29th September 2016
by Tony Lee
After attending the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival last year, when I won the Special Jury award for ‘The Secret Life of Your House’, I was eager to continue filming in the US and make a story about the most famous cat in America.
P22 is a 7 ½ year old mountain lion who lives in Griffith Park, in the heart of Los Angeles. He was born in the Santa Monica Mountains west of downtown LA, and had to cross two of the busiest freeways in the country, the 405 and the 101 to arrive in his new home in Griffith Park. In doing so, he travelled through one of the most densely populated areas, through Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and came within a couple of miles of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Incredibly no-one saw him. Los Angeles is one of the few urban cities to have large carnivores living within its city limits.
As I spend half my time in California, I was aware of P22, at first because of National Geographic photographer Steve Winter’s famous picture of the big cat in front of the Hollywood sign. But it was only after speaking to wildlife biologist Miguel Ordeñana, who first discovered P22 living in Griffith Park, did I uncover the extent of his incredible journey and his amazing discovery.
It was a story that had to be told, and since attaching the right broadcaster to the documentary can take months, I decided that my production company Sabana Films would finance the film until I secured broadcaster or distributor interest.
The aim of the film was to raise awareness for the plight of mountain lions living in Los Angeles, including the issues of fragmentation and connectivity. Mountain lions die on LA’s freeways as young males try to disperse and eke out a territory of their own. The territory range of a mountain lion is 200 square miles, and males will fight to the death over territory. Over 80% of mountain lions are said to have ingested rat poison in some form, whether its by catching and eating raccoons and coyotes that have consumed rats which have eaten the poison. The effects of anticoagulant rodenticides are devastating upon wildlife; the animals bleed internally, they suffer side effects like mange, and die a slow and agonizing death. Poison Free Malibu who I interviewed for the documentary, are grass roots activists who have done incredible things to ban rodenticides in shopping centres and housing associations, and bans are passing city by city.
As it was an intricate and sensitive story, I needed a Director of Cinematography who was professional, good with contributors and cared enough to want to tell this story. At Jackson 2015, I was fortunate to meet Alex Rapaport, a cameraman and filmmaker, living in Los Angeles. That’s part of the reason why film festivals such as Jackson Hole and Wildscreen are important to attend, as valuable collaborations are forged, and you meet like minded people with similar interests and passions. I asked Alex to be my DP on the project, and we collaborated closely on the interviews and filming. I flew to Los Angeles at the beginning of September to film around Griffith Park, which is P22’s home territory.
As P22, like all mountain lions is secretive and nocturnal, filming him was the biggest challenge. Mountain lions are called Ghosts Cats for good reason. They are shy of people, incredibly elusive, and difficult to track. Footage of P22 was filmed on camera traps, provided by Miguel and Matthew Whitmire, wildlife biologists of the Griffith Park connectivity study. Cameras were placed along trails. Hundreds of pictures were taken of the wildlife coming in and out of Griffith Park, including bobcats, skunks, deer and coyote, and footage of P22 was captured. Recently, vocalisations of P22 have been recorded by Miguel which is an exciting first.
The challenge was having enough film and photographs of P22 to tell a 1 hour story. Luckily the National Park Service also have many photographs of P22 and other mountain lions which are in the public domain. P22 is being radiotracked by the National Park Service who are conducting extensive studies into the Mountain lions of the Santa Monica mountains, looking at genetic diversity and issues of connectivity. I interviewed Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service, who has been radiotracking P22 ever since his first discovery in 2012.
Conservation films have always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a director of BBC’2 ‘Earthline’ strand in The Animal Zone in the 1990s. The most rewarding part of making the documentary, is raising awareness for the campaign to raise money for a $55 million wildlife crossing in Los Angeles, at Liberty Canyon over the 101 freeway. A new study suggests that mountain lions could die out in the next 50 years because of inbreeding, lack of genetic diversity and connectivity.
Beth Pratt, California Director of the National Wildlife Federation is spearheading the Save LA Cougars fundraising campaign to raise the money for the wildlife crossing. Beth is a passionate and energetic speaker in the documentary. In order to stay on target, the campaign’s near term goal is to raise $10 million by 2017, and the balance by 2019 for the crossing to be completed by 2021.
With enough publicity, the aim of this film is to raise awareness for the mountain lions who are effected by both rodenticides and lack of connectivity. Many people, including Los Angelenos are unaware of the problems facing their big cat neighbours.
As filming was imminent, and I had a looming deadline to submit to Sundance by the end of September, the whole film was completed relatively quickly within three months, plus a month’s preproduction. Audio post production was provided by The Farm Group in London and Quality Control provided the online editing and grade. I felt so passionate about this story, that I wanted to make it regardless of funding onboard.
Sundance has always been a market where distributor deals are made, and independent films can achieve worldwide impact. Previous conservation films such as ‘Racing Extinction’ and ‘Blackfish’ have premiered at Sundance. Discovery acquired ‘Racing Extinction’ last February after its Sundance premiere. The intention is then to show my film in the major US festivals, especially the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles where conservation film do well. Sundance is a good place to premiere The Cat that Changed America. I know that Angelenos and the rest of the world will fall in love with the story of a cat who can’t find a mate.