‘Catfish’s’ Schulman Gets Hooked on Stories

Nev Schulman reflects on fame and how one event in his life became a verb

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Nev Schulman starred in 2010 doc “Catfish,” which codified a whole movement on the Internet, spawned controversy and led to hit MTV series “Catfish.” Schulman answered Variety’s Carole Horst’s questions about pop culture, fame and the future via email.

VARIETY: What’s it like to have your creation become a mainstream verb?

SCHULMAN: It’s pretty nuts. I still can’t believe that we called the documentary “Catfish.” People still ask me if it’s a movie about noodling.

VARIETY: How do you deal with the criticism of the show’s veracity, that it’s all a setup by the producers?

SCHULMAN: I just try to ignore it because I know how authentic the show is. We don’t know where we’re are going until the day we travel. We don’t know anything about the people until we get into town. We experience the whole process as you see it on TV. For the critics who question the validity of the show, I invite them to spend an hour with me at a Walmart in Smalltown, USA. I’m overwhelmed by how many people watch and genuinely engage with the show. They come up to me and can’t help but inquire about specific episodes and share stories of their own. I know that the circumstances and feelings on the show are very real, and if we have to have a team of producers help us capture them, it’s well worth it.

VARIETY: How much freedom has MTV given you?

SCHULMAN: It’s not how much freedom they gave us, it’s how little they restricted our original vision. When we pitched the show to networks, we chose to work with MTV because they wanted to let us make the show the way we thought it should be made. They recognized the raw emotional power of the film, and wanted to give us an opportunity to re-create that for their viewers. From the start, they have been super supportive and helpful in making this show the success that it is. A lot of credit is also due to Tom Forman and RelativityReal for figuring out how to produce a show as unpredictable and organic as “Catfish” is.

VARIETY: How has being on a major cable channel impacted the way you do the show? Do you find yourself more constrained by any standards & practices or legal department?

SCHULMAN: I definitely understand why people still like making indie films. I had no idea how many executives and different departments would be involved in getting an episode on the air. It’s often frustrating how every little detail needs to be gone over and every circumstance considered, but it seems worth it when I remind myself that the show is now airing all around the world for millions of viewers.

VARIETY: Do you feel that there’s an understanding with you and audience that perhaps not everything on the show is the full story? That you are presenting reality as entertainment, and that audiences are savvy enough to get that? What’s the tipping point between a fiction and non-fiction?

My biggest fear before the show aired was that people were going to think it was boring. I knew the stories were amazing and that the presentation was professional, but I was genuinely afraid it would be too conversational and honest for the TV audience. We present real situations and real emotions in as authentic way as possible within the constraints of a 42½-minute episodic series. It seems clear to me that we’re doing something right and that perhaps the manipulated hyper-reality of former hit reality shows is finally losing its appeal.

VARIETY: You have amassed an online fan base, including women who want to pursue you online via Twitter. Do you find this ironic? How have you evolved your social media usage during “Catfish’s” run?

SCHULMAN: The Twitter fanatics are pretty interesting. It’s strange to me that because we now have a way for anybody to contact and reach out to a “celebrity,” they take it really personally if you don’t acknowledge them. I love hearing from my fans and connecting with them, but oftentimes it can be overwhelming. I try to keep all of my Internet activity in line with the values and experiences I have on the show. There is a strange sense of responsibility that I feel to communicate with my followers that is at once exhausting and wonderful.

VARIETY: The Manti Te’o scandal threw “Catfish” into the pop culture limelight. How did that scandal affect you and the profile of the show?

SCHULMAN: When my brother (Ariel Schulman), Henry (Joost) and I came back from Michigan in 2009 after the craziest four days of our lives and with more than 100 hours of video documenting it, we knew we had captured lightning in a bottle. I didn’t think I would have the good fortune of having something like that happen to me again … but I guess sometimes lightning does strike the same spot twice. Although it came at the expense of Manti Te’o, I am thrilled that the subject of online identity and relationships is now something that people are comfortable talking about. Of course it didn’t hurt that the word used to describe his situation is also the name of our show.

VARIETY: What will you do beyond the series, or when it ends?

SCHULMAN: I am so excited about my plans for the future. I have already started speaking to students at colleges and universities about my unusual path to where I am and the lessons I’ve learned. I’ve also been working with an amazing organization called Our Time (ourtime.org) on ways to empower and inform my generation on ways to improve our future. I still see a long future in the TV/entertainment industry and have been developing some other shows and ideas with my production partners.