The 'Catfish' filmmakers: A Q&A and some advice
"Catfish" has established itself as the most-debated indie mystery of the fall season, a movie that's designed to tell us something significant about how we use Facebook and the Internet. But what? To find out you have to buy a ticket, of course.
The trio behind this film about a New York City photographer who develops a bond with an 8-year-old painting prodigy named Abby recently came to Washington, D.C., prompting the Post's Monica Hesse to write an excellent piece that attempts to get to the bottom of what's really happening in "Catfish."
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and Schulman's brother Nev -- that aforementioned photographer and the protagonist of this documentary -- also took some time to chat with me during their recent D.C. visit. In addition to providing some sage advice about Facebook and how to present oneself on the Web (see video above), they also chatted about everything from the marketing behind "Catfish," Ben Affleck's latest movie, their feeling about the critics who accuse their film of not being real and -- hand to God -- the fact that they were offered the opportunity to make the Justin Bieber documentary.
Here's a transcript of our conversation, with big spoiler alerts around the portions that delve into plot details.
JC: This is such a challenging movie to market because you don't want to give away what happens. So the trailer almost makes "Catfish" seem like a horror movie. I wondered how you felt about that approach.
AS: Well, I think there is a suspense element to the movie. So that's definitely one part of a very complicated movie that is really tough to sell and definitely tough to summarize and almost impossible to compare to anything. Maybe they just figured, well, guys, I think we've got to sort of focus on one thing. And it's the thing that definitely gets people to go see a movie, which is suspense.
Henry Joost: Our initial concern was that it would turn people off because -- not that it would turn people off, [but] that if you went in expecting a kind of normal, straight horror movie, you might be sort of disappointed. But so far that hasn't really been the case. I think that it preserves the surprise in a way by making you think that it's something else and it ends up being much more than that. It's much more of a human drama than a horror movie or a thriller, I think.
JC: I actually didn't look at the trailers much beforehand because I was trying to go into the movie with as little knowledge of what happens as possible. So it wasn't until after I saw it that I looked at the trailer and thought, I understand why they did that but it's not what I feel the film was about.
AS: Yeah, but you know, I'm glad it's not the kind of trailer that gives everything away. Because it's so important that the experience is as fresh and open-minded as possible. It just works for the movie, because that's what it was like for us. I think we successfully made a movie that's almost identical to the experience we had. And that works as well for the audience member. So it's not like the trailer for "The Town" or something, where they just basically tell you the entire act structure.
JC: Yeah, that trailer bothered me, too, for that reason.
HJ: It's a pretty good movie, too, by the way.
Nev Shulman: It's weird that you see [Ben Affleck] take off the mask [in the trailer] it's like, really? You're going to give that away?
AS: I know.
NS: I guess there's another twist.
AS: No, there's not another twist. I saw it.
--NOTE: IN ADDITION TO 'CATFISH' SPOILERS, THERE ARE SOME 'THE TOWN' SPOILERS AHEAD --
JC: Well, he takes off the mask--
JC: Very early. But you don't necessarily need to know in the trailer that [Ben Affleck's character and Rebecca Hall's character] get romantically involved.
HJ: And also that scene where he turns around and shoots at the guy -- that's like late in the movie and it's a sort of big moment. I can't believe they put that in the trailer.
--END OF 'TOWN' SPOILERS. IT'S SAFE TO KEEP READING--
AS: Anyway, Ben Affleck's career. So, "Good Will Hunting"...
HJ: It's pretty good, though. Did you like "The Town"?
JC: I did like it.
AS: Quickly, someone said something really weird to me the other day. They were like, "'I'm Still Here,' directed by the last living Affleck." And I didn't get the joke. I think they were making a reference to -- I don't know what it was.
JC: Maybe they meant that Ben Affleck's career was dead? Which obviously is false.
AS: Maybe they were thinking of the Phoenix brothers because River Phoenix is dead?
JC: In which case that's just a terrible thing to say.
AS: Right. Anyway, it was a weird thing for a film buff to say and I'm still pondering it.
JC: You talked a second ago about how making the film was a process of discovery for you. Can you talk more about that? My understanding is that you started out just wanting to make a film about Nev and Abby and you didn't necessarily envision it as a feature film to begin with.
AS: A lot of people ask us, did you know what was going to happen? How much were you privy to before? And the answer is absolutely nothing. The fact that it's a feature film was an accident. It began as a short film about Nev and Abby, and we thought they'd have a gallery show together, and it would be six minutes, and they would meet and sort of high-five. End of movie.
JC: So it would be a short.
AS: Yeah, like a cute festival short. Either way, we're filming each other all the time. So no skin off our backs. And it was background to what we were doing, which was building a production company, making commercials, making a film for PBS, short docs, music videos. We were very busy and this was just sort of background.
--SPOILERS OF IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN 'CATFISH' BEGIN HERE. PROCEED WITH CAUTION--
And then it started to develop and it became maybe a longer short film. And it wasn't intil Vail, Colorado and the ngiht we discovered the songs weren't quite what they seemed that we literally looked at each other and said, don't stop rolling. I think we've got a feature story on our hands. And we certainly still don't know where it's going.
JC: Nev, you expressed some discomfort about being captured on film at some point when you weren't so keen on it. Did you enjoy any aspect of being the subject of this film?
NS: Yeah, I mean I think, similar to the attention I was getting from the family -- which is a big part of why I engaged with them so much -- It's fun to be the attention of filmmakers who I admire. There were definitely moments where I felt there was a little bit too much at stake for me emotionally. Those are the moments in the film where I sort of wanted to have them give me more room. But I signed a lease on that office space and then invited them to come share it with me because I really admire them as artists. So the idea that they were -- when the film picks up in intensity -- they were devoting so much time to a film they could make was kind of exciting, yeah. And it's also just cool to hang out and be with them.
AS: And you got to go through one of the hardest moments of your life with two guys who were as invested in it as you were. That's nice. I'd like to have that.
JC: I think, Nev, you say at one point in the film that you feel stupid because you didn't realize what was really going on. We're so conditioned now to be automatically skeptical of what's on the Internet. Why were you not more skeptical?
NS: I think there's a combination of things. First of all, there is such a high level of sort of sensational content now that's billed as real. So in regards to that, yeah, of course. Everyone's a little bit more skeptical of that stuff. But to contrast that, when you're dealing with people in a sort of very normal, everyday way -- and there's a picture, and then there's a name, and there's e-mail messages -- that seems very real. I never considered that there would be someone on the line that would have any reason to deceive me. I didn't feel like I had anything at risk or any huge amount of money, potentially.
You know, I mean it just speaks to the fact that, amongst the sort of vastness of the Internet and how what could potentially be fake and what could potentially go wrong -- this to me, seemed very small and personal. And it started off very slowly and it built incrementally. It didn't really play out in the way that you think something like this would. It felt genuine. There were times where I would say, maybe something's a little off. But then something would happen and I would say, you know what Nev? You're just being cautious, like a hard-nosed New Yorker. Maybe this family really is just this great and you just need to, like, accept it.
JC (to Ariel Shulman and Henry): I got the sense that maybe you guys were a little more skeptical based on some of the questions that you were posing to Nev. As outside observers, where were you coming from on this?
HJ: We also didn't know as much about it. Or I certainly didn't. I think I knew the least about it. Because in Vail I'm asking stuff like, wait a minute: Abby was having a gallery show? I didn't even know about it.
NS: I didn't share everything with them. It was too much.
HJ: It was kind of just this thing that Nev was involved in that we would kind of check in on every once in a while. We definitely both had these moment where we would both say, is it really possible that an 8-year-old wrote that e-mail, and it's so articulate and thoughtful? And he's say, "Well, I think Angela helps her write the e-mails or something.
AS: She's special.
HJ: And she's special. We thought she was a gifted prodigy, kind of this amazing kid. We said, she's giving you all these paintings for free, are you sure she's not going to ask about money, that this is some thing about money? Then Abby sent -- her and Angela sent Nev a check for $500 because Abby won first place in the painting contest and she insisted on splitting the winnings with Nev. So we're like, okay, it's definitely not that.
Any time we had a little bit of skepticism, it was always buried under details, where Nev would explain to us why that wasn't a valid thought in our minds.
JC: It seems to me that Abby might not have prompted skepticism to such a degree, but once Megan entered the picture, that was more intense and...
AS: Well, that wasn't an easy ride either. And you're skeptical about a relationship with a girl that's tough. First of all, she lived really far away so that's long-distance. She wasn't always available. She had sort of an ex-boyfriend that was always sort of keeping an eye on her. That was also a slow burn. [Nev and Megan] were sort of buddies for a few months before it became very flirtatious.
I think the No. 1 reason for not being suspicious is that he was on top of the world. I'd never seen him so happy. I'd never seen him have a group of friends that he would talk to on the phone, for an hour. We're really close, but we don't really talk. And he was opening up and having these long emotional conversations with people. We were seeing a different side of him. And I wasn't about to ask him why. He's my brother, my job is to make sure he's happy and when he is, to stay that way.
JC: Some critics have questioned whether all of this is real and, especially, where there was anything planned about the part when you get to Michigan. What's your response to that?
AS: We basically winged it. We've been making movies for years and we've been interviewing people and interviewing strangers, so I guess we had good instincts at this point. But basically it was just up to Nev about how he wanted to broach the subject. I think his basic sort of sensitivity to the subject led the way and we followed suit.
JC: Was there every any sense of, are we overstepping our bounds by just showing up at this family's house?
HJ: Well, yeah--
AS: Not social bounds. It felt dangerous.
HJ: Yeah. We were like, okay, we don't know what we're going to find there. So we should come in, we shouldn't be aggressive -- all we cared about at that point was finding out the truth, finding out who was painting the paintings. We just wanted to know what was going on. We didn't want to attack anyone. That's why we came in very neutrally.
AS: We felt like we deserved to show up. This was the girl he had been talking to for months, the family.
JC: Does it bother you that people are suggesting there's an unreality to it?
AS: No, it's actually kind of overly flattering that we might be able to come up with this stuff.
HJ: It does bother me when people say we somehow knew this was going to happen and we were somehow manipulating the situation because that suggests that we're the worst kind of people.
NS: Yeah, but even if that were true, that would mean we manipulated the situation to give Angela an opportunity to express her situation and tell her story.
HJ: It just amazes me that people say that because there's no evidence and there never will be any evidence that that's the case.
JC: I wonder if some of this is because Angela obviously manipulated the situation. That part of the plot makes you start thinking about the potential for people to do that.
AS: Right. it's like meta, meta reasoning. Which is a wonderful way to see art, but we're not that -- I'm not that good of a writer. You know? I mean maybe I have good instincts to follow a story. It's wonderful film theorizing and that's very flattering.
--END OF PLOT SPOILERS. YOU'RE SAFE TO READ ON FROM HERE.--
JC: How has the film changed things for the three of you? Are you getting different projects offered to you as a result of this?
AS: We were approached to do a documentary with Justin Bieber. Which may never have otherwise happened.
JC: The big 3D one? Are you kidding?
AS: Unfortunately, we were not available.
JC: The same one they asked Davis Guggenheim to do?
NS: Why weren't you guys available?
AS: We were doing this. It would be like right now.
JC: I have a feeling that might not have been the best project for you.
HJ: We didn't want to make a commercial for Justin Bieber, but it would have been cool to make a real, actual documentary about him.
JC: I suspect that's what Davis Guggenheim wanted to do, and then he realized. And that's why the director from "Step Up 2: The Streets" is now doing it.
HJ: It's hard when someone hires you to make a documentary about them.
AS: But I mean, what's happening to that 15-year-old kid is extremely fascinating.
AS: Otherwise, we're still all really close. We're still really humbled, broke artists in New York City. He's still a photographer, we're still looking to pay rent. Otherwise, maybe we have a chance to get our next movie made. But we didn't have trouble getting this movie made because it cost us $10,000 bucks.
JC: And that's the kind of movie you'd like to continue to do?
AS: Yeah, we're not trying to blow up the streets of Manhattan in our next movie.
JC (to Nev): And what about you? You're still doing photography?
NS: Yeah. In fact, I was a little distracted during this because I was just thinking about how I can't wait to take some photographs again. But yeah.
JC: Do you have any interest in acting?
NS: I mean I have interest in new and different things always. That's certainly come up. People have asked me about that and proposed doing that. I said no after Sundance to a lot of opportunities to go on auditions and try to be an actor. But when the movie settles down, who knows? I'm certainly interested in trying something different. Maybe finding a new career.
| September 24, 2010; 11:35 AM ET
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