That said, the mystery of it doesn't make or break the film by any means, it only adds to the experience. So while going into the film with your eyes and ears covered is certainly a preferable way to see it, there really isn't anything anyone is going to say that will somehow ruin the film. It's still a totally engrossing story no matter the conditions in which its seen.
Obviously not everyone is going to be willing to see a movie that they know nothing about just because everyone is talking about it (and yet everyone is trying to not actually say anything about it), so for those who would like to know a little more, Cinematical would like to offer up first, the film's official synopsis, followed by our interview with Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost and Nev Schulman.
"In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sensed a story unfolding as they began to film the life of Ariel's brother, Nev. They had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives. A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue."
Cinematical: What do you say to the critics that say part of your documentary is fake? That the story is real, but that you framed the first half of the movie to look like you didn't know what was going on?
Ariel "Rel" Schulman: Uh, no?
Henry Joost: Not true...
Rel: It's one hundred percent true. As hard as it is to believe it all happened.
Henry: We had very little footage even though it seems like we had a lot in the beginning. We had maybe an hour from the first eight months of their relationship, so we kind of beefed it up with a lot of the computer stuff to tell the story.
We just film stuff. We keep these little cameras on as at all times and just film stuff that interests us or amuses us or strikes as beautiful, we just take it out and film a little bit.
Rel: Like I have this footage of Henry just cooking spaghetti, you know? Maybe nothing happened, but if I film him enough, maybe one of these days he's going to burn himself.
Henry: Aww, come on, man.
Cinematical: So the footage was just a normal thing for you guys and you just happened to fall into this story?
Rel: The thing you have to understand is that people who know us never questioned its truthfulness because they know that we are always filming each other doing interesting stuff, doing simple stuff. And it's not because we're trying to make documentaries, it's just a compulsive way of life these days. It's like, "Hey, I got a new HD camera. I can't believe how powerful it is, let's try this out. Hey, what's Nev doing?"
Nev Schulman: I think it also has to do with the fact that – and I'm answering for them as well as myself – but we all want to make videos that people will watch. There's this awesome sensation that this could be a viral hit. Even if I'm just walking along that fence, if I fall and it's hilarious, it could be a YouTube hit.
Rel: That's the arena.
Nev: Exactly, that's the forum of our generation. It's getting hits on a video, so you never know when that's going to happen. And if you're not filming then you're definitely not going to get it. Know what I mean?
Henry: I think even if it had been what we originally thought it would be – which was the story of two artists, one 28-year old, one 8-year old, inspiring each other – it could be a film.
Rel: A festival short.
Nev: A boring festival short.
Henry: Yeah, it may be a boring festival short film, but that wouldn't stop us.
Cinematical: It would have been sweet and cute.
Rel: And that's what we were willing to make.
Henry: We thought that she seemed talented enough that maybe she was a prodigy. We had a friend who was like, "This girl is a crystal child." Or golden child? Something about her being a blessed person with this wisdom beyond her years. And we were like, oh, okay.
Rel: Better film that, yeah.
Rel: I would say neither, we just feel like documentarians telling the experience and the story of two people. It's kind of embarrassing for both of them, they're both really brave and it's not an easy story to tell. People are responding to it because it's a little uncomfortable, it's awkward and embarrassing, but he goes right ahead with it and reveals some of his darkest secrets and biggest mistakes. I think if we had hidden what we found at the end of the story the whole thing wouldn't have made any sense.
Henry: That would have been judgmental of us.
Rel: Right, to say that her life was too F'ed up to show on film.
Henry: I feel like the job of a documentary filmmaker is to tell a story and to tell it fairly. Both sides of this story have seen the film and feel it's fair.
Cinematical: Oh, so she has seen it?
Henry: Yeah. What we struggled with in editing was trying to be true to the experience and not be too one-sided, to give a complete portrait of these people.
Cinematical: In a weird and beautiful way 'Catfish' has, quite unexpectedly, joined 'Shutter Island' and 'Inception' to complete this trifecta of 2010 films about whether or not it's better for someone to live in a fantasy world or to face reality -
Henry: It's funny you should say that because last week we were in a hotel and tried watching 'Shutter Island' and we all fell asleep so we don't know how it ends.
Rel: But it is like 'Inception,' that's a very good point.
Cinematical: Well my question is what about that particular dilemma do you think attracts filmmakers? Do you think it's a reflection of the times? That instead of brief escapism we have stories of people striving for fantasies?
Rel: I think so, straight up. The most important thing going on today is the Internet.
Henry: And there are unprecedented opportunities for fantasy on the Internet, whether it's Second Life or Facebook or having a blog.
Rel: More people on the planet, less jobs. There's just more fantasy and the Internet is the instant arena for living the life you don't have. You can do it so easily with a couple of clicks and bam you've got a new profile that is the way you wish you were. All it takes is a couple of photos and a new description of yourself.
Cinematical: Is there any discrepancy from when Nev started to doubt and you two, as the filmmakers, did?
Rel: We would challenge him more than he would challenge himself, but he had all the right answers because she was giving him all the right answers. There was plenty of evidence but it was so complicated, like a multi-layer cake.
Nev: They questioned me a lot. "Wait a second, this is the mom? She looks pretty young?" And I was like, well, she is young, she's only 40 and she looks good. Okay, sure. "Don't you think this painting is a little too good?" Yeah, but Megan is sort of an artist too and helps Abby...
Whatever questions they could possibly fire at me, I would find a way to answer it so my fantasy didn't evaporate.
Rel: He was dreaming, too!
Nev: Oh yeah. I was deceiving myself as much as they were deceiving me.
Rel: No one was paying us to investigate this so it wasn't our job to prove him wrong. We were friends with video cameras, he was the happiest he'd ever been in his adult life.
Nev: And there's something that's not in the film. If ever we were suspicious that there might in some way be a scam involved and at some point they were going to say, "Oh, well, Abby needs money for more supplies so she can keep painting." That they would suck us in and say, "Hey, we need $20,000 for Abby to get surgery." Or something.
That was squashed because at some point Abby won a local artist's competition. Entered a painting from a photo I did, won a thousand dollar prize and insisted on splitting it with me because it was from my photo. Even when I insisted they don't pay me, that they use the money, they still sent me a check for five hundred dollars. So I turned to these guys and was like [makes speechless gesture]. Either they're not scamming me or it's a really elaborate, long term--
Henry: It wasn't very fruitful.
Nev: Plus all of the money they spent on sending me the paintings. It just seemed like they were the nicest, friendliest, best-looking family you could ever meet, and they wanted to adopt me. And who wouldn't want that, you know?
Rel: There was one really revealing defense, which was that Nev says, in an interview that was cut out, "Yeah, I thought maybe this was too good to be true and then I realized that maybe that's just me being a defensive New Yorker who just assumes everyone is out to get him. That's no way to go about life. This is just happy, healthy family from the Midwest who are trying to make friends in new cities."
And we're like, "That does sound like a better perspective. I'll join you on that."
Nev: Why didn't we use that clip?
Henry: I don't know. Maybe we should have put it in.
Cinematical: How much footage like that do you guys have on the cutting room floor that might have been worth putting back in?
Rel: The second DVD's bonus features will be really juicy.
Henry: There's not a lot from the beginning. There's the check scene--
Rel: The 'my mom getting birthday presents from the family' scene is amazing. She gave her a blanket and Abby painted two pictures of her from her wedding.
Nev: And then there's the talking head interviews with the three or four other people who were not only Facebook friends with the family but were emotionally invested. My mom, a good friend of mine, my ex-girlfriend – who was my girlfriend through some of it – all of their reactions. We didn't tell anyone what was going on while we were there and then we came back and filmed them as we told them.
Then there's Amy Gonzalez. There's a short film about meeting her.
Cinematical: Oh, so you guys flew out to meet her?
Rel: No, we flew her to New York unknowing and told her on camera.
Henry: Amazingly that was enough information for her. We said, "We're making a documentary about the Internet and your photos are sort of already a part of it but we don't want to exactly how. Can we fly you and your husband out to New York?" And she said sure.
Nev: So she trusted us. And it worked out pretty well for her.
Henry: Also her husband is like a black belt in jujitsu or something so he would have had no trouble protecting her. Except online jujitsu doesn't work online.
Cinematical: How involved are you with the marketing of Catfish?
Henry: "Meaningful consultation".
Cinematical: Well how hard is it to market a movie that you want to get everybody to see that you're kind of confined to not talking about?
Rel: We're actually as much in agreement about keeping it under wraps as they are. The best way to see the movie is without knowing a thing. It's even preferable that you not see the trailer. I think the best way to see it is with a totally fresh experience, which is how we went into it. We had no idea what to expect and it kept surprising us at every turn.
So for the marketing, I'm kind of impressed they went with something where you're not really sure what to expect. There's so many emotions in the movie, so many genres that it touches on that you can't really say all of that in the trailer or a poster, so they say very little.
Henry: They say nothing.
Rel: I'd say it's a buddy movie, it's a road trip movie, it's a suspense thriller and it's a drama; how are you supposed to sell that? So they said, "Which one of those genres sells the most tickets" and they picked one: suspense thriller.
Cinematical: I saw the movie knowing nothing about and twenty minutes in I thought the title 'Catfish' was a reference to noodling, the insane style of fishing for catfish where you blindly stick your hand into muddy water and hope something bites onto it.
Nev: Thank you for that metaphor.
Henry: That works too.
Nev: That's the first time anyone has made a catfish metaphor that makes sense. Noodling, yeah. You stick your hand in this dark, wet, gross place-
Rel: I didn't know you noodled blindly? You just wait for it to bite your arm? That sh*t is crazy. Wow, I guess that is sort of what happens.
Nev: Yeah, I like it.
Rel: Basically, the marketing is a shot in the dark. It is noodling. They're taking a big risk by telling people not to expect anything so that at the second it starts people are trying to figure out what's going on and one of the things they're trying to figure out is is this real? So it's kind of a loaded movie watching experience, but I'm psyched that we made a movie that's an experience. It's not a detached, let me check my Blackberry, eat my popcorn and go to the bathroom kind of a movie.
Nev: I remember we had a screening after Sundance, once Relativity had bought it. They did a screening in California and we walked in at the end during the Q&A or whatever it's called and asked how did it go. And the guy turned to me and said, "Nobody went to the bathroom!" Apparently that's one of the check boxes.
Cinematical: Is there anything different in the theatrical cut from the Sundance cut?
Henry: Oh, yeah: It's better. There's a new score by Mark Mothersbaugh--
Rel: The lead singer of Devo! There's two new short scenes--
Nev: But it's also a little shorter, a little cleaner. It's like three minutes shorter, I think.
Cinematical: So there was no blow back from Relativity about what to change?
Rel: Nope. We had Brett Ratner fighting for us pretty soundly.
Cinematical: I had no idea he was involved until I saw his name in the credits.
Rel: He helped hugely. He set us up at the right studio, he helped us sell it the right people, and he defended the director's cut. He did the same thing with 'Skyline,' that alien invasion movie that's coming out. He's always on the lookout for indie films that have passionate directors and he'll just try to grab their hand and pull them up.
Cinematical: How exactly did he get involved?
Henry: He saw it at Sundance, but not during Sundance. Someone sent him a DVD and he was instantly on it. We had Paramount interested, Relativity was interested, and right after Sundance we had this explosion of interest and he fought for it.
Cinematical: Did you guys have a feeling that would happen? That Sundance crowds would eat it up?
Nev: I didn't think there would be a post-Sundance. I thought you go to Sundance, that's the best, that's the tops and hopefully if people see it you get some funding for your next project.
Rel: We weren't even in competition.
Henry: Our sales agent, though, this guy Micah Green, was just like a mastermind behind the scenes. He totally orchestrated that and was so confident that he just went in and made that happen.
Cinematical: I know that you've contacted them since, but do you still have an active relationship with the Wesselmans?
Nev: I G-chat and have emails with Angela. We've spoken to Vince occasionally. We sent Abby birthday presents the two years she's since we were there.
Rel: We even set up Angela with the marketing team to do a limited edition series of posters.
Cinematical: Is this helping to expose her art?
Rel: It's exposing her art, she's going to make some money off of it and the posters. We're trying to lift her up. The movie is such a real experience with real people that it wouldn't be right to leave anyone behind.
Cinematical: Well what are the next projects for each of you?
Nev: I'm continuing my photography. I guess I'll just shamelessly plug my website, YanivSchulman.com.
Rel: Henry and I are going to continue to make ground breaking films that can't be fit into a box.
Henry: Starring Brett Ratner.