Interview: Nev and Rel Schulman and Henry Joost of ‘Catfish’

Posted on September 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Manhattan film-makers Rel Schulman and Henry Joost had no idea what movie they were making when they turned their camera on Rel’s brother Nev as he opened up a package sent to him from a little girl he had never met.
In a world where technology makes possible and culture makes acceptable the idea of everyone’s starring in some sort of reality show documentary, Rel and Henry were used to filming whatever was going on around them. In this case, that happened to be Nev’s increasing involvement via Facebook, telephone, and texting with an 8-year old girl named Abby, her mother Angela and half-sister Megan, and and their extended family and friends. And then, when Nev began to doubt the authenticity of the stories he was being told, the movie began to be about his impulsive journey to Michigan to see for himself who was on the other side of the digital connection.
The movie is called Catfish and it is a surprise critical and box office hit.
I spoke to them in Washington, D.C. and yes, they were filming their tour here for a possible documentary about the fame and fortune their movie was bringing them. They recorded me as I recorded them. Henry told me that he believes everyone has a story that could become a documentary. He says he and Rel would like to make feature films as well, but that they will always make documentaries. I asked him whether getting to know someone on Facebook was different from the selective revelations of the early stages of any romance. He said, “Yes. It’s digital; it’s binary. You either like something or you don’t. There’s no in between. You determine the way you are presented There’s none of that ambiguity of eye contact and body language and things you pick up in person when you are with someone. You pick this photo or that photo.”
Rel said that even as friends gathered regularly to hear updates on Nev’s developing online romance with Megan, they did not think of that relationship as the story of the film until the night in Vail, Colorado, when the discrepancies in her stories began to make them wonder who it was that Nev was falling for.
I talked with Nev about his hesitation in committing to both the film and the romance.
In the film you seem to be ambivalent about being in a movie. At what point did you really agree to commit to it?
Nev: Not until a couple of weeks before Sundance. I agreed by default in the sense that I share an office and at the time an apartment with my brother. That’s the nature of being friends with those guys. The cameras are on and if you are around them, you might be in their next short film.
But officially I hadn’t agreed. I always held that trump card. I wanted to wait and see how it turned out because I was so unsure what it would look like, so it wasn’t until a couple of weeks before Sundance that I really signed off on it and said, “here’s my signature.” I was a little concerned and nervous about the movie coming out. I certainly didn’t expect that it would get into Sundance or that it would get bought. In a way this is even stranger than the story in the movie itself. You can’t write something like this; it just has to happen.
How closely were Rel and Henry following the development of your relationship with Abby and her family?
They didn’t really know just how involved I had been with the whole experience. I only told them about certain things, funny emails, the paintings that were arriving. They weren’t aware of how emotionally involved I had become because they were busy with other things like a ballet film for PBS. This was a side project that they occasionally paid attention to. I don’t think even they knew there was a movie there until we got back from Vail . They said, “that was intense, but how do we tell that story?” I said, “There’s a lot you don’t know about.” I gave them access to my emails and texts and with that and the clips from the last nine months, they said they had enough.
What did they shoot that didn’t make it into the film?
They also did a lot of interviews, talking heads, that never made it into the film. My mom was concerned for me at the beginning of this, thinking there was something they wanted to get out of me. She reached out to Angela early on. First she was pursuing their concerns and then it was about whether their children’s romantic involvement was a good idea.
I was one of the early members when you first had to have an .edu email address. And before that it was myspace and friendster. I’m the first generation to grow up on these websites. And that is why I’m more susceptible than younger kids are. When the internet was new, it felt like very official and real and genuine. The internet’s at that crucial moment now where people are beginning to question whether what they see is real.
I was as much in love as I could have been under the circumstances. What the film speaks to is the desire to get out of your situation. I had only dated city girls and lived in a crazy urban jungle. And the internet gives you the opportunity to get in touch with people beyond your realm. Looking back, I see just how tailor-made every character was for me. She made a girl based on the pieces of the puzzle I gave her. The danger of online profiles is that you surrender so much of yourself so easily and it makes it easy for someone to say, “I also love all that stuff.”
What was your Facebook experience before you became involved with the Michigan “friends?”
I was one of the early members when you first had to have an .edu email address. And before that it was myspace and friendster. I’m the first generation to grow up on these websites. And that is why I’m more susceptible than younger kids are. When the internet was new, it felt like very official and real and genuine. The internet’s at that crucial moment now where people are beginning to question whether what they see is real.
Did you and do you think you were in love with Megan?
I came back from the trip very depressed and angry. But I realized it was me breaking my own heart and distracting myself from a real relationship with real investment. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, always my fault, and sometimes with consequences. I put myself on the line but I did it in a way that I knew I was putting myself at risk so it wasn’t totally a surprise in some way. I was so lucky with a supportive family that it made it a lot easier to come back and not feel completely lost and heartbroken.
How did it affect you to have a very personal story become so public?
I would have probably learned a lot less about what it meant and why it happened and been less self-reflective and therapeutic if I had not had the opportunity to watch it so closely on film. It has been an incredible growing experience. How often do you get to relive your most vulnerable nine months of your life and then talk about it? Every time I answer a question about the movie I think about it and reconsider it and connect with people and learn from their stories. I’ve become a sort of Facebook philosopher. But of course I don’t recommend to anyone making a movie of your most intense and emotional experience.
Is this experience so different from getting to know someone in real life?
This kind of thing does happen in person, though. You meet someone and then find out they’re married or that they have a past you don’t find acceptable.
On a first date, you’re seeing the best of someone. Six months later…
Spoiler alert! Continue reading only if you have seen the movie!

Warning! Spoilers Below!
What do people who have seen the movie ask you most often?
People have asked me if I think Angela is crazy. It in’t even a question. It’s the opposite; she is so self-aware. In the film she admits and claims her circumstances. She says she had a chance and gave it up to have a good time, she blew it. She really takes responsibility which is hard to do and very few people do it. She acknowledge made her choices. So at age 40 she thought, “Why not now?” And she took what was accessible to her, the internet, to change things.
Was she really surprised that you showed up?
She had no idea we would show up at that moment. The night before, I told Megan on the phone that we were back in New York. Only in that very, very small way I played into this.
What did you expect?
We expected 20 different things from a dude to nothing maybe — a wild goose chase. I really expected to find a family of people living in a house, a real family, without all the talent they had portrayed. And we did find them all, but most of them were one person. Every single thing that she said came from a piece of her life. Everything she made up was projections of how she wished her life turned out.

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2 Replies to “Interview: Nev and Rel Schulman and Henry Joost of ‘Catfish’”

  1. If you think Nev was taken in by all this, you are living in a dream world. What he didn’t tell is that they had planned this whole bit and it just took some time to find someone like this warped woman, Angela, or whatever her name is. Do you REALLY think these guys who are street wise and sharp as a razor would fall for all that “hooy” that Angela sent? If you fell for this, I have ocean front property for sale in Arizona. How could anyone be so stupid?

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