‘Wildcat’ Directors Encountered the Biggest Obstacles to Completing Their Film Outside of the Rainforest

Trevor Frost went to the Peruvian Amazon in search of giants — anacondas, to be exact. While he was there, he was introduced to a trio far more interesting than any elusive breed of snake: Harry Turner, a traumatized British veteran of the war in Afghanistan; Samantha Zwicker, an American conservationist running a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center; and Keanu, the baby ocelot Turner and Zwicker had saved from the black market. Over the course of 18 months, Frost and his partner, Melissa Lesh, would document the process of reintroducing Keanu to the wild, and the growing, redemptive bond between Harry and the cat. But as the directors of “Wildcat” relate in the exclusive account below, embedding in a remote jungle compound and embarking with Keanu on nocturnal rodent hunts wouldn’t be the greatest hurdles they’d face in bringing Harry, Samantha, and Keanu’s story to the screen — experiences that put the strength of a directing duo to the ultimate test.    

Melissa Lesh: When the nurse handed me the MRI results showing a cyst the size of a chicken egg in the back of my brain, I didn’t fully comprehend in the moment how that would impact production. Among the many challenges there are to making a movie, one thing you don’t anticipate is undergoing brain surgery. Fast forward to the fall of 2019, a year later, after many brain scans, the doctors confirmed this amorphous mass was in fact growing and needed to be removed. It was unclear what kind of cyst it was, but based on the size and the relatively few symptoms I was experiencing, it had likely been growing very slowly, for a very long time — perhaps my entire life. They feared it might be a Hydatid cyst, which is caused by tapeworms that form a fluid-filled sack in the brain that contains tapeworm eggs. I was told if it is a Hydatid cyst and it wasn’t removed properly, the sack could rupture, spreading eggs throughout my brain, possibly sending me into anaphylactic shock. I would only find out what the diagnosis was on the day of the surgery, when they went in to remove it.

At this point in time, my co-director Trevor Frost and I were in the throes of production and had already spent over 150 days filming “Wildcat.” The story was unfolding in front of our eyes and our options were limited. I had no choice but to have the cyst removed in the midst of it all based on the surgeon’s recommendation. This meant stepping away from the film during a critical part of the process and leaning heavily on Trevor, my creative and life partner, to help me heal and keep the story going.

Trevor Frost: I don’t want to give away too much of the story in the film so it is hard for me to elaborate on the process of spearheading production alone while Melissa was recovering from brain surgery. It should suffice to say the final three months Harry was with Keanu in the Peruvian Amazon were by far the most difficult of the entire production as he was having to slowly break his bond with Keanu at the same time as he was contending with returning to society after more than 500 days living in the rainforest with very little human interaction. Dealing with the above at the same time was extremely difficult for Harry’s mental health and he entered into a period where I had serious concern for his wellbeing, particularly because he struggled with suicidal ideation and self-harm. As someone who lives with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, I certainly have a more intimate understanding of what it means to have really bad days or weeks and thus a somewhat better ability to commiserate with others who also struggle, but even so, I was not prepared for handling what unfolded those final months of production. Of course, I am aware it is not my fault; society does not prepare us for handling many of the very difficult situations we will inevitably encounter in life such as grief from loss, conflict resolution, and how to help people struggling with mental health issues. What enhanced the difficulty of that period of time was having to choose between finishing a film and supporting Harry; in other words, what do I film, and when do I put the camera down and stop recording?

Looking back on that time, however, my biggest mistake was not doing a better job of taking care of myself. I think many of us, especially in Western society, are sort of programmed to throw ourselves at problems in a way that isn’t necessarily productive or healthy. There was another element to all of this I have not mentioned yet, and that is Samantha, the documentary’s other main character. She, of course, was trying to run a nonprofit — and all that entails — while also looking out for Harry, and so I was also working through this with her, and her own trauma, and the toll of everything eventually broke me mentally and physically. My body was literally revolting from the accumulated stress. I was having terrible intestinal issues and nausea and would find myself randomly crying. I finished my final shoot in the Amazon in February 2020, days before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and immediately turned my focus to working on my mental and physical health, which was only possible because Melissa took over the entire project at that point.

Melissa: It was a month after my surgery when I first got back to the film. A trip to the Amazon would have been too much, but luckily part of the story took place in the U.S. I packed up my camera, hopped on a plane, and landed in Seattle to pick up where we left off. I was told not to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds so I traveled with the support of our co-producer Mallory Bracken. She helped me film, encouraged me to stretch, to take it easy — always reiterating the doctors’ orders. I was itching to get back into the story. After all, I had been out of the loop, barred from looking at screens, unable to review footage or do the thing I loved most, edit. And we still had no ending to the story.

As time went on and we wrapped our final shoots in 2020, it became increasingly clear the toll the film had taken on Trevor. The things he saw and experienced during that month of production in Peru, while I was at home recovering, were severe and starting to really take hold. It was as if his body and mind were breaking down. Over eight years of being his partner, I had never seen him in this kind of state. Though he struggled with depression throughout our relationship, not once did he talk about wanting to end his life. It was that winter that he told me how bad it was, and that if he felt this way a year from now, he wouldn’t want to keep living. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to hear and I knew in that moment we needed to do something drastic to change the course. His wellbeing was my number one priority.

Trevor: The truth is I still haven’t fully recovered mentally or physically from making “Wildcat,” even after months of intense therapy in addition to trying new medications with the help of my psychiatrist. There is a terrific book called “The Body Keeps the Score” that outlines how trauma lives in the body, which really shaped my journey of healing recently. It dawns on me now that I’ve done a terrible job of getting rid of the trauma in my body, of working on the trauma I experienced from watching people I care about struggling so intensely. So that is the next phase of my recovery.

Melissa: As hard as it is at times, one of the beautiful things about co-directing and working with a partner is being able to support each other when we need it the most. It is perhaps obvious that co-directing is about collaboration and having a shared vision, but I think it is equally about knowing when to let the other person step away, when to give them space and time. This essential creative pendulum swung once again when I stepped into the edit. Trevor needed distance from the project to focus on his mind and body. He needed time to heal. With a stapled skull and a full edit team, I was able to jump in and start assembling our first rough cut with our producer and editor Joshua Altman. I was energized and ready for this final stage.

It took us four years to finish “Wildcat.” It was one of the most challenging and gratifying experiences of our lives. This difficult and joyful process of filmmaking can, and often does, impact every part of our being. Having someone to share it with is one of things I cherish most about this work, to feel supported and know I can provide the same. As Trevor and I start to embark now on our next film, I hold these experiences close and reflect with gratitude. I’m grateful for Trevor, for my family, for our entire film team who supported and helped us make it through. It’s been one hell of a ride, and something I will never forget.

For those curious, I was lucky that the surgery went better than expected. I did not have a tapeworm cyst it turns out; it was a benign ependymal cyst, a thin-walled, fluid-filled sack. After it was identified, they told me I was the 31st person on the planet to have this extremely rare cyst. It was removed and my symptoms disappeared, my brain filled in the space, and I was told there was no risk of it returning so I no longer needed additional scans. Thankfully, it is all now just a story on the page, a part of the past.

“Wildcat” premieres in select theaters December 21 and on Prime Video December 30.

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