Interview: ‘Catfish’ Filmmakers Get Real About Their Documentary

It’s difficult to conduct an interview about a film that no one’s supposed to be talking about, but there’s more fascinating things going on beyond the mystery of Catfish.

In a closed door, password-protected session, I sat down for a lengthy conversation with directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, and the subject of the documentary Nev Shulman to discuss how real everything was, the horror aspect, aborted plans to use Bruce Willis’s face for advertising, the list of possible titles, it’s Grizzly Man connection, and what they’re turning down the Justin Bieber biopic to make next.

[Spoilers exist simply because we’ll be talking openly about the film.]

So tell me a little bit about how you guys came into this project.

Nev: Uh, well I mean, it started as, just a relationship that I was having. A friendship with Abby, an 8 year old, who was a fan of my photography and who I was a fan of her artwork. And I remember a box came to our office one day and I said to Rel and Henry, I said “hey guys check this out, a girl from Michigan did a painting of my photo from a movie that they [Rel and Henry] made. It was a set photograph from a production that they had done. And I showed them this adorable little watercolor and it just lit up the office and everyone was so excited about it. And as we do all the time in our lives, Rel took out his little HD camera and said like “Nev, tell me what that is.”  You know?

And so I said on camera, like “hey this is a little painting from my friend in Michigan” and that was it. Couple weeks later, an email that was really funny. And I said to Rel and Henry, “hey guys you gotta hear this email.” So I read it. And then he said “hey let me…read that again, that’s funny.” And that was it for 8 months, it was just little funny things here and there.

And it was just sort of a side project that they hadn’t even considered…

Henry: Not even really a project. It’s just like a…I don’t even know how we categorize that stuff. Cause we do this stuff.

Just little stuff, just like you take pictures at a party one night you don’t really expect to do anything with them, other than maybe post them on Facebook or something, it just kinda happens.

Henry: Right.

Rel: It’s a diary sketch. Our diaries are video diaries basically. It’s like 2 minutes from Wednesday the 14th June 2007. [awkward pause] I’m…I’m autistic…

Rain Man over here…

Rel: 24 cookies. 24 cookies. Definitely 24 cookies. Umm… So yeah, so we’re basically compulsive chroniclers. And technology has gotten to a point where HD is small and inexpensive. And if you’re a photographer, we’re all photographers or just like capturers, chroniclers, you might as well roll. It doesn’t cost you much. It’s just a little memory card. [You can] store it away. We have stacks of hard drives of random moments that may become background evidence for a developing story that hasn’t yet twisted.

So at what point did you guys kinda sit down and say, “wait, maybe we actually have something that we can turn into a film.”

Henry: It was that moment in Vail where we find out about the songs. The two of us [nods toward Rel] turned to each other we were like “we should be filming all the time now.” And we basically didn’t stop rolling for a week after that.

Well it got kinda heated there it seemed, for a little bit between you guys. Was it more heated off screen? I mean it felt like maybe we only caught the tip of the iceberg on screen.

Henry: There was some more heat.

Rel: It’s funny that’s actually a line in the movie, “the tip of the iceberg.” Yeah, there was more heat. There was like…yeah, I guess there was more heat.

Nev: There were moments before that where I still didn’t appreciate the potential value of the footage that they were accumulating. And I would say to Rel like “get the fuck out of my face.” You know what I mean? Like “I don’t need you…I’m on the phone with Megan, can you get out of my face please? I’m having a conversation with my friend, I don’t need your camera right here.” And he would back up, but still film, but just sort of back up a little bit.

Rel: A little bit…

Nev: But then yeah, when it became clear to them and to some extent to me that something was happening outside my realm of understanding. That there was, you know, a sort of outer space going on. I had to remind them, “chill out…”

It’s still your life…

Nev: Yeah, this could get messy for me. I’m not sure where it’s going, I’m nervous, I’m afraid, I’m starting to feel a little hurt. I need you guys to be my friend and brother…


Nev: …before, right. And he got it. I just needed to say it once. And then I also, it became clear that we were all sort of going on this journey together. We were all risking our safety and sort of …emotions.

It’s like the fear of the unknown. They seem like normal people just talking to them, but you just don’t know.

Rel: Right and what’s scarier than when something that seems totally not scary could be? That’s…true horror.

And then you start flashing back and you’re like “no, I saw this in Dear Zachary. We really need to be careful.”

Rel: Right.

Henry: I still haven’t seen that movie.

Oh you really need to at some point.

Rel: This movie is a horror movie in a way. People are like “it’s not what I thought it was. The trailer made it seem like a horror movie.”

Henry: Well part of the movie is.

Rel: It’s a scary movie.

There are definitely horrific aspects. But what do you guys think about the marketing? I mean the marketing does kinda put it out there as this huge like “don’t let anyone tell you what it is” there’s this huge twist. It doesn’t feel that way watching the film. It feels like this very gradual thing that kinda happens naturally and it almost seems like that’s where it has to go. It doesn’t come out of left field like Bruce Willis is dead.

Henry: Yeah, it’s one of those things where when you look back it’s like “oh, that all makes sense now in retrospective.” You know the marketing is like, the challenge is of course how do you get people to go see the movie and tell them as little as possible? And I think that’s what we’re trying to do with the posters and with the trailer. Somebody at the screening last night was like “I came expecting horror movie, but I wasn’t disappointed because…because I was expecting a horror movie, I got something totally different. I was looking in the wrong direction.”

And got kinda caught off-guard.

Nev: Like “it caught me that much more off-guard”

Rel: And also, we don’t have Bruce Willis. So the marketing 101 that we learned was, if you don’t have a movie star…

Henry: Don’t put a face on the poster.

Rel: Yeah, if you don’t have a movie star you can’t put a face on your poster cause that won’t sell it. So you need to come up with like a catchy image.

Henry: So we thought about putting Bruce Willis just at the very end, just for a second so we could put his face on the poster but…

Didn’t quite work out? That’s a shame.

Rel: Although my dad does look like Bruce Willis…

Henry: Then we considered kinda like putting John McCain on the poster and having him laughing maniacally but that didn’t work out either…

Luke Mullen has a beard.

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