Note: It’s basically impossible to write about “Catfish” without revealing some spoilers. If you have not seen the movie I urge you not to read the following interview until you’ve had a chance to check it out.
When New York photographer Nev Schulman met an 8-year-old girl named Abby online in 2007 he didn’t anticipate his life would change forever.
Abby was an artist prodigy from rural Michigan. She began sending Nev paintings of the photographs he displayed on his Facebook account. Soon, Nev had not only befriended Abby, but also her entire family. This included her attractive older sister Megan, who Nev began an online relationship with.
During this time, Nev’s brother Ariel and their friend Henry Joost picked up a camera to document Nev’s new internet romance. Their idea was to shoot a short documentary about two people meeting online.
The focus of the film changes, however, when bizarre things started revealing themselves during Nev and Megan’s long-distance courtship.
Tell me how you first came to know Abby.
I first met her online when she was 8 years old. She contacted me. She asked me if she could paint one of my photographs. The next day I got an email from Abby’s mom Angela thanking me for writing back and also for encouraging her to keep painting. A couple of weeks later I got a painting of one of my photographs in the mail. It was charming and very sweet. It was like I had a super fan in Michigan. A couple months went by and I started learning more about Abby and Angela and the rest of her family, including Abby’s older sister Megan. Not too long after that, I saw Megan on Facebook and saw that she was a very attractive young girl. She was 19 at the time and I was 23. I started to think, “Who knows? Maybe there could be something here between us.” After almost nine months of communication with Megan, chatting with her, emailing her, texting her, we started to get a little suspicious when we found out some things about her were not true. We decided to get to the bottom of things and go down to Michigan and meet the family.
When you get to the point where you start getting suspicious, did it ever enter your mind or your brother’s or Henry’s to just stop communication altogether or was the curiosity too much to ignore?
Well, I had really opened up and revealed myself to this family and especially to Megan, who I had really started dating online in a weird way. When I first discovered something that I found out wasn’t completely true I was very upset, really furious. My brother and Henry were watching me have this relationship and there were like, “Don’t you want to know the truth? We’d hate to see you walk away from this and regret not following through or find out what is going on.” They sort of encouraged me and I’m glad they did because we ended up having this really intense experience that changed me.
You admit that you were angry when you found out about some lies, so going forward did you use that anger to motivate you to find out the truth? I mean, were you seeking some kind of retribution?
We had so many ideas and concepts about what we would find when we got to Michigan and none of them ended up being even remotely close to what we actually found. What we actually found was a really intense human drama. It was a real-life story that was so captivating and so moving and in a way very inspirational. As soon as we saw that it became very clear to us that we needed to facilitate the storytelling for this family and let them share their life with us. It was not anger or anything like that. I was shocked and amazed about what we had come into contact with.
Had you ever been in an online or long-distance relationship before this?
No, I had never dated anybody online and never had a long-distance relationship. It was definitely unusual for me. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.
So, what was your mindset like going into this type of relationship? I’m guessing having an online relationship is tough.
Well, I think we’re always trying to connect with someone and find our soulmate. When you think you find them on the internet, it feels like things are happening faster. We also put our best foot forward on the internet. Our profiles always have our best photographs and information about us that is good. When you’re having a conversation on chat or sending emails you can edit what you say. We’re giving the other person the best version of ourselves, which makes it easier to connect with them. In some ways you feel safer because you’re not as vulnerable and there’s no fear of rejection because you’re doing everything from your home. That’s what I think is wrong with online dating. You don’t have the awkward moments and the other little things that become real elements in a relationship.
On that note, did it always feel like you were in a real relationship with Megan or were there some fantasy elements that added to everything you were experiencing with her?
It felt very real to me because I was being real. When I was saying things and being honest and open with my feelings you don’t presume the person you are talking to is not doing the same thing. It was very real, but at the same time I think it’s fair to say that unconsciously I was really allowing myself to experience this somewhat fantastic relationship. In many ways, I overlooked what I now see as tell-tale signs that something was a little off. But it was making me feel so good at the time the idea of finding an excuse for it not to be real would have been crazy.
You never thought to yourself, “This is just too good to be true?”
I did, actually. Along the way there were a lot of pieces of information that made it feel very real. There was so much communication and so many phone calls and other people in my life including my mom who were involved. She was concerned for me because she thought it might be too good to be true, but she was convinced after having conversations with the family. Any concerns were quickly squashed by any number of things that would come up.
There are millions of Facebook users. How much do you think this is happening online every day?
I know it’s happening because I’m getting dozens of messages every day from people who see this film and write to tell me about their slight variation of this story. We’re human beings and we want to feel loved and be popular. In many ways, Facebook is the perfect place to do that, but in many ways it’s the absolute worse way to do that.
Have you always been the brother that is in front of the camera? Was anything off limits as your brother Ariel was making this film?
It’s funny because I’ve always been the brother that gets himself into strange and troublesome situations. Since my brother makes films he’s always put the camera on me when he sees me doing something a little foolish. Because we are brothers and because we grew up together there is a trust. There was nothing off limits because that would’ve been untruthful to the experience. There are some things I thought they could’ve edited out because they were a little embarrassing, but by leaving everything in you get a really candid and objective view of everyone’s story. I think that’s what makes it a real-life documentary.
Is it frustrating for you when the authenticity of the film is brought into question? Some people are calling it a mockumentary.
It is frustrating, but I totally understand it. As a culture we’ve sort of demanded a certain level of entertainment value and a certain level of excitement from real life or reality. It really speaks more to people who have exaggerated and who have lied about making something real. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish you could call something a documentary and it would mean something, but unfortunately it doesn’t anymore. We have to fight uphill against that. But the film is real. Life is that crazy. It really is stranger than fiction.