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).
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.
FAQsIs the Wildcat documentary sad? ›
Yes, this is one of those rare documentaries that makes you cry. It doesn't matter if you are a male or female and It's not sad on the "sad" weapy cat dies kind of way.Why is Wildcat rated R? ›
This feature-length documentary is an intimate, character-driven story about the impact of wild places on us - and our impact on them. Rated R for language.Where was Wildcat documentary filmed? ›
Wildcat is a 2022 American documentary film about animal rescue efforts in Peru, directed by Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh.What does the Wildcat symbolize? ›
Wildcat plays a very negative role in the traditional stories of some tribes. He is greedy, selfish, and disregards social rules. A man who has a bad temper or acts like a jerk to women is called a "wildcat" in the Hopi language. In some Southwestern tribes, it is considered bad luck to see a wildcat.What is Wildcat on Amazon about? ›
Wildcat (now on Amazon Prime Video) is a documentary contrasting adorable wild Amazonian animals with one man's mental health struggles.Is Wildcat a hero or villain? ›
Theodore "Ted" Grant is a fictional character, a DC Comics superhero, known as the original Wildcat and a long-time member of the Justice Society of America (JSA).Does Wildcat have a happy ending? ›
Ditto for Samantha: She cares deeply for Harry, but another relationship from her past might be too much for them to overcome. Directed by Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh, Wildcat is a sweet movie with a happy ending and all the depth of a car decal.What are the characteristics of a Wildcat? ›
Wildcats are generally grey-brown with bushy tails and a well-defined pattern of black stripes over their entire body. Their fur is short and soft. Their coloration is similar to that of a tabby domestic cat and makes them difficult to see in their forested habitats.Is Wildcat Based on a true story? ›
The two of them end up raising orphaned wildlife, and it's through that that he finds a reason to live. This documentary is an amazing true story of real love.
Challenging, thought-provoking, and suspenseful, "Wildcat" is a lot of movie. Hearts will be broken. January 17, 2023 | Rating: FIVE STARS | Full Review…What happened to the cat in Wildcat? ›
Keanu is actually the second baby ocelot Harry has hand-raised; the first 15 minutes or so document his relationship with another cat named Khan, who (spoiler alert) dies after being shot by poachers mere weeks before he was supposed to go back into the wild.Is Wildcat documentary a true story? ›
Wildcat on Prime Video reveals the remarkable true story of a young, troubled military veteran who befriends an orphaned ocelot in Peru.What happened with Harry from Wildcat documentary? ›
Harry now has a new project – a US-based non-profit organisation called Emerald Arch he launched last year with his partner now, US conservationist Lexie Gray. “I started this to continue my dream and passion,” said Harry. “We want to raise funds to buy Ecuadorian Amazon to save it from oil companies and deforestation.