Directors/producers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost met in high school. They have been filmmaking partners since 2006 and found the New York City production company Supermarché. They have made award-winning commercials and documentaries for some of the world's most influential companies and institutions. Their clients are as varied as Nike, American Express, Harvard Business School, and The National Scrabble Association. Their web short What's the Big Idea starring Danny DeVito, was nominated for a Webby in 2008.
Henry was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and spent his childhood traveling the world with his mother, a photographer, and his father, an international banker. He briefly attended Columbia University. He is still an avid traveler and owns many beautiful cameras — film and still. He loves shooting portraits of his friends and is really good about emailing them back to you.
Ariel is as New York as a bagel. He graduated from NYU's Tisch Film program in 2004 and has worked on more than 200 films since. They have taken him from France to Italy to India to Japan and back. He has amassed an impressive collection of passport stamps, and vernacular objects of strange beauty from all over the world.
In March 2010, NY Export: Opus Jazz, a 35mm film adaptation of a 1958 Jerome Robbins ballet, directed by Henry Joost and production designed by Ariel Schulman, premiered on PBS.
Catfish is their first feature film.
What was the genesis for the film? Why did you start filming this in the first place?
Ariel Schulman: I find my brother fascinating. I think he's wildly cinematic, so I film him all the time. He's wound so tightly — like a young DeNiro, every cell in his body reacts. When I point the camera at him, I don't know if he's going to talk to me or hit me. And I always have a camera on me.
One day he received a painting in the mail from an eight-year-old girl in Michigan named Abby, which is amazing in itself, so I started casually filming moments of their relationship.
Henry Joost: From my perspective, the film began as one of Rel's pet projects that I became increasingly interested in. When Nev and Abby's story became like a living soap opera, I joined in, filming Nev as well. We were curious to know what was happening with Abby and her family — what was Abby painting this week? When was Nev finally going to meet them?
The direction suddenly changed course when Nev met Abby's older sister Megan on Facebook. They began a dramatic long-distance relationship. Suddenly we were filming a love story — we figured it would end when they met.
Ariel: It wasn't until the great "song discovery" in Vail, Colorado, months later, that Henry and I realized we were making a feature film and we had no idea how it would end.
What was the biggest challenge? How did you get Nev to commit?
Ariel: Nev went in and out of committal. In the beginning he was open to reading emails out loud and opening mail on camera, but as soon as things got serious with Megan, the story became sort of sacred. There was a time when he wanted us to stop communicating with the family. Some of our arguments over whether or not to continue are in the film.
Henry: One of my favorite things to shoot was the relationship between my filmmaking partner Rel, and his brother, Nev. After we learned about the songs, Rel and I both turned to each other and realized that the scope of the film we were making had changed. We both wanted to uncover the truth, but Nev was devastated because he was so emotionally invested and didn't want to continue. I never fought with Nev about it, but Rel took it personally whenever Nev had second thoughts — he's the big brother and he's used to getting his way. One of my favorite aspects of the film is now Nev ends up convincing us to keep going — like when I try to back the car into the horse farm and later on when Rel wants to leave Angela's house. In the end, it is Nev's quest for truth and understanding, not ours.
The biggest challenge came later in the editing room, trying to distill the most exhilarating, unsettling, and ultimately revelatory week of our lives into an hour and a half.
How did the co-directing work? What was your process each day shooting and editing?
Henry: Rel and I have worked closely together as filmmakers for about five years now, so we have a natural and largely unspoken dynamic. I think our personalities complement each other, and we rarely disagree. With this film, it didn't feel like the "directing" we usually do. We were just living our lives, reacting, and filming it. It's the purest collaboration we've ever had. We spent over a year in the editing room together, with our editor Zac, figuring out how to tell this story.
Ariel: Shooting was a matter of timing and convenience. Henry and I share an office with Nev. I made sure to keep two or three cameras around the office at all times, fully loaded, batteries charged. If anything happened: a package arrived from Abby, or a phone call from Megan, one of us would pick up the closest camera and roll. Eventually, I made sure Nev had a camera too, in case something happened when Henry and I weren't around. One of the most pivotal scenes in the movie is actually filmed by Nev.
In filming Nev, did it help that he is Rel's brother? Did it help that Nev is Henry's friend? Was it hard for Nev to be himself and share thoughts, moments, feelings?
Ariel: In the beginning I just observed Nev and asked him tame questions like "What did Abby write about today?" Then Nev began considering some serious decisions, like moving to Michigan to live with Megan. I started to challenge his decision making — to ask him why he was doing things. A filmmaker from the Maysles school of "direct cinema" might not participate in that way because it's so intrusive. But I love him too much to just watch and keep quiet, so I became a larger part of the story.
Henry: Rel and Nev have a loving, and often tumultuous relationship. I'm always in the middle of it because we're best friends and spend all of our waking hours together. There are scenes that never would have happened if we all weren't so close, like the "sext" conversation in which Nev reveals incredibly intimate discussions he had with Megan. It's not in the film, but to save money Nev and I were actually sleeping in the same bed. I was annoying Nev by filming him as he tried to fall asleep and that's when he decided it would be a good time to read us these messages.
How many hours did you shoot? What was the challenge of editing?
Henry: Before we learned about the songs, we probably only had two or three hours of footage, if that, and it was mixed together with dozens of hours of footage we shoot of our everyday lives, things we find interesting, funny, or beautiful. After the discovery, we probably shot 16 hours a day (two cameras) for the next seven days. All in all we shot over 200 hours of footage. When we got home we also had 1,300 emails and Facebook messages to comb through, thousands of photos, wall posts, comments, and status updates to catalogue and organize. It was fascinating to step back and look at the story in its entirety, through the lens of our discoveries in Michigan.
What is your favorite scene?
Henry: My favorite scene, without a doubt, is the "sext" scene when Nev reads us his most intimate text conversations with Megan. He had never revealed the full extent of their relationship, and he chose to unburden himself the night before we were going to meet her. It's one of those magically real moments, something you could never write or perform, a perfect one-shot scene where we feel Nev's embarrassment and can't help but laugh with him as he laughs at himself.
Ariel: I agree. That scene is hysterical, romantic and embarrassing but Nev handles it beautifully. I've probably watched that scene 200 times and it still gets me.
Note from Filmmakers: the rest of this interview contains information you won't want to know if you haven't seen the film.
What were you most surprised about?
Henry: I was completely surprised by Angela. We imagined a lot of scenarios, but in my wildest imagination I don't think I could have conjured up Angela in all of her complexity. More surprising still was that we all got along so well. We found Angela to be fun, smart, and engaging and felt like she and Vince really welcomed us into their lives. It was also a pleasant surprise to find Abby to be a very real and very normal eight-year-old girl.
There were more surprises after we got back to New York and we began looking through the Facebook and email correspondence, the depth of the characters. Angela created a world that existed without Nev, but oddly existed only for him. All of her characters had distinct voices, personalities, they all dealt with Nev in a different way.
When we were reading the correspondence later, it all seemed incredibly obvious that things were not what they seemed — Angela dropped so many clues — but I think one of the real lessons of this experience was that if you want something to be true, you are willing to overlook almost anything, to put on blinders and only see what you want to see. This also goes for Rel and me; whenever we expressed doubts, Nev would always talk us out of it, because we wanted the story to have a happy ending too.
How long was the shoot? Where did you shoot?
Henry: The first third of the film unfolded over about eight months of us shooting sporadically in the office as we managed a small but busy film production company. It didn't feel like a shoot; it was a welcome distraction, a curiosity that we felt might evolve into a charming short film about an online friendship between a young photographer and a family of artists in Michigan.
The last two thirds of the film take place in Vail, Colorado, on the road between Chicago and The Upper Peninsula, and in the small former mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan. Incidentally, Ishpeming is where Anatomy of a Murder takes place.
What is important for people to know about this film — what do you hope they will take away from it?
Henry: We hope this film will come across as an adventure as exciting and mysterious as the one we lived, as a portrait of two fascinating people, and a snapshot of the triumphs and pitfalls of modern communication.
One of the things we talked about a lot while we were filming, and continue to talk about is what this film says about how people communicate right now, and how that has been taken to an extreme. Anyone who creates a profile or a website for themselves on the Internet distorts the truth in a small way, or at least curates how they want the world to see them. Nev's Facebook page says he likes to cook, for instance, just to attract girls. He doesn't cook. Angela took this opportunity to its logical extreme — she wanted to be seen as everything at once so she created an ideal profile for every aspect of her personality.
We also wanted the film to be a portrait of two artists. Nev was a young photographer who needed reinforcement and found fifteen enthusiastic new fans online. Angela was a fledgling painter who found people paid more attention to her if she pretended her paintings were by her adorable eight-year-old daughter. Both needed to express themselves, and have their expressions appreciated.
I would go so far as to say that Angela has invented a new art form. She created a living novel, which revolved around Nev with a quality. Some characters were designed to entice him, like Megan, some to encourage him, like Joelle, Abby's saucy baby sitter, and some to dissuade him, like Megan's wary half-brother, Alex. Some characters were villains, like Tim Hobbins, the entrepreneurial young gallery owner who encouraged Abby to make her paintings more marketable, and tried to get Nev to sell off his collection on the side. Some characters were pitiful, like Ryan Iverson, Megan's physically imposing but emotionally weak ex-boyfriend, who only wanted the best for her, even if that meant she ended up with Nev. There was a slew of supporting characters: Tim's brother, Ryan's sisters, Abby's cousins, and the sketchiest character of all, Joelle's boyfriend Seth, who only had three photos of himself online. Then there was Angela, the character, a young beautiful mother with a house full of kids, the anchor of the family, impossibly balancing a house bursting with creativity with her full-time job as a social worker. All of these characters fed off of Nev like a living organism, responding to his every emotion. When it seemed his interest might be flagging, sexier photos went up. When he took a little too long responding to an email from Megan, Alex would tell him she was upset. Sensing Nev's ambivalence about his fast New York City life, Megan became an alternative: an animal lover with a horse farm, a sexy but innocent virgin. Angela's creation grew around in response to him.
What is so interesting is that the Internet made her creation possible. There is an undeniable authority to a Facebook profile, a website, a tagged photo, despite common sense telling us that we can't believe everything we see. I'm sure the vast majority of Internet deceptions involve sex or money, but what we uncovered was a woman isolated in Upper Peninsula, Michigan, looking for a little more than an emotional connection, and an audience of one. What is more unique still is that she is incredibly smart, articulate, and has a boundless creative imagination.
Of course, what makes her creation questionable is that it has a victim, my friend Nev. He spiraled into a long depression after returning home, but has emerged stronger and is now in the most serious relationship of his life.Ariel: A major theme in the film is shifting identity. There's the you presented in everyday life, and there's the you presented on the Internet. Are they the same person? If I met the Internet you, have I met the real you? A lot of people shift back and forth between these characters all day long. I don't think you've really met anyone until you make eye contact.
I'm proud of the stylistic themes of the film as well. It's a "real-time" documentary, which is rare; no talking heads, no re-creation or dramatization. By having cameras around all the time, we caught the story as it unfolded. We tried talking-head and it didn't feel right — it felt less pure, less immediate. We wanted the audience to go along for the ride with us, to have the same experience of discovery we had, like Gonzo journalism.
There are so many moments in the film that some might question, "How did they get that?" So, how did you get all of this footage when there were so many moments you didn't know were coming?
Henry: We film each other for fun all the time — the fact that something unexpected happened while we were filming is no surprise. What is surprising is how far this journey took us. We're filmmakers; sometimes we make glossy commercials and shoot on 35mm film, but our real love is "immediate cinema," things you can film all by yourself with the miniature HD camera in your pocket. By the time you pull out a "real" camera, most moments are missed, and it's not practical to carry a big film camera around with you all the time.
We use our little cameras like notebooks, to record ideas, to save things for later, to remember our lives.
Ariel: We both have stacks of hard drives full of footage of friends, life, vacations, moments, half-finished ideas, and secrets. We keep them meticulously organized and more often than not, we never watch the footage after it's been shot. Most are stories that never went anywhere. But if one of those stories ever does, we'll have footage from the beginning. You could say it's an obsession, or like living through a lens, but to us, to every generation from here on, it feels natural. We live in a world where no matter how unusual or obscure an event — someone is filming. It feels like second nature to read a news story and be able to click on a YouTube "Play" button and see how it happened.
Henry: A moment in the film epitomizes this. There is a scene where we find postcards that Nev had sent Megan weeks earlier in the mailbox of an abandoned house. This was an incredible moment on its own, but the Holy Grail was a shot of Nev mailing the postcards to set them up in the beginning of the film. Rel didn't even remember filming it, but when we got back home and started digging through our footage, I wasn't surprised to find a clip of Nev mailing and reading the postcards. Rel is a compulsive chronicler and we found that perfect shot in a folder with six hours of footage from their annual cross-country motorcycle trip, along with shots of Nev feeding baby raccoons and riding helmetless through the Rockies.
Ariel: Albert Maysles recommends waiting 30 seconds after you think it's time to cut the camera — because people do such interesting things after the pressure of a rolling camera is off. With a tiny HD camera, you can wait 30 minutes.
How did Angela find Nev to begin with?
Henry: We're not really sure. Angela told us that she visited New York City with Abby in late 2007. While they were there, they went to see Morphoses, a dance company Nev takes photographs for. They saw Nev's photos in the program and Angela Googled him and got in touch. She also said that another photograph Nev took, which was from the set of a ballet film Ariel and I have been working on for the past three years, which appeared on the cover of the New York Sun arts section, ended up in an art class she was taking in Marquette.
We can't be sure how she found him, but our best guess is that she saw one of his photographs either online or in a newspaper and searched for him. He's not hard to find.
This interview was conducted by Amanda Lundberg, NYC, 2010, and is reprinted courtesy of Supermarché production company.