Special/Signature Issues » Top 40 Under 40

Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost

Documentary filmmakers


It was one of the best local arts stories of the year.

Two Richmond-based filmmakers, Melissa Lesh and Trevor Beck Frost, found huge success with their first feature-length documentary, “Wildcat,” which sold to Amazon Studios for nearly $20 million and was seen by millions of viewers around the world on the streaming giant.

The film explores the healing power of nature in the Peruvian Amazon and, in particular, how it helped one former British soldier dealing with PTSD. After debuting at the Telluride Film Festival, the movie arrived this year in theaters and streaming, where it shot to the number one, most-viewed ranking.

Lesh and Frost are also a couple, having met years earlier while kayaking on the James River. Luckily for us, the conservationists already have reinvested some of their movie money into buying a former law office on First Street in Monroe Ward and turning it into a production studio, 7 South Studios, that aims to become a hub for environmental documentary filmmaking. They hope to have it up and running before the end of this year. Frost’s production company is called Unbound Films and Lesh’s production company is Emerging Earth Films.

We weren’t able to photograph the couple together for this issue because Lesh was still in India, working on their next documentary. “It’s not that we hate each other, it’s that we’re hardly in the same place,” Lesh says, laughing. The next film is similar to “Wildcat” in that it’s a human/animal story, she says, but it takes places in South India. “You start the process looking to explore one thing and it ends up shifting,” she says. “It’s a little hard to say what it is at this early point.”

Lesh actually was born in Mumbai, India, and split time growing up there with her mother, a cellist studying Indian classical music, and in Madison, Wisconsin, “the two most opposite places on Earth," as she calls them. She grew up loving wildlife and fondly remembers living on a college campus near a national forest in India, where leopards would roam through at night and monkeys played outside her windows. After her mother remarried and moved to Virginia, she attended VCU for painting and printmaking and began interning over the summers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Maine, where she discovered filmmaking. She taught herself how to edit on YouTube while living in a remote cabin in Northern Maine, she says.

Filmmaker and photographer Trevor Beck Frost, 37. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Filmmaker and photographer Trevor Beck Frost, 37.

Frost’s interests were similar to hers, but he had been busy working as a freelance photographer for National Geographic. Even with his ability to post to Nat Geo’s Instagram account (and its 300 million followers), he realized that still photography was losing its power to bring about change as magazine and newspapers began folding or having lower readerships. He was influenced by the popular 2013 documentary about captive orcas, “Blackfish,” which had quickly brought “the multi-billion dollar corporation Sea World to its knees,” he recalls. Frost would run into Lesh at an environmental film festival in London in 2015 and they soon began dating – the rest is history.

Talk with them and you realize that both artists share a passion to see more documentaries made exploring the connection between nature and human health – films that could help change, or slow down, humankind's current destructive course. “There are seven or eight major [U.S] film festivals and they have almost no films [about] what’s happening to the planet,” Frost says. “The biggest issue is there’s not enough people making those films. Social issues films tend to be the most popular.”

But these are two filmmakers who believe environmental advocacy is social justice work – it’s all connected.

“We’re trying to find creative ways to reconnect and inspire the protection of the planet,” Lesh explains. “When you’re fighting for the planet, you’re fighting all the systems in place that are dismantling a healthy planet, including capitalism, racism, the patriarchy ... so many things.”