November 30, 2010
In life, some things may not be what they seem, but on the Internet, it is best to take everything with a grain of salt.
That’s what filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost discovered while filming a documentary about Schulman’s brother Nev.
What started out as an innocent film about Nev’s Internet friendship with an 8-year-old artist named Abby and her singer/songwriter sister Megan, turned out to be a twisted, disturbing and eye-opening experience the Schulmans will never forget. The result is "Catfish," which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
"It’s an accidental film," Ariel Schulman said during a telephone interview from New York City. "We all film each other all the time. And it’s part of our culture amongst our friends that we star for each other in films when we’re doing one."
When Nev was contacted through the Internet by Abby, who wanted to paint one of his photographs, his brother thought it was endearing and wanted to make a short film about the friendship.
"There wasn’t much of a goal, but that, really," Ariel Schulman said. "And I figured if it didn’t turn out to be a short film, it would have been made into a collection of footage that I might use as a birthday video somewhere down the road."
Recommended Stories For You
Then one night, the relationships and the film spun into something else entirely, he said.
"Nev was deeply in love with the older sister, whom he only had met online," Schulman said. "And he was deeply in love with her family. And at one specific moment in the film, Nev discovers that nothing is what it seems. Then the film became a journey to find out the truth."
The truth was the fact that the people whom Nev thought he knew, existed in an entirely different way than he imagined.
"From there it got bigger and bigger," Schulman said. "At times we felt like were living in an adventure movie. We were being detectives in our own film, and we had to translate that into a comprehensive narrative. We used Internet applications as our tools Google, Facebook, YouTube, Google Earth to help us discover and uncover the truth."
Throughout a nine-month period, the filmmakers peeled away the mystery to find bits of truth. They pored through 250 hours of footage to make "Catfish."
"We wanted the audience to feel the way we did at certain emotional plot points of the film," Schulman said. "It was an editing challenge and took a year and half to edit."
Initially, Schulman and Joost didn’t know where to begin the film, but settled on the Schulmans’ childhood to bring people up to speed. Before they knew it, there was enough footage to go chronologically from the beginning of the relationship between Nev, Abby and Megan to the end.
"We felt there was a storyline that would make a feature film and the first goal was to get it to the Sundance Film Festival," Schulman said.
After it’s initial release, "Catfish" was criticized for being a "fake documentary" and that it was exploitative and manipulative, something Schulman denies.
"What helped us out was the fact that we all agreed that basically whatever happened in our lives during those nine months, no matter how embarrassing, was fair game," he said. "There are points in the movie where I come off as a jerk and Nev comes off as really naïve. But we all put the story ahead of ourselves. I mean we had nothing to hide, and we still don’t."
The payoff for making the film isn’t the press or the critical acclaim, nor the money, Schulman said.
The reward was connecting with the public.
"People are constantly telling us they’ve experienced the same things as Nev," Schulman said. "They have told us the movie has changed their lives, either to help them overcome embarrassment or to stop doing things through the Internet to other people.
"It’s unbelievable how many people have gone through the same thing or in the middle of the same thing that Nev has gone through and they need help. They tell us how much they liked the way Nev handled it all and they would like to handle it the same way."
Making the film helped Schulman find the "why" regarding a questionable action.
"We have realized behind every incident is a human being," he said. "And if you’re open to those reasons and motivations behind any incident, you can come away as a learned human being, with a better understanding of what motivates people to do the things they do."
"Catfish," an official selection of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, will be screened in the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorum, 1255 Park Avenue, on Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. the film is rated PG-13. Admission is free.