Directors of Oscar-winning Amazon doc “Wildcat” discuss mental health, the film’s life-changing million-dollar deal – Variety | Episode Movies

In October 2021, Amazon Studios announced it was acquiring Trevor Beck Frost and Melissa Lesh’s “Wildcat” for nearly $20 million, a staggering sum for a document of this nature. , “Flee”) tells the story of ex-British soldier Harry Turner and conservationist Samantha Wicker as they help each other heal while caring for a small wild ocelot cat in the deep Peruvian rainforest.

This is Frost and Lesh’s first feature film. Frost has a background in still photography and has published work in National Geographic and the New York Times, while Lesh has previously worked with short films. The documentary has picked up significant momentum on the fringes 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, Director and Original Song for Fleet Foxes’ “A Sky Like I’ve Never Seen” starring Brazilian singer Tim Bernardes.

Wildcat played to a sold-out audience at IDFA’s Best of Fests strand, which also includes other big 2022 titles like Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes and Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares. During their time at IDFA, Frost and Lesh sat down with Variety to talk about their collaboration, the time they spent in Peru, and how “Wildcat” changed Harry and Samantha’s lives.

“Wildcat” (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

This is your first function. Why now?

Frost: Melissa has always been in love with documentaries since we met and always tried to convince me that documentaries are the most important thing in storytelling right now. So I was coming to myself about 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 happened to meet Harry and Samantha, our main characters, in a hotel lobby; They showed me a hard drive full of footage of the cat and I knew immediately 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 what will make a splash or challenge you the most. I had a mentor who said, “It’s not valuable because what you’re doing right now is building your skills and when the story lands, you’re going to be ready,” and I feel like that’s been the last ten happened to me years ago. When the story found us, I felt we were ready to embrace it.

There are quite a few raw, thorny scenes of emotional turmoil in Wildcat. How did you deal with the ethics of what to film and what ultimately to share in the film?

Frost: We lived 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 became a family very quickly and because we were a family filming became second nature. When you watch someone’s home videos, there’s so much intimacy in them because families let their guard down around each other. It’s outsiders that make you increase your vigilance. Also, we had no distractions, no cell phones, no internet — all we had was each other, so we had plenty of opportunities to just talk, and that lent itself to an intimacy where we could get permission from both of us Film some of those tougher moments.

Lesh: People have asked us several times if we think our presence and cameras are potentially dangerous to the situation and our answer was no. We actually felt that the camera exuded a certain responsibility. One of the most important things about helping people with mental health issues is just being present, right? So our mere presence and the presence of a camera meant that Harry felt a certain responsibility towards us.

How long did you spend with Harry and Samantha in Peru?

Frost: 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 decision to withdraw from film?

Frost: We filmed our calls with them, I filmed myself on several occasions just talking to Harry and explaining that I cared and worried about him. We tried to put that into the film, we experimented with it, and it just never felt right in the end, so we ended up removing it.

Did you consult any mental health experts to deal with Harry’s crisis?

Frost: I have had depression and anxiety for a decade now and have seen both a psychologist and a psychiatrist. I also have several friends who work in the mental health field, one of whom is a very knowledgeable mental health reporter. So I was able to consult not only with my own doctors, but also with some of these other people.

Lesh: We also have a whole list of mental health counselors.

Frost: They came along in the editing phase.

Lesh: Showing cuts to experts in the field was very important because the last thing we want to do is trigger someone or do more damage to someone who is struggling. There were critical feedback points, we learned and adjusted and made sure to take certain things out so as not to damage the film.

“Wildcat” (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The film was picked up by Amazon in a record-breaking multi-millionaire deal and is already being speculated to be its main competitor during awards season. How does that feel?

Lesh: Overwhelming [laughs]. We would never expect to be here. The probability of what happened to our film is so small that it can never be counted on. We didn’t go into that film thinking that this would be the result, and in some ways there’s something really beautiful about it, because we’ve worked with Harry and Samantha in such a deeply collaborative and kind of naïve way, and now we understand to share it with the world.

Frost: It feels like it was all worth it, you know? Harry and Sam took a chance on us, they had other people approaching them about the footage. What we’re most proud of is that we shared it equally with Harry and Samantha as producers and they get a cut as producers. Samantha worked for seven years and never paid herself. The most money Harry ever made was $13,000 in the army. Now, through this deal, they are both armed for life, they can both devote themselves fully to their conservation work.

Are you already thinking about what’s next?

Lesh: Yes, we’re starting our next movie! I won’t say too much about it, but it’s a similar type of human/animal story. As with Wildcat, one of our goals is to create a fairly clean, driving narrative, but address issues that lie much deeper. We’re really passionate about the interface between nature and humans, so our goal is to include people who might not otherwise be interested in wildlife.

Frost: There are very few films about the human relationship with nature, so we see an opportunity and want to spend the majority of our careers telling stories, hopefully improving the way that storytelling in conservation actually impacts what’s at some of these places around happened world.

“Wildcat” opens on December 21st in a limited theatrical version. It arrives on Prime Video on December 30th.

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