The Making Of ‘WILDCAT’: An Interview With Richmond Filmmakers Melissa Lesh And Trevor Frost

by | Dec 29, 2022 | COMMUNITY NEWS, FILM & TV

Wildcat is a documentary by Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost, two filmmakers based in Richmond. The film follows the emotional journey of a young British soldier who, after returning from Afghanistan and struggling with depression and PTSD, finds a new purpose in the Amazon rainforest. There, he meets an American scientist and they work together to care for an orphaned baby ocelot. The film explores themes of love, self-discovery, and healing as the soldier’s initial attempt to escape his struggles turns into an unexpected journey of growth and purpose.

Fellow Richmond filmmaker Bradford Davis interviewed about the technical process of making the film and how they got to the heart of the subject matter. It is currently showing in select theaters and will have a wide release on Amazon Prime on December 30th.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Guys, I watched your documentary last night. And I have to say, Wildcat is amazing. It’s fantastic. You had me and my fiancé crying.

Trevor Frost: Did you see it on a link or did you go to the theatre?

They sent us the screener for the interview.

Trevor: Cool. Well, it is playing in theaters right now in Richmond, too. If you want to see it on the big screen.

I would love to do that. I wanted to say to you guys, congratulations on that. Because that is amazing. It’s such an amazing accomplishment, to see something you’ve worked on in theaters all over the country. That’s so cool.

Melissa Lesh: Yeah, it’s pretty surreal. It’s cool to bring it home to Richmond. We had our theatrical premiere the other night and filled all the seats of the whole theatre with our family and friends. And it was quite special.

I can imagine that felt incredible. Especially after everything you’ve been through, that would feel amazing to have all of your family and friends in the big corporate movie theatre in your hometown watching your film. Congrats, that’s great.

Trevor: Definitely, it’s definitely been an unreal adventure that we’re both happy it’s coming to a close.

So let me ask you – I’ve read several of the interviews that you’ve already done leading up to now. And I saw the beautifully introspective essay on Indiewire. And so I don’t want to ask you too many redundant questions that you’ve already answered several times over. I’d prefer to explore some of the other aspects of Wildcat, as well as some technical questions I had, if that’s okay.

Trevor: Yeah, of course. Absolutely.

Melissa: We have started to sound like broken records at this point. [laughs]

wildcat

I initially thought that I was watching a documentary about this guy and wildlife conservation. And then I realized it was something much more than that. It’s actually about mental health and the healing aspects of our reconnection with nature and how important it is. And I just don’t know how you guys nailed so many important things in one beautiful project, but bravo.

Trevor: Thank you.

Truly amazing. So hey, Melissa, you were the main editor of the film?

Melissa: Yeah, I was the lead editor. But we had some other incredible editors working alongside me as well.

The way that it was assembled was so beautiful, and the pacing, the story was perfect. And the way that you guys move through time, and the usage of archival footage. The way that all of that was integrated into the final picture was just fantastic. I can only imagine, having three years of footage to sift through. You really had your work cut out for you.

Melissa: Yeah, it’s interesting because the edit was probably reflecting back on everything now, and just the whirlwind that the last three months have been in trying to promote this unruly beast. I think back on production and the post-production. And I feel like post-production was one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of making this movie.

So were you guys initially self-funding everything, or did you already have support in place once it was time for the second go-around when you both went down there for Keanu?

Trevor: When we started, we didn’t have any funding in place. We did all the initial trips for about the first year, we did it all either on credit card or using airline miles that I had racked up over the course of almost at that time, about 12 years of travel. And so we were just kind of winging it on getting down there. And then, after a year of working, we were able to secure our first grant from Eddie Bauer, who I’ve had a long relationship with. Melissa has also worked with them now for the last couple of years. And then we also brought on, not long after that, our first grant, we brought on our first sort of angel investor, if you will.

That’s great. So initially, you guys were doing the Francis Ford Coppola thing where you were putting the second mortgage on the house. It was like everything for the project.

Trevor: Yeah. It was just, we were working other film jobs and photography jobs and stuff to keep ourselves afloat. But we didn’t have a lot of extra funding. So yeah, it was definitely just relying on debt and airline miles to make it all happen in the first place.

Right. Wow. I’m sure a lot of people will wonder, what was the timeline of filming this? And how did that line up with pandemic and lockdown?

Melissa: Yeah, so we started, Trevor met Harry and Samantha summer of 2018. That’s when they first showed him the archive of Khan and that footage that they had already filmed at that point. Khan had already passed about a year before he met them. Harry was still grieving Khan, and they were both trying to figure out what was next. So yeah, Harry met them in summer of 2018. And then our first trip was fall of 2018. And that was when we got the call that Keanu had come along. So production was the bulk of production was 2019. We did 13 trips. So it was follows kind of the tail end of 2018 through 2019, all the way to the end. And then luckily, we got very lucky that we pretty much wrapped production right before the pandemic hit. So we had a few pickup shoots in 2020, Trevor went to England, I went to Purdue, Peru, and Ecuador, also England. But it was really fortunate that we were able to actually begin the edit full time at that point. Well, I shouldn’t say full time, we were still trying to piece together some bigger funding. But you know, I essentially went to the edit cave when the pandemic hit.

wildcat documentary

So before we go too far down the rabbit hole. For anyone that is Google lazy or not familiar, can you guys explain what an ocelot is, please?

Trevor: It’s basically a small jungle cat, a wild cat that lives in the Amazon rainforest. It also lives all throughout Central and South America, even as far up as the borderlands with Arizona and Texas. So you can find ocelots, albeit a much smaller population, in Texas and Arizona in the sort of scrub lands that are there along the border. But like I said, very small population. They’re a smaller wildcat. Females weigh around 20 pounds, 25 pounds, and the males will get up to around 40 pounds. They live mostly on the ground, but they can climb into the trees. And they’re corpuscular. So they’ll be active during the day and the night. So you can see them at both times.

They are beautiful.

Melissa: They’re also mesopredators, which is important to Samantha’s research because she does a lot of interesting work on the prey-predator dynamics of mesopredators, right. They’re not the big apex predators like the Jaguars or the Pumas. But they’re kind of these in-betweens, and they fill a really significant and unique role in the ecosystem.

Thank you for that. They’re stunning. What kind of toll did living down there in the Amazon have on both of your bodies? Did either one of you get really sick or injured being down there? Because I can imagine if there’s a life threatening emergency or a close call, how far is the nearest hospital if you happen to get in trouble?

Melissa: The nearest good hospital I would say is in Lima, which is an hour boat ride, a few hours by car and then a flight away. It’s a couple hour flight to Puerto Maldonado, which is the town we based in. I would not want to get treated for anything serious there though.

So if something scary happened, or if you get bit by the wrong snake, it could be bad.

Trevor Frost: But the truth is, for the most part, having travelled all over the world, every continent except for Antarctica for the last 15 years, I’ve spent probably more time at this stage of my life out of the country than I have in the country. And the reality is that the biggest danger is typically actually from humans. Whenever you travel abroad, you’re out of your element and you don’t have some of the safety nets that are in place. You have to take taxis which is always a little bit of a risk. So there are things like that that you worry about more. I mean, jungles have their issues, but the biggest danger in the jungle is really getting some sort of infectious disease from biting insects. And even then when you’re in the jungle itself in the rainforest, you know, in an intact area of the rainforest, the chances of that are fairly small if you wear the right clothing, you’re just generally careful, and wear insect repellent as you need it. But the reality is like after all these years of doing this, I’ve rarely gotten hurt in the jungle. I’ve actually been hurt much more at home. Every time I come back to Richmond, it seems like every few years I end up in the ER. I had a glass break on me and cut open my leg, and then I had a cat bite that sent me to VCU Hospital for a week. I was in the hospital for a week on IV antibiotics. And then, ironically, all the travels I’ve done to these remote places, I almost never have problems. I generally almost never have problems with people either. I think people have this idea that these places are really kind of foreign and dangerous, but really the opposite is true. And if I’m thinking about all the time that I’ve spent in rainforests alone, I’ve seen probably five venomous snakes. And those were snakes that I stumbled upon by accident. I’ve obviously seen more than that because some of my work has actually been looking for snakes. And so when you’re with scientists, where you’re actually trying to find them, you obviously can find quite a few, but then you’re with people who are really good at finding them. And you’re actually going out with that in mind, that’s your purpose. But if you’re just kind of in the rainforest, going for walks and doing your day to day, you’re surely passing by quite a lot of snakes, venomous ones as well, but then they never really do anything to you because they’re not interested in hurting humans. And so I guess that’s probably a good way of explaining the rest of the rainforest as well, that it’s just not the scary place that people imagine. It’s actually a lot more safe than I think people expect it to be. If something did happen, it is very real that getting transported to a hospital that could actually address some of those more serious injuries and things would be the biggest challenge that you would face.

That makes sense.

Melissa: And the most dangerous thing in the Amazon, despite what people might think in terms of deadly, venomous things is actually tree fall. So, trees falling because the ecosystem is regenerating itself so regularly and growing so fast that trees are falling quite frequently.

Wow.

Melissa: And very big trees. So that’s actually one of the one of the bigger dangers like sleeping and a tree falls on you. But I mean, the chances of that happening are quite slim, and they cleared around the platform. But Trevor and I definitely got sick, we got our fair share of bugs from the water, intestinal bugs and Samantha and Harry had leishmaniasis, which is a flesh eating disease. That comes from sandflies. Luckily, Trevor, and I never got that. I also never got a botfly, which Harry was getting, like, 12 every time we went down there. Yeah, you’re in an incredibly intact ecosystem. And if you’re alert and you’re paying attention it’s not hard to navigate and step over the bullet ants or around the snake or whatever.

So, can you guys run me through a normal, as if there was such a thing, but like a normal production day in the Amazon rainforest? What is the running gun filmmaking technique? When both of you were down there? How were the day to day production duties divvied up? Would one person operate the camera and one person is doing audio? I was wondering about this, because it’s not like you’re able to run around the rainforest with a mic on a boom pole, or put a lav mic on a guy with no shirt.

Melissa:Yeah, well Trevor and I did our first few trips together. But after that, we started kind of divving it up just for our own sanity of like keeping things in order at home and also like finances.

Oh, so you were going there separately after a while?

Melissa:: Basically, like trading off. The first few shoots were us together. The first production shoot we did was just mostly interviews so we wanted to kind of get the whole story we did like three days of just interviews and during the day, we would just hang out, we actually didn’t really do any recording during the day. And then at night, we set up the lights and, and had cameras rolling and had like, a two angle setup, and both of us rolling camera on that to get kind of the foundation of a lot of the early stories and the Khan reflection and all that stuff. And then as time went on and production continued, it was a lot of just being ready and kind of taking the day as it came. We wake up often to the sound of howler monkeys that go start calling when the sun rises. So that’s kind of the first thing you hear and you wake up. Harry’s usually the first one off, he’s making British tea. He’s got his English breakfast that he always wanted to make. So he kind of get breakfast started and you know, we’d all eat breakfast together. And then it was just kind of seeing what was gonna happen that day. You know, Harry always went out to walk Keanu. So that was something we knew was gonna happen that was usually in the evenings. And so during the day, it was a lot of sitting around or having long conversations or going and looking for snakes or building trails. So when Trevor and I were together, we would often you know, both be rolling, or depending on the moment in the scene, if it made sense, just one of us would kind of be holding down the main camera

Melissa: I would often go into the jungle and set up zoom mics to get the ambient sound scape. Right? And then we started trading off.

So you mentioned the lights. And I wanted to ask you, what were you guys doing for power there? Were there generators? Or were you just doing portable power? How are you? How are you running lights and charging cameras and laptops?

Melissa: Yeah, we had these goal zero battery banks. These were actually pretty good. We could run like, I’ve got some LED lights that we could plug in, or I think we brought one of my LED lights, but headlamps and stuff. Yeah. I mean, we’re just trying to use whatever we had. And then they had a small solar setup on the roof that we could, I think plug like phones into. A lot of the film was shot on phones in the beginning.

I saw something where you guys were talking about the effects of the humidity on the camera gear, I was reading that you guys went through several cameras over the course of the shoot.

Trevor: Yeah, that is this is typical of anywhere, even in Virginia you’d have problems with your camera gear if you didn’t take care of it in the summertime, then like the humidity is much higher in the jungle on a consistent basis. And obviously, you don’t have a house with air conditioning or something that you can take the gear inside every day to help dry it out. So the main thing was just making sure that we had cases with silica in it so that we could put the cameras in there every night. And then the nice thing about silica is you can actually cook it on a stove. So they obviously had propane fueled stoves, for at all they’re sort of research sites. So we would just silica on the stoves, and that would allow us to keep the camera gear fairly dry. But at the end of the day, when you’re using the gear every single day, and it’s getting rained on and not necessarily being well looked after. Because you’re focused on getting the shot, then it definitely will destroy the cameras eventually. So we lost a few but it wasn’t too bad.

I feel like after watching this and hearing about everything that you guys went through, once all the smoke clears, you guys could go get some YouTube money and teach one of those master classes on making a documentary. It’d be brilliant.

So can we switch gears for one second and talk about Harry? So it was really surprising to me, and you can see this in the trailer. But the trailer was just getting you ready for it. The vulnerability that he displayed on screen. Often times people participate in documentaries and then later on, they sort of change their mind, and then they don’t want the footage to come out. So afterwards, his continuing to commit and allow some of his darkest moments to be shared with the world. I feel like his vulnerability in the piece will resonate with audiences all over the world. His commitment to that is one of the things that makes Wildcat truly special. Just one of its several things. It was so brave of him to sign off on that. I saw an interview recently where he said that documentary was very difficult to make. And while for anybody watching, that seems obvious, for him it would seem especially so, because he’s signing off on the world, witnessing some of the darkest moments of his life.

Trevor: I think in the process of things, he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it. And that was part of what made him such a compelling character. Same with Samantha, neither one of them really paid a lot of attention to the camera. And then certainly, as time went on and we all became more comfortable with each other, awareness of the camera only decreased even more. But as filmmakers, one of the first things we look for when deciding whether to start a film is how aware the people we’re filming are of what we’re doing. Obviously, we’ll always have an influence being there. There’s no such thing as a fly on the wall. We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, but we’ll always have an impact on the decisions people make when we’re filming them. In terms of care, as far as characters go, we felt that Harry and Samantha were very unaware of the camera and very focused on the work at hand. I think that’s probably the main thing. They were going to do this regardless of whether we were making a film. That was the ultimate pull for us, knowing that no matter what, they were going to take this on for their own reasons because they both felt they needed to prove they could do it after losing Khan. That was a major factor in our decision to pursue this film. Knowing that they didn’t really care about us being there at the end of the day. At the end of the project, there were certainly moments where our presence had an impact and they were aware of us being there. We had to stop filming for various reasons. But overall, it was a very positive experience in terms of them just pursuing their work and their lives and letting us document it.

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Harry’s pain is palatable at certain points of the film. You find yourself watching this movie, rooting for him as much as you’re cheering on Keanu. It’s like you love him, and at the same time, it’s horrible to watch him go through this. I can imagine, at times, you two as a couple, or when you were there separately, might have felt caught in the middle when Harry’s either dealing with things or having these moments with Samantha. So how did you deal with the awkward uncomfortable times? Without feeling like you’re crossing a line too much?

Melissa: I think Trevor can speak more specifically to when things were really going awry with Harry and Sam’s relationship. This was when I was back at home recovering from brain surgery. So I wasn’t there when things were really unraveling. But after that, and often even in the midst of production when things would come up or happen, the fact that we are a co-directing team and a couple, Trevor naturally connected deeply with Harry and I connected deeply with Samantha. There was a natural division of labor, if you will. Once things started breaking up, I took over filming Samantha and following her side of the story. I also filmed Harry. We weren’t drawing it clearly down the line, but I think there was a natural support system that we put in place that made each of them feel comfortable opening up and being vulnerable, but also not feeling like there was too much overlap, if that makes sense.

Trevor: I definitely got caught in the middle between the two of them, especially as things dissolved in their relationship in those final months. Melissa was at home recovering from brain surgery, so I was the one there. I also bear some responsibility because, like many people, I have a compulsion to try and fix things, especially in Western society where we have this weird idea that we have to save everything. So there was a part of me that was definitely going out of my way to try and make both of them happy and try to keep the peace. In hindsight, I probably should have stepped away and let things unfold as they were going to. But when you’re in a remote place like that and don’t have anyone else to rely on, they rely heavily on us in these situations. So often, we found ourselves not just being filmmakers, but trying to keep things as peaceful as possible.

Turning into a Relationship Therapist.

Trevor: A little bit at times, for sure. [laughs]

Trevor Frost

So you guys have been filming with them over 150 days, and then all of a sudden, you get some very scary news.

Trevor: If you’re referring to the brain surgery, yeah. Yeah.

So you had known that before you guys were down there filming?

Melissa: Yeah, I was on production for another project, my friend was actually directing a feature film, Story of Plastic. I was serving as Director of Photography. I was in Jakarta at the time and had a fluke accident. It wasn’t major, but I fell back and hit my head and thought I might have a concussion or something. So I went to get a scan to be sure. The scans came back and there was no concussion, but they found a mass in the back of my brain. That was in the summer of 2018. It was very clear a little over a year later that I would have to have it removed. So they had been monitoring it for a year.

So you were already down there filming with them before you knew that information?

Melissa: Yes, because we started filming in fall 2018. So I found the mass and shortly after that we went into production.

That must have been a really heavy thing to worry about.

Melissa: Yes, it was a lot. For some reason, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing or taking things as they come. All I could do was take it as it came and hope for the best. I realized that my symptoms weren’t bad at that point, but they were starting to get worse. So I found it just in time, completely by accident. Maybe in some ways the film helped take my mind off of it. It was something we threw ourselves into fully, so there was no time to really dwell or reflect, it was just go-go-go.

So Melissa’s at home trying to recover, Trevor’s back in the jungle with Harry, trying to stay present and finish the film, Harry’s going through his own struggles, and you’re juggling all these things simultaneously, all the while hoping to get Keanu to go off on his own and become independent. Geez man.

Trevor: Yeah, it was definitely one of the harder moments of my life. Most of us aren’t prepared for handling a lot of the different things we eventually encounter in adult life. We’re not taught anything about how to handle these situations. We don’t learn about how to talk about mental health or how to support someone when they’re struggling. So we go into these things blind. As an adult, you’ll encounter various things and I went into it pretty unprepared. I was maybe more prepared than some people because I struggle with depression and anxiety myself, so I had a better handle on what it feels like to be vulnerable and to not feel okay even when things are seemingly going well in my life. So that certainly gave me a decent handle on the situation, I think more than someone else who doesn’t struggle with mental health issues. But even still, it was probably one of the three most difficult moments in my life. By the time I went back to the rainforest, Melissa was out of danger from her surgery. The surgery went really well and she was already out of the hospital.

Okay great, so you knew she was going to be fine.

Trevor: Yes. I would have preferred to be home and help her recover, but at that point her mom was in town and her dad lived in the city, and my dad was in the city as well at that time. So there were people around to help, which was really nice. And I didn’t have huge concerns about her. She spent only three days in the hospital for brain surgery, whereas I spent a week in the hospital for a cat bite. So that was pretty radical. Haha

So Melissa’s tough, right?

Trevor: She is certainly a lot tougher than me. [laughs]

During the stressful filming process, did this motivate and inspire you to dig deeper and rise to the occasion? In that moment, were you like, “yeah, let me be there for him and be supportive of him”, and then later on when it’s over you’re just like, “Oh, my God, I feel so zapped from this”?

Trevor: Yeah, for sure. I definitely got pretty worn out by it all. And I think there were times when I should have stepped away from it. But there was no one else to really help. So, in that situation, I did what I thought was best. I was fortunate in that Samantha and I called the suicide prevention hotline, but I also had access to my own doctors that I had been working with for some years at that point. So having access to people that I could talk to about my own problems and ask them questions about the best way to behave in some of these situations was really useful. So I was able to make decisions that were ultimately productive. I was very focused on just trying to help Harry understand that it was okay for him to go home and seek help. However, that wasn’t for him at the time. Coming to terms with getting help is a very personal decision. I believe Harry would benefit from professional help, but it took me five years of struggling before I actually got help myself. So I know how personal the decision is and society stigmatizes these things. It was definitely a challenging time, but we’re happy with how everything turned out.

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The film is beautiful. The story behind the making of this documentary reminds me of the saying, ‘if you want to hear God laugh, make plans’. Because life might have been completely different if you found the anacondas you were looking for, or if they didn’t find Keanu when they did, or ever. The world might have only had a short film. And everything might have been different. But it’s not.

Trevor: Yeah, we got very lucky. Almost all the best projects I’ve ever worked on were very serendipitous. As someone who has been working on telling stories for 15 years, I’ve had a lot of failures and projects where I focused on what the project would do for me, and as a result, the project suffered. This is one of those projects where I was entranced by the story itself and Melissa and I just threw ourselves into it. We didn’t put a lot of thought into how it would change our lives or what it would do for us, we just started working on it. And those are always the projects that end up finding the most success. This was probably the most potent teacher I’ve had from all the projects I’ve worked on, because it has been a success and we’ve been able to reach a wide audience. It’s been a great lesson to keep reminding myself to focus on the story in front of me and not what it will do for me. It’s helpful for anyone who wants to do this kind of stuff. You have to wholeheartedly embrace the story in the documentary form, and if you don’t go on that journey, the audience probably won’t either. Being able to embrace the nature of it and bend and twist and take it as it comes is key. Hopefully, for everyone, it’s going to be a more interesting, exciting, and gratifying experience.

And speaking of the journey, no spoilers, but after the emotional rollercoaster you took us on, the payoff at the end was well worth it, and the reunion with Harry’s family was very heartwarming. It was great to see him genuinely happy.

Melissa: We’re happy that everything turned out the way it did. And while there’s still growth ahead, we all learned a lot in the process of making it.

Trevor forst and Melissa Lesh

You guys have built up a trove of great material. Any plans for a book one day?

Trevor: Potentially after we’ve recharged enough. Maybe we’ll write it down.

Yeah, exactly. And get ready for that masterclass. For people who see this film and want to donate or contribute in some way to Hoja Nueva and Samantha’s ongoing rescue missions, how can they do that?

Melissa: The best way is to go to her website hojanueva.org. If you want to share the website for the film itself, which is wildcatdocumentary.com, information to support is on there as well as screening times and locations, theatre tickets, and stuff like that.

Thank you so much. It’s awesome to see great filmmakers from Richmond getting out there. Congratulations on everything.

Trevor: Thank you so much. Have a good one.

Wildcat now showing in select theaters and on Amazon Prime starting December 30th, 2022
Find out more information at wildcatdocumentary.com

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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