With Catfish, directing duo Henry & Rel used social media to tell a tale on film. The resulting Sundance accolades and massive Internet hype (and controversy) earned Henry Joost, 29, and Ariel Schulman, 30, the directorial rights to Paramount’s hottest Halloween property, Paranormal Activity 3. The DIY-style film was the series’ biggest hit and earned exponentially more than its $5 million budget—it set opening-day records and went on to earn over $100 million worldwide. Paramount recently announced there would be a Paranormal Activity 4 and Henry & Rel are, reportedly, on board once again. Meanwhile, the directors have applied their always-on sensibility to well-received work in advertising and short film experiments (the directors are repped by Moxie Pictures for commercials) and are acting as executive producers of a TV version of Catfish, set to appear on MTV.
The two spoke with Co.Create about the democratization of storytelling, the nuances of social media, and why a seven-second YouTube clip of a bear waving is actually a movie.
CO.CREATE: What’s been new for you two since the whole “all-time best opening day for a horror film” thing?
Joost: We made a short film after Paranormal Activity 3 for LACMA about John Baldesarri. Tom Waits narrated it and we’re getting ready to release it on the Internet.
Straight to YouTube?
Schulman: YouTube is as big a release as I can think of. Knowing you can put it online and it can go on to millions of eyeballs after that, it’s very satisfying. There’s a life for any video of any length. We do so much stuff that’s not feature length, that isn’t necessarily “valuable,” but just knowing it’s being watched makes it seem important.
Joost: Now there’s an audience for everything, no matter how esoteric. You can put a video out there and the people who want to see it will find it.
How that will affect storytelling on film?
Joost: There’s a very specific style to an effective YouTube video, and I’m not sure it’s really cross-pollinated with feature films quite yet. Something’s got to be really simple and efficient and it has to start right away. A seven-second movie is totally acceptable on YouTube. If that’s how long it should be, like the video of the bear waving at the girl? Perfect.
Schulman: And we consider those things movies.
Where does the documentary field stand in the age of social media, with so many people documentarizing themselves daily?
Schulman: The magic of YouTube to me is the magic of pocket cinema; the affordability of it means more windows into more worlds. You can get transported anywhere, it’s like teleporting in an instant, and you’re with someone in their home, halfway around the world. You’re experiencing their life through their eyes; it’s first-person cinema, anywhere, anytime.
Joost: We get accused, YouTubers get accused, of narcissism. But I think it’s really just a fascination with life, your own life and other people’s lives. Now everyone’s got a video camera on their cell phone; there’s just more eyes.
Schulman: It’s highly democratic. Everyone’s making documentaries. You don’t need to go to film school. The purest documentary is the one that’s unfiltered, uncut, raw. It’s exactly what happened, without subjectivity. The bear waving? That person’s not a filmmaker, that’s just a pure eyewitness account of what happened.
The Paranormal Activity films almost function as viral videos themselves. Where does social media fit into the narrative of the series itself?
Joost: The Paramount marketing team really has their finger on the pulse with the Paranormal groupies. They have this incredibly effective way of getting them out there—which I think everyone is trying to imitate—where they just let the fans do the work that the trailer and your typical marketing would do. They’re spreading the word on social networking and word of mouth. That’s sort of what every movie wants now, to just ride this wave. It’s funny, though, because they’re known for that type of marketing, but the funny thing about the films is they’re such communal experiences, it’s all about going to the theater with your friends and a bunch of strangers and screaming your head off. It’s not about sitting by yourself in front of your computer. There’s something funny about that, that the film that spreads like crazy through social media—which is inherently kind of a solitary activity—inspires such a get-together in the movie theater.
Schulman: I really like a lot of these hashtag themes, like that hashtag #shitgirlssay. It’s basically like a running storyline, it’s a theme like anything else, like a photo essay or a series of articles about one thing. And everybody participates.
How about the commercials you’ve directed—what branded work have you enjoyed?
Joost: Last year we did a couple of Google spots and those were great ’cause they were kind of an extension of the style we developed in Catfish, telling a story through the Internet, through the computer screen.
The “Dear Sophie” spot for Google popped up in so many places people typically reserve for egocentric posts. Suddenly everyone’s sharing this video on Facebook, but instead of a cat being ridiculous, it’s a commercial.
Schulman: If you approach commercials in the right way, and the Google spot is a perfect example of it, it’s an arc, it’s a mini-movie. And as long as you just keep the brand out of it or fully integrate the brand, without trying to hide it—because people will smell that so fast—you just tell a human story. You can do the same thing you do in a feature film. I like that kind of branded content.
The media environment in which you came up as creators—how has it colored the way you direct?
Schulman: Say you’re making films in high school. You feed off the cafeteria, you get a feel for what kids are talking about, what kids like, and hopefully you want to please them all with your product, by listening. The cafeteria now is millions and millions large. It’s an online cafeteria, and I think we’re listening. We’re watching, we’re listening, we’re writing, and we’re responding.
Joost: The technology has caught up with people’s desires. It used to be prohibitively expensive to do most of the things that we do now very easily.
What would you two have been like as filmmakers in the 1980s versus today?
Schulman: I want to say more pure, almost. There would be less to consider. If it’s the 1980s, that’s a much smaller audience than it is right now. We know the second we start rolling tape and we’re gonna cut it together, this could be for an audience of millions. I guess that colors the idea a little bit, or we allow it to, and I’m okay with that. In any decade, if you’re of a documentarian mentality, you just follow your nose and try to trust that it’s interesting to anyone other than yourself.
Tell us about Catfish the series.
It’s going to be an expansion of the themes in the doc—online affairs, suspense, discovery, road-trips, surprised and compassion. Ever since the movie, Nev has been receiving hundreds of emails and messages from other kids going through a similar experience to what happened to him in Catfish. He’s become a lighting rod for this issue. So now the story follows Nev as he meets these other young people in love online with someone they’ve never met. He basically acts as their support team and facilitates a meeting with the person on the other end. We’ll never know what happens until they meet. We anticipate some stories resulting in love and some in deception, but the show will always show understanding and compassion for the characters no matter the result.
What’s your process like? How do you formulate ideas, how do you approach directing, especially as a team?
Schulman: The first ideas are just gut instinct: What does the idea inspire? We’ve got two guts, obviously—two guys, two guts—so we start comparing instincts. We don’t hold anything too precious, and we know when the idea isn’t as good as it should be. We’ll get that idea as good as possible, and literally stop and just for the sake of argument say, “Let’s come up with a completely different one, and run just as far.” Before we had a final cut of Catfish, we had three other final cuts that were completely different styles of film. We arrived at the one we thought was the best one possible, and that’s only because we were willing to start over completely.
Sounds like you make a lot of work for yourselves.
Joost: We often find ourselves in the middle something and we’re just like, “What are we doing? What have we done?”
Schulman: But we couldn’t sleep if it wasn’t perfect.