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Into The Lion's Den With Filmmaker Casey Anderson

Closeup of a cougar kitten looking at camera.
Smithsonian Networks
Closeup of a cougar kitten looking at camera.

Most people don’t describe crawling into mountain lion dens in the middle of winter or exploring abandoned buildings littered with animal corpses by moonlight as a dream come true. But for one Montana filmmaker, those hair-raising moments were the opportunity of a lifetime.

Paradise Valley filmmaker Casey Anderson’s newest film “The Mountain Lion and Me” is debuting on the Smithsonian Channel Wednesday night. Anderson is best-known as a host and explorer on Nat Geo Wild. He joins us now to tell us about making his film.

In the film, Anderson gives viewers a rare look into the daily life and habits of one of America’s largest and least-documented predators. It was all shot from Anderson’s backyard– just north of Yellowstone Park.

MS: Hi, Casey.

CA: Hi, thanks for having me on.

MS: I watched the movie “The Mountain Lion and Me” this weekend and I couldn’t believe some of the footage you got. We get to take a look at everything that these cats are doing. Can you tell us a little bit about how the film came together?

CA: It’s kind of the Holy Grail to be able to film something as elusive as a mountain lion. If you just get a glimpse, a few seconds of footage, you’re really kind of hitting a homerun. But to follow a family, that’s a dream come true. And that dream started when I was a little kid growing up in Montana and always being real passionate about wildlife. When this cat showed up in my backyard and I started to get to know it, I knew that not only did I have a dream coming true, I really had a responsibility to make sure that I could tell the story and I went full bore.

Credit Vision Hawk
Casey walking in snow

MS: There’s the main mountain lion, Mama Mo, and you got to know her and her kittens. You named all of them based off their personalities so it seems like you got to know them pretty well. What was it like to get that close to animals that are usually so elusive?

CA: It felt like you were being told, or shown, a secret that you’re not supposed to know. As you're kind of a fly on the wall, you start to see these individual personalities, these little characters coming to life. For me as a filmmaker that is really important because we all think of mountain lions with kind of a broad stroke of a brush: this big feline predator that runs around our backyards in North America. But really when you dig in and you get to watch and see, as you will in the film, they’re just individuals and they’re all very different. They all have their own personalities just like our dog at home. They’re not just animals; they’re not just predators. I think it really makes people start to think a little bit deeper about the wild world. Instead of “there’s just mountain lions out there”, there are individuals out there. I think when you look at the wild world that way, you care about it more.

MS: Initially you saw tracks and you followed them and had cameras with you this whole time. You found a kill site initially and you set up cameras there. There’s an abandoned ranch where she was hiding a bunch of her kills. What was it like shooting those scenes and just being in her space like that?

CA: Every time you’re in a situation like that where you go kind of into their lair, you’re a little nervous because it is a large predator that you’re following around, often at night. But I think at some level the obsession kind of trumped that. I wouldn’t say in an irresponsible way, it was just this obligation to make sure that I was capturing these moments. So when you get in those situations, that first instinctual “this is a little scary” feeling quickly goes away and it’s like, “ok, I’ve got to make sure I hit record, make sure there’s batteries, make sure the card’s recording too" and you kind of forget where you are.

MS: You talk about her adapting, and she’s sort of just living right around where you are. Her footsteps are right up to your front door. Did that change how you felt about stepping out of your door?

Credit Smithsonian Networks
Mama Mo and kitten standing CU in daylight

CA: It definitely changes the way I look at everything. Every day I wake up and wonder about my neighbor. What is Mama Mo doing? What are the kittens doing now? Every time I drive by that mountain, I look up there and I know that she’s out there somewhere. But even more than that it’s every mountain I drive by, I realize that there’s another Mama Mo, there’s another personality or a character there too. Instead of just driving by the mountain and wondering if there’s mountain lions up there, or grizzly bears up there, you start to wonder who, who lives there? Who’s home is that?

MS: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, Casey.

CA: Thank you.

Casey Anderson’s new movie “The Mountain Lion and Me” airs Wednesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. MT on the Smithsonian Channel.

Anderson will also be featured in a series of 6 episode shorts about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, "Casey Anderson's Wild Tracks," to stream starting March 26 on Smithsonian Earth.

Maxine is the All Things Considered host and reporter for MTPR. She got her start at MTPR as a Montana News intern. She has also worked at KUNC in Northern Colorado and for Pacific Standard magazine as an editorial fellow covering wildfire and the environment.
Maxine graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in natural resource journalism and has a degree in creative writing from Vassar College. When she’s not behind the microphone you can find Maxine skiing, hiking with her not-so-well-behaved dogs, or lost in a book.
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