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Reeled In: Catfish

It's tough to learn much about Catfish without learning TOO much, but our interview with filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman is spoiler-free.

Reeled In: Catfish


Once upon a time, the uses of the Internet in cinema were neither terribly varied nor overwhelmingly complex. It was either typically a place where very bad things happened, even if they weren’t awfully realistic (The Net, Enemy of the State, Swimfan), or sometimes a place where very cute things happened—also not exactly realistic (You’ve Got Mail). But it’s only been in recent years, with filmmakers who have grown up with the ‘net tackling it in a serious fashion, that the Internet has come to get its due, as an astonishingly complex system of creating and obscuring meaning.


Enter Catfish, which, along with Afterschool before it, cements itself as one of the most important explorations of the power of the virtual world thus far. Without providing any spoilers—which is no easy feat here—let it be said that Catfish concerns a New York-based photographer, Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, who strikes up a friendship with a 9-year-old painting prodigy who lives in Michigan. As Nev’s friendship with young Abby blossoms, he starts to fall into something of an Internet romance with Abby’s older sister, Megan, who is a musician and looks after horses. The relationship becomes quite intense (considering the two have never met in person), but things take a turn for the peculiar when Nev begins to realize that certain pieces of Megan and Abby’s stories don’t quite add up.


Based on this description, it would be easy to mistake Catfish for a narrative film; in fact, it’s a documentary, simply presented in a narrative fashion (it doesn’t jump around in time, there are no talking heads, etc). It was made by filmmakers Ariel Schulman (Nev’s brother) and Henry Joost, two local indie filmmakers who run a small production company called Supermarché. Needless to say, their world was rocked when Catfish was picked up by Paramount at Sundance 2010 for a staggering $1.5 million. With Brett Ratner on board as an executive producer, the film is getting the Hollywood treatment, and its release begins on September 17. Tribeca got on the phone to chat a bit with Ariel and Henry about the strange journey they’ve been on.


Reeled In: Catfish
Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost


Tribeca: When did the idea to make the documentary first strike?


Ariel Schulman: It wasn’t until about eight months into the experience that we thought we had a feature on our hands. It just began as home video footage of each other, of Nev. We thought it might turn into a cute short about Nev and Abby, and then perhaps a slightly longer thing about Nev and Megan, but we were kind of just shooting stuff and archiving it. And then the turning point was when we were out in Colorado, and we realized the songs Megan was sending Nev were not her songs. That’s when I looked at Henry and said, “Whatever you do, don’t stop filming this until it ends.”


Tribeca: You guys have explained that you film constantly, film all the time, and were especially doing that during the making of the documentary.


Ariel Schulman: There’s kind of a culture between us and our friends—in the past few years, cameras have gotten really small and really inexpensive. We all like filming things and sharing them with each other. Across the street from our offices are the Neistat brothers, who have a show on HBO, and that’s kind of their thing too. Also the Safdie brothers, who have this habit of carrying little cameras around and filming things. So it’s kind of something we all do as filmmakers, just to practice, in a way, and to capture moments that we like, that we want to remember.


Reeled In: Catfish


Tribeca: One of the things that I thought was interesting—to look at the connection between this and Afterschool, and I know you guys know Antonio Campos—is that these are the first two films that I’ve seen that really understand that the virtual world can be utilized not just in service of the real world, but as a place of escape from the real world. Where virtual reality becomes realer than actual reality.


Ariel Schulman: That’s interesting. I’d never considered the connection between Catfish and Afterschool before, but it’s definitely there. I know that Antonio shares the same fascination with this stuff as we do, so he was really excited to see the film.


Henry Joost: I think it’s a product of this moment in time. The Internet is not just a tool for information, but a tool for a second life, basically. It’s a fantasyland that’s extremely interactive—it’s almost like Avatar. You can escape in a very real way, and have a very real effect on other people’s lives, and your own. It’s not virtual at all.


Ariel Schulman: Right. Sometimes what happens in the virtual world spills out into real life, like in these two films.


Reeled In: Catfish


Tribeca: As you watched Nev’s relationship with Megan progress, what were your thoughts? Did it seem odd to you? Has he always been an early adopter of technology?


Ariel Schulman: It was in keeping insofar as Nev is always getting involved with new people, in exciting new situations. He takes a lot of risks, and for better or worse, it’s usually very exciting. He happens to be very good with new technologies, but he’d never had an online technology with strangers before.


Henry Joost: We saw Nev wading into this new relationship, and at first, I saw him doing something that I don’t think I would ever do—becoming this involved with strangers on the Internet. But then I started to see how happy he was, how interested he was in this family, how they were bringing out the best in him and inspiring him artistically. I started to turn around about it at that point.


Tribeca: Can you expand on that—them bringing out the best in him?


Henry Joost: Nev was happy to be the mentor to this young artist, and I think that’s a very flattering position to be in. A young person is looking to you for advice, and her sending him paintings inspired him to think about his photography in a new way, to think, when he took a photo, would this made a good painting? And Megan was very different from girls he had dated in New York: she had a simpler lifestyle, did things outside, skied, snowboarded. She seemed very innocent. And he was incredibly sweet with her on the phone, and really cared about her a lot.


Reeled In: Catfish


Tribeca: When you were on the road trip from Chicago to Ipsheming—what was that journey like?


Ariel Schulman: We were extremely motivated by the pursuit of the truth. Perhaps we should’ve been a little more cautious than we were—those were definitely some of the scariest moments of my life. There was definitely a real possibility that our lives were on the line. But there seemed to be a greater cause. I did have a moment where I thought that I might not make it back alive, and if I didn’t, I just hoped to be rolling at the moment of my death, so that someone would find the footage and put it in the movie. I actually did send footage back to our editor, saying, “Y’know, no matter what happens, make this movie.”


Intrigued? Catfish opens on Friday, September 17. See if before you hear too much. Find tickets.


Unless you really want to go into the movie cold, the trailer doesn't give too much away:



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