began his career as a stage manager in fringe theatre and taught himself filmmaking whilst keeping a day job as a corporate marketing executive. In 2003 he set up and became managing director of the company Coffee Arts and Media with a team of close friends. After failing to find financing for the short film How to Disappear Completely
he shot it for just £500 and six months later was awarded as one of Europe's best young filmmakers by an international jury. His short films have since screened around the world receiving universal critical praise and today he works on a diverse range of short, documentary and feature film projects.
Last of the Scottish Wildcats is his first wildlife based documentary, inspired by a love of cats and a growing fascination with the natural world and it's conservation.
Steve Piper filming on Ben Macdhui, Ed Osborn
After a good run at festivals with short films I started thinking about shooting a wildlife documentary. A chance reading of the book Priceless by Bradley Trevor Greive and Mitsuaki Iwago had really focused my interest in conservation, and my cat Coffee had really focused my attention on understanding cats more. Something great about making documentaries is that all you have to do is find something that really fascinates you and film everything you find interesting about it, something even greater about wildlife documentaries is that you get to do all that in some of the most amazingly beautiful places in the world.
I had almost no experience in filming animals and was very much a first year student of the science so it seemed completely pointless looking for a broadcast commission. Coming from short films, almost all of which get produced for next to nothing on substandard equipment, it made perfect sense to just go ahead and make the film with my own kit and trusty Visa card, picking a subject that was British to keep costs down and easily work it in around other projects.
There was never really any question as to the subject, cat + conservation + British could only ever equal Scottish wildcat. Besides being a really gorgeous example of the wildcat species they had an infamous reputation and a lot of interesting folklore surrounding them, and it's fair to say that the half of me that is Scottish was interested in seeing what the country looked like outside of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I came to research thinking that legal protection of the cats had basically saved them from extinction and led to wide recolonisation and a lot of information I found reciprocated that. The first really interesting site to emerge was Allan Paul's, which had a nice story to tell of a Scottish couple entranced by wildcats becoming involved in the captive breeding program. Allan proved to be very supportive and gave me a more up to date assessment of the cats. The widespread estimates of 5000 wildcats in the country were miles off; at best only 400 remained in the wild. Many scientists disagreed with the figures; they thought the Scottish wildcat was extinct already.
Steve Piper filming in the Cairngorms, Ed Osborn
I hastily put together a one week trip to Scotland to meet Allan and a few other people and get a better idea of how likely it was that I was going to be able to make an hour long project about a cat that only a couple of well financed BBC cameramen had ever filmed in the wild (and they only managed to fill 25 minutes) over a decade previously. On my way to the Highlands I passed through Edinburgh and briefly met up with Pat Tomlin from management consultancy Wildcat One. In spite of having nothing to do with nature at all the company regularly sponsored a range of wildcat related projects and I interviewed Pat for the film talking about what drove them to do so; I hoped it may convince a few other city based businesses to take that interest in the natural world and it certainly inspired me to be generous with our profits from the project.
Allan and his wife Morag went out of their way to make me feel welcome from meeting me at the train station to providing constant lifts to one place or another, and allowed me complete access to the wildcats they were caring for. Almost universally the cats met me with glowering superstition, hissing and pacing as soon as I set foot inside their enclosures; it was certainly true that there was no taming these animals and Allan's words of hope that I could put across some behaviour besides spitting and hissing seemed a request too far. Patience brings results though, and after sitting very still in the corner and blinking up at the cats for an hour or so they decided I could be trusted not to leap at them and generally got on with ignoring my presence entirely. It was a good introduction, spending an entire day less than 10 feet from a wild living wildcat is just never going to happen, so it was a great opportunity to get to know them close up.
I also met up with nature photographer Peter Cairns; he was in the fortunate position of having helped to "soft release" a captive wildcat called Freddie near his home in the Cairngorm foothills; Freddie had decided to keep Peter's place within his territory and was spotted regularly. A couple of years of Peter following him around with a camera had somewhat acclimatised him to human presence, Peter's at least, and he'd offered to help me getting shots over a few days in the coming spring. I got incredibly lucky and Freddie decided to visit as the sun went down that very day. I got exactly 13 minutes in Freddie's company, it wasn't long but what he gave me was gorgeous, the shots were dark but I knew I could get something out of them in post. To everyone's surprise he came so close, some people might say he knew what was ahead in both our futures, and having the experience of a truly wild living wildcat walk close enough by me to brush my clothing was something else; thank you Peter for getting me there.
Scottish hospitality was in full effect throughout the trip and almost every evening brought another invite to dinner or for a dram by the fire of some kind soul that invariably led to me receiving some useful lead or contact. I stayed with Alastair and Ann at Balliefurth; an enlightened farm that appears in the film, and both they and Allan introduced me to Simon Munro who went out of his way in the year ahead to make the Highland Wildlife Park and it's animals available for my camera.
I sure as hell wasn't in Kansas anymore and after a decade of begging for support for dramatic films it seemed unreal to have so much offered on the proverbial plate. Living in a world where nature is still such a powerful force has a dramatic effect on human kind, people have a greater respect for themselves and the world around them and there's a true sense of a Highland community everywhere you go; total strangers stop to tell you about an otter they just saw, or to express outrage at the tiniest spot of graffitti on otherwise spotless bus stops, random cheery families would pull over and offer you a lift miles out of their way and everyone was fascinated by the film, even if more than a few found the idea of an English towny marching around the Highlands with a camcorder chasing wildcats rather amusing.
Steve Piper filming in the Cairngorm foothills, Ed Osborn
Our music agency made a big signing from the USA and I was kept busy helping with the following tour and shooting a short documentary on the group, somewhere in the middle of it all though I found some time to get back on the ball. Allan was the first of many people to mention Mike Tomkies to me and plenty of other people mentioned how much they loved his work and how it had fed their interest in Scottish wildcats, his name also cropped up regularly in scientific papers and reports written some 30 years after he had written his wildcat books. I realised he was well worth checking out and motored through his wonderfully written wildcat books (which have just been reissued by his current publisher Whittles (buy it at the Scottish Wildcat Association Shop) that were the first media to give the Scottish wildcat anything like a fair representation and destroyed many unfair and inaccurate myths about them.
Mike had revealed a less than feverish enthusiasm for the media and it's ethics, and I doubt that the south east accented short filmmaker on the other end of the phone presented much hope of delivering anything remotely worthwhile on such a complex and wild species. Nevertheless, he consented to me interviewing him and a few weeks later I found myself knocking on the door of a ramshackle farmhouse about a mile beyond the point where the road simply ended and the taxi refused to go any further, whilst being eyed suspiciously by two pheasants hanging out in the garden.
Mike was instantly recognisable from the picture in his book, still displaying his distinctive beard, albeit grey rather than the dark colour his readers would be familiar with. He invited me into a tiny low ceilinged room which appeared by the furniture to double up numerous functions as a hide, study, lounge and bedroom. He seemed to quickly get over any reservations he had about my motives as it became clear I really was working independently rather than on behalf of a large broadcaster. He showed me an album of photos of his time in the wilderness of Scotland with a family of wildcats and his faithful dog Moobli. Mike talked openly and eloquently about his time with the cats, his thoughts on the species, and his observations on hybridisation and the current situation, despite his complaints that he'd "forgotten everything about wildcats" he displayed a pretty impressive recall for a 30 year gap.
We sat and talked of other things for some time afterwards, watching some things he had filmed and chatting about his new book and all things nature. I was sorry to leave after several hours, and was somewhat humbled by Mike's turn of generosity, swapping use of his photos, wonderful memories and a lift back to the station for a thank you bottle of good whiskey and the promise to stay in touch; I looked forward to catching up with him in the months to come.
Mike Tomkies, naturalist and author of "Wildcat Haven" (still from the film), Steve Piper
Finding some time to get back to all things wildcat I got in contact with Peter Cairns to see if I could follow up on filming Freddie with him for a few days, and Peter came back with the news that Freddie had disappeared suddenly a couple of months after I had filmed him. He had been absent for days or even weeks before but never four months, and it seemed most likely he had been claimed by the roads. I was absolutely shattered by the news, the only Scottish wildcat in the history of creation prepared to come within an inch of my camera was gone forever. I had been so sure of his continued presence knowing the footage I could get would beautifully deliver the wildcat's story to a wide public audience. I felt I'd let him and the other wildcats of the world down with my paltry 13 minutes of dark footage stolen by chance that night and that the one chance I had to make a complete film on the subject was gone.
A sleepless night and much soul searching later I did what every film producer should and got on with the film, spamming just about every nature photographer I could find who had ever captured an image of a Scottish wildcat. I received a lot of admissions of working with captives but also some good leads and offers of help or contacts from a few (thank you Terry Whittaker, Laurie Campbell and Keith Ringland especially). I went back through the research papers, harassed Allan mercilessly for information and put together a trip through the Cairngorms. I also realised I was going to need a lot more money to finance the travel and new equipment; infra red, lenses, clothing and camp equipment was all essential but very expensive.
Looking for money is something that fills short film producers with dread, attempting such a complicated and difficult project wasn't going to do me any favours and anyone associated with wildcats really didn't have the money to gamble on film projects; except maybe for Wildcat One, the company I had already interviewed for the film on my first trip. With an impressive client list and a number of sponsorships already going on they were the only chance I had, and somewhat unbelieveably I got a call a few days after sending off copies of my short films from owner Pat Tomlin. Yet again luck was on my side, Scottish wildcats were her passion and coming from a world of commerce she knew the difference a well targeted documentary could make to the species' future, the first batch of sponsorship money arrived a few days later and the army surplus salesmen of Ebay had a very good couple of days sales from it.
Snow bunting on Mount Cairngorm, Ed Osborn
After a lengthy early morning cocktail of flights, trains and taxis three of us gathered amongst the tourists and families at the foot of Mount Cairngorm in the summer sun. For the trip through the mountains I was joined by two long term friends and collaborators in Neil Jordan and Ed Osborn. I'd known Neil since our teens, he had appeared in many of my films, loved going camping, and now worked as a fireman so brought a useful first aid knowledge with him. Ed was another close friend, signed to our agency as a DJ and producer he had composed music for previous films but on this occasion was going to be taking still photos, his hobby of the moment being landscape photography.
Starting late in the day we wobbled up Cairngorm with our 60lb packs sweltering in the sunshine. Years of cigarettes and sitting around at a PC had left me in no shape to be dragging so much stuff up a mountainside and I was virtually asthmatic in no time. We made it around the side of the mountain and soon realised that estimations of map contours was something else to work on. The gradient down to our first night's camp on the shore of Loch Avon was close to vertical and an impossibility with the big packs full of delicate equipment. Given the choice of clambering down a treacherous looking and slippery rock waterfall or trying to trek some 7km to get to a point about 1km away we went for the waterfall and made an often terrifying descent trying to adjust to our new centre of gravity and growing clouds of midges. We made it to the bottom in one piece and it was only then, on completely flat ground, that Ed twisted his ankle and crumpled to the floor.
We took it easy for a couple of days camping by Avon and Etchachan whilst Ed's ankle healed enough for him to take his bag's weight and filmed some of the breathtaking landscapes and abundant frogs. When Ed was better we made it up Ben Macdhui and picked a simple but ultimately bad route down. Caught in a cloud from the summit it took us several hours to descend out of it, and whilst Aviemore enjoyed the hottest summer's day on record we spent the day unable to even stop walking because it was so cold and damp.
Neil Jordan, Steve Piper and Ed Osborn at the summit of Ben Macdhui, Ed Osborn
Blistered, twisted and exhausted we went for slightly tamer pursuits in the remaining time, shooting landscapes around the foothills and hiking 5 miles by the glow of the Northern Lights to film the osprey hunting over Rothiemurchus Estate at dawn (who kindly dropped their filming fees to support the film's cause); another truly wonderful life experience.
Realising we'd spend our last day travelling anyway we decided to take a late train to Edinburgh a day early to try and transfer to a last minute flight. We were a little surprised to see that the airport didn't quite offer the same 24 hour schedule as Heathrow or Gatwick and spent one of the most incredibly awful nights of our entire lives sleeping in the air conditioned hell of the check in lounge.
Despite a rough ending the trip had whet our appetite for the Highlands and we spent the next few months moving back and forth between the Highlands and jobs back home shooting music documentaries and writing a feature film for a US producer. Neil and I had an incredible trip to the remote and unspoilt edges of the West coast through some of the worst weather I'd ever seen, filming more incredible landscapes and stalking deer over the rolling hills in what looked for the world like Jurassic Park. I made several trips on my own filming interviews with Alastair at Balliefurth Farm, Dr Andrew Kitchener at National Museums of Scotland, Prof David Macdonald at WildCRU, Prof Colin Galbraith at SNH and the wonderful Sandy Macpherson of Clan Macpherson (ably assisted by local volunteer production assistant Tom Duncan), and spending many long hours in the company of the Highland Wildlife Park wildcats and their keepers, including Fraser who appears briefly in the film, inbetween exhausting treks around the Cairngorm foothills tracking deer, mountain hare and wildcats who remained resolutely invisible.
Beautiful Loch Avon in the Cairngorms, Ed Osborn
Ed and I travelled up together to film interviews with Peter Cairns (who is also a tourism operator and conservation facilitator) and Andrew Rafferty from Strathspey Vets near the end of the year. Allan and Morag were kind enough to invite us to stay at their new farmhouse and we took a day out helping Allan build his new enclosures whilst the cats were still at the HWP. Morag uncomplainingly fed us and we took to going out "lamping" with torches and cameras at night, looking for the telltale glow of eyes that indicated an animal ahead; it was a method often used by farmers hunting pests so it made sense that we try it out as well. I was out of money and credit all round and knew it was the last substantial trip I could make looking for wild wildcats and on the last night we headed out with our infra red camera and low expectations.
Casting the lights back and forth through the dense forest lining the roads it was hard to make anything much out and you found yourself intently staring at little bits of dust hanging in the torchlight before pheasants leaped out of nowhere in panic when you got too near. We had checked out the area and it was promising as there were very few domestic cats; as with many parts of Scotland there were a lot of bird lovers and domestic cats were kept responsibly or not at all, and Allan and Morag had both seen wildcats in the area within a few months of being there so we knew that any glowing cat eyes were almost certainly wild. We came to an area where the trees were more spread out and we'd seen pheasants roosting previously, each of us scanned a side of the road when Ed said "what's that?". It was a pair of cat eyes, staring back at us from about 20-30 metres into the trees where there was a small footpath.
The three of us stared at each other; the camera couldn't pick him up because he was so far away and there was a lot of thick heather between us. After about 30 seconds I decided I had to try and take a step closer, almost as I decided to do it the cat slowly turned and walked away into the thick tree cover nearby.
Neil Jordan next to camp on the banks of Loch Etchachan, Ed Osborn
Coming into 2006 the pressure was really on; our agency was booming and bringing over increasing numbers of acts from the USA, our design company was doing lots of work and I was also filming some music video/documentary projects and writing another feature film for a producer in LA. A huge deadline was looming in the shape of the Wildscreen Film Festival; the most important film festival for nature filmmaking worldwide with a huge sales market run alongside and the deadline for getting films registered was nigh. In terms of editing, equipment was on my side as I had invested in a home PC based system after finding trips to edit overnight in London a miserable experience, but there was only me on my little system which didn't have enough memory to hold more than a few hours of video at once; and I had over 40 hours to edit into 60 minutes.
I settled into several long weeks of 48 hour editing sessions with bleeding eyes at my PC monitor and gradually the film took shape, at the same time the composers for the project; Robby Riggs and Peter Wellington at Robeter Productions in Canada, were working away feverishly on the soundtrack, sometime around spring something approaching a final version was ready and packed off to the essential Wildscreen Festival, the entry fee was so large I had to go back once again to Pat at Wildcat One, once again, she very kindly agreed to pay the fees for us. As is often the case with submitting unfinished work, we didn't make competition (when you're up against David Attenborough you really need best foot forward) but I headed along to Bristol for the week to network around as the film was going to be available for screening in the market running alongside.
The festival was a great experience, I stayed with my conveniently located friend Andy (cheers dude!), everyone in the industry was friendly, welcoming, supportive and interested, the parties were good fun and I got time with commissioning editors and channel directors from all the major broadcasters, much in opposition to feature film markets like Cannes which seem to be exclusively attended by the biggest assholes on the planet. A likely buyer was still proving tough to find, the wildlife channels worried the film had too much talking and current affairs, whilst the regular channels thought it too wildlife specialist to fit into their programming, perhaps most surprising was the Scottish channel who refused to even look at the film claiming that Scottish wildcats just wasn't what their exclusively Scottish channel was about, preferring reruns of the far more relevant Friends no doubt. The frustrating thing was that everyone was extremely complimentary, people loved the cinematic opening sequences, the wild footage, the way the information was presented, they just didn't think their audience wanted to watch films about conservation issues.
Steve Piper and Neil Jordan on the way home at Edinburgh Airport, Ed Osborn
Although a couple of broadcasters were staying loosely on the cards and occasional distributors popped up to show some temporary interest, wildcats was painfully gathering dust. I'd managed to pick up an ongoing development deal with an executive producer which had risen the chances of getting it broadcast as part of a package, but all the new stuff I was putting forward on the world's many unknown and unfilmed cats had everyone nervous about costs, schedules and ending up with more "man chases elusive cat" films that usually result when people go after rare felines. On top of the disappointment, the film had left me in an ugly situation finacially which left everything teetering on a constant knife edge and drastically limiting any film festival or market opportunities due to the cost of all the duplication, printing, postage and travel.
The year ground along slowly with bad news continually mounting; Allan Paul sadly decided to step down from operations, the mating which he filmed for the project had resulted in kittens, but as a first time mother Skye had abandoned them, Allan and Morag fought to hand raise one, feeding it every two hours round the clock for two weeks when suddenly it died. Just a few weeks later Little Hiss, the father, also passed away from natural causes. The double whammy and lack of movement from government or SNH on the bigger causes proved too much and he decided seven years was enough.
With Allan stepping down, it left something else up in the air; our plans to establish a Scottish wildcat charity. I kept the project going with assistance coming in from various parties, and managed to get things set up at least as a sorely needed point of information on the species on Allan's old web domain scottishwildcats.co.uk. As the year wound down though, things started to pick up. Howlett's wildlife park, a place famed for it's ability to breed rare cats, agreed to take over Allan's studbook and cats, media interest suddenly picked up with various articles appearing in broadsheet newspapers and magazines variously on the film, the charity and the cat itself. SNH finally stepped up to arrange a meeting of stakeholders and hired a consultant to survey the wildcat population, action called for almost 4 years previously. Most important to the film, Peter Cairns introduced me to Andy Langley at LPS Creative Media, Andy had already put together some DVD projects for the wildlife subject area, and suggested he help us get one together for wildcats.
Cover artwork for the DVD featuring the 9 month old kitten Sid, Steve Piper
2008 became a flurry of activity with lots of other new projects starting up and a colossal to-do list for the DVD release. 2 years of seeing the film, getting feedback and learning ever more about the art of editing meant I didn't want to just chuck the film on a DVD, I wanted it to have a full-on release and look as good as it possibly could, so I set to work re-colouring the film, re-mixing the sound and endlessly fiddling with transitions and spare footage to see how much I could improve it.
Unexpectedly, bringing the film to DVD was almost as challenging as getting it made with almost every little problem that could go wrong going wrong; the edit PC's monitor colour was marginally off and the end result looked strange in completely different ways depending on what TV you watched it on, the DVD-ROM autoplay function wouldn't work properly, things got lost in the mail and even when it finally got to the pressing plant our eco-friendly packaging kept getting chewed up in the machinery causing a change to a different eco-friendly packaging and eventual hand finishing of the 1000 DVDs in the first run.
Finally arriving at the tail end of October we buckled down for a long weekend of opening up plastic wrap to add a unique number, certificate of authenticity and director's autograph to all the pre-orders as a thank you for their patience with almost three months of delays, and we all gasped a big sigh of relief before getting ready for the big publicity push. Promoting independent film is typically something loosely akin to root canal surgery, apart from the occasional break out hit no one really cares what independent filmmakers are doing, and even though we'd always had great support from the magazines and webzines of the indie film world, we knew we needed to get into the mainstream consciousness somehow.
Fortunately, it became clear that this project wasn't going to be quite like anything that had preceeded it when journalists from newspapers like the Telegraph and Times started calling us asking when it was going to be finished and wanting to run feature interviews just on making it. By the time the DVD was ready for release we had already had coverage in the Daily Telegraph and on GMTV, the video networking site Dailymotion front paged our trailer racking up 40,000 hits in just a few months, many of our regular supporters like Pulp Movies and Rewind Video had run stories and advance reviews and a whole slew of wildlife and environment specific publications and websites like WCCLAS, Arkive and the United Nations Environment Program were also giving us shout-outs.
When we finally got to the official release in September more articles found their way into the Daily Mail, Country Life, Press and Journal, STV and the Telegraph again, with even more papers spinning it into a story focusing on the Scottish Wildcat Association, which was back on course with the help of Wildcat One's Pat Tomlin joining me as a trustee to get it operational. All the attention kicked up another opportunity rarely experienced by indie producers when the British DVD distributors Beckmann offered us a deal to take the film to major retailers and their own network of specialist wildlife sales outlets, between their team and our own approaches to small independent retailers and wildlife centres we quickly found ourselves sharing space with Attenborough and von Lawick everywhere from Amazon, HMV and NHBS to Highland Wildlife Park and Foot Stompin' Scottish Music.
Logo for the Scottish Wildcat Association
Sales over Christmas were solid, paying back most of the costs of producing the DVD quickly and we looked forward to finally clearing our debts with numerous contributors on deferred payment deals who had helped make it all happen probably doubting they'd ever see anything much in return. In April the Scottish charity registrar formally recognised the Scottish Wildcat Association as a charity and media quickly focused it's attention, as we always hoped they would, on it's plans and work moving forward.
Filmicly, I was finally able to start thinking about some new projects, hoping one day to return to the Scottish wildcat and tell the story of how it came to be saved from extinction. Inevitably it became a landmark project for our company; our longest, largest and most complicated film in a really challenging genre had grown from unlikely dream into our most successful and best known work, and whilst it's been our quietest ever period in terms of number of films produced we were also finally turning over regular money with a product in the market and plenty of encouragement coming in from talent and broadcasters in the wildlife industry to do more.
So much more importantly than that though, the film became part of a landmark moment for Scottish wildcats; too many people contributed too much long before we even knew of the story for us to claim more than a fraction of the credit, but somewhere over the course of the last five years the species had gone from long forgotten relic to Britain's wildlife star-in-waiting. National media was covering wildcats in one way or another every month and the phone rang regularly with major TV producers digging for information on how they could also get shots for their own Scottish wildcat project (with the BBC eventually reclaiming the "last to film a wildcat" crown!). The captive breeding program was growing, the charity was up and running with Mike Tomkies as a patron and even Scottish Natural Heritage, after a lot of goading in the papers, finally coughed up some money for the Highland Tiger project put together by Peter Cairns and several others.
For Coffee Films, our time with wildcats is slowly fading, remembered now mostly by a large pile of DVD stock in the corner and our ongoing commitment to donate 50% of all profits from the DVD to the Scottish Wildcat Association. For me, getting into this animals world and mind has been the most wonderful life changing experience. I woke up fully to not just the wildcats plight, but the entire picture of wildlife extinctions and a poisoned planet. I'll avoid the desire to lecture, but after a lot of due diligence I can tell you that you should drop any nagging doubts you have over whether global warming, melting ice sheets or peak oil are real or not and start very actively participating in "being green". I can believe we can save the Scottish wildcat, but I'm pretty sure the Western way of life is over, Barack Obama, Al Gore and turning your lightbulb off can't do much in the face of billions of people too lazy or stupid to change.
Making this film taught me that nature is the force that ultimately rules every aspect of our lives, it's something so many of our species has forgotten but that every other animal on the planet understands. Their lives are often tough but they live in a state we can't imagine; free of any but the most immediate responsibility, where everything they need to survive really does grow on trees, where there is no overcrowding, pollution or vanishing resources and the only time things go seriously wrong are when homo sapiens turns up. The death of human carbon society is going to be painful, but it also heralds a return to normality and balance for everything else on the planet and I can only hope our film has played it's part in keeping one of natures most wonderful creatures alive until the day that happens.