Pictured (L-R): Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and Nev Schulman.
Henry Joost and The Brothers Schulman (Ariel and Nev) are responsible for one of the most-buzzed about films of the past twelve months: Catfish. It begins innocently as a chronicle of the online relationship between New York photographer Nev and a family of fans in Michigan, including eight-year-old painter Abby, her saucy older sister Megan and their statuesque mother Angela. Directed by Henry and Ariel, the enigmatically-titled, low-budget documentary about the deceptive dangers of Facebook debuted at Sundance back in January of 2010, and – thanks to an equally enigmatic marketing campaign – went on to gross almost $4 million at the U.S. box office. It helped kick off a national discussion on the pros and cons of social networking on the internet, and was the subject of an in-depth analysis on American current affairs program 20/20. The cultural and financial successes of the film are impressive. But what of the emotional toll taken on the film’s central figures?
I spoke to Henry Joost about the development of their DIY documentary, how he feels to have people call his film a fake, his thoughts on the other controversial docos of the year, and the potentially exploitative nature of their film. As you may or may not know, there is one hell of a third act reveal in Catfish. Although I discuss “spoilers” with Henry, there is plenty of warning given, so those of you who are yet to see the film will not have the film’s shocking truth prematurely unveiled. Check out our five-star review of Catfish here.
SM: Can you tell me how you first found out about Nev’s relationship with Abby and her family?
HJ: I think we first found out when these paintings started arriving in our office. We made a film called New York Export Opus Jazz – a ballet film – and Nev took a photo on the set of that film and Abby somehow found it online, or in the newspaper, and sent us a painting of that. So it was like our first ‘fan art’.
SM: What were your initial thoughts about their relationship?
HJ: I thought it was very … strange. But then I saw that they were talking back and forth, and he was also talking with her mum [Angela], and it became kind of this … almost like a mentor relationship, where Nev was the only person who was giving Abby a genuine critique of her work, and in return Abby was kind of inspiring Nev to take different types of photographs. So it became this very sweet thing. These two artists – totally different ages – inspiring each other. I was very much in support of it.
SM: And is that the point where you and Ariel thought this would make for an interesting documentary?
HJ: Yeah. It was really Rel [Ariel] started filming when the packages started arriving, and we sort of thought it was such an unusual story it had the potential to be kind of a short film, or maybe we thought this girl had the potential to be a true child prodigy. Maybe it would be interesting to make a documentary about her.
SM: So was that the narrative you were kind of looking for? About a child prodigy? Or were you leaning towards internet relationships?
HJ: No, at that point it was just like: ‘This is interesting enough to film occasionally, and possibly it will lead somewhere’. We figured it would probably lead to a face-to-face meeting at some point, and we’d see if there was something worth pursuing when we met the family. And then Nev fell for Abby’s older sister Megan, and it sort of evolved again.
SM: The events of the film, and the revelations of the ending, are sort of serendipitously cinematic, so much so a lot of people have come out calling it a fake, despite the fact you guys are stating that it’s real. Do you take that as a compliment; that the documentary is almost too fascinating to be true? Or is there a little bit that’s insulting about that?
HJ: It’s funny; at first I took it really personally because that suggests that we are bad people; manipulative people. And then the more I thought about it the more I understand, in this climate of media today, how that could be a concern. And maybe I would feel the same way if I saw the film and had nothing to do with it. You’ve got YouTube videos – or commercials masquerading as YouTube viral videos; you have hoax documentaries coming out all the time. The fake documentary has become a genre in itself. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with this story particularly; it’s kind of a next level that we hadn’t even considered – because it’s a film about deception, wouldn’t it be sort of the ultimate commentary on that if the film was also a deception? The truth is we’re not really smart enough to come up with that meta-commentary on life.
SM: Like you said, it also come out in the year of the meta/fake documentary, with Exit Through The Gift Shop and I’m Still Here. Have you seen either of those films?
HJ: I’ve seen both of them, yeah.
SM: Can you offer your thoughts on those? You’re kind of in a unique position having your own documentary run through the veracity ringer.
HJ: Exit Through The Gift Shop was one of my favourite movies of the year; I loved it. We saw it at Sundance and were inspired by it. What’s it called, I’m Still Here?
SM: Yeah, the Joaquin Phoenix flick.
HJ: I always forget the name of it. ‘Is it I’m Still Here, or I’m Not There?’ There are all these movies with similar titles. I thought it was pretty good, and I don’t really understand the backlash against it. To me it’s almost irrelevant if it was a hoax or not, because it’s still, in a sense, a documentary on something; a documentary on a hoax.
SM: I agree with you completely; I thought it was brilliant.
HJ: Joaquin Phoenix still did all of those things and the question of his intent … you know, he still put his career in risk, and at least in the film, he kind of went off the deep end. That’s still interesting and compelling.
SM: Sure, it’s like injecting a fictional character into reality.
HJ: Yeah, I thought it was really good and I really don’t get the negative feeling for that.
SM: Andrew Jarecki is one of the producers of Catfish, and you kind of have to wonder if Capturing the Friedmans came out this year, if it would be called a ‘hoax’ as well, because that’s another one where you have to wonder how they had all that footage. How did he become involved in the project?
HJ: Capturing the Friedmans was always one of our favourite docs; ever since it came out it made a huge impression. I saw it twice in the cinema. And we sort of felt like we’d never made a feature film before, and there were these kind of moral ethical questions that came along with Catfish. “We need producers right now who can not only guide us through the weird world of film festivals and hopefully selling the film, but also to advise us on these questions and make sure the film is handled in a sensitive way”. And they were the first people who came to mind: Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, who were the director/producer team of Capturing the Friedmans. So we reached out to them, and they watched the movie and immediately got involved.
SM: Looking back a bit further, at which point did you head into the editing room and start putting the film together? Or were you putting it together as you went along?
HJ: We hadn’t done any editing or organising as we went along. We got back from Michigan; we called our editor and said: ‘This wild thing happened; you probably need to come in on Monday and start full time. It will probably take over a year.” It took two or three months just to organise the footage; to get it into a kind of system where we could comprehend it all at one time. We printed off all of Nev’s emails and all of his Facebook pages and correspondences, and that filled two five-inch binders. Like hundreds of pages of written material; we read that a bunch of times and got a sense of this narrative that had been happening that we hadn’t seen, in all those private emails.
SPOILER ALERT! The following portion of the interview discusses the third act reveal and ending of Catfish.
SM: Once you guys finally do meet the family, and you figure out that Abby, Angela and Megan are kind of the same person [Angela Wesselman-Pierce], you in particular are seen to be a bit skeptical about the endeavour. Can you tell me about your feelings about the project and where it was heading at that point?
HJ: The biggest surprise for me wasn’t that – although it was a big surprise – wasn’t that it was one person being all of these people. It was that the person [Angela] who was being all of these people was not the villain, or a bad person, and that she didn’t have a malicious intent. And that we got along with her really well, and could sort of see where she was coming from. So at that point it became really important to us to show her and show who she was and give her a voice and a chance to tell her side of the story, because it’s basically incomplete without that, and she obviously had a desire to connect with people and share her life and her artwork.
SM: Was there a concern that you would maybe be seen to be exploiting the situation?
HJ: Yeah we didn’t really have to persuade Angela to participate in the film. She was for it, and we explain that when we first met. And we showed her the film before it was released to make sure she felt it was fair. But, I mean, that was definitely something we thought we would definitely get, despite all the steps we had taken, so that the film was not exploitative.
SM: Do you have a Facebook profile yourself?
HJ: I do.
SM: Why do you think we lie about ourselves on the internet?
HJ: I think that everyone needs fantasy in their lives. I’m a filmmaker, so I can do that with films and photography and stuff like that. Some people turn to the internet for their medium of expression and relief.
Catfish arrives in Australian cinemas January 27th, 2011. Check out our five-star review here, where we discuss the film’s ending in further depth.