The Sundance Film Festival changed Yaniv “Nev” Schulman’s life.
Before his film “Catfish” premiered at the 2010 festival, “I was producing bar mitzvah documentaries in New York City,” he said. “And I had a good time doing it. I never in a million years would have dreamt that I would be hosting a reality show on MTV.”
“Catfish” documented Schulman’s long-distance relationship with Megan, a relationship conducted via the Internet. His brother, Ariel, and friend Henry Joost documented his growing attraction for Megan, his suspicions about her, their trip to Michigan to meet her and the eventual discovery that Megan didn’t really exist. Instead, she was the online invention of an older woman.
“Catfish: The TV Show” is a weekly, hourlong show in which producers solicited people who were engaged in online relationships to document what happened when the pair met face-to-face for the first time.
In the two episodes screened for critics, the person reluctant to meet the other turned out to be something other than what he or she was portraying in Internet profiles.
“These are not all stories of deception,” said executive producer Tom Forman. “Some of them go there because so many people on the Internet, especially when you are 19, 20 years old, are using somebody else’s photograph or exaggerating in ways that probably seem really mild when you first posted that profile. And two years later, having found someone who really cares about you, you are still haunted by those initial untruths.”
Others documented by the series “are exactly who they say they are,” Forman said. And some of those who were deceived “are willing to get past an initial deception and really do make a connection at the end in person and in real life. That’s been really heartwarming.”
“Catfish” episodes don’t end when the two people meet. Even if they are “totally lying to each other and it turns out to be a huge disaster, that’s only the first part of the story,” Schulman said. “We then want to know why they are doing it, who they are, what they are feeling, what led them to this place and why that resonates with thousands of other young people who have the same feelings.”
At Sundance, some audience members questioned the authenticity of the documentary. Similarly, some viewers might raise the same kinds of questions about the TV show.
It’s a charge Schulman, his partners and MTV resolutely reject. “I suck at acting,” Schulman said. “And if you want proof that “Catfish” was real, just put me in an audition room and watch me fall apart.”
Since he saw the audience reactions to the documentary at Sundance, Schulman has realized how “lucky, unusual and crazy” his story was. “Not just because it happened to me, but because my brother and best friend are filmmakers and this woman had this story to tell and she was willing to tell it. In a way, it was like lightning in a bottle. We never expected it to be controversial because it happened to us, and we never thought that people would not believe us.”
‘Catfish: The TV Show’
The series about Internet relationships premieres Monday, Nov. 12, at 11 p.m., with repeats throughout the week.