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'Catfish' makers say their film really is a true story

Peter Mongillo
Nev Schulman, left, was filmed by his brother, Ariel Schulman, center, and Henry Joost as he built a relationship with a Michigan woman and her 8-year-old daughter. The result is the film 'Catfish,' which the trio insists is wholly factual.

"Catfish" filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, and the film's main character, Ariel's brother Nev, claim that they didn't set out to make a film.

They're just three friends who have a habit of recording video of everything they do, including the strange events surrounding Nev's relationship with the Pierce family of Michigan and their 8-year-old daughter. She contacted him online and said she wanted to turn his photographs into paintings.

The resulting documentary was so extraordinary that it garnered the attention of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, producers behind the endlessly disturbing 2003 documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" (which Jarecki also directed), which, like "Catfish," put home movies at the forefront.

The film, which delves into the dark realities of our online existence, drew rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, but also started a fiery debate over its authenticity, one which will undoubtedly continue with its nationwide release. It opened in Austin on Friday.

We caught up with the Schulman brothers and Joost when they recently stopped in Austin and talked about how the movie got made, whether it's misleading and the controversy over its being labeled a documentary.

American-Statesman: Are you surprised that such an unconventional film was picked up for a wide release?

Henry Joost: It sort of restored our faith in the movie system.

Ariel Schulman: The movie was made for practically nothing. And now some fancy studio that puts out alien movies and action movies with big movie stars is putting their faith behind this.

Joost: And we got two of our heroes to be producers on this movie, Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling, the guys who did "Capturing the Friedmans."

There are some similarities between 'Catfish' and 'Capturing the Friedmans.'

Ariel Schulman: There are similarities to us in that we film everything, and in terms of structure, it started off as one thing and it turned out to be something entirely different.

The film trailer, marketing and even the film itself lead the audience to believe it's a horror movie when it's not. Why did you decide to take it in that direction?

Nev Schulman: The reason that we went that way is because we were afraid. Throughout the experience of making that film, of it happening to me, there was a point at which we were all really afraid, and we talked about the potential of having something terrible and scary and harmful happening. We wanted to be fair to the fact that that was part of the experience. Also, I think it's fair that that sort of hooks people in, that there's an unknown and it could be dangerous, it could be scary. That's sort of the reality of Internet correspondence; you never really know where it's going to go. It could get nasty.

Is there concern that people are going to feel disappointed that it's not a horror movie?

Ariel Schulman: I don't think the movie disappoints, to tell you the truth. It's not not a horror movie. The best horror movies are the ones where you see the least. Thank God it's not a horror movie. Horror movies suck. Horror movies are totally forgettable and don't require a second viewing.

Joost: Also, the message of the film is so important that if it gets people in, that I think the further the message spreads, the happier we are as storytellers.

Despite all of the darkness in the film, there is a sort of positive message at the end.

Joost: It's a film where, like real life, things are not black and white. There's a positive message and a negative message to the film, but the biggest surprise is that there is a sort of positive outcome at the end of a real connection.

Ariel Schulman: Which is what makes documentaries generally more interesting than horror movies, that they have complicated contradictory values and messages.

Joost: The movie also says you should watch what you do on Facebook and on the Internet in general, but also at the same time don't close yourself off, because you can be closing yourself off to a new friend or the love of your life.

Nev Schulman: Or even just an interaction with someone with a totally different life as yours, that will lead to an expanded perception of who we are as people and human beings. That's the lesson that I ended up leaving with, and I don't regret it at all. I grew as a human and shared something with someone else, and that's what you hope for.

Nev, did being filmed during this experience cause you to change your behavior?

Nev Schulman: At no point was it ever a movie for me. We really do film ourselves all the time doing the least consequential things, if it's funny or if it's silly or whatever. That's how this started out, we all just sort of said, 'Nev's up to something; he's got a friend in Michigan who's eight who's painting his photographs; that's pretty weird. I'm going to film this occasionally when he's on the phone or writing an e-mail.' And then there was the possibility of a love interest between me and her older sister, Megan, and it was like, 'That's pretty weird, too. I'm going to film him on the phone with Megan for the first time.' And there were just these little pieces for eight months, so while I was building this relationship and getting to know this family, it wasn't a movie, but Rel (Ariel) would occasionally bother me and say, 'Can I film you on the phone?' And then when they started making the movie, with the idea that they were documenting something, that for me was when it became emotional and really unknown, and I was more focused on the truth and discovering what that was. There were moments when I had to remind my brother, 'I know you're filming this, but I need you to help me get through this or give me your advice or help me get some courage up, because this is scary.'

Can you understand why people think this is not a documentary?

Nev Schulman: Yeah. I can't understand after watching it how you can think that, because it would lend itself to the next question, which is, A, how did they come up with that and then B, execute it so well, or realistically. But yeah, the chances of me getting approached online by this family and then happen to be sharing an office with these two guys who aren't just filmmakers but who happen to like to film me for whatever reason, and then turning it into this movie, every single little tiny piece of the puzzle just fell into place — yeah, that's hard to believe, that the story falls into your lap. I appreciate that. It's crazy. But it happened, and they were there, and they got it, and here it is, totally real, and 100 percent doc.

pmongillo@statesman.com