How 'Catfish' filmmakers took Facebook plunge (Q&A)

In an interview, CNET's Ina Fried speaks with the three filmmakers behind "Catfish"--that other Facebook movie. This one is both a documentary and a thriller.

The three filmmakers: Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, and Henry Joost. CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--It's a little hard to write more about the movie "Catfish" without spoiling its thrilling twists, but I'm going to try, because really, who likes spoiled catfish?

The documentary that tells the tale of Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer who develops a close online relationship with three members of a rural Michigan family. It begins when the young daughter of the family, Abby, starts painting adaptations of some of the photographer's work. Schulman also starts an intense cell phone, text message, and Facebook relationship with Abby's older sister, while conversing with the sisters' mom as well.

The photographer's brother and friend decide to capture the tale on film, but things don't get really interesting until the trio elect to head to the small Michigan town to surprise their online pals.

I wrote a little bit about the film last month after seeing a screening. On Thursday, I had a chance to interview protagonist Nev Schulman and his filmmaker brother Ariel, along with the film's other co-collaborator, Henry Joost.

Here's an edited transcript of our interview, followed by a short video I did with all three.

Question: What was it like to develop a series of intense relationships online?
Nev Schulman: It was surprisingly easy. I never really had any moment where I was doing this where I said "Don't trust people." It's just not in my nature.

What's not in the movie is the eight months of me getting to know this family really was a slow burn. It seems to happen very quickly in the movie--in the first 20 minutes.

In reality it was little by little. My interactions with them started off very slowly, over e-mail, which at the time seemed to me very personal and honest. It really doesn't strike you as the forum for deception.

I was just getting to know people and they happened to live far away. And then it turned into a Facebook thing because that was just the natural progression. Now that we're friends, we might as well share photos and stories and funny things about each other on this great Web site.

Q: We're you a heavy Facebook user before?
Nev Schulman: Yeah. I've never been someone who has any desire to share where they are, or comment or have any sort of a thread online. Blogging is not my thing. But I love sharing my photographs. Facebook provides a great forum for you to share your day to day, or weekend photos of friends.

Q: The film really shows how you, Nev, imagined the family to be. And we get a glimpse of how you two [Ariel and Henry] imagined them. What were you thinking as the relationship was developing online?
Henry Joost: I had this idea of Abby being this extremely precocious, almost prodigy-level painter who was basically a super fan of Nev's and Megan being an attractive girl who was very open and in love with Nev. But the truth is we also got the story through Nev. He would tell us about it. He would read us the e-mail out loud. But most of the correspondence we never saw. Most of the phone conversations we weren't around.

Q: Were all three of you gung-ho for the idea of going cross-country to see them?
Ariel Schulman: I think we all agreed fairly quickly that that was the most adventurous thing to do.

Nev Schulman: My first instant reaction to Henry's suggestion that we go there was, "Oh my God, I don't know if this is the right thing to do. I don't know if it is what I want."

Q: You sort of come across as the worrywart of the three.
Nev Schulman: Me? I don't know. We all sort of shared the responsibility of worrywart. When we were driving to the farm in the middle of the night, I was the one saying let's do this.

These guys were thinking, "Oh, my god." Henry was scared. But it just kept sort of flip-flopping. But as friends and as brothers, each of us used the other for support and for motivation throughout the adventure.

Q: Was there ever serious consideration given to turning back?
Nev Schulman: Very much. The night before we got to the horse farm was genuinely terrifying. We had a plan and the plan was to be ready for a physical attack and that our lives might be on the line. Earlier in the day we had sent our footage home in case we never made it back. Henry was ready to peel off and we were ready to dive in [the car].

Q: Are there lessons about social media you are hoping people will take away from the film?
Nev Schulman: It's difficult to imagine this film having a real effect on how much people use social networking because I'm still on Facebook. What I hope it does is get people thinking about why they use it. What is it that they are looking for or hoping for or trying to experience or fill in in there lives? Is it possible they could get those things not in front of their computer? Can you call your friend and go have dinner and talk about stuff without having to put it out in front of millions of people?

Q: What do you use as far as technology? Do you use location check-in services?
Nev Schulman: No. I just started tweeting sort of begrudgingly. Another friend of mine who had a TV series said now is your chance to start getting followers. It's a great promotional tool and if you are going to keep pursuing your photography, it is a great way to do that.

It's an incredibly sophisticated tool but also a really dangerous tool if you don't know what you are doing or if you don't have your intentions mapped out.

 

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