Five Minutes with the Filmmakers and the Star of "Catfish"
A hook of intrigue has been stamped on every Catfish movie poster around town: “Don’t tell anyone what it is.” So, here we give you only the vitals. Emerging filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman picked up miniature HD cameras and decided to document the “wildly cinematic” life of Shulman’s younger brother, Nev. A curious incident sparked the intrigue: Said brother, a 24-year-old New York City photographer, received a painting in the mail from a stranger, an eight-year-old in Michigan named Abby. The precocious painter had friended Nev on Facebook, as did her amiable mother Angela and her beautiful, talented sister Megan, the latter of which begins an online romance with the protagonist. Eight and a half months of rapid-fire emails, online chats and texts later, Nev flies out to Michigan to surprise his Facebook family. What unfolds is remarkable. Despite its slipshod presentation, the film captures — with impressive precision — the mind-reeling possibilities created through online reality. Is it truly reality, or is just some semblance thereof?
Though the movie is billed as a reality thriller, the thriller bit is just a drop in the ocean. W spoke to Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, and Nev Shulman about their Catfish experience.
If you wanted to pull out one takeaway, what would you say is the essence of the film? There are quite a few running themes.
Ariel: A universal need for human beings to interact and communicate and share their life stories — that’s what seems to be fueling media and social networks. Everyone out there is sort of just longing for contact. And maybe the one message is a message to this generation. Kids growing up now are 100% digital. I fear that as we lean towards a virtual lifestyle, we get away from actual eye contact and real face time — and that’s the way you really get to know someone.
Did you have a good guess as to how the plot would unfold?
Ariel: We tried to come up with a list of what we thought we might find at the end of the road. Every single thing we guessed was dead wrong.
Like what kind of list?
Ariel: We anticipated the most violent and horrific endings, down to the simplest ending, which would be that we would find nothing and no one.
This movie and The Social Network are dropping at the same time. I’m guessing that’s not happening by coincidence?
Henry: I mean, semi-coincidence. But there’s definitely a zeitgeist thing going on, which is that we’ve gotten pretty deep here in social networking over the last couple of years, and I think people need to take a step back and analyze it.
How much of these social networking consequences and lessons learned do you think speak to this current generation?
Ariel: Wow, a ton. Maybe it’s important to realize that social networks are not looking out for you; that the whole thing is just a vehicle for its users. And so its ups and downs are as volatile as human beings ups and downs. And they don’t function on their own — they only function with our wants and desires. No one’s out there watching your back.
We’re in the throes of social networking. If someone was to watch Catfish twenty years down the line, how do you see it translating?
Ariel: I think it’s an age-old story. What it’s really about is long-distance love. It’s about two people searching for each other — and today’s mode of communication happens to be social networking.
And what about the future relevance of this film?
Henry: I think this film is going to be a really fascinating document of this time. Facebook is redefining the word “friend.” I think it’s at this point where you have to think, are your Facebook friends really friends? Because how many friends is it actually possible to have in life? Close friends — maybe ten?
How have your ideas of reality changed through making this film?
Henry: I think my biggest lesson is just that when you want something to be true, you’re willing to overlook anything that contradicts that.
Nev: I sort of discovered that there are only two pieces to how I see reality: circumstance and expression. The Internet sort of separates them a lot, because there are no real circumstances online, it’s anybody from anywhere can sort of be anything and be anywhere. But I’m trying to keep these things are close as possible, so when I express myself, hopefully I’m doing it with people who are real.
This experience happened three years ago. Were you really in love with Megan?
Nev: That’s a really tough… I mean I want to say yes, because I was so ready for that to be a thing in my life. I really was ready to not only go up to Michigan and meet everyone, but also potentially be with Megan and maybe move there. It’s hard to draw the line between falling in love with Megan and sort of falling in love with this fantasy, this idea of Megan.
If you could give your younger self a lesson in romance and life, what would you say to him?
Nev: I think I would tell my younger self to go for it. I don’t think I would tell myself to do something differently. That experience of falling in love, putting myself out there, expressing myself, connecting with someone, is something that I think everybody wants to have and should have. It was totally real for me. And in the end, I grew from it.
“Catfish” is playing in select theatres.