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Director Henry Joost: The True Story Behind ‘Catfish’

HOLLYBLOG: Everyone was entranced by the paintings, the story, the daily drama — we followed it like a soap opera, until one day the story changed

I share an office in New York City with my business partner Ariel Schulman and his younger brother Nev, a photographer. Our threshold for considering something interesting enough to film is very, very low. You can buy an SD card for $10 at Radioshack. And you can always delete the footage if it’s no good, even though we never do. When Nev started to correspond with an 8-year-old kid who reached out to him on the internet, Ariel pulled out his camera instinctively.

We're part of a loose association of like-minded filmmakers in New York — the Neistat Brothers, the Safdie Brothers, Lena Dunham and Red Bucket Films — most of whom rent studios in a pair of buildings on lower Broadway. If we're part of a movement it might be called the Diane Fink Film School, after our shared landlord.

We film ourselves all the time. I’ve been filming since high school, carrying a mini-DV camera in my backpack, always that annoying guy. Why are you filming this? Since the advent of much smaller digital HD cameras, self-documentation has become even more of a compulsion in our circle of friends. The Neistat Brothers built an HBO show around it and Red Bucket Films made an hour-long DVD compilation of their pocket camera musings, called “Buttons."

Our videos would occasionally end up part of a short film, or on YouTube, but mostly just get filed away on a hard-drive, unwatched. We use pocket cameras like writers use notebooks — to capture the spontaneous and unexpected, to remember our lives. 

The story of "Catfish" began when Nev received the message from Abby. The young ballet fan and painter in MIchigan reached out to him on his practically dormant MySpace account, asking permission to paint from his photographs.

Flattered and charmed, he agreed. His message quickly received a reply from the little girl’s mother, letting him know not to worry — her daughter was a precocious artist but she monitored her internet use very carefully. 

Before long Abby and Nev were email pen pals and would regularly snail-mail paintings and photographs back and forth. Nev encouraged Abby to work on details like faces and hands. Nev was inspired; he confessed that every time he took a photo he had begun considering whether it would make a good painting. Soon, local galleries were taking interest in Abby’s work and collectors were beginning to buy her paintings for thousands of dollars.

Abby even shared her earnings with Nev. She won a contest with a painting of one of his photographs and her mother, Angela, insisted on splitting the winnings with him. 

Through Abby, Nev was introduced to a online community of artists, family and friends who all lived in remote Upper Peninsula Michigan. He met her babysitter Joelle, a student at a local college; Tim Hobbins, an aspiring art dealer who encouraged Nev to sell his collection off; Abby’s older sister Megan, a beautiful veterinary student; and a dozen others connected to the family in various ways.

The family in Michigan was exciting. Angela was the matriarch, a 40-year-old mom looking after kids from two marriages, their friends and worrying about her son Anthony over in Iraq. They went snowboarding, recorded music together, wrote poetry, all while managing the family’s most precious asset, Abby, a little girl blessed with uncommon insight and artistic talent. 

After a few months Nev began a flirtation with Abby’s older sister Megan, which intensified when he persuaded her to join Facebook, and they began to share photos. Slowly, Megan and Nev began a long distance relationship that Ariel and I watched develop every day in the office.

We had never seen him as happy, or as sweet with a girlfriend. They spoke on the phone almost every night. His eyes twinkled every time he mentioned her. 

Of course, Ariel and I weren't as close to Megan and her family as Nev had become, and given the intensity and frequency of their interactions, we sometimes wondered whether she had ulterior motives. But Nev was clearly falling in love and for us it was an adventure to see where it would lead.

We all settled in, continued to film here and there, to catch a moment whenever we could, thinking it might be compiled for a short film one day. Everyone who passed through our office during those eight months was entranced by the paintings, the story, the daily drama. We followed it like a soap opera.

Then one day the story changed. We realized that this footage we had been sporadically gathering would form the beginning of a mystery that we were still in the process of living and whose outcome was completely unknown. 

We were catapulted on a journey that would have us constantly questioning our assumptions, at times fearing for our safety, and toward one of the most revelatory experiences of our lives.

Ultimately it was Nev’s journey for the truth, and Ariel and I were along for the ride. 

This film hits a nerve with audiences. We can’t take credit for the story because we simply captured it as it unfolded, but as we were editing we tried to convey Nev’s experience, and the experience of all of us searching to connect online. The experience of connecting with someone else and using the protective barrier of an online relationship to achieve more closeness and intimacy than we might in real life.

Just as it is often difficult to discern tone in an email, it is hard to read a Facebook profile. There is no body language online, there are no facial tics, none of the energy that two people attracted to each other feel in person. By removing physical contact from the equation, we are left with what sometimes feels like a purer connection, based on language and intellect. We are left communicating with an avatar, your mind filling in the information that you might normally receive from tone of voice and eye contact. 

Anyone who creates a profile on Facebook or creates a website distorts the truth in a small way, or at least curates how they want the world to see them. There is no space on a Facebook profile to describe your deficiencies, only space to paint a simple and idealized portrait of yourself. It’s easy to fall in love with a portrait, but what happens when you meet the person behind the profile?

We ended up with an answer to this question that we were unable to anticipate. 

We never set out to make a film. Three years ago we had our heads down, building our production company, trying to break even every month, working to be proud of everything we produced. None of us could have guessed where our first foray into feature filmmaking was to start.

If anything it has been a lesson in the serpentine paths our lives follow, a series of coincidences that becomes inseparable from the past, and how the Internet now allows those paths to jump thousands of miles in an instant, connecting us with people who might just change our lives.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Henry Joost spent his childhood traveling the world with his mother, a photographer, and his father, an international banker. He remains an avid traveler and owns many beautiful cameras – film and still. He and high-school friend Ariel Schulman have been filmmaking partners since 2006 and together founded the New York City production company Supermarché. They have made award-winning commercials and documentaries for some of the world’s most influential companies, including Nike and American Express. Their web short, “What’s the Big Idea,” with Danny DeVito, was nominated for a Webby in 2008. Their first feature film is the documentary “Catfish.”

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