Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, and Henry Joost aren’t familiar names now but by the end of the year they might be. The trio is the driving force behind the most talked about documentary to come out of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Catfish. It’s an intriguing look at social networking and the strange journey it takes these men on. The marketing for the movie has been purposefully vague with the tagline “What is Catfish?” It’s crazy, it’s surprising, and most importantly it’s not what you think it is.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers to discuss the feature and the hype surrounding it. They gave a little more insight into what they learned during and after the shoot and discussed the concept of online personas, and the darker, unexpected parts of their journey. Check out the interview…
After making this film, are you more weary of people you meet on the web?
Nev Schulman: Yeah, basically I don’t meet people online. I never used to do that really anyway. This was sort of a very unique experience for me, but at this point now when I get requests from people who I’ve never actually met, I just sort of ignore them. Which sort of goes against my nature because this whole experience happened because I kind of just blindly threw myself into something unknowingly and said yes to something and went for it. Look what happened. Better or worse, it changed my life. I think for the better. I’m not someone who likes to be cautious or assume the worst. I’m sort of the opposite and it gets me in trouble, but it also gives me a story to tell and hopefully changes who I am a little bit for the better.
What does it say about how people can elevate their situation online and what their responsibility is for that?
Ariel Schulman: I think it says that the internet and social networking is sort of a perfect distraction and fantasy for people to fill any empty space in their lives, whether it’s just to fill time and distract them from a real life situation that’s uncomfortable. A bad date or a boring dinner, just hop on your phone and you’re on the internet and you’re surrounded by 1000s of people. Or it can fill a much simpler void which is my life isn’t what I want it to be. I am not who I want to be. Let me create a better self, an avatar. Bam, five minutes later you’re up and going.
What do you think of the studio marketing the movie as a thriller?
Henry Joost: That is part of the movie. That’s I think the crux of the second act. What I like about it being marketed that way is just that it kind of has you looking in a different direction and expecting something and the film ends up being a lot more than that.
Some people question whether it’s real or not. Why do you think people are suspicious?
HJ: I think that there has been a trend for a while of the mockumentary and also the fake documentary which is kind of a different thing. The Cloverfield and Blair Witch Project type thing and then even more recently, those commercials that are trying to look like YouTube viral videos where something totally crazy happens and a visual effects company manipulates it. So I think people are trained now to be suspicious about what they see and wonder what the motives are behind it. So this question of whether the film is real or not never occurred to us while we were editing, because why would you ever suspect that people would be suspicious of something that actually happened to you? But when we started showing it at Sundance, that’s when we started getting questions from the audience. When we were making the film, there were many times when we thought wow, this is too good to be true in a lot of ways, or I can’t believe that just happened the way that it did or that we captured that in the way that we did, but it really happened. That’s the truth.
Was there any point during the shoot that you got freaked out and wanted to stop?
AS: Well, there was a lot of back and forth, a lot of give and take. There were moments where he wanted to stop and I pushed him to keep going. Then there was a very significant moment when I wanted to stop and he pushed me to keep going and the same goes for Henry. Driving up to that horse farm at night, he was ready to just back in very casually and peel out.
Nev, will you be in front of the camera again?
NS: You know, it doesn’t take a lot to convince me to do something. So if someone has a compelling argument as to why I should be in front of a camera, I probably will end up there.
Does it make you a more compassionate photographer now that you’ve been on the other side?
NS: I’m that much more appreciative when people do take a picture of me. I guess we kind of always had a history of brothers of generating that content of each other for each other. That’s something we wish we had more of is footage of us as kids. So he’s agreed to film my life for me and I’ve agreed to photograph his life for him. It’s just sort of a trade that we do.
What did you learn about yourselves as filmmakers going through this?
HJ: You know, we have a commercial production company and we make commercials. When you’re making things like that, you spend a lot of time thinking about having everything look perfect and be perfect all the time but this was really a lesson in if you have a good story and a compelling person to film, then you don’t have to worry about that stuff as much and you should really just let it go and just try to have it be a more pure experience. That was hugely liberating as a filmmaker to just say let’s film this on whatever camera is closest. As long as we get the audio clear and the image that you need then that’s fine.
Do you guys have any DVD plans?
AS: Oh, the DVD is going to be chock full of bonus features. There are so many great deleted scenes, so much of the correspondence and the world that was created. Other characters on our side of the fence that were involved, none as deeply as Nev but deeply.
How do you want viewers to go into this film?
HJ: I feel like I should say we’re sensitive about spoilers. We feel like the best way to go into the film is knowing nothing which I know is not possible, but we kind of want the audience to have the same experience that we went going into this, not knowing what was coming. We love talking about the after the film stuff but I know it’s a challenge to write about that.
Catfish opens in theaters on September 17, 2010.