Next weekend, David Fincher’s The Social Network hits big screens nationwide. While that film, which chronicles the birth and rise of the multi-billion dollar company Facebook, is garnering major buzz (and even some Oscar talk), it’s not the only “Facebook” film that has audiences talking.
Catfish, the stranger-than-fiction documentary film about an unlikely Facebook relationship that takes an unexpected turn, made such a big splash at Sundance this year that we here at Screen Rant had to give the movie two reviews: one good and one bad. I personally loved the film and thought it raised some fascinating questions about the nature of identity in the Internet age.
However, even after watching and enjoying the film, I still had plenty of questions about the movie rolling around inside my head. Lucky for me, Catfish co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, as well as the subject of the film, Nev Schulman, were in Chicago yesterday to talk about the film.
During the course of our conversation, the immensely hospitable and hilarious trio answered my questions on everything from the film’s marketing strategy to criticisms that the movie is a hoax.
Check out my transcription of the interview below.
Keep in mind that the interview is full of SPOILERS, so stay away if you have yet to see the film.
SR: This movie can best be described as “stranger than fiction.” When did you get a sense that, “We have a movie on our hands.” When did the documentary form in your minds?
AS: Well, I thought it started off pretty weird. I mean, he (Nev) had an 8-year-old superfan (Abby) who was a potential art prodigy that’s basically obsessed with his photography. That was good enough for a short documentary to me and that’s about all it was for a while.
HJ: But we never thought it would be a feature film, until that moment in Vail, Colorado [a key scene in the film when the trio discovers that the music “Megan” is sharing is not actually hers]. And we were just like, “We have no idea where this going to lead, but any direction it leads is going to be a good story.”
AS: And that’s when we turned to each other and we were like, “Okay, now we’re making a movie and so we need to be rolling all the time.”
SR: And how does that work for you, Nev, as the subject, because they’re just filming you all the time. How did you feel as this got more and more involved?
NS: What doesn’t come across is that, to some extent, all of the clips that they got of this relationship that I was having I thought were boring, compared to some of the other ridiculous stuff that I was doing that they weren’t filming. So, when Rel decides to turn the camera on me, I usually let him do it because I do have sort of a strange attraction towards mischief and experience and curiosity for the unknown. And I trust his artistic abilities and his passion as a filmmaker, and then of course our brotherhood and our “best friendship” makes it hard. If I didn’t like him filming me, that would certainly be an issue in our brotherhood.
NS: I mean, does William Shatner like Chocolate Fondue?
SR: I can only assume yes. That would be my guess.
NS: Well, you’ve got to film him to find out. You’ve got to be there all the time.
SR: The fact that you all film all the time is interesting, because the movie is so surreal that a lot of people think “How can this possibly be? How can this be real?” and I think part of that has to do with the fact that you’re filming all the time, so you never know when a story is going to happen. Whose idea is that? Did you just grow up filming everything?
HJ: It’s kind of a collective culture we have. It’s not just us, it’s us and our circle of filmmaking friends. We’re also friends with the Neistat Brothers who have a TV show on HBO that’s basically just this: small cameras, their lives, that’s the show. And it’s really entertaining, because they never miss anything.
NS: And they’re adventurous.
HJ: And they’re adventurous, and they’re fun guys and it’s fun to hang out with them. And then another filmmaking group, Red Bucket Films, that Nev and Rel were both kind of founding members of. And it’s just kind of like, among the 15 of us, or however many there are, we just do this all the time and we mostly just share it with each other. And it’s kind of like filmmaking practice in a way. It’s kind of like doing, you know, like a pick-up basketball game as opposed to the championship. It’s just like fun. We do it for fun.
NS: And we’re like the camera-phone generation. I mean, everyone’s a photographer now.
[Nev, Henry, and Rel were documenting the interview on handheld cameras as we talked.]
NS: Somehow we’ve just been transformed into a generation of people who are expected to document for some reason. Because…there’s this website called YouTube.
SR: Do go on…
HJ: Is that how you pronounce it?
SR: I thought it was Yow-Too-Bay.
NS: And all of the sudden, everybody has a voice. The Internet, for the most part is best used for video and audio, and to use those together. It’s like, there’s this weird thing where everyone wants to develop content and be popular in this online community.
SR: The fact that you’re very technologically savvy, I think is another reason why people are very confused about this movie. “How could this possibly be real? Three technologically savvy guys like this, how could you let yourself get strung along for so long?” In retrospect, did you see these warning signs that made you think, “How did I get tricked?”
HJ: Well, I don’t think we would have known what to look for in the beginning. Because, Nev did Google a few things I think, but he didn’t find anything. It wasn’t until the songs [from the Vail, Colorado scene] – we decided to search lyrics for the song – and it was really just because we thought it was so good that we were like, “Maybe we should start a record label and sign these people. They’re amazing.” This has got to be a cover, or is this a poem? So we searched the lyrics and then that’s when it all started.
Also like, in the beginning, I can’t emphasize enough how background this was in our lives. We had a million other projects going on, and it was just this thing; and it was really Nev’s thing.
NS: And I really wasn’t sharing that much of it with them. For the most part, the e-mails that you see me reading and the phone calls that I have, that’s all that they saw. The depth of the interaction and the extent of it was much more personal for me. And now of course for me looking back, it seems ridiculous that I was strung along for as long as I was. And it’s been a great lesson in sort of understanding why you allow yourself to, or convince yourself of something that you want — and the power of flattery and the fantasy and the escape element in all of us, in that we want something that doesn’t make sense or is unobtainable.
SR: That’s interesting, because I was wondering as I was watching this movie, “Here’s this good looking guy in New York City. He’s very personable. There’s probably two million women in New York City that he could potentially have romantic relationships with.”
SR: Well, not two million, I mean, he’s not Wilt Chamberlain.
SR: But there’s options, you know? And yet there’s this woman that purely exists in cyberspace in Ishpheming, Michigan – and I’m from Michigan, so I know the U.P. man, and there’s nothing going on up there – and I just think, “What draws you to this online relationship?”
NS: I think you’re right, I am very good looking.
NS: No, no, I’m totally joking. No, you’re right, I had been living in New York City as an eligible young guy and had dated girls and had some good and some bad relationships, as everyone does, but for the most part I guess I was at a point in my life where I felt like, okay, I’d like to get to the next level with a woman. I’d like to feel a really deep connection with someone, as I think everybody does, and I hadn’t found that in New York City. And so, when something came along that was so different and so unusual that I thought, “Maybe that’s why. Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right place.” Maybe there’s something so organic and genuine about this family that it will sort of take me out of this world that hasn’t worked, in regards specifically to the perfect girl, and I’ll find it somewhere else where I would least expect. And that does seem to be the appeal of long-distance relationships I think.
SR: When you were making the plans to go to Michigan, how much of that did you think about in advance from a filmmaker’s point of view. Like, what kind of equipment are we going to bring, what kind of shots are we going to get? Or did you just wing it? Because the one scene in particular where you arrive at the farmhouse at 2:00 in the morning, that is a really ballsy thing…
NS: Dumb, yeah.
SR: …because you don’t know what you’re going to find. But it’s also very suspenseful. Do you think of that in terms of, “This would be a good shot for my movie.” or were you just so compelled to meet these people that you decided, I’m going to go up there at two in the morning.
HJ: We weren’t thinking about that at that time. We had just driven 400 miles and it was 2:30 in the morning, and I think we were all just faced with this decision like, do we go to a motel and try to go to sleep, or should we just…I mean I don’t think I could of gone to sleep without at least cruising by her house to see if a light was on.
NS: Yeah, I mean, I was miles away from who I thought might be the love of my life.
HJ: The suspense was killing us.
AS: It was that same instinct that got us into the story in the first place, which was “Well, we’ve come this far. Might as well push that door open.” Just keep going.
HJ: We didn’t think we were going to drive into the driveway, we just thought, “We’ll just cruise by.” And then Nev got this manic braveness.
NS: Well, I thought the driveway came out the other side, so when I saw that it didn’t and he started to turn around, and I looked at that barn and I was just like, “I have to know something now.” So I just jumped out and I said, “Come on Rel!” and I wasn’t even thinking about it, you know what I mean? I should have stayed in the car, but, you know, I was inspired by some strange force.
SR: I can’t recall who it is, but you see it in the subtitles, somebody says, “I want to go” or “I think we should go.”
AS: That was the next morning right, at the house.
HJ: That was on the porch, yeah.
SR: There are so many moments like that where you’re like, “I don’t think we should be here. I don’t know if we should be doing this.” How do you intellectually say, “We have to stay here and film this.” Because in the audience, I’m sitting there going “Oh, for God’s sake, would you leave, please?” I don’t want to know what’s behind the door – but I want to know.
AS: We had come up with one question, that we all agreed needed to be answered by the end of the movie, and that question was: “Who is painting the paintings?” And no matter how scary things got, or how complicated, or how many lies we unraveled, there was one thing that we knew to be true, which was that somebody was creating these paintings and sending them to him for months and months and months. So, as everything else started to fall away, there still remained that truth. So had we left in the middle of the night, had we left the next morning, we would have left without knowing the answer to that.
HJ: We also had this fantasy that, for us, filmmaking and documentary filmmaking is so important that if we were to die, you know, you want to die holding a camera, because maybe Werner Herzog will find the footage.
SR: It sounds sort of melodramatic to talk about it in those terms, but when you’re watching the movie you get a sense that there’s real danger afoot, and I think that’s what’s so appealing, or at least it’s one of the things that appealed to me. It’s also something that I think is a point of contention, though, because the marketing for this movie – I don’t know how much you guys have been involved…
HJ: Very, very little.
AS: More than zero, but…
SR: Because you look at the poster that says “Don’t tell anyone what it is.” Obviously there’s a big twist and there’s a reveal that comes out during the course of the movie.
NS: When we saw the marketing strategy, we were definitely shocked. And I, at least for me, I was upset. I didn’t like the idea of this story, this thing that happened to me, being sensationalized. It felt like there was enough of an experience that people would see it and have a reaction. And I didn’t want to mislead them into seeing it for some other reason. But what I started to understand is that it’s hard to get people to spend hard-earned money to see something instead of something else if they don’t have any reason to. And you can’t just tell someone, “See it, it’s good.”
So, they came up with a campaign that’s striking, and kind of alarming in some ways, and very intriguing. It highlighted one aspect of the film, there are many other aspects of the film. You know, they’re trying to put people in the theater. So, if it gets people into the theater…for the most part what’s been so rewarding is that very few people have come out upset that it wasn’t some scary Blair Witch Project 3. They are actually in fact moved and kind of happy because they were expecting a movie like many others that they’ve seen, and in fact they’re getting something totally new and very emotional, and their reactions to it have been really amazing.
SR: How much contact do you have with Angela now?
NS: We speak to Angela almost everyday. All of us. Not just the three of us, but our extended sort-of filmmaking family. We’re all very involved and very much a team, which is hugely important to us.
SR: These social connections that we have on Facebook and Twitter and through social media, how do you compare them to “real” relationships? There’s an artificiality to it, but when you’ve shared as much online as you have with what you assumed to be Megan, I mean you put yourself out there. There’s a lot of your emotional well-being invested in that relationship, so how do you discern a social media relationship from sort of your real life?
NS: I mean, there was definitely a blurred line, because when we got there, I had a connection with this woman, you know? There was a friendship and there had been a romance between us, which was clear to them [Henry and Rel] certainly and later to me; in that week down there, we were in many ways good friends and we had been very open and personal with each other.
So, what I learned, or what I encourage people to consider, is that for every 500 friends that you have on Facebook – you read their profile updates, you look at their photos, you invest time into this community of people – how much time do you invest into your brother? Or how much time do you invest to your mom? Or your best friend at school? Or maybe someone that you’re not friends with – maybe you’ve been too shy to approach? That’s where I think we need to start thinking about this more is like, why are we spending time giving ourselves to this strange sort of floating cloud of information and not the people right around us?
SR: What do you think is the ultimate takeaway from this movie? If you had to say, “This is what I want audiences to get out of this movie.”
HJ: It’s hard, because we really want audiences to take away their own thing, and that’s one of the nice things about the movie I think, is that there are a million conversations that you can have afterwards, and everyone takes away their own lesson from it, or message. And it’s like, it’s real life, so the messages often contradict each other.
So, for us, it’s like, yes, you should be careful with what you put on the Internet, and you should be thoughtful about what images you’re putting up there, and how much you’re sharing, because the Internet is a permanent record. But at the same time, you should be open to people, and, for me, the big twist of the movie is that there’s a human being on the other end. You know, there’s a family of human beings, not villains, and you need to see the humanity in everyone. And we feel like people are intrinsically good, and that people have their reasons for doing things. Those two messages don’t exactly fit together in a comfortable way.
SR: [To Nev] So, when you first arrived, you didn’t harbor any animosity?
SR: Well, at that point, you knew that there was no Megan, right?
NS: Yeah, I mean, as soon as we got there, it was very clear that it wasn’t about me anymore. And the gravity of the situation, and the reality that we were dealing with, was so overwhelming that I didn’t really have time to even react properly until after the fact when we came home. But to answer your question, and to use sort of age old cliche sayings that seem to apply, I would say “I would rather have loved and lost then never have loved at all” and “You only regret the things that you don’t do. Not the things that you do do.”
AS: If I might add, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t get him to drink.”
HJ: “The early bird catches the worm.”
While we all took turns trotting out cliches, the publicist gave me a wrap it up sign, so I spent the last minute or so talking with Ariel and Henry about their documentary influences. Rel said that he was influenced by Werner Herzog, the Maysles Brothers, and Ross McElwee. We talked briefly about McElwee’s excellent 1986 documentary, Sherman’s March, which Rel said is his favorite documentary.
If you haven’t seen Sherman’s March, I recommend checking it out. It’s an excellent film, and you can clearly see the influence that McElwee’s style of filmmaking had on Ariel and Henry.
Catfish opens in Chicago this Friday. The film already opened in Los Angeles and New York.
To see if Catfish is playing near you, visit the movie’s official website and search for showtimes.