ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Wildcat directors Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost about creating the moving documentary. The duo spoke about mental health and realistic endings. Wildcat releases through Prime Video on December 30.
“Wildcat follows the emotional and inspiring story of a young veteran on his journey into the Amazon. Once there, he meets a young woman running a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center, and his life finds new meaning as he is entrusted with the life of an orphaned baby ocelot. What was meant to be an attempt to escape from life, turns out to be an unexpected journey of love, discovery, and healing.”
Tyler Treese: Trevor, obviously you have that National Geographic background, being a photographer. How were you introduced to this story and when did you decide to tell it? It’s quite a long journey.
Trevor Frost: I was basically down in the Peruvian Amazon trying to put together a new project. So I was trying to get enough material together that I could go back to National Geographic Magazine and pitch it to them as a feature story. I was specifically looking for Anacondas, which are the largest snake on earth. So I spent about 60 days total looking for them. Now that I look back on it, I was very lucky that I wasn’t finding very many because I was spending a lot more time in this town on the edge of the Amazon. I was at this hotel that I was staying at, and Harry Turner walked by me, and he’s obviously covered in tattoos, so he is quite striking [and] quite noticeable.
And a friend of mine that was sitting next to me, working with me on the anaconda project, leaned over and said, “Did you see the guy with all the tattoos? You’ll never believe his story.” And I was obviously pretty blown away when I heard the story. Then, some days later, I got to meet Harry and Samantha [Zwicker] together at that same hotel, and they brought a hard drive with them. When they shared the footage on that hard drive, I was just so taken by not only how extraordinary the cinematography was, but also by what they chose to film, you know? Especially when they chose to keep recording. So often, people stop recording when things get difficult. There was also just this wonderful kind of … what’s the word that I’m looking for? They weren’t people that were paying attention to the camera.
So they were filming it clearly for their own purposes, not for sharing it with a wider audience or sharing it with the world. That only became something that they started to think about after the first ocelot was killed, that this is a story to get out there because we want this ocelot, this cat that was killed, we want, his story to be remembered. As soon as I saw the footage, I was hooked and I knew there was a story there. And then two weeks later, I went home and shared [the] footage with Melissa and she was equally convinced at that moment.
Melissa, mental health struggles and speaking about trauma can be very difficult for most people. How was finding that Harry and Samantha were so open to discussing their feelings? This movie gets messy at points and I thought it was great that it stayed in there and that they were willing to share that sides of themselves.
Melissa Lesh: Yeah, I think it’s really important to highlight. One of the things that I feel strongly about is that you can’t ask someone else to be vulnerable without being vulnerable yourself. In many cases, there can be a somewhat extractive approach to documentary filmmaking and asking of people things that you might not be willing to do yourself or to speak about. That was something, when we first met them, when Trevor met Harry in that hotel lobby and started speaking with him about the footage that they had filmed and the potential of making the short film, I think the thing that made them feel comfortable and interested in working with us was that we did have such a deep connection to this story and this material.
Both because of our backgrounds in conservation storytelling — both Trevor and I have been doing this type of work for quite a long time — and our love of nature. At first, what was very clear was Trevor’s relationship with depression and some of the things that he struggled with. Being able to talk openly about it with Harry, I think, instantly just created a connection and a trust that you don’t normally find. As we started production and time went on, that same thing happened with Samantha. At first, we didn’t know anything about her backstory or really that she had any trauma that she was dealing with. As time went on and we became closer and deeper friends, and actually shortly after the passing of her father, she started opening up to us as well.
It was right around that same time that Samantha and I were having deep conversations about our own pasts and some reflecting on some childhood trauma that we had both experienced. Being able to have conversations with each other that we had never had with anyone else for the first time in our lives was really quite powerful. You don’t see myself or Trevor on screen, but we really are a part of this movie. In some ways it’s a reflection of what we were grappling with or talking about. On one side of the conversation, you see it through them and through their voice, through their eyes. But on the other side of that conversation was us and how we were navigating and exploring things that we were struggling with.
Trevor, when you see these ocelots, it’s impossible not to get attached — even as a viewer. They’re adorable, even though they’re killing machines out in nature. After those first 20 minutes when the first ocelot got shot by that trap, it was just so heartbreaking. How was knowing that you had such a gut punch in there and using that as a redemption arc, as Harry clearly views it?
Trevor Frost: For us, that was actually one of the greatest challenges of making the film when we got to the editing stage, was where do we incorporate the loss of that cat into the film? We tried it in several different ways. The first way that we tried it was using it as a flashback much later in the film. The problem with it was [that] it was never really working for us structurally because it wasn’t setting the stakes properly for the second cat. What I mean by that is we knew that the loss of the first cat was so critical to setting up a very tense situation in which Harry’s progress and ability to move on was very closely linked with the success of the second cat.
Because it was a story of redemption. It was a story of second chances. So we always knew that it was going to be a hard thing for viewers to experience so early on in the film, but we also knew that it was the most important place to put it because we wanted them to feel throughout the rest of the film that anytime something happened, they felt scared — not only for the ocelot, but they felt scared for Harry. So that was why that decision was made and that’s why we built it the way that we built it.
Melissa, in the editing, what was most difficult about telling these two very interconnected stories of both Keanu the Ocelot and then Harry’s own mental rehabilitation? How was straddling the line so that viewers become interested in both throughout?
I think there’s so many parallels there. We knew that, structurally speaking, the driving narrative was Keanu’s reintroduction. Khan’s story is a clear act one, it’s a clear setup, and, like we mentioned, it sets the stakes. It tells the backstory, the history with why Harry is there and the meeting of Samantha. So it gets all the plates spinning, everything in motion. Then, structurally, when Keanu hits the screen, we wanted everyone to be ready and buckled in for this longer journey and this reintroduction. So that was always the spine of the film in terms of how we wanted to construct it. We knew, going in with production, that we had roughly a year and a half of filming time to capture the reintroduction of Keanu.
That that was around the time when he would be going into the wild and he would normally be leaving his mother — his biological mother, if he had one. So that timeframe was set up, and we wanted to really keep the progress and the journey, the triumphs and the fear, right? Those scary moments, or when he catches his first rodent — those tentpole moments of the reintroduction. We knew that was very much going to be the spine. Off of that, it was a balance to include the darker, deeper mental health struggles, and then you have Samantha’s backstory and her time going into town and fundraising and going home for her PhD. So really, it came down to trying to thread those needles well and constantly trying to keep wrapping those storylines around themselves, around each other, so that it was always moving you forward, always driving.
One example of that would be Samantha’s narrative. When you learn about her father, her going home sets in motion multiple things. She’s leaving Harry, so that is further compounding his isolation [and] the divide between them. It gives you a window into what she’s doing in terms of her scientific background, what it takes to do this work. You have to be on the ground fundraising and really making ends meet. She is at home. And so that felt like a perfect opportunity to show and dive into some of those childhood moments. It almost operated as like a flashback. She’s sitting in the kitchen thinking about some of the things she experienced in her childhood house, and we were able to go there quite quickly.
Similarly with Keanu, when you see Harry distressed because of the logging that’s happening, and he’s hearing gunshots in the distance and all of those things are compounding his concern for Keanu’s wellbeing, that then translates into him struggling emotionally. That’s when you see him starting to talk about — and has just self-harmed. So many of those were real connections. When he was concerned with the logging and he came back and he did say, “I feel like I want to cut myself.” Those were not fabricated connections. Those were authentic. So I think in the edit, when you have over a thousand hours of footage, there’s so much to choose from. So it’s just about picking those really connective kind of tissue moments that really handed off and bind everything together.
Trevor, throughout the film we see the toxic side of that relationship and it would be very easy to see that as a downer end to this story, but you managed to weave it in a way that shows that messiness, but is still hopeful. You see both of them doing better off at the end. Can you speak about chronicling a relationship and especially somebody struggling mentally along the way, but still having that positive story at the end?
Trevor Frost: Yeah, I think that there’s a tendency in films — especially scripted films — to make sure that everyone unites at the end and everything’s wonderful. But of course, the reality is that so much of having a healthy, happy life is sometimes letting go of the things that aren’t good for you. So I think that both Harry and Sam made the decision to let go of each other. They both, obviously, got to a point where they were not good for each other and they both came to the decision independently that it was better for them to go their separate ways and that they would both have happier, healthier lives as a result. So that was something that we were really focused on, because the more that we thought about it and the more that we talked to some of our collaborators, especially people who were parents, we understood that part of loving is letting go.
And that’s not just when you have a relationship that dissolves and falls apart — which can so often be difficult, because even when relationships do fall apart, there’s still a lot of love there, right? My parents got divorced a couple years ago, about five years ago, and even though they got divorced, they still have love for each other, right? They spent 30, 35 years together. So there’s still an underlying love because you’ve experienced so much together. Ultimately, it was understood that it was better for them to go their separate ways. We were reminded by a lot of people we worked with, and then it was something that we thought about more on our own, that in any situation when you love something, you will eventually have to let it go.
That doesn’t necessarily mean saying goodbye to it when it passes away, although that’s a significant part of it, right? Everyone that you know will eventually die and obviously you may die before them, so you might not be the one saying goodbye. That became a really important theme, that the two are inextricably linked. That loving and letting go are so tightly woven together. That was really important. Obviously the ending … what we wanted to do was make sure that it didn’t feel over the top. We wanted to be hopeful and that these two people have done the the act of letting go and moving on for their benefit and that they’re still foraging forward, they’re still finding a path forward.
But that everything’s not just perfect. That was really important to us because I think there’s a tendency in Hollywood and in media to latch onto stories where it seems like people are just magically fixed after difficult experiences or struggling with mental health. Of course, anybody that has lived through that firsthand or has a loved one that has lived through that understands that that’s just not the way that this stuff works. That these are things that you’ll deal with for the rest of your life. So it becomes more about how do you change your relationship with these things versus how do I just completely eliminate it from my life? There is no magical cure right now. Maybe there will be. Maybe in 20 years, there will be a cure for depression, for example. But right now it looks like it’s something that anybody that’s dealing with these things is going to be dealing with it in one way or another for the rest of their lives. So we really felt that it was important to make sure that the film ended in a way that was both hopeful but also very real and very raw.