Is it a confounding truth-or-fiction movie like “I’m Still Here” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” or the Other Facebook Movie on a double bill with “The Social Network”?
In the end, “Catfish” might be both of those things. It has attracted skeptics who think the whole thing is a hoax — though directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost insist that theirs is a true chronicle of the how New York-based photographer Nev Schulman (Ariel’s brother) fell into a long-distance Internet friendship with Abby, a young Michigan girl who was using his photos as the basis for her paintings, and then segued into a sometimes-steamy virtual romance with her older sister Megan.
It’s also, clearly, a movie about the effect of Facebook – though to detail exactly why is to risk spoiling things for people who haven’t seen the movie. Some spoiling will inevitably take place on Friday night, when ABC’s “20/20” will present a segment on the film that will include the first interview done by Angela Wesselman-Pierce, the mother of Abby and Megan and a figure around whom the film revolves.
TheWrap sat down with Nev Schulman to talk about the controversy and the internet. And warning: There are clearly marked spoilers toward the end.
Did Morgan Spurlock really come up to you at Sundance and say, "That’s the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen"?
I wasn’t there, but that was reported back to me by one of our producers.
The phenomenon of people thinking that the film is not real was so unexpected for us. The movie was made by a small circle of about six people, and the screenings we had prior to Sundance were with friends and family, where everybody knew the story. So it never occurred to us that in a time when fake documentaries are so popular that perhaps this would be seen as that.
It’s understandable, because there’s a lot of strange and unbelievably lucky circumstances that led to this film happening. And I don’t know how we can prove it, except by showing all the other footage we have. But someone at a DGA screening said they weren’t 100 percent sure it was real until the credits rolled and there weren’t any credited actors. Because you have to credit the actors, right? I guess you could not do it, and make it that much more elaborate, but that would piss off SAG.
Well, this is certainly the year for documentaries that leave people wondering.
Yeah. But for us, the whole phenomenon of the not-totally-true documentary is kind of upsetting. On one hand it's kind of great, and I think it's important for people to play with the genre. But that's not the case here.
We took the time to go out and find a real human story and invest ourselves in it — and not just with sleep deprivation and alcohol, but real feelings. I think that's partly why people are responding to the film.
So, have you seen the other Facebook movie yet?
I saw the first hour of “The Social Network” between screenings of our film, and enjoyed it. And then I caught the last 10 minutes between other screenings. So even though I missed some of it, I feel like I get it.
And I think its real interesting to see how they ended the film. Here’s a guy who created an amazing new thing, had thousands of friends and billions of dollars, and at the end of the movie, where is he? He’s sitting in front of the computer, all alone. And that’s the moral of all of this. Tweeting, Facebook, YouTube, all of these things that we do in an effort to connect with one another, we do by ourselves, in our homes, alone.
I think that film really sets up our film nicely. Because you see where it started, and then Mark Zuckerberg’s character seems to go nicely into our story of loneliness, and what you think you want, but it’s not really what you want. I think they’re a great double feature.
WARNING: THE REST OF THIS CONVERSATION IS FULL OF SPOILERS.
You started an internet correspondence with a seven-year-old girl who was using your photographs for her paintings, and then a romance with her older sister. It turned out that the entire thing was essentially fabricated by their mom. Why did it take you so long to suspect that something was fishy?
I had Googled both Megan and Abby and found nothing. They live in Ishpeming. Why would there be something on them? But that got left out of the film because Rel and Henry discovered that as soon as you introduce suspicion in the audience, they’re immediately expecting it not to be real. And even though those things existed in real life, the overwhelming conviction that this was real and I was going to fall in love with this girl also existed. So we focused on that. That’s just a storytelling choice.
Did you worry about the film exploiting a woman who is clearly disturbed?
Oh yeah. We didn’t go to Michigan to demoralize her, we weren’t there to poke fun and turn this story into something it wasn’t. We didn’t know what we were going to find, and we reacted to it with as much fairness and humility as we could. And at the same time, we also just liked the family and had a really nice time with them.
Some people had asked about certain things, like showing the [developmentally disabled] sons, isn’t that going too far? And our response was if you leave something out in showing what Angela’s life is, then you’re judging her and not letting people see who she is, and why she did what she did, and what she deals with. And as a result of showing her life the way it really was, I think that’s why people sympathize with her and understand her motives.
But asking her to talk to you in Meghan’s voice, the way she’d done on the phone before you knew the truth, was a little creepy.
Yeah. I can’t say there was a preconceived notion to get her to do that for any particular reason. I just remember thinking that this was probably the last time that I would talk to her about this. And for me, for closure, I just wanted to see her and hear her voice and know for 100 percent certainty that it was her.
At that point there was still no real certainty to anything. And that was the one thing I needed so I could put to rest this fantasy.
You’ve said that you went to Michigan not knowing what to expect, other than that there was something that didn’t add up about the story. When you got there, though, you must have recognized that what you found was a better story.
Yeah, absolutely. But even then, Rel and Henry didn’t know just how involved I had been. They had only seen 5 percent of the emails and heard a couple of the conversations. So I don’t even know if they understood that they had the ability to retell the story until we got back home and they went though my emails and G-chats and printed everything out.
That’s when it hit them that this could be a movie, and not just a collection of strange video clips.
At a Q&A the other night, a therapist in the audience asked if Angela was in therapy. And you said that she’d told you she was, but that her therapist kept quitting on her.
Yeah. I don’t know what’s going on in Angela’s life. I’m not there. She’s told us that she’s seeking professional help, and I hope that that’s true. And I also think that the film has now forced her to be herself. She can’t pretend. But what’s so great is that she’s herself in the movie, and people like it and accept her. I don’t think she meant to start this Internet façade, but it happened, because she wasn’t getting attention and acceptance for herself. And now maybe she is. So I think that for her, this is an opportunity also.
Has the experience, and the film, fundamentally changed the way you use Facebook and the internet?
It definitely solidified my love/hate relationship with the intenet, and more specifically Facebook. I always saw it as a great tool to share photos, and organize with your friends. But at the same time, it’s this distraction. You see people leaving real life and going onto their phones to feel like they’re somehow connected to something better. Why is it better if it’s on your phone or your computer? It doesn’t make sense.
But you know what’s funny? Just the other night I happened to be going through the hundreds of message that I’ve been getting, and one caught my eye from someone who had seen the film and was a fan. I clicked on her profile, and sure enough she was a beautiful young woman. And I’m thinking, yeah, OK, how far do I get into this before I walk away? But I was intrigued, so I sent her a message back. Within an hour we exchanged a couple of messages, and arranged to get a drink that same night.
I was with a friend, and I said to him, “Look, I’m probably getting punked. But I’m curious, and we have nothing else to do, so let’s go meet her. So we did, and sure enough she was a beautiful model, just a gorgeous woman, and we had a great time. And I’m taking her out on a date tonight.
(laughs) So I wish I could say I’ve learned my lesson, but apparently I haven’t.