How well do you know your Facebook friends? Not your best buds, of course, or your relatives, or even the ones you added after meeting on a drunken night out. We’re talking about the randoms who add you for no apparent reason. Even if you chat and share stories, how well do you actually know that person?
It’s not an uncommon thought, but one that arguably hasn’t yet been explored to its full potential on-screen. That’s where brothers Ariel and Nev Schulman, and their best friend Henry Joost come in…
Directing partners Ariel and Joost had already made some award-winning commercials when they happened upon the concept for Catfish . And like the best of ideas, the inspiration for the film had been sat in front of the pair’s noses the entire time.
“I've got this brother who is just very charismatic and gets into a lot of trouble and gets himself into situations,” says Ariel, “and if I'm not filming him, I usually regret it.” Luckily, he remembered to turn the camera on this time…
For Ariel and Joost, operation Catfish began when photographer Nev acquired a pint-sized art fan called Abby.
“I thought it started off pretty weird,” Ariel, or ‘Rel’, says of when they first started filming. “I mean, Nev had an eight-year-old superfan who was a potential art prodigy that’s basically obsessed with his photography. That was good enough for a short documentary to me and that’s about all it was for a while.” But things were about to get weird…
“We had no idea where it was headed,” admits Joost. “It was this soap opera unfolding in our office. It was engrossing.
“Ariel started filming it, and he's been wanting to make a movie about his brother, because separate from the movie, his brother is incredible, a real-life character and always attracting drama and people. He's a really charismatic person, and he has no filter, and he just wades into things.” That’s where Facebook comes in…
After Abby adds Nev on Facebook, her entire family ends up ‘friending’ him as well – including Abby’s rather attractive older sister Megan, a songwriter. Soon, Nev has struck up a long-distance relationship with Megan.
“We never thought it would be a feature film, until that moment in Vail, Colorado,” says Joost, of a key scene in Catfish when the filmmakers discover that the music Megan has been sharing with Nev is not actually hers. “And we were just like, ‘We have no idea where this going to lead, but any direction it leads is going to be a good story.’”
So they decided to film Nev pretty much on a 24/7 hour basis as they investigated this strange family…
Nevs Not Nervous
“When Rel decides to turn the camera on me,” says Nev, “I usually let him do it because I do have sort of a strange attraction towards mischief and experience and curiosity for the unknown. And I trust his artistic abilities and his passion as a filmmaker, and then of course our brotherhood and our ‘best friendship’ makes it hard. If I didn’t like him filming me, that would certainly be an issue in our brotherhood.”
He’s pragmatic about the whole “camera-phone generation” we’ve become. “Somehow we’ve just been transformed into a generation of people who are expected to document for some reason. Because…there’s this website called YouTube,” he says. But let’s get back to the beginning of his relationship with Megan…
“For the most part I guess I was at a point in my life where I felt like, ‘Okay, I’d like to get to the next level with a woman,’” says Nev. “I’d like to feel a really deep connection with someone, as I think everybody does, and I hadn’t found that in New York City. And so, when something came along that was so different and so unusual that I thought, ‘Maybe that’s why. Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right place.’
“Maybe there’s something so organic and genuine about this family that it will sort of take me out of this world that hasn’t worked, in regards specifically to the perfect girl, and I’ll find it somewhere else where I would least expect. And that does seem to be the appeal of long-distance relationships I think.” Then he started to think about meeting her…
After discovering that both Abby and Megan had been lying to him over the internet, Nev was encouraged to attempt to track Megan down and find out who she really was – on camera, naturally. So the trio hit the road to Michigan.
Driving 400 miles, they eventually pitched up at the family farmhouse at 2am. “Dumb, yeah,” recalls Nev….
It’s 2am. You’re outside the house of your internet lover, who could be a lying freak. Do you knock on the door? “We had just driven 400 miles and it was 2:30 in the morning,” says Joost, “and I think we were all just faced with this decision like, do we go to a motel and try to go to sleep, or should we just…I mean I don’t think I could of gone to sleep without at least cruising by her house to see if a light was on.”
Adds Nev: “I mean, I was miles away from who I thought might be the love of my life.” As Joost sums up, “The suspense was killing us…”
Alright, we can’t possibly give away what happens next. Still, Joost admits: “We had this fantasy that, for us, filmmaking and documentary filmmaking is so important that if we were to die, you know, you want to die holding a camera, because maybe Werner Herzog will find the footage.
“Ultimately, it became Nev’s journey to find out the truth. He ended up convincing us to keep going at different points; each of us sort of chicken out at different points.”
For Catfish to work, of course, it had to be a contained story and journey. The filmmakers set out a way of making that happen by attempting to find answers for the questions they posed.
“We had come up with one question,” says Rel, “that we all agreed needed to be answered by the end of the movie, and that question was: ‘Who is painting the paintings?’ And no matter how scary things got, or how complicated, or how many lies we unravelled, there was one thing that we knew to be true, which was that somebody was creating these paintings and sending them to him for months and months.”
As the marketing and PR for Catfish started to get pulled together, Nev had a particularly strong reaction to the posters, which warned viewers not to give away the film’s twist ending.
“When we saw the marketing strategy, we were definitely shocked,” recalls Nev. “I was upset. I didn’t like the idea of this story, this thing that happened to me, being sensationalised. It felt like there was enough of an experience that people would see it and have a reaction.
“But what I started to understand is that it’s hard to get people to spend hard-earned money to see something instead of something else if they don’t have any reason to. So, they came up with a campaign that’s striking. It highlighted one aspect of the film, there are many other aspects of the film.” There was more controversy to come, though…
As the film opened at numerous festivals, including Sundance, Catfish was showered with praise – but subject to intense scrutiny. Many viewers felt it couldn’t possibly be real. Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock even told Rel, Nev and Joost that it was “the best fake documentary he had ever seen”.
The filmmaking trio, however, stand by their project and attest it’s all “100% true”. “We're very lucky,” says Rel. “As filmmakers we were ready; we felt like we spent our lives preparing to be ready.” Now it was time to release the film on the public…
“Very few people have come out upset that it wasn’t some scary Blair Witch Project 3 ,” says Nev. “They are actually in fact moved and kind of happy because they were expecting a movie like many others that they’ve seen, and in fact they’re getting something totally new and very emotional, and their reactions to it have been really amazing.”
In the US, Catfish opened to positive reviews, with critics calling it a “sad, unusual love story”, and a “tightly wound mystery [ that ] makes for a gripping documentary”.
So have the filmmakers learnt anything from their experiences? Nev definitely did. “What I learned, or what I encourage people to consider, is that for every 500 friends that you have on Facebook – you read their profile updates, you look at their photos, you invest time into this community of people – how much time do you invest into your brother? Or how much time do you invest to your mom?
“That’s where I think we need to start thinking about this more is like, why are we spending time giving ourselves to this strange sort of floating cloud of information and not the people right around us?”