When the documentary Catfish became a buzzed-about sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, it brought a lot of attention to young New York filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and to Ariel’s brother Nev, a photographer at the center of the film. Their doc follows Nev through his online relationship with a Michigan family and their circle of friends, largely via Facebook and chats, texts, and e-mail. While Joost and Ariel started out making what they thought would be a short film about online relationships, their documentary took a more complicated turn when they started to suspect that 8-year-old painter Abby, her older sister Megan, and their mother, Angela, weren’t what they appeared to be online. The story goes in a relatively obvious direction from there, but the film’s portrayal of it is sensitive, intimate, and fascinating. But while the film has largely been critically lauded, some reviews have questioned the honesty of the documentary and the people who made it. The A.V. Club recently sat down with the Schulman brothers and Joost in Chicago to talk about the process of the film, its reception, and its aftermath. Warning: this discussion presupposes readers have seen the film, or at least know how it comes out in the end.
The A.V. Club: Did you expect the reality of the film to become such a contentious subject?
Ariel Schulman: No.
Nev Schulman: Not at all.
Henry Joost: Not at all, because we were there. It has not ever been a question to us.
AVC: Would you have assembled it any differently if you had known that it would be questioned? Is there anything more you would have put in, or set up, or left out?
AS: That’s a good question.
HJ: That is a good question. [Pause.]
NS: Well, you guys at one point did shoot interviews, and started editing it like a documentary that you would expect, the talking heads and stuff. That was their initial instinct.
HJ: I think we had a cut, that if people saw it, no one would question the validity of it, but it wasn’t as good of a movie.
AVC: What was that version like?
HJ: Well, we shot talking heads, and we had voiceover narration, which ultimately… You know, we wanted the movie to be as interesting and as exciting and revelatory as the experience was in real life, and it didn’t feel that way, that cut. And it was kind of an epiphany when we realized that we actually had enough footage in the beginning to tell the story chronologically, exactly as it unfolded. That was a big thing, because we didn’t really have that much footage in the beginning of the film. We have—the first eight months of their relationship, we have maybe an hour, an hour and a half of footage. In the last week of the relationship, we had like 200 hours. So our first reaction was like “Well, too bad we don’t have enough footage from the beginning. We’re going to have to figure out another way to tell this.” And that turned out to be the computer-screen stuff.
AVC: Were you ever tempted to reconstruct events?
HJ: No, we sort of got lucky and captured all the important moments we needed. The only thing we missed was, we waited too long to record all of Nev’s voice-mail from Megan that he had been saving on his iPhone. It was pretty silly—we were just kind of lazy about it, I guess, and eventually the iPhone itself deleted the messages. I guess time was up. That’s really the only thing we regret missing.
AVC: Do you think coming out at the same time as I’m Still Here hurt you? Do you think more people are questioning Catfish as a documentary as a result?
HJ: Yeah, but people were questioning it before that movie came out. That movie always seemed to me obviously a hoax of some kind. I just, when I saw him on Letterman, I was like “Okay, it’s a meta-documentary of some kind.” But for us, it’s ultimately not a very interesting debate, because there is no real debate, it’s just real. Obviously we edited the movie—we can’t release a 200-hour documentary. No one would want to watch that. So we cut it together in a way that we feel is most representative of the way things really happened, and fair to all of the people involved, including Nev.
AVC: Have you been surprised at any other reactions to the movie?
HJ: I’m a little surprised when people think we were exploiting Nev, just because I don’t think we were. I mean, everyone who’s in it thinks it is fair and condones the movie. We wouldn’t release the movie if we didn’t think it could help everyone involved in the movie, ultimately, and everyone in the movie feels the same way.
AVC: So Angela and Vince have seen it?
HJ: Yeah, Angela has seen it. Vince knows all about it and still supports it and condones the film, but he isn’t quite ready to see it.
AVC: There are rumors online that she was filing a lawsuit against you.
NS: I’ve never heard that.
HJ: Yeah, that’s not true.
AVC: I haven’t seen it anywhere reputable or creditable, just on comment boards and the like.
HJ: I’m glad to hear that. I mean, not glad, but thanks for telling me.
AVC: At what point did you realize what shape this story was taking, what was actually going on with Angela?
NS: The moment she told us what was going on. [Other two laugh.] I mean, there was a moment where we thought it was starting to take the shape of a feature documentary, meaning that there was enough trajectory…
AS: Potentially, and at that point, we also had no idea what the outcome would be. But we agreed it would be interesting, no matter what. No matter who or what was behind this, it would be an interesting reveal, but beyond that, we had no idea until she literally sat down and explained it to us. We had our own ideas, but they were very wrong.
AVC: What did the film look like in your heads at that point? What was it going to be about?
AS: We didn’t know. We really didn’t know.
HJ: The short film, we knew what that one might look like. That would be “‘Hey, hi, my name is Nev.’ He’s a photographer, Abby is a big fan, here’s an art gallery show they just had together, and here’s them meeting for the first time.” Credits. Seven minutes. Rhode Island Film Festival.
AS: I thought when we were driving up to Michigan, the most likely outcome was just that we’d never find anything, or never really figure out what was going on. That we would go to that house and it would be empty, and there’d be like a computer on the ground, and we would just never discover anything. That seemed to me like the most realistic, kind of simplest outcome.
AVC: That sounds like the fictional thriller ending. Partially based on how Catfish has been marketed, and partially based on the fact that we’ve seen so many horror films in the handheld, DV-vérité style lately, some people were expecting this to be a horror-thriller. Literally for someone with a knife to burst out of Megan’s barn and chase you guys around in circles.
AS: Sounds like a Charlie Chaplin movie.
AVC: That would really depend on the speed at which you shot it.
AS: Yeah, 18 frames per second.
AVC: How much say did you have in the marketing and the trailer, how it’s being presented?
AS: Very, very little.
HJ: Yeah, not much. It’s been—it took a little getting used to. Now that it’s coming out, we find ourselves sort of explaining or defending the marketing a lot, which is a tricky place to be in, because we like to remain as a solid front, but it has its positives and negatives. Positive being that it’s a very catchy trailer and a great campaign, in that it’s vague and enticing. Maybe a little hard on the horror aspect, so I hate to disappoint a bunch of kids that really do want a horror movie, but so far we’ve found that those same kids are actually pleasantly surprised that its more than Paranormal Activity. I mean Paranormal Activity doesn’t leave you with much to chew on. Great thrill ride, perhaps, but I just kind of hope we can offer more than that in the end.
AVC: At what point did you start looking into distribution? Did you complete the film first?
AS: We just finished the movie and sent it to Sundance. And that’s it. We had no idea if this kind of thing could work as distribution. We just figured if we could do Sundance, that’s the tops, and then maybe we’ll get to travel around the world and do some international festivals, maybe sell it to IFC or something.
AVC: Has the film changed at all since Sundance?
AS: Yeah, well, a little bit.
HJ: It has a new score, that’s the biggest thing.
AS: Three percent. Less.
HJ: It has the flashback-type scenes in the end. Those are new. That’s about it.
AS: It’s two minutes shorter, has a new score, which is basically the same as the score as it had, and two flashback scenes.
AVC: Nev, how did you first get involved with Abby?
NS: It was just a MySpace message in which Abby said that she’d seen my photograph in the New York Sun, loved ballet, was learning to paint, and wondering if she could do a painting from my photo. And then a couple weeks later, there it was. The correspondence really started via e-mail with Angela, and for a while, it was just Angela and Abby, and there wasn’t anything really suspicious about it, it was just an adorable sort of pen-pal back-and-forth from Abby, and then of course a serious conversation with Angela about her appreciation for me taking the time to be like a mentor to Abby, and to allow her to use my photos from my website for inspiration. For a good chunk of time, that’s what it was, and then slowly I started hearing about and eventually getting friend requests from other people in Abby’s life who had been hearing about me, obviously. “Who is this guy in New York that Abby’s always talking about?” And that’s sort of how it started, and eventually sort of snowballed onto Facebook.
AVC: What was your relation with social media like at that point?
NS: Intense. It still is. I was looking for a change, I was sort of ready for a new direction in my life, was a little bored with what I was doing professionally, and distracting myself constantly with hopes of finding something through the Internet that would maybe inspire me, or lead to the next chapter in my life.
AVC: There are a couple sequences in the film where you talk about how you’re reluctant to have the camera on you, to continue talking about how you feel. To what degree, as this story was going on, did you want to be out of it, or at least not have the camera on you anymore?
NS: At first, Ariel was filming me very little. It doesn’t come across, of course, because it seems as though the first eight months of the relationship was captured, when in fact he really had maybe a handful of clips over the course of eight months that conveniently compile to take you on the first 30 minutes of the movie. So I didn’t really get it—I was a little uncertain as to why he thought it was interesting enough to film, and I even said that to him, but it didn’t feel like a movie, didn’t feel like it was going to go anywhere. And then of course when both Rel and Henry started filming very consistently in Colorado, it got uncomfortable, and I had a couple arguments with my brother about the idea of separating the film from my life, and this experience that I’m actually having. And we had to sort of figure out where that middle ground was. But I’ve never changed how I act on camera. I’ve always trusted him as a brother, but also as a filmmaker and an artist, because I know what he does, and I know that he’s always sort of fair, and doesn’t try to exploit or sensationalize anything, he just sort of makes art and documentaries.
AVC: What kind of input did you have into the film? Was there anything where you said, “This is too personal,” or “This reveals something that I just don’t think belongs in the film?”
NS: All joking aside, the one thing I probably asked to have removed more than once was the shot of my tramp stamp, because I’m so embarrassed.
AS: Champ stamp.
NS: Champ stamp. Because that was just a huge mistake that I made in my life, and I was just like “We can edit around that, you don’t need to show me getting out of bed.” And they stuck it out, and said, “You know, it’s who you are, it’s part of your life, it exposes a side of you that I think is important, we should keep it.” And I just gave up. I asked them a bunch of times to take that out.
AVC: What were you thinking in keeping the sequences where Nev is specifically saying “I don’t want to talk about this, I don’t want to be on film?”
HJ: I think it’s that we don’t really believe in the fly-on-the-wall documentarian, because that’s just not the way it is. The second you have a camera in the room, it affects people, and its more like the elephant on the wall or something. I think that documentaries that ignore that, the way that the camera is changing things, or the way the camera is changing the way people feel, is being a little bit dishonest. So we felt like that was—particularly the dynamic between Rel and Nev as brothers was important to show how Rel was pulling Nev, encouraging Nev in the beginning, but then it became Nev who encouraged us later on, and how it started off as us wanting to get to the bottom of a mystery, and ended up really being Nev’s personal journey. We felt like that was important in the story. [To Nev.] Do you agree?
AVC: Rel and Henry, you’re in the film from time to time, sometimes because you’re interacting with Nev, or because you’re in a car and it’s a small space where you can’t just capture Nev. But you don’t function as characters in the film, really—you’re there as documentarians on film. What was your philosophy on including yourselves in the story?
AS: I feel like it’s just this. [Points to camera.] It’s just this little thing that you hold in your hand.
HJ: As opposed to what?
NS: You know, it’s just the nature of being one with the camera. That kind of speaks to the agreement we all have with each other, which is that I’m a photographer, so I usually have my camera. I’m not in a lot of pictures, but it’s my job to take pictures. And in exchange, they film me, so I’ve got a sort of great log.
AS: The reason is because it wasn’t just happening to him, it was happening to us too. Things that happen to him matter to me, because he’s my brother. I’m not just his hired documentarian. I can’t really separate from the decisions he makes. So if I’m going to advise him from behind the camera, it would only make sense that I appear on camera a little bit, just to get a face to the voice.
HJ: Yeah. It’s like, we weren’t uninvolved. We were involved, is what I’m trying to say.
AS: And the experience affected all of us.
HJ: Yeah, but it’s Nev’s story. He’s the one who was emotionally involved, much more than us.
AVC: Nev, you still have a relationship with Angela. How is that going?
NS: I think it’s going as well as it can. She’s a part of the team, not just with us, but with whoever she’d like to be. Our producers, of course, are very close with her. We’re very conscious of Abby through all this—we want to do whatever we can to help her if this film potentially has a negative affect on her reputation as a young kid. I could imagine that might be difficult for her. And we care a lot about them, is really what it comes down to. Angela and I shared an intense emotional experience, and will forever be connected because of it. So I hope to always be in contact with her and be involved in their life.
AVC: With both the film and the post-film publicity, there are people watching your relationship, expecting things out it based on what they see in the film. Does it make it more difficult to have a friendship with her, having people watching it and judging it?
NS: No. I mean, I think the film obviously stirs up feelings, and certainly reminds us—reminds me every time I see it—of what happened. I’ve moved past it, so it doesn’t make me feel any negative, strange, or uncomfortable feelings toward her, but there’s a whole new element now of this idea that we’re both in a sense sharing this experience of having our lives made public, and that’s uncomfortable and nerve-wracking and strange and scary. So in regards to two people going through an experience of that nature, there is a tension of course that comes out of that. But I think the element of support that we offer is also unique, because there’s only one other person in the United States who’s going through what I’m going through right now, and it’s Angela.
AVC: Has she had fallout from this? Just given the way people act online, I would expect people to be randomly stalking and harassing her.
NS: People—there are definitely always people who like to taunt and poke fun or harass. Unfortunately, it seems like those people are always the ones who go to the trouble to actually do it, whereas the people who love you or think you’re great don’t always go to the effort of doing it. However, that being said, since this film has come out, just in the last three days, the amount of e-mails and Facebook messages and Tweets we’ve received is overwhelming, and there seems to be a real sense of “I want to reach out and tell these people how much the film meant, and not only that, but how much I feel for Angela, or how important I think the film is.” So far it’s been great, and hopefully it’ll stay positive.
AS: Yeah she sees all the positive feedback, and she sees the negative, she knows there’s some negative. I mean, every public figure gets that, but she ignores it, same way we ignore it. I mean, we’ve gotten some negative feedback too. In this day and age, you hear from everybody.
NS: Everyone’s a critic.
AS: Everyone’s a critic, and their 12-year-old son. So you got to let it roll off your back. I feel like we feel like we did the right thing. She doesn’t hate herself for it, so we’ve all forgiven each other, and we’ve all agreed that it’s a good thing to put this story out there.
AVC: What was the process like of getting her to open up and tell her story on camera?
AS: I guess that’s the beginning of the interview.
HJ: Yeah, I mean that’s… it was very easy, and that was a surprise to us too, is that we got there and said “We’ve been filming Nev’s side of the story, now we’d like to tell your side of the story,” and she was like “Okay.” And we said “Okay, great,” and then we just sat down, and we were there for three days, three and a half days, and really got into it.
NS: Well, first we said, “We’re not here to tell Vince.”
HJ: Yeah, we said, “Look, we’re not here to make a scene.”
AS: Expose you.
NS: “We’re not going to tell Vince, but you need to tell Vince, it’s not our place to do that. We just want to hear your story, and we want to give you a chance to tell what was going on in your life that caused this.” So it wasn’t like—we didn’t have to convince her. I think a lot of the reason she did what she did is because she wanted to tell her story, and she wanted to be recognized as a creative person. I mean, she did it in a very strange way, but what she created was kind of remarkable. Also, just like as a work of art, even though works of art, I don’t think should have victims.
AVC: Do you feel like a victim?
NS: No. I mean, I think Angela used the Facebook canvas to write an amazing novel, and it was a No. 1 bestseller for me. I think she’s an artist, and I was a captivated and participatory member of the…
AS: You were the audience.
NS: Yeah. I was her audience, and I don’t think it would be fair to say that I just sort of unknowingly fell down this thing. I was actively putting myself out there, and I was convincing myself in many ways of its reality, because that’s what I wanted to believe. If I had been more skeptical and really looked into it sooner, I probably would’ve found that something was up, or that it wasn’t exactly what she said it was, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to be fake. I desperately wanted it to be real.
AVC: Even after that three-day period together, you were still discovering things she’d deceived you about. Is it true that she contacted you as Megan again after that?
NS: She did, yeah.
AVC: Even now, how confident are you that you have the whole truth?
NS: I just focus on the information that I need from her and how it pertains to our existence, our mutual existence. She is a creative and dramatic woman, so you never know what you’re going to get, but when it comes to dealing with her, I’m just very direct and always aware that you never really know. I’m the same way with everyone, for that matter, moving forward with people who I don’t know that well, or I’ve only just met.
AVC: You liken what she’s created to a bestseller written for you, but was it just aimed at you? She obviously had a special relationship with you, sending you her paintings, focusing on your art, but did she have this kind of involvement with any other people?
NS: Not that I know of.
AVC: Did you ask her about that?
HJ: We did ask her…
AS: Yeah, I asked her, I said “Had you done this to anyone else?” She said no. The group of friends that Nev was friends with is 15 people. There were two or three people that were also friends with them that are real people, and most of them are our friends, and were not as involved. But they’re all our friends.
HJ: And their mom also.
AS: And my mom was heavily involved.
HJ: It was a closed circuit, that little community. It was like a little autonomous group that survived on its own on Facebook, and what I was struck with, being there, and especially looking back at all the correspondence, the amount of time it takes to make something like that, to create what she created, it basically became a full-time job. As she added more and more characters, and having them all keep up a realistic Facebook life, that must have taken practically all day every day, in addition to all the paintings she was making. So that was her life, was just really for Nev.
AVC: Is that flattering? There are no doubt a lot of other emotions involved, but this all came out of someone’s love of your art.
NS: I don’t know if flattering is the word. It just seems very… [Pause.] You know, I was doing the same thing, in a way. So it’s just a connection. It’s just the nature of romance—romantic is more the word than flattering. I mean, the relationship was very flattering for me, which is, I think, a big reason why it was so alluring, and why I continued to invest so much time into it, was because it felt great every day to get compliments and be told how wonderful I was, how handsome I was. So yeah, I guess that’s what it is, a little bit, sort of.
AVC: You said in another piece that Angela told you Abby won a painting award, and wanted to send you some of the money as a thank you for your advice. And you said no, but she sent you $500. Henry said he couldn’t believe that didn’t go into the film. Why didn’t it?
HJ: We really went back and forth about that, about whether we should put it in the film, and ultimately it just sort of fell into this bin of things that are much more interesting after you’ve seen the movie. Because in the beginning of the relationship, it’s like “Okay, whatever,” but after you’ve seen the film, there’s all these things from the beginning that are totally fascinating, and we felt like it shouldn’t be one of those movies where it goes back and forth in time too much, and that we really just needed to get quickly to the real climax of their online relationship, which was falling in love. So we had to kind of cut a lot of things, details like that from the beginning.
AVC: What other kinds of decisions went into shaping the story? What other kinds of things did you cut?
HJ: There was the fact that their mother was involved directly with the family. They were friends on Facebook, their mom talked to Angela on the phone just to make sure that the relationship was okay, both Nev and Abby and Nev and Megan, and whether it was a good idea, because Megan was younger and from a different part of the country. They had this kind of great relationship, and their mom said “If you ever come to New York, come stay in my apartment, and I’d love to meet you and your family.” And that was another painful thing to cut from the beginning of the film, but it was one of those details that while you’re watching it in the beginning, it doesn’t seem that important, but afterward, it’s fascinating. We just sort of consoled ourselves by saying that stuff will be on the DVD, and we’ll have an incredible collection of deleted scenes and bonus features.
AVC: The awareness of extra material for the DVD has become such a part of moviemaking. Has that always been part of the equation for you, as relatively young filmmakers?
AS: Yeah, because we spend most of our careers not making feature movies, so the idea of potpourri of short, different length pieces, that’s what we always do.
HJ: I mean, we already have a list of several short films we want to make to complement this film. And we also always thought that the website would be a really rich component of the story, and we’ve thought about publishing a book of all of the correspondence, which I hope we do. Because there’s just things—you know, film is one medium, and a website is one medium, DVD, books, they all communicate things better than others. So I think a lot of the way we edited the film reflected on how film communicates a story in particular, and the correspondence between the two of them is like a thousand pages of e-mail and Facebook messages. You can sit down and [read them and] that’s just totally engrossing, but you can’t put that in a film, you can’t put a book in a film. So I hope we’ll make a few complementary things to fill out the rest of the story.
AVC: What’s come out of this for you guys in terms of your art, separately or together? Where are you going from here?
AS: Well, we’re going to keep making movies, maybe write a feature narrative next up. I feel like we learned a lot about how to tell a complicated story.
HJ: It was like film school, this experience. Real film school. Especially editing this story.
AS: Yeah, that’s where we learned it.
AVC: But has it opened up new opportunities for you? It’s brought a lot of people’s attention to your work, to Nev’s photography.
NS: I’m feeling more and more, every day, as the film has been out, that there might be some strange role for me as a spokesperson for face-to-face human interaction, Maybe I’ll go around the country talking to groups of Internet addicts.
AS: Better brush your teeth.
NS: [Pause.] Oh, you mean as a reference to the film?
AS: What? No.
NS: Oh just “Keep your teeth clean?”
AS: No, because online, it doesn’t matter if you have bad breath.
NS: Thank you for interrupting me for that. [They all laugh.] So there you go. There it is.