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An interview with Catfish filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

(Segments originally published at Trespass Magazine)




Since its debut at last year’s Sundance film festival, Catfish has been the subject of high praise and controversy.

Directed by New York filmmakers Ariel “Rev” Schulman and Henry Joost, Catfish documents Rev’s brother Yaniv (affectionately known as Nev), as he begins a long-distance, online relationship with a young woman from rural Michigan.

Yet when things don’t appear to be what they seem.... we’ll leave it at that, with Catfish featuring a series of shocking twists which have caught audiences by surprise. (Some of which will be discussed here, so spoilers about!)

But exactly how the film was made has been the source of controversy, with many accusing Catfish of fabricating scenes and exploiting certain individuals.  

During their time in Sydney, both Rev and Henry took some time out from their schedule to talk about the dangers of social networking, humanity’s need to connect, and those dogged allegations towards the credibility of their film.


Catfish has developed an aura of mystique since its premiere at Sundance last year. What difficulties have you guys faced in trying to publicise a film that relies so much on its mystery?

Rev Schulman: I think we ask anyone that the less you now about this movie, the better. And that’s for your sake, that’s for your experience. Because the movie was our experience, and was basically how we felt, how it happened. We didn’t know a thing about it going into it. It was a total mystery which just unravelled in front of our eyes. And if you stay away from the spoilers, and stay away from the trailer, you might have that same experience, and that’s the most satisfying away of going about it.

Henry Joost: And for some people that’s been enough. They hear some positive reviews from other people, and they say “All right. I won’t read anything and I’ll just go see it”. 

There are moments in the film where it felt like an investigative thriller. Was that sense of entering the unknown freaked you out?  

H: Oh yeah! Very much so. That was the scariest moment of my life, when I was driving into the driveway...that was just like, we made this decision to find out the truth, whatever the cost. And when we are there, driving at 3am in a part of the country we have never been before, it kind of sunk in and I was was thrilling. We had this feeling that even if something bad does happen, it was worth it because this is what we do. We are documentarians out there, and we are trying to find the truth. If we die, at least we’ll be doing what we love (laughs).

As long as you caught it all on camera!

R: (Laughs) Right! That made it worth it. The camera was our purpose and our safety net. It was like an amalgamation of Indiana Jones and Hunter Thompson. It was danger journalism.

I actually thought there was going to be a bit of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well!

H: Yeah, so did we!

R: We had back up plans, we had weapons, we had self defence scenarios...we were ready to go.

H: We put a rocket launcher in the trunk...

R: Yeah, right!

I usually find the best plan is to drop and run.

R: (Laughs) That was also discussed. The engine was always running, no matter where we were.


Catfish image
"We had this feeling that even if something bad does happen, it was worth it because this is what we do. We are documentarians out there, and we are trying to find the truth." - Rev Schulman

Nev went into his relationship with this family without suspicion. Is he representative of a certain faith and gullibility people have when it comes to social networking?

R: I think it does. Throughout time people have been desperate to connect. Human beings are societal by nature. There are plenty of loners out there, but in general we all sort of group together. So social networking basically allows that on a global scale, and people are just looking to connect. To make friends, fall in love, share ideas. Nev was looking to fall in love. He wanted that so badly and so did she. So they sort of found each other at the right place at the right time.   

The internet has provided the ultimate mask for people to hide behind, yet were you even surprised by the lengths that Angela went to create this alternate online world?  

R: Yeah. It took months for it to set in. We went back and printed out all of the correspondence, and sort of relived the relationship very precisely. She gave us all of her passwords so we could look into everything, and it was astounding how deep and complicated in detail it was.

H: Those were things we’ve never seen, because we weren’t reading all of the emails. We only saw what Nev saw. There were 16 different characters, and they all were talking to each other, and they were talking about stuff that had nothing to do with Nev. They had this totally real life online, and were saying things like “Remember you to come to my house, and “You need to drop my car off”, and “Remember that bet we made? I won the bet”...

It was almost like role playing...   

H: Yeah! It was a creative process. She created characters and was letting those characters live. It’s really not different from what a novelist does, or a fiction filmmaker does. She was putting a little bit of herself in her characters, and sort of telling her own story through them, and that was her way of expressing herself in front of  her audience of one: Nev.

R: Did you know that initially J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series, or developed in her mind, just to tell her daughter bedtime stories? Sort of similar. I always called Angela the J.K. Rowling of the internet, because her story was nearly as layered as the Harry Potter saga, with its many characters who each had their own voice, their own drama, their own arcs, their own weaknesses and strengths, plotlines...and it was for an audience of one.

Usually the documentarian doesn’t interfere with their subject and their story. But in Catfish your brother was directly involved. How do you as a documentarian try not to get involved?  

R: I don’t. I just threw myself in there. We’re both subjects of the movie, and it would have been dishonest for us to stay back. We would have been bad friends, first of all....we were there with Nev, experiencing it with him. So the decisions he makes are partly our decisions to. Se we’re playing two roles at once, and I think we kind of like that type of documentary.  

The definition of documentary to me is a little broader then just objective story telling.

H: I’ve always felt that fly on the wall documentary, where you never hear the filmmakers voice, and the filmmaker seems like he or she is invisible, is not really possible. By doing that your just cutting out the parts where the filmmaker , and putting any type of recording device in that situation changes that.   

It’s like quantum mechanics. You look at something and it changes the state of it, you know? We were just trying to expose the mechanics of that. There are these conversations, like the fight between Rel and Nev, were Rel has gotten so excited about making this movie, that he forgotten his brother is going through this really traumatic, emotional experience, and they need to get back and check with each other. That is what really does happen in making a documentary, and I think it is very important to show.

How many hours of footage did you guys shoot? Where talking about months of shooting...

R: (Referring to the label on my digital recorder). About 261! (LAUGHS) Actually, it’s not that far off.  But the funny thing is 95% of it was taken in the last two weeks of the relationship.

After the big reveal?...

R: Yeah. And as soon as we got back we shot the parts with the emails on the computer screen. The entire build up was a sporadic, back up project. A few minutes here, a few minutes there.

What I really like about the film was that you guys portray the internet experience in two ways. The first was by showing the human aspect, and the second was the technological aspect with the use of graphics providing the visual experience of surfing the net. Was the latter a pre-conceived before hand, or did it come out of post production?  

H: Yeah, it was born out of this need...even though it seems like the camera is always rolling and we got all of these moments in the film, the truth is that we missed a lot of things and there are a lot of gaps in the story during the beginning, when we weren’t shooting that much.

So it started out with this need to fill out these gaps, and we experimented with a bunch of different styles in doing that. The one that felt right was using the computer any time we wanted to give the audience a piece of information, which makes perfect sense since that is the way Nev finds his information.  If he was sitting there late at night and said, “Maybe I should drive and go see Megan”, he would out her address in Google maps and would put her address in there, and it would say 1,000 miles. And that is the same way we used the graphic.   

R: That was very much after the fact, though.

H: Took a while to figure it out.

R: There was a lot of experimentation. We would put a little bit in and be like, “Oh, that is really working! We should do more of that!” Or maybe a little more of this...

H: There was a lot of that...It wasn’t like we were making the movie and thought, “Let’s make a really timely movie about modern life”. But that’s what came out of it. It just was what it was.

Did you use storyboards in piecing together the scenes?     

H: We did theme cards...

R: ...for structure.

H: ...yeah, when were editing, we put them all up on a wall and kept trying to reorganise them, trying to figure out what was essential and what wasn’t.

Must have been a lot of cards!

R: (Laughs) Yeah, there were a lot of cards, but there were also a lot of good scenes. We basically had a couple of mantras, but one of them was that not a single moment of film that doesn’t develop the story.

H: Because it could then go off into so many tangents, from so much footage.

R: We decided that the love story was the most important thing.

Any plans to release these tangents on an internet video diary etc?

R: Maybe, yeah.

H: We had this idea that maybe the DVD would be that, but there wasn’t enough time to develop it. So maybe there will be a Special Edition DVD in the future, or an Australian cut...

R:...yeah, we’ve been talking to Hopscotch (Australian distributor) about putting some of that great stuff on the Australian DVD.


Catfish image
"It’s really satisfying when you watch a film, and you just never know which direction it’s going to turn and feel totally unpredictable." - Henry Joost

What surprised me was Nev’s reaction to the truth, and to Angela. Usually a confrontation is warranted, yet Nev went another way. Were you guys equally as surprised?  

R: No. He had his moment of outburst around the time that we fight in the hotel room. After that he was like, “I am no longer in love with this girl. I’m open to the possibility that she is real, but she is such an extreme liar that I can’t see myself being with her. So right now I am a journalist in search of the truth”.

He seemed like a soldier ready to go into battle, and he was dragging you guys along.   

R: Exactly!

H: That’s one of his moods.

R: He is a really tender guy. He knew the only way to get the truth from Angela’s story was to be kind, and non-judgemental. He could have just thrown a grenade in, and we could have peeled out of there and flown back to New York, but we would have left with nothing. It would have been a story with no answer, and that is what we wanted the most, we wanted to find out why and how.

H: The emotional impact felt by Nev was delayed by about a week. When he got back from New York he was really, seriously depressed for a long time, and wasn’t interested at all about talking about it. He didn’t want us in the office editing it, so we actually moved our editing suite to my Dads house, just to be tentative to his feelings.

R: After the adrenaline rush wore off, he realised how empty he felt after basically losing 15 of his closest friends. He was really friends with all of them, and the “poof!” they are gone.      

Speaking of those friends, Angela did use other peoples’ music and image. What type of ramifications did she meet, legal wise?

R: No, nothing towards her. We heard from a lot of people who were used, because she didn’t know who they were exactly either.

It was just whoever suited her vision of these characters?

R: Yeah. She just grabbed whatever she liked. So some of these people did reach out, and they’ve seen the movie and basically felt enough compassion for her to not pursue legal action. It would probably be a dead end anyway.

When researching your movie, I’ve come across a lot of cynicism and a lot of speculation. Do you think because of the way some documentaries are presented by certain filmmakers, people feel guarded and suspect of what they see on screen?

R: Yeah. There are all of these fake docs. I think it’s a shame, because they are giving documentaries a bad name. You can’t just stand up and say “Ladies and gentlemen may I present you the documentary, and it is 100% true”. You have to spend an eternity repeating yourself that it is true, and I don’t know if anyone will certainly believe you. Mainly because of the Casey Affleck and Banksy...those are the two mentioned the most by critics.

H: I don’t feel it’s a bad thing...

R: Well, I have not enjoyed defending the truth...

H: No, I didn’t mean by that. But I think people are more media savvy now. They realise that you can shoot two hours of interviewing someone, and when you cut it together you can make them seem however you want. You have that power as an editor to make them seem smart, or stupid, or incoherent. But to a certain extent documentaries can’t be the same as an objective truth. It’s impossible. I think more people are creating every has cameras, now everyone is posting videos on YouTube, and I think that’s a good thing. The truth is I don’t think that documentaries are more less manipulative now than they ever were, and there are these sort of golden age docs which present these objective portraits on famous people like Bob Dylan. But they’re totally edited, and there are lots of choices into making a film, which is important to realise when watching something, or when they’re reading something.

Now you have gone through the ringer in regards to the films credibility, how would you approach your next project so you are not met with the same speculation?

R: That is a good question. If we were to film another documentary next, which we won’t be, how would be approach it? Well this documentary was unique in that we didn’t know what it was, it just sort of fell out of the sky, and we just followed it down the rabbit hole. We were as surprised with every twist in the story, as much as the audience member. So there was no way to prove along the way what was happening.

H: We could just present a persuasive bunch of evidence that this film is real, if we wanted.

Not to mention that your brother would probably be the most natural actor since Marlon Brando, to steal a quote from you.

R: That’s right! (laughs)

H: It’s also...if it was fake, why we want to make it the way that we did? Why would we make things happen the way it did? Wouldn’t we want to make a more commercial film? Or a film that’s not so weird?

I just find it ironic that when it comes to Angel’s Facebook universe people don’t question it, but when it comes to a documentary people look at it suspiciously.

H: Well, a lot of people have said that this is a film about deception, so I guess the controversy make sense.

You mentioned your next film won’t be a documentary, so what will be next?  Feature film making?

R: Yeah, a narrative feature, most likely a sort of love story / thriller. Some of the similar themes in Catfish. There are a couple of films in Catfish, we like to think. There is a buddy film, an investigative thriller, and a good ol’ human drama in the end.

H: I think we learned a lot on narrative filmmaking in editing Catfish. What’s a good theme? What’s a good way to reveal information? You can’t duplicate the way it is in real life. We tried. It’s really satisfying when you watch a film, and you just never know which direction it’s going to turn and feel totally unpredictable. So we want to try and do that in our narrative filmmaking.



Catfish is currently playing in selected Australian cinemas through Hopscotch Films

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