Catfish is a documentary about a New York photographer called Nev Schulman filmed by his brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost. The story follows Nev as he forms a rather peculiar online friendship with an 8-year-old girl called Abby who paints pictures of his photos. He goes on to become Facebook friends with her and her family, including her mother Angela and her older sister Megan. Nev becomes enamored with Megan, who is charming and beautiful, and their online friendship blossoms into a long distance relationship. But something about Megan seems off and soon suspicions arise about whether Megan is really who she says she is. The filmmakers decide to visit Megan’s family home in Michigan to find out what’s going on and, [SPOILER ALERT], discover they’ve been lied to about everything.
The film is played out like a mystery, all the while raising questions about identity, social media, and the relationship between privacy and documentary filmmaking. We spoke with one of the directors, Henry Joost, to find out how it all came about and how some internet-savvy New Yorkers managed to get duped by a mom in Michigan.
The Creators Project: When you started making the movie, what were you trying to achieve?
Henry Joost: As a group of friends, we just film everything all the time. Our tolerance, or our criteria, for finding something interesting is pretty low. That just comes from us being filmmakers excited by the fact that you can carry around a HD pocket camera all the time. But when Ariel started filming, he thought he was making what would probably end up being a short film about Nev having a strange online relationship and about these two artists inspiring each other. It had crossed our minds that maybe we’d discovered some kind of prodigy level painter and that would be our story.
Did you have any suspicions that the relationship wasn’t quite what it seemed?
That was actually my first instinct, that this was strange. Did this girl’s mother know that they’re exchanging emails? And also, why is she giving Nev all these paintings for free? But it all got explained away by the complexity of the relationship. In the very beginning, Ariel and Nev’s mom called up Angela because she had similar concerns and they spoke for 45 minutes and they both got on and really liked each other. So for us that was the seal of approval and that made it a lot more normal. If we did raise questions with Nev about it, he was so invested in it that he could explain away any questions we had.
So you did have some doubts but they were explained away by Nev’s enthusiasm to keep up the correspondence?
What I thought at the beginning was that it was some sort of scam, because it didn’t make sense for someone to give away that much work for free to someone. But then [Nev and Abby] decided they were going to split the profits from all the paintings that were [made] from his photos, and they were going to do prints and basically go into business together. At one point Angela sent Nev a check for $500 because Abby had won a painting contest from a painting of one of his photos. And that was when my financial scam fears evaporated.
The scene in the hotel when Megan’s playing you her music and the music turns out to not be hers—is that actually when the real suspicions started or was that a narrative tool for relating the story?
No, that’s really the way it happened. We were filming a lot at that point because we thought that Abby and Angela were going to come to Maine, because we were there to see the dance performance we were working on and it was Abby’s birthday and we thought our short film was going to wrap up because we were finally going to meet these people. So we were filming a lot and then, as you know, we were totally shocked.
The film then takes a sinister turn as you get to the farm house. Was there worries that it could turn violent or was it too intriguing to let go?
No, that probably was the scariest moment of my life. It seemed like a good idea when we were in Colorado thousands of miles away and then we thought, wait a minute here, we are in a part of the country we’ve never been and we don’t know anyone here and we’re sneaking around in someone’s house at two in the morning; what are we, idiots? But it seemed that it was too important to stop. We were on a mission to find the truth and that was the most important thing.
Then you get there and meet Angela, who it turns out has been lying to you. Was she manipulating you?
The biggest surprise for me when we got there was that we didn’t discover some villain, she was a real person who was very, very smart, in a very difficult life situation who is basically, I would guess, a frustrated artist. I’m not condoning what she did in any way but I do feel it was a type of creative expression in trying to deal with the life situation that she has.
Do you think she felt trapped and she was reaching out to you, in this way?
I don’t think that she had a master plan to create what she did, it just got out of hand and she couldn’t stop.
Do you think social networks facilitate this ability to deceive, do people lie more because it’s easier?
It’s definitely easier to do it now, all you need is an email address to start a Facebook profile and you can say anything you want.
Have you spoken to Megan (or the woman who you thought was Megan)? Was she upset or angry?
We contacted her after about six months and she was incredibly surprised. She had no idea all this was going on. She went through a whole range of emotions—she felt violated, and then when we showed her the footage of Angela, she had the same reaction that everybody else has, you can kind of understand where she’s coming from. [Megan] became a real supporter of the film. She came to Sundance and was interviewed on TV. It was kind of a surreal career booster for her.
What about Angela’s family? How has the movie affected them?
We haven’t really spoken to them about it, but they’re dealing with it privately. After Sundance, when it was clear that somebody was going to buy the film and wanted to release it, we went back and we said we just want to make sure it’s going to be OK with you that it’s going to be released in this way. And we went back and got all of their permission again. But as far as I know, Vince (Angela’s husband) has not seen the film yet. He knows what it’s about but I don’t think he's ready to see it. I imagine it may be very painful for him to watch.
Has the little girl, Abby, seen the film?
She definitely hasn’t seen it. She knows that there’s a movie and we’ve talked about that, but her mum Angela’s explained it in the way you explain it to a 9-year-old. At some point, that’s going to be a very difficult conversation between the two of them.
Are you all still in contact with Angela? Is Nev?
He is a little bit, but me and Ariel are more. We went back and we showed her the film. I think that out of the rubble, we’ve developed a friendship that extends beyond just the movie. We talk about things like friends talk about things. She really credits that moment in her life as a turning point and is pleased that none of us got angry and accepted her, and were interested in her, and continued to be interested in her. [It] helped her to build the confidence to be herself online. She’s focused more on her paintings and now she’s doing things she’s really good at, like painting and designing websites. A lot of people in her community have reached out and embraced her as a creative person.
Are there lessons to be learned from this and if so, what lessons? Perhaps that honesty doesn’t always benefit you?
I hesitate to say because it’s such a complicated question. The thing that I like about the movie is that everybody brings their own personal experience to it and reflects on that. I think you can see in the movie a lot of contradictory lessons, like we have to be careful online and what we share online, but at the same time we shouldn’t close ourselves off to new experiences and shouldn’t be too quick to judge people because everybody has somewhere they’re coming from. And I don’t think any of us would take this experience back, including the three of us and Angela, because it’s changed all of us and we’re grateful for it. It really challenged my expectations about people and it was a bonding experience for the three of us going through that.
Is there another aspect to the movie, the divide between the more affluent cities and those trapped in small town USA? Does it highlight a divide there?
To me, it shows that one place has more opportunities than the other. If I want to write a screenplay or a novel, I can sit down and write all these characters and each of these characters will have a little piece of myself and I’ll be working out my personal problems in that creative process. But for someone like Angela who doesn’t have that opportunity, she’s searching for another outlet, another medium, but it’s not that she’s less creative. A lot of her paintings and reasons was that she was reaching out and wanted to be part of a creative community like we have in New York. But the great thing about the internet is that she can be connected to people she wants to be connected to, she can share her work, regardless of where she is.
So who would you say is the catfish in the movie? [In the film, Vince tells a story about how catfish are used in transporting fish to chase the other fish and keep them alert and active]
It always seemed obvious to me that it was Angela, but then after we started showing people the film everybody had a different idea. Some people thought it was Nev, some people thought it was the internet, some thought it was us, the filmmakers. I think all of those are valid.