Making movies

Frank Green

At 7:30 p.m. on March 26, the Patagonia Reno Outlet will screen the award-winning documentary Counting Sheep. It’s about the interaction between two of the Sierra Nevada’s most elusive species, the mountain lion and the bighorn sheep. The event is free and will feature veteran filmmaker Frank Green (former winner of the Banff film festival). Patagonia Reno Outlet is at 8550 White Fir Street. Call 746-6878 for more information. Green, 51, says Patagonia has been incredibly supportive of his career and has never asked for credit. Consider this credit.

Tell me about this film.

I think this is the best film I’ve ever made. It’s a film about a subject that people might raise an eyebrow about—wild bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada. It’s a beautiful film about these mountain sheep and the main threat to their existence, mountain lions. I think it’s fascinating because these are two animals that people—even those who’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains—hardly ever see, certainly not up close. In this film, you get to go away into the mountains to someplace you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

How do you get close to these creatures?

You spend a lot of time on many expeditions. You keep going back and back, and you be really patient. You talk to the biologists who study them, and find out where is a likely place to go and possibly see them. You pack way into the backcountry, and you look and look and look. You spend a lot of time looking through binoculars. They’re really hard to find. That’s why I’ve been shooting this film since ‘92. And that’s why it took me so long. As far as we know, there is no other film in the world of Sierra bighorn sheep.

It seems kind of ironic that these creatures are protected, but one eats the other.

The bighorn sheep are on the federal endangered species list. Mountain lions aren’t on any endangered species list. They’re rather successful at survival. The twist of this story is the predator that challenges the prey is protected by state law from hunting. The state of California, in the early ‘90s, voted an initiative to stop the killing of mountain lions. So you have this prey, which is endangered and is being preyed on by a protected predator.

Is there a result to the twist?

There is a result. In order to get a stronger authority than the state protection of the mountain lions, they got federal protection for the bighorn sheep by getting them on the federal endangered species list. That sort of trumped the state protection for the mountain lion and enabled state wildlife officials to do very selective removal of individual lions that developed a taste for sheep.

So they cull the most successful lions?

I think “cull” overstates it. In several years, they’ve removed four lions. It’s really precise and surgical.

Did you ever feel threatened? Are bighorn sheep aggressive?

If there was a complete opposite to aggressive, that would be the bighorn. They’re very shy. Their only defense is their climbing ability. When they feel at all uncomfortable, they climb. One time, I was setting up with my camera. Normally I couldn’t get closer than a couple hundred yards, and this bighorn walked right under me. He hadn’t seen me, and I hadn’t seen him. In three seconds, he was like in Wisconsin. The look he gave me—I’m sure it was the first time he had ever seen a person in the canyon. It was just like, “What are you doing in my world?”

What did that do to you?

I was so excited because I’d been chasing Bighorn sheep in the Sierra for years at this point, and I’d never really gotten close. I’d gotten some great footage, but I’d never gotten close enough to look one in the eye and visa versa. Just to make that eye contact was a moment I’ll never forget. It was the clash of two worlds. What really intrigued me about the sheep was their incredible wildness. The Sierra bighorn might be the emblem of “wilderness.”

Did you ever look a lion in the eye?

Many times.

What did you do?

Typically, when I was there, I was with the lion tracker, and the lion was in the tree with a bunch of dogs around him. The lion wanted no part of me or the camera or the dogs or the tracker. It was just kind of waiting up there until everyone went home and looking annoyed. I never felt threatened by lions.

Is that one of those things where they develop a taste for manflesh?

Most lions don’t get a chance to develop a taste because if they do attack a person they’re going to be tracked and destroyed.

Did you have a bigger idea for this movie, or was it purely for documentary purposes?

I wanted to make a more personal film. I’d been making films about resource and environmental issues, and the films had a lot of passion about these issues, but they were more cerebral. There was something that really spoke to me personally about the bighorn sheep of the Sierra. This was a way to search for a more personal voice as a filmmaker.

I hate to oversimplify, but this sounds like one of those Walt Disney nature films from the ‘70s. Is this something for the whole family.

It’s got much more of an edge than a Walt Disney nature film, but I think kids love this film. There’s no gory predation. It’s very fair to people who’ve found themselves on opposing sides of a conflict. Most people who’ve watched this film have said, “You really treated everyone fairly and respectfully.” And people were surprised by that.

You weren’t trying to promote something; you were just trying to tell a story?

Tell a great story. Take people to a very special place where they wouldn’t otherwise go. We all spend so much damned time at our keyboards and in our cars, and we are so disconnected, and I feel increasingly so.

Increasingly so?

Yes. And this film is a statement about that. Look what’s in our own backyard. Look at this amazing thing we have. Aren’t we lucky to live in a world that still has bighorn sheep running in the mountains and mountain lions? What an amazing privilege to live on the same planet with these animals. Wouldn’t our grandchildren be impoverished if they weren’t there?