"Wildcat" directors on shooting challenges: "How can you tell this story if you can't film the cat?"

A veteran with PTSD rehabs a baby ocelot in this inspiring new documentary that also tackles mental health and more

Published December 5, 2022 1:15PM (EST)

Wildcat (Courtesy of Amazon)
Wildcat (Courtesy of Amazon)

The connection between humans and animals is at the heart of "Wildcat," codirectors Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh's inspiring documentary about Harry, an ex-soldier with PTSD who bonds with ocelots in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. But "Wildcat" also considers Harry's mental illness — he is a cutter who has moments of panic and rage — as well as issues of conservation, wildlife trafficking and animal welfare.

"We knew it was never going to be a cute cuddly film of people falling in love with a cat. We didn't want to make a film like that."

Harry works with Samantha Zwicker, who runs the NGO Hoja Nueva, which is helping rescue animals and rehabilitate them to let them back into the wild. Harry is involved in rehabilitation first Khan and then Keanu, two adorable ocelots, teaching them how to hunt and how to survive on their own in the rainforest so they can be released back into the wild.

Frost and Lesh chronicle approximately two years of Harry and Samantha's work to show how his efforts helped him feel a sense of accomplishment and pivot after a harrowing tour in Afghanistan. The filmmakers spoke with Salon about their new documentary

How did you learn about Hoja Nueva and Harry's story and decide to make a film about it?

Trevor Frost: I was a still photographer before working on this film. Most of my work was for National Geographic, the Washington Post and Wired. I did a lot of feature stories. I was looking for a new story for National Geographic and I thought it would be interesting to put together a story on anacondas. I went down to the Peruvian rainforest where I knew there was a group of people who were doing a study on anacondas. As luck would have it, I wasn't finding many anacondas. I spent close to 60 days looking for them but didn't find any until the last 10 days. I spent a lot of time in a hotel room strategizing.

WildcatWildcat (Courtesy of Amazon)

Then one day in the lobby, Harry walked by, and my friend said to me, "Did you see that man with all the tattoos? You'll never believe his story." I learned about his background and a few days later, I met him and Samantha officially at the hotel. They brought a hard drive with all this remarkable footage that they had filmed [of Harry and Khan] themselves. I was impressed with what and when they recorded. Often people stop filming when things get difficult. I knew there was an extraordinary archive to work with and we could do a short film with what they had done to that point. A month later, Samantha called us on a satellite phone that she just rescued another ocelot, so that's when we know we were going to be for a much longer ride.

How much of the footage did you shoot in the Amazon and how much did you use from Harry and Sam's filming? Can you talk about assembling the narrative based on the coverage you had?

Melissa Lesh: It was a collection of everything. The archive [of Harry and Khan] was critically important to the backstory. What we realized very quickly when we went on our first trip, as part of protocol, we were not able to have access to Keanu. They didn't want anyone to interfere with the reintroduction or to habituate him. The challenge is how can you tell this story if you can't film the cat? But seeing the archive they filmed, we realized we could work with them and capture this in a way we could never capture the level of intimacy.

"This is a film made by and about someone with a disability."

We filmed 1,000 hours of footage, but what made it into the film — what you see with the relationship of Harry and Keanu — was about 50% and shot by Harry and Samantha, predominantly Harry. It involved equipping them with cameras, talking about how to film a scene, capturing it from different angles and viewpoints. We made 13 trips, but there were times when we couldn't be there when things were happening in the rainforest. So,we worked with them to film daily video diaries and use night vision cameras to film behaviors. It was deeply collaborative. From the beginning we all went in as equal creative partners. They wanted us to tell this story with them as much as we wanted to tell this story.  

There is a line in the film about people coming to the Amazon to work/study for three months and not being able to make it. How did you fare?

Frost: It is certainly a tough place to film physically. Camera equipment lenses gets fungus in them easily, and humidity kills most electronics. We went through a fair number of cameras. What happens when you visit a place like the rainforest, you get down there and very quickly shed all the stuff you are used to in society. You find yourself almost becoming human again in the truest sense of the word. All of the stuff we constructed is stripped away. You go to sleep when it gets dark and wake up when it gets light. Life changes very radically.

We both enjoyed that that part of it. We are drawn to wild places. We always have been. That's what attracted us to this story, this idea that you find these unique characters in these remote places. In all of my travels for National Geographic and other magazines, for whatever reason, people who have interesting backstories tend to gravitate to wild places because there is a solitude and quiet place they can't find in society. It's a place for eccentrics, really. That was one of the things I loved about visiting wild places. I'm surrounded by nature, but the people I am with are very like-minded and think about what I am thinking about, which is what is happening to the world's ecosystems. 

The ocelots are adorable, and Sam and Harry are telegenic as well. You are portraying some serious issues here. But most folks who like animal documentaries are going for the cute factor. This isn't a cute and fuzzy animal film, even though it has those moments.

Frost: There are films out there that are cinematic Hollywood-type movies about wildlife and nature, and they absolutely have a role in reaching people and convincing people that ecosystems and wildlife and wild places are important, but their effectiveness in having an impact is not effective. We need to change how we tell stories about conservation and environment. What are the ways we can do that? Nature is an incredible place for healing. That doesn't have to be in the Amazon rainforest or spending time with an ocelot, it can be going for a walk in Central Park every single day. We know there are health benefits to doing a 30-minute walk every day in a neighborhood park. When we set out to make this film, we knew it was never going to be a cute cuddly film of people falling in love with a cat. We didn't want to make a film like that. We had an impulse to make films that have impact or make a difference. We took every opportunity to address serious issues. The ocelot draws people in, and we don't want to dupe someone to think it's a Disney movie, but it is a nice balance between having time with the ocelot and nature and time to address some of these more serious issues. 

"The time Harry spent alone with the ocelot, it's more instinctual. It's not something you learn from a book."

Lesh: Holding all those things at the same time was the goal. When we first started the project, we knew about Harry's backstory and his war experiences and coming back with PTSD. The early conceptualization was the healing power of nature and how these places and wild animals contribute to his journey of healing. That started us off, but it quickly evolved, and we learned that like everything we struggle with in life, there is no silver bullet, no perfect pill. This is something we hold for the entirety of our lives, and it manifests itself in very complicated ways, and shows itself at different times. We didn't know Sam's backstory until halfway through production and getting to know why she was in the rainforest and the traumas she carried helped us understand how that influenced her relationship with Harry, and his relationship with her. 

WildcatWildcat (Courtesy of Amazon)

Looking at our own backstories, it was not thinking of [trauma] as something bad, but that this is a part of who we are. How does it allow us to do what we are doing? Sam created an incredible nonprofit. She cannot say no to rescuing the animals. The people, who are volunteers, have extreme personalities and different backgrounds. She's the big mama bear and taking on a lot. How does [the trauma] she went through contribute to that sensitivity, love, and always taking on more than one reasonable person might take on? And the same with Harry and his ability to survive in this place and thrive and his connection with nature and animals and feel at home there. We started to see how our trauma informs our lives and what we decide to do and ultimately who we are. We didn't want to tie a bow on it. That's not life. I related to Sam, and Trevor was able to go similarly deep with Harry because of his struggle with depression. 

One of the important things when we talk about mental illness within the larger disability community, this is a film made by and about someone with a disability. When you think about trauma as well, our lived experiences inform how we made this movie and the conversations we had with Harry and Samantha. It was holding up a mirror for ourselves as well and coming to terms with these things we have struggled with. 

Do you think Harry was equipped to do the work he did in the Amazon?

Frost: I have this view of it: when it comes to environment and conservations issues, the world is burning right now — quite literally in some places —and we've entered into an era where people feel they need to have every certification or degree possible before they take something on. What I fell in love with in this story, was that two people who saw a wrong tried everything they could to make it right. The issue with the ocelot was that there was no one else equipped to take it on. There were one of two routes it could take. It could end up as a pet in someone's house with its teeth ground down and claws ripped out, and it would be chained to something, and fed inappropriate food. Or perhaps it would end up in a zoo.

The other alternative is that it lives in the jungle with Harry and Samantha and eats appropriate food and spends time where it is actually from. I was taken and moved by young people who wanted to make a difference. Harry learned quickly, and Samantha's scientific background brought helpful info. She could read scientific papers about ocelot diets and communicate them to Harry. As a team, they were capable of doing this. The time Harry spent alone with the ocelot, it's more instinctual. It's not something you learn from a book. Harry is remarkable in the rainforest for somebody who didn't grow up there. His knowledge of the trees, frogs, snakes and insects is extraordinary. When you spend time in places like this, Harry and the locals are more knowledgeable than the people who have Ph.Ds, because they spent years there. A Ph.D student may do three field seasons for three months each, whereas Harry spent five years and Samantha has been there for seven years. The world needs more people who see problems and just try to figure it out. You're not always going to be perfect. They certainly made some mistakes. 

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This film documents an origin story, and the beginning of Samantha's work in particular. Fast forward to today, she had 20 cats at various stages of reintroduction, including a jaguar, and her protocols have shifted dramatically. They have limited human contact with one individual. After three months, there is no human contact. They learned through the process of Khan and Keanu, that you want to do everything you can to ensure that the bond that is formed is easily broken. Most of the world's great scientists and conservationists, and biologists went out into the field and just learned. I encourage more people to act. We need more people to act right now, and not sit and wonder what certifications they need before they try to make a difference when the world is really in trouble.

"Wildcat" is available in theaters Dec. 21 and on Prime Video Dec. 30.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Amazon Prime Cats Interview Melissa Lesh Mental Illness Movies Ocelots Prime Video Trevor Frost Wildcat Wildlife