Interview: Nat Geo’s “Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story” Director Charlie Hamilton James and Producer Jeff Wilson Discuss Warming People’s Hearts at SXSW

Everyone at SXSW is buzzing about Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story, one of the most heartwarming and wholesome documentaries ever made. The National Geographic documentary follows Billy Mail at his coastal home in Shetland, where an orphaned young otter flops onto his dock in need of help. That’s when director Charlie Hamilton James received a call from a mutual friend, who recognized that this was a remarkable moment perfectly suited to Charlie’s career-long interest in otters. During SXSW, I had the honor of interviewing director Charlie Hamilton James and producer Jeff Wilson about the joy of making Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story, the tender way it showcases humans being good stewards of nature, and what they hope audiences take away from the film as it gets closer to its summer release.

(National Geographic)

(National Geographic)

Alex: I was at the premiere screening of Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story at SXSW, and the reception was really warm. How did you feel after it was over?

Charlie Hamilton James: It was the first time that we've shown it to people who weren't our friends. It was really nerve-wracking, but then sort of euphoric. In the end, people were really happy.

Alex: During the Q&A, you talked about how this story found Charlie through family connections and how your work as a wildlife cinematographer specializing in otters made this a perfect fit. But Jeff, how did you come to be involved in the project as a producer?

Jeff Wilson: As far as Charlie was concerned, I've always been a massive fan. We've known each other since I was in my twenties, I think. If I'm honest, I've always looked up to Charlie because of his role as a National Geographic Photographer and his image-making. So when Charlie came along and said, “Hey, look, I've got this idea and this location,” we were put together by a colleague of mine, Keith Scholey. We connected on the same sort of scenes that we wanted to put into a movie. And we explored it pretty well together, I thought. We have a good conversation between the two of us.

Alex: Charlie, since you’ve spent so much time filming otters, how rare is a situation like this where a young otter basically surrenders itself to a human’s care?

Charlie Hamilton James: I've never seen it, and I've spent thirty-five years working on otters. So this is unique and wonderful, as far as I'm concerned. It's just an absolute dream for me because I get to wander along a beach, and there's an otter being natural and doing what an otter does, but right at my feet without caring that I'm there. I loved it.

Alex: In order to make this film, Billy and his wife Susan pretty much had to open their home to you 24/7 for over a year. What was that experience like?

Charlie Hamilton James: There was pretty much a family feeling to it. It was actually Johnny [Rolt], who was working as assistant camera on it, that spent the most time there. If you lumped all my time together, it probably would have been about six months. So it's mainly Johnny, me, Susan, and Billy all living in a small house for months. And there was never ever any friction, never a bad word, we just had fun. It was a really lovely thing. And then when people came up, in the entire production, I don't think anyone had a cross word. It's just lovely.

Jeff Wilson: Their family WhatsApp group is like any family WhatsApp group anywhere in the world. It's Johnny and Charlie and Billy and Susan all just sharing love and life. And I think that's unique in terms of the way that you interact with a contributor. I even feel weird saying contributor when it comes to Billy and Susan because it's their film. We were just happy to be there with a camera.

Alex: A lot of the moments feel very intimate, particularly between Billy and Molly. But obviously, there's a third party behind the camera. Were there times where Molly was interested in this other person who was there behind the camera?

Charlie Hamilton James: Yeah, all the time. I mean, Molly, if we had a new piece of camera equipment, she'd come and investigate it. She'd get in the camera bag, or she'd get in the van. I remember one day with the van door open, and she was in the van, she's sort of wandering around sniffing everything. She got in my car one day. Otters are just into everything. Anything we had new, she would be interested. But you wouldn't touch Molly. You don't stroke her. She's not a pet, so you always keep your distance. And when you're filming, you actually don't want her too close because it causes a problem. She didn't respond in the sense that she's like a cat, not like a dog. She didn't come bounding over to you and want to be your friend. She's very much doing her thing, an individual, so if you appear with another camera, she's interested at first in what it is, but then very quickly just goes back to being Molly, doing what Molly does.

Alex: You mentioned that she's not a pet, and we never see Billy try to touch Molly. The ways in which he cares for her feel reminiscent of documentaries about wildlife rehabilitation centers that strive to reintroduce animals back into the wild when they’re ready for it. How much of that was just Billy's natural instincts as an outdoorsman? Were there any conversations that you had about what he should or shouldn't do based on your experience working with otters?

Charlie Hamilton James: Billy grew up with animals. His whole life has been surrounded by animals, so he does have a very close connection with them. And he's also a rescuer. It's very in him to rescue things.

Jeff Wilson: Jade is rescued. Jade the dog.

Charlie Hamilton James: Exactly. I think that that's very innate in Billy to want to save and rescue something. And he's doing it constantly. We discussed the ethics of what he was doing a lot, certainly early on. I was of the opinion that, “Hey, look, you saved this animal's life. Without you, she would be dead. You live in a very remote location. You're not going to create a monster here.” And so he carried on doing what he wanted to do. And she remains a wild animal. If Billy stopped feeding her completely at any point in that filmmaking process, she would have been absolutely fine, I think. He got her over the hump, got her healthy, taught her where the fish were, and then she's a wild animal. She did it herself. And I think her relationship with Billy is more based on wanting to come and hang out with her neighbor.

Jeff Wilson: We all explored what we were doing constantly. And then when you get to the end of the film, and there's a wild otter that has subsequently become a mother because of what Billy did, even the most cynical person would have to look at that and say some good has come of this. The film is a good film, but separate from that, what Billy achieved is a good thing. You can't deny it. She has her own cub as a consequence of Billy being her friend. That gives you confidence that you're on the right track.

Charlie Hamilton James: The other beautiful thing is that the cub was terrified of Billy, so he managed to do it in a way that didn't become a generational culture. There isn't another otter showing up needing food. I think that was an important decision he made, and he pulled it off.

Alex: A decision you made with the edit routinely shows Jade wanting to play with her ball. She’s always trying to get a game going and routinely fails to find a playmate. The post-credit tag is really sweet. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about finding that moment and the decision to give Jade a happy ending.

Jeff Wilson: In the kind of films that Charlie and I make, a lot is left up to serendipity. Probably the only thing we knew for certain, having met Jade, was that she was going to be a star and also that she was very clearly a metaphor for lack of attention and love. She's such a great performer because she's so intelligent that almost the very first shot that we scripted was the final shot. It was like, well, we've got to hold back the kicking of the ball for Jade to the last shot of the film. That's obvious. She's always there pushing the ball in front of you, and in the way that Charlie constructs his frames, she's always there in the perfect place. It was almost a gift. And the design of the last shot was pretty much the only bit of design that we did in the whole film, I think.

Charlie Hamilton James: Yeah, and I shot that several times trying to get the right ball kick in the right play. Billy describes her as the squirrel from Ice Age with the acorn. And she's hilarious because, unlike other dogs, if you go away for two weeks and come back, they're excited to see you, Jade isn't. Jade sees you, goes and gets a ball, and drops it at your feet. She's completely wired.

Alex: Being wired brings me to music. The score in the film was unlike any that I’ve heard in a wildlife documentary before. Can you talk a little bit about the music?

Jeff Wilson: Erland Cooper comes from Orkney, which is an island just south of Shetland. He hasn't written a film score before. We came across his music, and there was something about it that was so powerful and so emotional for the tone of the film. So the very first sizzle that we cut, we cut to Erland's music as an experiment. And we didn't know the man. It just worked. It just drew everybody into exactly what we were trying to achieve. That sort of love-fairy tale, and not holding the audience's hand through the score. The score never tells you how to feel. It brings you on a journey and you bring your own emotions to it, and I think that's unique for Erland. He did such an amazing job. I'm still in awe of how brilliantly he interpreted what we wanted him to do.

Charlie Hamilton James: And there's a sense of place as well. Because he's from there, the music has that sense of that landscape and everything else.

Jeff Wilson: Yeah. I would urge anyone to listen to Erland's back catalog because it's full of beautiful music. We could have scored it from his back catalog alone, but he was kind enough to write a score for us, and he did an amazing job.

Alex: It was a perfect fit. Technology-wise, I know you're filming in 4K. There seemed to be a lot of drone shots, and I’m used to seeing them in wildlife films from pretty high up, but these felt low to the ground. The animals didn't seem startled by it, and the water didn't seem disturbed by it. Was this a new type of drone that lets you get lower?

Charlie Hamilton James: No. I mean, I used a little Mavic Pro the first time I tried it on Molly. I was like, I wonder how she's going to respond to this. She was just swimming around outside Billy's house, and I flew the drone over. She jumped up to try and grab it to play with it, and I was like, all right, this is going to be easy. Jade, on the other hand, goes crazy. She hears the drone and goes crazy, but Molly would absolutely ignore it. So after initially seeing it, she wanted to investigate it, and then she just took no notice of it. And it was really lovely because it gave us the chance to film an otter in a way that no one's ever done before, just tracking along next to it. But the other thing about Shetland is it's very flat. There are no mountains, there are no trees, and the relief is low and subtle. Filming landscapes is quite difficult. And actually, if you go up with a drone, suddenly, the landscape comes alive in a way that it can't do if you're down on the ground.

Alex: That’s awesome. I really enjoyed the film, and it seems like everyone else did, too. Thank you again for your time, and I hope you enjoy being with audiences for additional screenings as the film plays through SXSW and other festivals.

Jeff Wilson: We're very excited. It's something that we just really want more people to see because it makes people feel good. And the more people that see it, then maybe some good things will come from that. We're hopeful.

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story will touch your heart when you see it. The film will continue to play at festivals ahead of its broadcast debut on National Geographic and streaming premiere on Disney+ this summer.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).