Catfish was a film released in 2010 which followed the life of New Yorker, Nev Schulman and the forming of his long distance relationship with a young, attractive student called Megan, from Michigan. The documentary thriller was captured by filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Nev’s brother and friend.
We really aimed to make an authentic, important, meaningful television series and I think we did that.
As the story unravels, the group discover that Megan is not who she says she is, but is actually a 40-something mother and wife who has created a whirlwind of online personas and falsehoods.
Following the film’s international success, Nev has taken on the aid of his friend and filmmaker, Max Joseph and together, they have teamed up with MTV to produce Catfish: The TV Show. The show will follow the lives of others who have been caught up in online relationships and helps them meet for the first time - often with a few surprises.
Before its first double bill episode on Monday, we caught up with Nev and Max and discussed the show.
The TV show has come out of the documentary-film you made in 2010. Do you think people will need to have seen the film before watching the show?
Nev: No, the TV show stands alone. In the introduction to each show, we offer a very quick explanation of the film, my experience and why I’m helping people going through internet long distance relationships. Max and I made some short films that better explain what goes on in film, which you can watch on the MTV website.
What about the other way round? If people haven’t seen the film, the show will give it away, is that something you’re worried about?
Nev: Well, yeah if you haven’t heard of the film and you watch an episode of the show you could consider it a bit of a spoiler but I think that the film has a lot more value than just the surprise of who is at the other end of my internet exchange. But what I’ve seen, at least in the states, is that with the success of the show, people have started watching the film to get a bit of my backstory and there was a lot of stuff we don’t have time to do in the show. I’m thrilled that people are going back and exploring the movie and starting that conversation again.
You have faced high levels of skepticism as to how much of the film is real and it’s often one of the first questions you’re asked. Do you understand why people are questioning the film.
Nev: It took me a little while to understand that point of view, especially since it was a very personal experience, that people with no proof or grounds to say it wasn’t real just on a hunch was a little infuriating. But I think there is an unbelievable factor that this strange situation played out in my life and more so that my best friend and my brother are very talented filmmakers and had a hunch to film it from the beginning and were able to make it into a hit film.
I think people have feelings and thoughts on everything and that’s what starts conversations, but if everybody agreed on everything life would be pretty boring. The discussion around the film only helped to get people talking about the film, which I think is a good film.
The whole film is about deception, do you think that may have some effect on people’s reaction?
Nev: I think there was an element of protection almost. In that year that Catfish came out, and even the year before, there had been a string of documentaries that were half-true films and people had been burned, especially critics. I don’t think anyone was going to take a chance without saying that the film could be real or could be fake. They were just going to go with the general consensus and say, “we can’t say for sure.”
Following the film, Nev began receiving emails about others people's catfish experiences.
The structured reality TV shows that are very popular now probably didn’t help?
Nev: The truth is, it’s a bigger discussion regarding journalism and documentaries, because no matter how historical a film is, there is never going to be a way to capture a historical event as accurately as you could as if you were there and if you’re editing days or months or years into the course of one and a half hours, you have to make choices. Things have to be left out and some kind of directorial voice has to be applied, so to what extent does that turn fiction into non-fiction?
Max: At the time, no one, including the filmmakers were aware at how big a phenomenon this internet fake profiling was. Everyone was shocked and surprised at this story that was stranger than fiction was actually true and that someone, somewhere had to have made it up. One thing that became evident to the filmmakers, as soon as the movie started playing was that this was not an isolated event. This happened all the time to thousands and thousands of people. Emails that Nev gets, and now the emails that I get, are a testament to this phenomenon that is happening all over the place.
Although some people have been skeptical, the film was successful in terms of popularity, viewing figures and getting people talking - did you approach MTV with the TV show, or the other way around?
Nev: We put together a pitch of the show which was spawned from the emails that I was getting. We put the idea out there and had a really great response from a couple of different networks, but I think MTV had a gut feeling that the demographic of that network would really respond to a show about social networking.
We ended up going with MTV because they remarkably gave us permission to make the show exactly how we wanted to, as filmmakers and as human beings. That was really important to us because, as you mentioned before, there are a lot of reality TV shows out there and the reality TV genre on the whole doesn’t have the best reputation. We really aimed to make an authentic, important, meaningful television series and I think we did that.
Max: We’re also documentary makers at heart and that’s where we’re coming from. Even at MTV, the division that we’re working with is not the reality division, but is actually the news and docs division. This project was approached very much as a documentary project and of course, once it hits the mainstream, people will loop it in with reality, but it really is a documentary series.
Road tripping: Max (left) and Nev (right) enjoyed travelling.
What was the production process like?
Max: Boiling down a six-day journey and the emotional rollercoaster that this journey is for the protagonist and the people in the show - a 40 minute television show doesn’t do it justice. It’s good and you can see the general outlines of the the story when it plays out, but for us, who live it, there’s so much more to the story and the characters are so much more complex and the reasons why they do things are very interesting and hard to untangle. That sometimes gets reduced to two-minute, simplified explanations on television. That said, you do get a lot of variety on the show, in terms of the kinds of people that are in love and the kinds of deceptions that are being perpetrated.
Also, geography - the show is as much as a travel show as it is anything else. We go to 30 different places in the country and each place adds a lot of flavour to the episode, in terms of the kinds of people and the general atmosphere and just kind of the way of life there. It has definitely been an eye opening experience for us. We’re both from New York and now we both live in LA, so our knowledge is generally very metropolitan and we’ve been travelling to different parts of America, to very rural areas, so it’s been an experience for us as well.
The description of the TV shows seem to be one-hour versions of the film, but what different things can we expect from the show?
Max: One thing about the movie was that Angela was already in her 40s and had a set way of life. She’s in a marriage, she has kids and responsibility and she was caught in this lie. Not much changed, even when she came clean - she’s still in the same situation she was before. What’s great about the show, which is very positive and life-affirming is that the people who come clean and finally confess to their deception are much younger and have their whole lives in front of them to change.
What we witness on the show, is that these catfish, when they come out of the closet and confess their deception, they have the ability to start over fresh. For them, that is a huge, tremendous blessing for them and one thing we see, when the show ends, is these people turning their lives around for the better. They take all that brain space they were dedicating towards deceiving and creating fake profiles and they start putting it towards positive projects that help them affirm their own lives. That’s something that’s different from the movie that I think is great about the show.
From the emails you received after the show, how difficult was it to whittle it down to 12 people and 12 episodes?
Nev: Part of what makes the show exciting and different for us is that we know nothing going into each episode. What you see us doing on camera, we’re doing for the first time. The production side of the show does a really good job of finding the people who need help the most and who is the most serious and dedicated to seeing this process through from start to finish. They go through my emails and applications from people who are looking to connect with their online loves. We intentionally stay out of the selection process because it allows us to be as authentic as possible.
How many emails and applications have you had through?
Nev: Since the show started airing I’ve had about 10,000 emails and they come in constantly. It’s a big job and the production team deserve a lot of credit.
Max, you were not involved in Catfish the movie, but was already friends with Nev. What was it about the show that made you want to join him?
Max: That’s an interesting question. I grew up with Nev and his older brother, Rel, and we’ve known each other since we were like 14. We’ve always talked about making films together and we’ve collaborated in the last couple of years. We’ve directed together, I’ve directed things for them, we’ve shot together and we’ve always had a very close friendship and creative collaboration. When Nev and Rel and Henry were considering doing this as a show for MTV, they naturally reached out to me as someone who could join the team and fill in for this role.
At the time, I had just come off shooting a film myself and Catfish was just a pilot. I was like, “Sure, I’ll film a pilot, that sounds fun.” So Nev and I set up the pilot about a year and a half ago and had a really fun week doing it. It was kind of on a lark, but low and behold, the pilot turned out to be really good, MTV loved it and then they wanted to order 12 episodes and it started to get real.
I’m a filmmaker and I make a lot of commercials and short films and taking a couple of months out to travel round the country with Nev and meet all these people on this adventure was kind of a vacation for me. It was really fun, I learned a lot and we had a blast doing it, it was definitely a fun ride for me.
The friends have found that they are a natural fit for the new show.
What are your roles within the show?
Max: Nev is the host - a host is kind of a weird word, but for lack of a better word. He’s kind of the facilitator, the guy, the mediator. He’s the one who brings people together. Nev and I both naturally have a lot of compassion and want to support the person we meet first. We spend a lot of time with them, we meet their family and see where they live. It’s kind of hard at that point not to be on their side and be in their corner, but our job is to be objective and supportive of both sides. We really create a safe environment for both parties to ask the questions and get the closure they need.
Nev is naturally a much more optimistic, romantic person, who wants to believe against the warning signs. I’m much more skeptical and much more of a realist and we both approach situations from that point of view, with those personalities, and it works for the show.
Nev: Exciting and boring.
Max: Yeah, Nev is very boring and I’m exciting. No, I’m joking. It’s often my job to disappear from screen. I’m there documenting it and you don’t want to be a very loud, attention-getting documentarian. You need to blend in and disappear when you’re there, so people forget you’re there and can be honest and don’t feel like they’re being filmed. I kind of come in and out of visibility in the show, whereas Nev is always visible.
Did you face any challenges when making the show?
Nev: Making the show, almost everyday there was a challenge, whether it was an emotional challenge, a psychological challenge or a production challenge.
Max: Many of the places we went to didn’t have vegetarian food. That was a challenge - a dietary challenge.
Nev: I think making any project of this scale brings with it a lot of challenges and we definitely saw a real progression over the course of the summer and I think we’ll take a lot of what we learned, both good and bad and apply it to season two.
That brings me onto my next question actually. There is going to be a series two, but series one hasn’t even started in the UK, so we can only assume that things have gone well with the show in the US?
Nev: Yes, the show has been very well received. As of last night, Justin Bieber is now following me on Twitter, so that’s an indication of the success of the show. The show is successful because of the same reasons I think the movie was successful - it starts conversation. You want to talk about it, it brings up issues and leaves them very much in the raw. It elicits people’s emotions and so I think that’s why it’s successful and we’ll continue to be something people want to see more of.
Is the TV Show the long term plan?
Nev: Max and I have very different personalities and different goals. Max is a filmmaker and director, where I am sort of, more of a, personality? I don’t know. I’ve never really chosen a specific path for myself. I see opportunities and I take them and I go with it and see where it takes me. For me right now, there is a real place for me here and there is a real need for this discussion as an education for a generation who grew up online, who need a bit of a wake up call and a bit of etiquette when it comes to best practices online and off. I’m learning about that for myself and I’m hopeful that I can share that and continue to learn about it with a lot more people.
My direction is going more towards connecting with people on more of a personal level, either through speaking engagements or a book that I’m working on, so that I can keep being at the centre of this discussion. That’s where I’m finding myself sort of heading.
You mentioned a book, could you tell me a bit about that?
Nev: It’s a children’s book with a lot of drawings. No not really, it’s just in the beginning stages and I’ve just started writing out my thoughts and stream of consciousness. There’s a lot about my experience with the show and a lot about my experience with the film and I think there’s a lot about my life experience, which people don’t know about, that could serve to be entertaining and helpful - hopefully, maybe even inspiring. I’ve been encouraged to put those experiences down in writing and potentially put it together into a book. Like I said, nothing’s for sure yet.
And is this long term for you, Max?
Max: Catfish is a great project that we have a blast doing and it’s really fun and at the zeitgeist in the world - certainly in the US, hopefully in the UK and I imagine the rest of the world. Being at the centre of this discussion and this subject has been really incredible as both a filmmaker and someone who likes to participate in pop culture.