The first rule of Catfish is that you do not talk about Catfish. This year’s Paranormal Activity in terms of budget and wow factor—production costs $2,000, buzz unlimited—the film is infinitely more fascinating if you don’t know what’s coming.
That said: Spoilers, right ahead!
A conversation with filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman along with Ariel’s brother and the movie’s star, Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, would be mighty short if you didn’t get into whys, hows, and what-the-fucks of their feature debut. (Full-time, Joost and Ariel own a company that produces commercials and short documentaries.)
The gist: Nev, a handsome New York photographer, one day got an unexpected package from an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby. Abby was moved by one of Nev’s published photos to paint it and send it to her newfound role model. And so they began a correspondence that eventually expands into phone and Facebook relationships with Abby’s mother, Angela, and—more enticingly—her hottie older sister, Megan. Friends of the family contact Nev through Facebook, too.
None of them are who they say they are, if they exist at all. And Angela, a dowdy middle-aged wife and mother who’d given up her creative ambitions when she married a man with two severely disabled sons, is the ringleader.
Joost and Ariel Schulman catch it all on video, most intriguingly Nev’s developing relationship with Megan and the threesome’s surprise trip to Michigan when they suspect something’s not right.
Too good to be true? Some people think so. Let’s see what the boys have to say.
CP: What made you start filming Nev and how long was it before the story developed?
ARIEL: I guess my lifelong fascination with my brother made me start filming him. He’s sort of a lightning rod for wild situations and weird interactions. And as soon as he had a superfan from Michigan, it sounded like a pretty good short film. So we were busy working on our production company, but I started picking up background footage and building what we thought would be a five- or six-minute film that would end when [Nev and Abby] met. Then, like a snowball, it just kept getting more and more layered.
CP: How much footage did you shoot?
ARIEL: Over 200 hours, most of it taking place in the last week [when we were in Michigan]. The first eight months, like I said, were just background. We had no idea we had such a complex story. So, maybe just an hour, two hours from the first months and then more than 200 from the last week.
CP: Did Angela always know she was being recorded, both on the phone and on camera?
HENRY: No, not at the beginning. Part of that was just because we never thought it would turn into anything. When we got out [to Michigan], we said, “We’ve been recording Nev’s story up until now, and is it OK is we film your side of the story?” Then we made it clear we’d been recording conversations.
ARIEL: She was sort of pleased, actually. It was a record of this really intense period of both of their lives.
CP: You see Angela admitting to a lot in the film. When did you find the truth about her cancer and other revelations you include in the afterword?
HENRY: That was Nev who found that out.
ARIEL: We found out there was much more to reveal after we got back. I mean, she’d really come clean, but there was still more to uncover. At this point, I think we’re all on pretty solid ground as friends.
CP: Nev, you said at the beginning of the film that you didn’t want to be in a documentary. Have you changed your mind?
NEV: I still don’t recommend having the most embarrassing and emotional experience of your life being made into a movie. However, being the subject of a film has been an incredibly informative, interesting, and educational experience. I learned a lot about myself and I don’t regret it and I wouldn’t change anything, from how it went in real life to having it documented.
CP: Were you at all heartbroken over Megan, or more intrigued and/or angry?
NEV: My first reaction to the whole thing was surprise, and while we were in Michigan experiencing Angela and her family, I never considered my own feelings. It was very clear to me at the time that what she was dealing with, who she was, was really the focus of why we were there.
And then when we came back, I had the opportunity to feel. And my first feeling was intense depression and disappointment, and then heartbreak and anger and frustration—all the feelings you would expect to have [after a breakup]. But very quickly it became about understanding why this had happened, why I sort of let it happen, and how to move forward and apply those lessons to my real, face-to-face life.
CP: You make a comment that Angela “must be awesome, because her kids are awesome—at least from Facebook.” This would be a great quote to point to for anyone who believes this was staged. Have you been accused of faking it?
HENRY: No one’s ever mentioned that quote before, but yes, they have. The truth is we couldn’t have written it better than this. We’re not that good as writers.
ARIEL: That would have been a good line, though.
HENRY: There’s so much in the movie that in retrospect seem too good to be true. But that’s kind of the way life is—a series of coincidences.
ARIEL: I’m willing to chalk it up to luck. We got lucky that we happened to capture this wild ride.
CP: Has Casey Affleck given documentarians a bad name? What do you think of his admittance that I’m Still Here isn’t real?
HENRY: I don’t want to judge it before I see it. It seemed very early on that there was some kind of performance art, a mockumentary going on.
ARIEL: It would be nice to know that if you say something’s a documentary, that people’s first reaction is to believe you. But I guess after so many years of reality television and fake viral videos, people have become really defensive and wary of constructed reality.
NEV: It’s our own fault. We started making reality TV shows, and then they weren’t interesting enough, so we made them…not real. We made them more dramatic, we brought in outside elements, because, you know, sometimes life is boring. That doesn’t make for good TV. So it’s our own fault to expect that anything that is interesting is fake.
HENRY: I don’t think, though, that the fake documentary is an invalid art form. Even a documentary that’s ambiguous about whether it’s true—there’s not anything wrong with that. But it’s just not what we did.
CP: Do you all still have Facebook profiles?
ARIEL: Sure do.
NEV: I surrendered. I gave up on the idea that Facebook, for me, holds any personal significance. It’s just a tool for people who’ve seen the film and want to talk, about promoting the film, and that’s it.
I tried up until recently to keep it personal, but as I continued thinking about it and talking about it, I realized it’s just a distraction. If I don’t have time to spend with people in real life, if they’re not a part of my actual day-to-day, then there’s no reason to spend less time with someone who’s sitting next to me and focus on people who have no significance.
ARIEL: I’m still looking for love on Facebook. Every time I get a message and it’s a girl’s name, I’m like, Hey! This could be the one!
What am I going to do, close the door on meeting people online? There’s a hell of a lot of people out there that I won’t cross paths with in person. There are people who are seeing the movie, who are seeing our lives, from across the country and are inspired to contact us. And I like that we are directors that you can contact.
CP: What’s next for you? Are you done with commercials?
ARIEL: No, that’s the only way to make money.
HENRY: Is that all you care about?
ARIEL: No, but you gotta pay the rent. And I like doing commercials a lot. It gives us a chance to try out funny new cameras and technology with a short-form idea. But this will hopefully be the first of many feature films.
CP: Do you want to keep making documentaries or will you experiment with fiction?
ARIEL: Docs for life! Truth is stranger than fiction.