In October, Amazon Studios announced it was acquiring Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh’s “Wildcat” for a price nearing $20 million, a staggering sum for a doc of its kind. Executive produced by 30WEST (“Tiger King,” “Flee”), the film tells the story of former British soldier Harry Turner and conservationist Samantha Zwicker, who help heal each other while caring for a small ocelot wildcat in the deep Peruvian rainforest.
This is Frost and Lesh’s first feature film. Frost comes from a still photography background, with work published in National Geographic and the New York Times, while Lesh has previously worked with short films. The documentary has picked up considerable steam on the brink of awards season, having recently been nominated for two IDA Documentary Awards for editing (Lesh, Joshua Altman, David Zieff, Ben Gold) and score (Patrick Jonsson).
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Amazon has already launched the film’s FYC page, which includes several categories including best documentary film, directing and original song for Fleet Foxes’ “A Sky Like I’ve Never Seen,” featuring Brazilian singer Tim Bernardes.
“Wildcat” played to packed audiences at IDFA’s Best of Fests strand, which also includes other major 2022 titles such as Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” and Kathryn Ferguson’s “Nothing Compares.” While at IDFA, Frost and Lesh sat down with Variety to discuss their collaboration, the time they spent in Peru and how “Wildcat” changed Harry and Samantha’s lives.
This is your first feature. Why now?
Frost: Melissa had been in love with documentaries as long as we’ve known each other and was always trying to convince me that documentaries are the most important thing happening in storytelling right now. So I was slowly coming around because of Melissa and, at the same time, I was getting frustrated with still photography because magazines and newspapers are disappearing and there is very little collaboration. I accidentally met Harry and Samantha, our main characters, in a hotel lobby; they showed me a hard drive full of footage of the cat and I immediately knew that there was a beautiful film to be made.
Lesh: I’ve been making short films for about a decade, and you don’t really know the thing that is going to make a splash or will challenge you in the greatest way. I had a mentor who said: ‘It’s not precious because what you are doing right now is building your skillset and when the story lands, you’ll be ready,’ and I feel like that’s what’s been happening with me for the last decade. When the story found us, I felt we were ready to receive it.
There are quite a lot of raw, delicate scenes of emotional turmoil in ‘Wildcat.’ How did you navigate the ethics of what to film and what to ultimately share in the film?
Frost: We were living on a very small wooden platform, just the four of us. We bathed together, cooked together, went to bed together and what happened is that we very quickly became a family and because we were a family, filming became second nature. When you watch someone’s home videos, there is so much intimacy in them, because families let their guard down around each other. It’s outsiders that make you put your guard up. Plus, we had no distractions, no cellphones, no internet — all we had was each other, so we had a lot of opportunities to just talk and that lent itself to an intimacy in which we were able to get permission from both of them to film some of these more difficult moments.
Lesh: People have asked us several times if we think our presence and our cameras were potentially dangerous to the situation and our answer was no. We actually felt the camera creates a certain aura of responsibility. One of the main things in helping people with mental health struggles is just being present, right? So our very presence and being there with a camera meant that Harry felt a certain responsibility to us.
How long did you spend in Peru with Harry and Samantha?
Frost: I did 180 days and Melissa did about 160 days.
You mentioned how strong the relationship between you and the subjects became. Why the creative choice to remove yourselves from the film?
Frost: We filmed our calls with them, I filmed myself on several occasions just speaking to Harry and explaining to him that I cared about him and was worried about him. We tried to incorporate that in the film, we experimented with it and it ultimately never felt right, so we ended up removing it.
Did you consult any mental health experts to be able to deal with Harry’s crisis?
Frost: I’ve had depression and anxiety for a decade now and have been seeing both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. I also have several friends who work in the mental health field, one of them is a mental health reporter who is very knowledgeable. So I was able to consult with not only my own doctors but some of these other people.
Lesh: We have a whole list of mental health advisors, too.
Frost: They came along in the editing phase.
Lesh: It was very important to be showing cuts to experts in the field because the last thing we want to do is trigger someone or have it cause more harm to someone who is struggling. There were critical points of feedback, we learned and adapted and made sure to take certain things out so the film wouldn’t cause harm.
The film has been picked up by Amazon in a record-breaking, multimillionaire deal and is already being speculated as a key contender during awards season. How does that feel?
Lesh: Overwhelming [laughs]. We would never expect to be here. The likelihood of what happened with our film is so low that it isn’t something you could ever bank on. We didn’t go into this movie thinking that this was going to be the outcome and, in some ways, there’s something really beautiful about it because we worked with Harry and Samantha in such a deeply collaborative and kind of naive way and now we get to share it with the world.
Frost: It feels like it was all worthwhile, you know? Harry and Sam took a risk on us, they had other people approaching them about the footage. The thing we’re most proud of is that we shared it equally with Harry and Samantha as producers and, as producers, they get shares. Samantha worked for seven years and never paid herself. The most money Harry ever made was $13,000 in the army. Now, because of this deal, they are both set for life, they are both able to devote themselves entirely to their conservation work.
Are you already thinking about what’s next?
Lesh: Yeah, we are starting our next film! I won’t say too much about it but it’s a similar kind of human/animal story. Like with ‘Wildcat,’ one of our goals is to create a pretty clear driving narrative, but to touch upon themes that are much deeper. We are really excited by the intersection of nature and humans, so our goal is to bring in people that might not otherwise care about wildlife.
Frost: There are very few films about the human relationship with nature, so we see an opening and want to spend the majority of our career telling stories in an effort to hopefully improve the way that conservation storytelling actually impacts what happens in some of these places around the world.
“Wildcat” opens in a limited theatrical release on Dec. 21. It arrives on Prime Video on Dec. 30.
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