that initiates conversation rather than just including it. I was interested in exploring the psychology on a human level.

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