Certain films meet the moment head on, and zeitgeist sensation Catfish, a nonfiction mystery unfolding within a labyrinth of online intrigue, is a movie which both takes and matches the temperature of the outside world in a variety of compelling ways. A divisive hit at this year’s Sundance Festival, the movie centers on 24-year-old New York City photographer Nev Schulman (one of the filmmakers’ brothers), who is contacted on Facebook by Abby, an eight-year-old Michigan girl who asks permission to paint one of his pictures. When she sends him her remarkable painting, Nev strikes up an online friendship with Abby, her mother Angela and the rest of the family. When Nev and his friends uncover some startling revelations, however, they embark on a road trip to find out the truth. In the midst of their own road trip, doing press for the film, I caught up with co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Spoiler-free excerpts from the conversation are as follows:
Brent Simon: What is it about Catfish that most causes people to doubt its veracity?
Ariel Schulman: I think it’s the style or structure of the film. It’s edited like a narrative thriller, which is not your typical documentary structure at all, and I don’t think a lot of people are used to seeing a true story told [in that manner].
BS: The reaction at Sundance was overwhelmingly positive, but some people immediately talked about it being staged, or phony. Was that surprising?
Henry Joost: No, we had a small inkling of it because at an early screening before Sundance where we started showing it to people who didn’t know us personally an older documentary filmmaker brought that up. He said, “I think it’s a great film, but it’s clear to me that you staged certain scenes. There’s no way that you had the camera all those times.” But that’s the truth, nothing is staged in the film. We pulled out our cameras, which are these tiny little things that we carry around all the time. It’s not like we’re carrying 16mm cameras in our backpacks, it’s just these little consumer HD cameras. So it wasn’t totally unexpected, but it did catch us a bit off guard at Sundance, because you don’t expect people to question a real experience that you have. But I think it’s a product of the way that we put the film together, and decided not to use talking head interviews or voiceovers or things that documentaries traditionally use. And also I think audiences are more suspicious these days, because of sneaky movie marketing and the fake documentary as an emerging style, like with The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. But this idea that we could have created such an elaborate fake documentary is to me inconceivable. It’s a little [flattering], on a certain level. It would mean that we are much, much more intelligent than we are. It would be up there with War of the Worlds by Orson Welles, and we just don’t think that way.
BS: One of the things that people respond to is the degree to which fraternal jocularity informs the narrative. The first third of the film unfolds over eight months, in grab-as-grab-can snippets, and then the narrative reaches this tipping point and gathers all this downhill momentum.
HJ: That’s kind of a generational thing, and ties into social networking also — I feel like people take a lot more photos and videos of themselves these days, and are a lot more comfortable sharing things, so they understand that [condensed backstory]. And we’ve actually never really shared these little things that we shoot before this. Ariel and I do it mostly for ourselves, making these little short films. We’ve also gotten a lot of a feedback from people [in their 50s and 60s], and I feel like sort of almost unintentionally the movie explains how Facebook and Google Earth work to people our parents’ age, who say, “OK, I finally get it.”
BS: On some levels, the film could be read as a luddite’s manifesto, a tech-age cautionary tale. Where do you guys come down on the revolution in social media?
AS: My social networking is below average among our friends. I really just use it as much as I feel like I have to to stay in touch with people I want to stay in touch with, and check out their photos. (laughs) But social networking has made me a little uncomfortable from the beginning, even though I recognize its value. My favorite thing about it is that it’s allowed me to connect again with people I went to kindergarten and middle school with that I probably never would have seen again.
BS: The reception of this film has obviously opened a lot of doors — what’s next?
HJ: We always had dreams of making a narrative fiction film, so we’re thinking of doing that next, and we’d love to continue making feature documentaries also. But we’re not going to plan on it, we’re just going to be ready if happens, I guess. It’s obviously a very hard experience to duplicate, but right now we’re writing and looking forward to getting back to work. We’ve been doing screenings around the country and doing Q&As, and every time we screen the film a great conversation follows. Another thing is that people have been sharing their own stories with us. And usually people want to know how Nev is doing — they’re concerned for him. He’s very vulnerable. This has sort of reinvigorated his photography career, and he’s also traveling around with us. People want to meet him more than us.
Catfish expands in theaters today. For more information on the film, click here.