In October 2021, Amazon Studios announced that it was acquiring “Wildcat” by Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh for a price close to $20 million, a staggering sum for a documentary of this genre. Produced by 30WEST (“Tiger King”, “Flee”), the film tells the story of former British soldier Harry Turner and conservationist Samantha Wicker, who help each other heal while caring for a small ocelot wildcat in the deep peruvian rainforest.
This is Frost and Lesh’s feature debut. Frost comes from a background in still photography, with work published in National Geographic and The New York Times, while Lesh has previously worked with short films. The documentary has taken off in a big way heading into awards season, having recently been nominated for two IDA Documentary Awards for Editing (Lesh, Joshua Altman, David Zieff, Ben Gold) and Music (Patrick Jonsson).
Amazon has already launched the film’s FYC page, which has 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’ performed to large audiences at IDFA’s Best of Fests tier, which also includes other major 2022 tracks 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 working together, their time in Peru, and how “Wildcat” changed Harry and Samantha’s lives.
This is your first feature. Why now?
Freeze: Melissa had been in love with documentaries since we knew 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 back because of Melissa and at the same time I was starting to get frustrated with photography because magazines and newspapers are disappearing and there’s very little collaboration. I accidentally met Harry and Samantha, our main characters, in a hotel lobby; they showed me a hard drive full of pictures of the cat and I knew right away there was a great movie to be made.
Lesh: I’ve been making shorts for about a decade, and you don’t really know what’s going to thrill or challenge you the most. I had a mentor who said, ‘It’s not valuable because what you’re doing right now is developing your skills and when the story comes around you’ll be ready’, and I have the feels like this has been happening to me for a decade. When history found us, I felt we were ready to receive it.
There are plenty of raw and 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?
Freeze: We lived on a tiny wooden platform, just the four of us. We bathed together, we cooked together, we slept together and what happened was that we very quickly became a family and because we were a family, filming became a second nature. When you watch someone’s home videos, there’s so much intimacy in them, because families let their guard down with each other. It’s the strangers who keep your guard up. Also, we had no distractions, no cell phones, no internet – all we had was each other, so we had plenty of opportunity 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 those more difficult moments.
Lesh: People repeatedly asked us if we thought our presence and our cameras were potentially dangerous for the situation and our answer was no. We actually felt that the camera created a certain aura of responsibility. One of the main things you can do to help people struggling with mental health issues is just to be there, right? So our mere presence and being there with a camera meant that Harry felt a certain responsibility towards us.
How long did you spend in Peru with Harry and Samantha?
Freeze: I did 180 days and Melissa about 160 days.
You mentioned how strong the relationship between you and the subjects has become. Why the creative choice to withdraw from the film?
Freeze: We filmed our calls with them, I filmed myself several times talking to Harry and explaining to him that I cared about him and worried about him. We tried to incorporate that into the movie, we experimented with it and it ultimately never felt right, so we ended up cutting it out.
Did you consult mental health experts to be able to deal with Harry’s crisis?
Freeze: I have suffered from 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 field of mental health, one of them is a mental health journalist who is very competent. So I was able to see not only my own doctors, but some of these other people.
Lesh: We also have a whole list of mental health counsellors.
Freeze: They came in the editing phase.
Lesh: It was very important to show the cuts to the experts in the field because the last thing we want to do is trigger someone or hurt someone who is struggling more. There was critical feedback, we learned and adapted and made sure to take things out so the film didn’t cause harm.
The film was picked up by Amazon in a record-breaking multi-million dollar deal and is already seen as a key contender during awards season. What does it do?
Lesh: Overwhelming [laughs]. We would never expect to be here. The likelihood of what happened with our movie is so low that it’s not something you could count on. We didn’t go into this film thinking 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 naive and now we get to share it with the world.
Freeze: I feel like it was all worth it, you know? Harry and Sam took a risk on us, other people approached 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 got paid. The most money Harry ever made was $13,000 in the army. Now, thanks to this agreement, they are both set for life, they can both devote themselves entirely to their conservation work.
Are you already thinking about what’s next?
Lesh: Yes, we are starting our next movie! I won’t say too much but it’s a similar kind of human/animal story. As with “Wildcat”, one of our goals is to create a fairly clear driving narrative, but to touch on much deeper themes. We’re really excited about the intersection of nature and humans, so our goal is to bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t care about wildlife.
Freeze: There are very few films about the human relationship with nature, so we see an opening and want to spend the majority of our careers telling stories with the aim of hopefully improving the way the storytelling of conservation has a real impact on what happens in some of these places around the world.
“Wildcat” opens in a limited theatrical release on December 21. It’s coming to Prime Video on December 30.
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