“After you've seen "Leaves of Grass", I highly recommend "Catfish". One of most interesting films I've seen this year. Don't read about it.”
– Edward Norton (from his Twitter feed)
MediaTsarina writing here and I recently met Henry Joost, one of the directors of the new and critically acclaimed documentary film, Catfish. He was in Atlanta to do a series of Q & A’s at Midtown Art Cinema and was good enough to sit down with me to talk a bit.
Warning: This is pretty spoiler-heavy, so I don’t recommend reading until you’ve seen the film.
Media Tsarina: Just when did d you all decide to send the footage you’d edited to Sundance? Like not just: Hey, this is a weird movie about our friend. Was it during the trip in Vail, when things started to gel together?
Henry Joost- It was when we’re driving back. We’d just had this experience, and we’re all sort of shell-shocked. I remember calling our editor in the car. I was like: Zack I’m pretty sure you’re going to have to come down on Monday.
MT -‘Cause you’ve got so much footage?
HJ- He knew what had been happening, up to a certain point. He didn’t know we’d gone to Michigan, even. So I told him everything that had happened. It took like an hour, about. He was just working on it for the next year and a half. I mean, we looked through all the footage, and printed out all the emails, so we were very organized.
MT- yeah, I mean, if you’re going document everything… to put people’s ‘real lives’ up on screen, you can’t have them come back later saying that’s not what happened. With the documentation you can go: right here, buddy.
HJ - Yeah. We just put this big responsibility on ourselves. Like that this movie has to be true to this, (pause) wild experience. And like, if we don’t do that, then we’ve done a bad job. So that’s part of the reason it took so long.
MT- and it seems to respect everyone, it’s very human (the film itself) even though Vince’s sons aren’t going to give a crap about the film, they need to be respected in how they’re portrayed.
HJ –Yeah, right.
MT- Speaking of… you guys come off as the nice guys in this film. Nobody’s an asshole in this film. Is that how it was? Or was it the force of editing and the direction you wanted to take the film? …So that nobody’s a real bad guy, not you guys, or Nev (Yaniv) or Angela? It’s just a story, and what you see into it (perspective-wise) is what you the viewer bring to it yourself. Like, “I think Angela’s an asshole, because she totally and completely manipulated the situation for MONTHS. “ – That could be one way of putting it, from someone who just left the screening we saw. But you seemed to do your utmost to prevent that, and if someone comes away with that, that’s probably their own opinions going into it. Does that make sense?
HJ - Yeah, definitely.
MT - Are you guys bigger jerks then are shown on screen?
HJ- Look, I can only own up to my own perspective. You’re making a documentary and you have over 200 hours of footage, you can make them look however you want. That’s just the reality of it. But our kind of, mantra, was: we just want this to be fair at every time, and for the audience to have the emotions we were having at every moment. And in the end for it to be balanced. To have the essence of the experience. I think that’s what we tried to do. There’s no bad guy. We all come off good and bad at different points in the movie.
MT - I don’t think anyone comes off particularly jerky in the movie.
HJ - Well there’s embarrassing sex stuff …
MT -Like reading the sexy texts under the covers… that was just charming and endearing. I mean, those two girls in the Q & A afterwards today were all: Is Nev still single?
HJ- He still cringes when he sees it.
MT -He’s wearing his retainer and saying sexy things.
HJ- The one thing he asked us to cut out was the back tattoo
MT -But you showed it! I said to myself, “Oh, tramp stamp. Very nice.”
HJ- That says a lot about him, and he didn’t want it in. Though we call it a “Champ Stamp”.
MT -Well, you’re a boy -- that’s understandable.
HJ- To make him feel better.
MT -Just who was “Alex’s band”? (In the film Megan, Abby’s older sister sends Nev and friends Alex’s band’s CD and some band shirts. That’s around the point where the boys decide all music for the doc will have music from the family, as both Alex and Megan are talented) In the Q & A no one brought it up, and I want to know, who made that music?
H- it’s a British band, I think?
MT -Wow… intercontinental!
HJ- They’re in the credits. I don’t remember the name of the band.
MT -Are you aware you committed a federal offence on camera? (There is mail taken from a mail box that has been mailed to Megan)
HJ- I did? Not me.
MT -The royal you, since you were there.
HJ- It’s true. Several people have pointed it out, including our lawyer. He suggested we leave it out. But, it’s too late.
MT -Considering that person didn’t exist anyway… who let the horses out?
HJ- Who let the horses out?(To the tune of that song, you know the one)
MT -Is any of the footage you’ve shot of people’s reactions to the film going to end up on the DVD? –and if so, would that be the most Meta thing of all time?
H- (laughs) Ahhh...
MT -Or is this for you guys, to watch later to see how people reacted to it?
H-It’s really ….
MT -You could do anything you want with it, they’ve signed a release
HJ- We thought about maybe cutting together an online thing, in our style of filming… like people are talking to us. I feel it’s more personal than some marketing thing.
MT -In your opinion, nothing against Angela as a person or an artist, but the fame she is getting, it’s almost like she didn’t ‘earn’ it. You could make that argument. So how else is she supposed to earn it, to earn the recognition for her talents? She has talent, and skills, certainly. I imagine there artists in other mediums (or even the same) who say: Well, I didn’t lie, and cheat, and manipulate somebody’s heart. I am still struggling.
So, did she earn that? And is she going to have to make it up, in the public eye, to people who’ve seen this and then buy her art to people who buy her art because they’ve seen Catfish. Versus someone who comes across it as an art show and just likes it, not knowing any back-story?
HJ- Well, the way that she got into it was because she was, originally, I think, was selling art as herself, but wasn’t’ getting enough feedback…as an adult, but…
MT- Enter the miracle child!
HJ- Miracle child. Then everybody wants to give you feedback and talk to you. In a way it was reinforced by people’s positive feedback on the internet. So I don’t know who’s to blame, you know?
MT -Much like the old Nigerian 419 schemes, was there ever a point, other than for Abby’s paintings, was there ever a request for money in any fashion? I don’t see that in the film, but I wondered.
HJ-There’s a good story to that. It’s kinda spoilery. Early on, Rel and I were like, after she’d sent dozens of these paintings already… and she doesn’t charge you for these paintings? She’s just giving them all to you for free. And Nev says: Sure, they’re from my photos.
And we’re surprised, it’s amazing…she’s just giving them to you. And he said, “No, no. It’s not like that.” And then Abby won a painting contest. $1000. First prize. And Angela (Abby’s mom) insisted in splitting the prize money with him. And he said he couldn’t accept it. So then he gets a check for $500 in the mail. So he cashes it. And says: Look, it’s legit.
MT -She’s not taking money; she’s giving it to you.
HJ- Right. At that point we’re….at one point they’re talking about making prints. They’d had a whole business plan. They’d sell the paintings and the photo prints and split the profits together.
HJ- It seemed real to us. He was making money and it’s so cool.
MT -I’ve know people who’ve met on the internet and it’s turned out great, you know? I know a couple who met and lived in PA and TX and now they are married with kids. And then you hear about those stories that turn out bad… and this is not a bad story, per se.
On another note, what do you think of the marketing? (Spooky voice) “Come see the scary Facebook movie….!”
HJ- It’s not a scary movie.
MT -I know you have to get ‘em in the door.
HJ- Right. Obviously marketing has one job, just to get people there. It’s definitely accomplishing that. My first reaction was: Really, guys?
MT -It’s a human story about connection, and wanting connection so badly. You’ve got this gap in your own life, that you’ll do anything to maintain that connection. To create this world with false personalities. Just watching the film unravel, I was watching some of the audience and seeing them nudge and whisper to each other was great. And were really tense in parts, like “I don’t want them to go into the barn, it’s really scary.” But there were no horses!
HJ- I think that most people who see it; I think if you’re expecting a horror movie, they’ll stay. Unless they’re all pissed off there’s no chainsaws and murders. People are pleasantly surprised. Like: I thought I was going to see this, but it turned into so much more.
MT -So what is happening with you three, as far as careers go?
HJ- Catfish’s kinda dominating our lives right now. We’re going to Zurich next week for the film festival. We’re working on writing a feature, but haven’t had time to knock it out.
MT -You’d normally do feature narratives, rather than documentaries?
HJ-we’d always wanted to do a feature, documentary is sort of what most of our professional work is. We want to make both.
MT -I think docs since Michael Moore, have suffered, in the public eye, from the lack of perceived integrity in the documentary process. (This is a reference to Morgan Spurlock and Zach Galifianakis who questioned Catfish's veracity; however the film is "100 percent real.")
HJ – (sighs a bit)Yeah.
MT -When you release the DVD, will there be a director’s cut that would carry the story deeper? Or is this is, this is what you gave the world at Sundance and in theatres, Why should Joe Smith who can’t get off his couch and get to a theatre to see it get a ‘better’ or different version?
HJ- I don’t know if there will be a director’s cut, but there will be 3-4 short films to supplement the movie. I explain different parts of it in depth. To use different parts of the footage we had. I mean, we shot over 200 hours. We shot talking head interviews. A lot of them. We’d used them in an early cut, and we decided it felt like a boring thing. Like a whole 60-minutes documentary. And that’s not how it felt in real life.
MT - I think you guys were excited as you were filming. To discover what is this mystery. When are you headed to Zurich? Who’s going?
HJ- Sometime next week. It’s just me and Rel, (Ariel, Nev’s brother, and co-director) the festivals usually only fly the directors out.
MT -So, Nev… wearing his retainer, and hiding under the covers to read steamy texts and everyone sees his Champ Stamp… how is he dealing with all of this? It’s so personal for him.
HJ- It took him a while to be okay with this.
MT -During the year and a half it was in editing?
HJ- Probably the first screening at Sundance. It had a huge audience. With a great reaction. They were laughing and into it.
MT- At Sundance the audience was rooting for that guy. It was like, they could have a romance!
MT - Now it’s weird, and there are retarded boys…and just what is going on here?
That about wrapped it up for Henry and I, he had a game of pool to get back to now that the next showing was starting, to kill time before answering probably the same questions all day. I hope at least I didn’t ask all the same ones. And if you’ve read this before seeing the film, do yourself a favor and find Catfish on DVD. This is the kind of film you want to see with friends and watch them react just as much as you do about what awaits three New York boys in the murky wilds of small-town Michigan.