Bright Lights Film Journal

Catching It All in Stride: An Interview with Ariel and Nev Schulman on <em>Catfish</em>

“We just followed the leads.”

Filmmaker Ariel Schulman and his brother, Nev, don’t hide their attitude toward the marketing of their new film, Catfish. A documentary about Nev’s Facebook relationship with (what seems to be) his dreamgirl, the film comes off as a thriller in its promo material. While not directly against the marketing angle, the brothers took time out after their Q&A at a recent Philadelphia screening to film first-hand responses from viewers. “We want to make a follow-up TV spot, to counter what everyone has seen in the trailers,” Ariel said.

While a far cry from horror-in-the-heartland, Catfish does play as a mystery, supported by its curious title (obscure until the film’s end). It’s also a commentary on virtual relations and, on a more organic level, a new version of the con game film, in which a confident mark falls for an illusion. The film works as a unique, if not completely even, experiment.

When I sat down with the Schulmans in Philadelphia’s Ritz East theater to discuss their film, they appear, not unlike their viewers, still caught in the surprises they encountered making their “little indie documentary.” In person, Nev embodies the onscreen confidence that made his visual work precise, if a little too perfect at times. Brother Ariel, donning a fedora with a mini camera in hand, looks like a pre-stardom Darren Aronofsky, when still reeling over a discovery like PI.

Nev, if you don’t mind getting personal, were you hungry for a relationship when this film was made?

Nev: I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but when my dreamgirl approached me and basically said, “I’m yours for the taking,” it was tough to resist. I think we all are looking for the perfect girl, even though she doesn’t really exist — though on the internet she does.

You have an interesting title, and a more interesting metaphor behind it. Did you ever think the title to be too obscure, not obviously connected to the film on the surface?

Ariel: No, I think it’s short and catchy. The meaning of the title is a metaphor that I had never heard before, and I think few people have. I think it’s nice to catch a surprise like that at the end of the movie.

Perhaps it adds to the mystery — dual identity? A cat meets a fish.

For me, it was short and memorable.

Did you see any connections to the con game genre in your film, such as the works of David Mamet? It has as much in common with this style as it would with an internet commentary.

Ariel: Sure — I like a good twist, as in Polanski or Mamet, when you don’t know the motivations behind each character. I feel that’s how life works. People have motivations that develop, even if they aren’t sure what they are. Halfway through the movie, you see a whole different side to somebody. If that’s a genre, then I definitely identify with that.

Mamet has said that we can all be conned, because we’re all human, and we want to believe the illusion.

Nev: Sure — look at Madoff. Those are huge organizations that got conned.

Ariel: If you can’t get conned, then you are closed off to opportunity —

Nev: — and nothing will ever happen in your life.

Did either of you have this idea in mind long before everything happened to Nev?

Ariel: No — we really were just making a short film, a piece about Nev and his painting fan from Michigan. Then he fell in love [with Megan] and it just started to develop. It wasn’t until much later that we thought we had a feature film on our hands. We just followed the leads.

I can imagine this as a television show — Facebook Stalkers.

Nev: Well, there are a lot of people out there having similar experiences.

Ariel: And I think it should be a TV show. There are still more stories to tell. This is happening to a lot of people.

As a documentary-style program?

Ariel: Yes, as a reality show.

Would you try to sell that?

Ariel: I’d be open to hearing about a good way to do that. There’s more to look into.

Nev, it’s amazing how comfortable you are onscreen. I wondered if you guys went back to re-shoot scenes, to get the best possible content.

Ariel: No, not a single scene. I’ve been filming him for a long time. The reason I like filming him is because he has this type of host quality, and that he can tell a story concisely in an engaging way. Some people are just good at that.

Nev: I think it had a lot to do with that it was a tiny camera, and it’s my brother filming me. I don’t know if I would be good doing this with a crew. It’s easy when you’re just hanging out and you don’t think anything will come of it. If he said to me, “Nev, this is going to be a movie in theaters — perform!” I probably would have sucked. It was us hanging out together, going on this weird trip.

When your film goes from Nev’s communication with the daughter Abby and her mother to Megan, the move is pretty fast. Were you worried about the pace of this transition?

Ariel: Yeah, that was tough. In reality, there was a lot more of Abby. But in terms of the movie, we had to close our third act with [Nev and Megan] starting to fall in love, which meant getting to Megan and cutting out a lot of characters in between. It took a while for [Nev] to meet and get close to Megan. We even considered making a six-hour miniseries originally.

Did the limited number of Megan’s friends tip you off at all?

Nev: Their story was that they joined Facebook just for me, just to communicate with me. Looking back, they all had 14 friends, so that should have been a clue. You believe what you want to believe.

Nev, did you help out with piecing together the film?

Nev: Very little.

Or were you just a hired hand?

Nev: I really didn’t want to hear [myself on camera]. I didn’t want to be a part of [constructing the film] because it was all so raw, watching me having these conversations and knowing what actually happened — it was tough. I stayed out of it completely until the end, when [Ariel and co-director Henry Joost] had a cut. Then I had some ideas, but for the most part I was blown away by what they came up with.

Did you have a hard time constructing this narrative?

Ariel: Oh yeah. It wasn’t always in the real-time form you see now. It took a year and half to edit. I went to NYU with [editor/co-producer Zachary] Stuart-Pontier — a real killer, master storyteller. It was a process to realize that we didn’t need many talking heads, which we shot; we didn’t need a narration, which we recorded; and we didn’t need background — we had the verité footage we needed. It was a eureka moment when we realized that we have all those moments that feel so perfect to tell [the story] in real time. This moment came about a year later, after trying everything else. We tried all the typical documentary structures first.

What about the horror movie angle used in the promotional material? How do you respond to that?

Ariel: Well, it wasn’t our idea. The studio said, look, we’re going to try to get people to see your small, indie documentary about a strange online romance. We asked, well, how will you do that? They said they would make it look like a thriller. At first, we felt it would seem deceptive. And then we started getting reactions from viewers saying they were so glad it wasn’t that movie, since they have seen it before.

As if it were about Midwest phobia, from some New Yorkers.

Ariel: Right (laughs) — but I don’t have Midwest phobia, by the way.

Do you think a heavy, high-concept premise is always needed? Catfish definitely has it.

Ariel: I think it’s good to be able to pitch a movie in a sentence. You certainly could with this.

Nev: Though I don’t know that it is . . .

Ariel: Well, you could do it in a couple of ways — Facebook film, or Mamet. I’d like to stay high concept.

And stay with contemporary culture?

Ariel: I’d like to stay front bumper. I’d like to be genre bending, a combination of things.

Does it feel good to come out with The Social Network?

Nev: I think it’s a great way to start the fall and get people thinking about it.

Ariel: It feels great — let’s get the conversation going.