'Catfish' Creators Catch Digital Life In Action

Nev Schulman, Megan i i

In Catfish, Nev Schulman creates an image of himself and his virtual romantic interest, Megan, together and names it "Someday." Courtesy of Rogue hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Rogue
Nev Schulman, Megan

In Catfish, Nev Schulman creates an image of himself and his virtual romantic interest, Megan, together and names it "Someday."

Courtesy of Rogue

Here's a new problem for this generation of filmmakers:  How do you make a visually dynamic film about people who spend all of their time in front of computers?

Two new releases, The Social Network and Catfish, tackle that challenge head-on with storylines that unfold on Facebook, e-mail, IM and even in YouTube videos.

It's just a reflection of how people live today, says Nev Schulman, the main character of Catfish, a documentary that follows Schulman's virtual romance with Megan, a woman he met online.

"Every day I was logging in to my e-mail and logging on to Facebook and diving into these wall posts and messages and that was really how the relationship existed for me," he says.

But when Schulman decides to meet Megan IRL — or, in real life — things take a turn for the weird. It's all documented by filmmakers Ariel Schulman— Nev's brother — and their friend Henry Joost, who say they wanted to express a sense of the virtual space Nev and Megan were sharing.

Watch Clips From 'Catfish'

"Some of the main characters in the film are computer applications," Joost says. "Like Facebook, Gmail and Googlemaps, and YouTube and Google."

The difficulty with these so-called characters, they say, is they're not necessarily easy to film.

"It took us a long time to figure out how to tell the story because so much of the correspondence was over e-mail," Ariel Schulman says.

It's a classic dilemma: both Pride and Prejudice and Jefferson in Paris labored to depict long, epistolary passages in compelling visual language.  Their solution was to simply film people writing, and the first generation of Internet movies has pretty much done the same — think of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks intently typing on their laptops in You've Got Mail.

But the makers of Catfish wanted to avoid those worn-out visuals — no close-ups of keyboards, eyes scanning screens, or, God forbid, outdated sounds of a dial-up connection.

"There's sort of a history of movies about life on computers, maybe starting with Wargames," Joost says. "And there's been this whole trope of close-ups of fingers and computers booting up and bars going across the screen and they always use these fake interfaces that are not the computer screens we see in our daily lives."

According to Jessica Pressman, a professor at Yale University who studies digital culture, The Matrix and The Net were some of the first movies that really captured the immersive experience of being online. She says that while watching someone else use a computer is usually just slightly more interesting than watching paint dry, viewers of The Net actually engage with the screen as the main character, played by Sandra Bullock, processes information.

"You actually get the sense that you are the user and you're not just watching her program," Pressman says. "That seems much more engaging than watching someone actually click and navigate."

Likewise, Catfish thrusts its viewers into the forensics of Facebook and YouTube as Nev searches for clues about the offline identity of his online sweetheart.

"We sort of realized just filming right off your iPhone screen or computer screen and right out of your Gmail was cinematic enough," Ariel Schulman says. "Just the screen itself is very dramatic."

The filmmakers even inserted digital elements into real-life scenes, superimposing GPS-like graphics onto the actual road as the characters drive around.

But there came a point, in Aspen, Colo., when even these Web-savvy filmmakers couldn't take another second of filming Facebook conversations.

They took a ski lift to the top of a mountain and went mountain biking.  And of course — true to a film about the uneasy convergence of Internet culture and real life — Nev Schulman brought his cell phone with him.

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