If you’re a fan of the 2010 hit documentary Catfish, you know Yaniv “Nev” Schulman as the 24-year-old New York photographer who formed a long-distance, technology-driven relationship with “Megan,” a luscious but evasive Michigan woman, then discovered that his online dream girl was actually a troubled middle-aged mom name Angela. In the wake of the film — which concludes with Schulman making peace with his deceiver — Schulman heard from an astounding cross section of people worried that their own online lovers aren’t really who they seem.
The result is MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show, in which Schulman investigates the suspect individuals and accompanies their hopeful paramours on the couples’ first face-to-face encounters, with varying results. In keeping with the redemptive spirit of the film, Schulman and fellow filmmaker Max Joseph then delve into the psyches of their subjects to tap into what makes us so willing to emotionally invest in folks we know only in cyberspace.
“What ends up happening,” Schulman explains, “is we find these two people who, either on the same side or opposite sides of an issue, have been working at understanding themselves better or hiding from themselves or afraid to deal with something. And the issues that we’ve uncovered are an incredible cross sample of issues that young people are dealing with right now. Things like self-esteem, weight and obesity, people who are uncertain of or afraid of accepting their sexuality.”
Schulman, who credits a supportive network of friends and family for getting him through the depression that followed his Catfish experience, is in the process of setting up an online discussion forum to help connect viewers who see themselves, their friend or their family member in the show’s participants.
“The success of the film had, in my opinion, more to do with the third act than anything else,” he says. “Once we sit these people down and get them out from behind their online avatars, the outpouring that they so desperately need — this release, this face-to-face human contact with someone who really wants to listen and can give them the confidence to be themselves — it really makes for amazing television. But more than just television, for me it makes a fulfilling life experience.”
I talked with Schulman at length about the show, the aftermath of the documentary and the incredible direction in which these experiences have steered his life and career.
Channel Guide Magazine: I’m a big fan of both the film and also what I’ve seen of the series thus far. Can you tell me how the idea to morph the movie into a TV show came to pass? Seems like a pretty natural progression.
Nev Schulman: Like the film, the show kind of found me. I wasn’t ever looking to — or expecting to — be the subject of a feature documentary, but my brother was smart enough to turn his camera on and as a result, we made that film. And as a result of the film coming out, I started receiving just an outpouring of emails and Facebook messages from people, young and old, who had seen the film and felt for the first time they could finally share their story. Whether it was ten years ago and they had someone they met online and were never able to meet in person and have always wondered, or it was someone who recently fell in love with someone and found out they had been lied to and didn’t want to talk about it.
And then there were a handful of emails that were asking for my advice or help from people who were currently in online relationships with someone that they, for whatever reason, had been unable to meet. And, of course, it was these emails that were particularly exciting to me. I said to my brother and Henry (Catfish producers/directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost), “Guys, look — I thought my story was interesting and unique, but turns out there are a lot of people, just from the ones who’ve seen our film, who are in similar situations. What should we do? What can we do?”
And I immediately thought that it would be great to be able to help them the way Henry and Ariel were able to help me, and to go on their road trip adventure to find out the truth and — hopefully — to fall in love.
CGM: How did you choose whose stories you would ultimately tell?
NS: That was tricky. Obviously, we wanted to be very sensitive to the reality that these are people’s lives that we’re involving ourselves in. And I realized after the fact just how fortunate I was that my experience in that situation and the way I did it allowed for a sort of very — I don’t know if the word “healthy” is correct — but a sort of fair, balanced and, in the end, positive outcome. So we wanted to be very sensitive to that.
And to some degree, because the show is for MTV, we also thought it would be more interesting for younger viewers to watch stories about people who are closer to their age. Not that I don’t also want to make a show about older people who meet online, because that’s just as interesting and just as prevalent — but for this audience, we thought we would focus on younger demographics.
And then as far as literally selecting emails, it was just stories that jumped out at me. And emails that seemed to be coming from people who were really invested and really serious about taking this risk and putting themselves out there.
CGM: Did you ever get part way through an episode and have it not work out? Or have your subjects bail out completely?
NS: A lot of the people who reached out to me — in fact, very few of them who initially reached out to me — didn’t do it with the concept or idea that they would be on a show, because the concept for the show didn’t even exist for a year or more after the movie came out. So I don’t think anyone is as comfortable as they think they’re going to be once we start filming. But we did our best. And of course me and Max and a very small crew made everyone’s experience as comfortable as possible.
CGM: I was at the TCA press tour session in August where some of the journalists there were expressing disbelief that your subjects didn’t call or Skype or dig deeper into the backgrounds of their online paramours. Do you think people in my generation forget what it’s like to be young and desperately wanting love? I mean, you’re a pretty savvy guy and you still got duped …
NS: You could argue that a lot of it falls into general common sense, but the truth is it’s hard to really understand how someone feels and why they feel the way they do as an outsider. Especially in online long distance relationships, where most people say, “Oh my God, you’re crazy. You’ve never met this person. How can you have such strong feelings for them? And how can you be so willing to put your life on hold and give yourself to this person you’ve never met?”
I can understand it because I’ve been on the other side of it and I’ve felt that connection and I’ve felt that excitement. And I also understand when I asked them, “Well, have you ever looked them up or Google Image searched them or pushed them to Skype with you?” I see their hesitation in answering, and their embarrassment in saying, “Well no, not really,” or “I never felt comfortable asking them to do that” — because I also felt that way. It never occurred to me to question the validity of the person I was so interested in because to me they were just as real as anybody else.
So having been through it, I understand more so now than ever before that the reason they’ve reached out to me, and the reason they feel comfortable going through this with me is because I’m not going to judge them or poke fun at or laugh when something happens that might have otherwise been considered embarrassing.
CGM: I have four young adult kids and it never ceases to amaze me that they honestly think they have 900 friends, courtesy of Facebook. That’s a pretty clear indication of the parameters to which social media has redefined interpersonal relationships, especially from one generation to the next. But really, it’s just as easy to be lied to by someone across the restaurant table from you on a date, as someone on your computer screen, isn’t it …
NS: Vulnerability and desire are not specific to — and are unchanged — across all mediums. So if you’re someone who is missing something in your life or is yearning for something more or something outside of yourself, you’re going to latch on and connect with it wherever you find it.
And because young people, now more than ever, are investing themselves and their identities into their online lives, they’re making themselves more susceptible, more available and more vulnerable to someone who could take advantage of you at a bar with a one night stand, just as easily as someone could take advantage of you with a Facebook profile and a fake cell phone number. It’s just sort of transformed into a new realm.
CGM: I watched the screener and was completely fascinated by the show up to the point where Sunny and her online beau met — but then the show goes to a whole other level that just broke my heart. And then kind of fixed it. Was it critical to you to have that part of the series, or was it just something that happened organically as you told the tale?
NS: The success of the film had, in my opinion, more to do with the third act, if you will, than anything else — the idea that we form these relationships, we create these identities and we establish these expectations for people and when they don’t work out, we’re upset and hurt.
But what happens when we take a little time to look at the reason that someone would do this? And the conversation that the movie started was less about how some poor guy got his heart broken and more about, “Wow! I really identify and understand the issues and problems that this woman is facing. I can sympathize with her and I wonder if I would do that. And I understand what her circumstances are.”
It turned a mirror on the viewer and said, “If this was a situation you were in, what do you think you would do?”
The conversation that came from that is, I think, what made the film a success. So the idea going into the show was always the same thing. We want to start with people who have, for whatever reason, achieved a certain level of intimacy online — because that implies that they are invested heavily with their time, energy and emotions into the Internet. Which one could argue means that, in some ways, they are ignoring certain aspects of their real life. So what are those aspects? And what happens when you bring those people together? Whether or not their relationship blossoms or not, let’s try to understand why they are where they are.
And like I said earlier, that’s where the show gets really interesting because as a viewer you watch these people and you go, “Oh my God, I have those feelings, too!” Or, “I have those fears, too.” Or, “My brother or my sister — she dealt with these issues and I didn’t know how to talk to her and I didn’t understand how she felt, and now I see someone like me or like her or like my family who are dealing with a similar issue and I can talk with them now because now I understand them better than I did before.”
And that silly thing where they had a fake profile isn’t so silly anymore — it actually has a serious meaning — “Maybe I should go talk to them, because they’re probably struggling with something that I never even considered.”
CGM: I know you said earlier that you chose to focus on younger people because the show is for MTV, but I truly hope it isn’t dismissed by older audiences as a show for teenagers or a show about the repercussions of social media that will never affect them — when it really is about, as you said, vulnerabilities that we all experience.
NS: The show is hardly at all about the repercussions of social media or networking. In fact, I think in a big way, social networking leads to wonderful communication and experiences and exposure. Social networking is merely the spark of the show. And then what it immediately turns into is a dissection of all the feelings and ideas that everybody has and goes through and the fears and insecurities that I really believe that everybody in some point in their lives feels, even as we grow up and mature. We’re catching a certain generation who has, in recent years, explored these feelings differently than previous generations through the Internet. And it evolves from starting out with something that takes place online and quickly turns into an example of the wonderful ability to express yourself as yourself, in real life, when you have people who are interested in listening.
CGM: At the TCA session, I believe your executive producer Tom Forman also said that there is a significant level of aftercare made available for people who need it after the show. What does that entail?
NS: A big part of my doing the show was the understanding that although I have had many, many years of therapy and a wonderfully supportive family, I understand that one is never healed immediately. Oftentimes when you go through something emotionally traumatic, there needs to be some follow up. You don’t just meet the person and all of sudden when you know everything and everything goes back to normal. I myself was depressed and confused after my experience and recognized the value of having some really good friends and my family. So I want to make sure that everybody who does participate on the show has someone who is talking them through the process and who continues to afterward.
Because oftentimes I’ve found that a lot of these people don’t have the supportive, communicative family core that I did — which is why they’re reaching out through the internet to other people, and feel more comfortable telling me their story than their parents.
So I’m still in touch with many of those who have chosen to be featured and so is the professional that they’ve been communicating with through the process.
CGM: Are you still in touch with Angela and her family?
NS: Actually just yesterday I got a wonderful text message from Aimee, the woman whose photographs Angela used, whom I only met — obviously — after the movie experience. And I’m also still in touch with Angela. We keep each other updated on life events and what’s going on with other. That’s nice and meaningful for me. And I hope, as you’ll see in part of the show, we’re always curious to know if the people who we feature in each episode — what happens with them. Do they stay in touch and where do their lives go weeks, months after their life experience changes?
CGM: What are you working on now?
NS: Right now, as an executive producer of the show, I’m very involved in the crafting of it as far as the editing and the choices that go into the post-production of the show. And I’m also working on setting up what will hopefully be an involved network where I’m going to invite the people who’ve been on the show to contribute writings or videos so that, should you be watching the show and really strongly identify with someone or the issues they are dealing with, there’s a place to go immediately to find out more information and get some kind of help or just talk to others who have similar feelings. And also to just have a sort of wonderful discussion forum for after each episode where people can keep the conversation going — so that if you’re watching it by yourself in the middle of Alabama and you don’t feel comfortable going to your parents and saying, “You know I just saw this TV show and I think I might be gay or transgender and I didn’t know how to tell you and now I feel like I can tell you” —maybe before you do that you can go to the forum and get some advice.
Catfish: The TV Show premieres Monday, Nov. 12, at 11/10CT