BTL Chats Meta-Narrative with Catfish Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier

Catfish premiered at Sundance earllier this year.
Catfish premiered at Sundance earlier this year.

Catfish is one of the fall season’s “hot docs,” erupting out of Sundance, earlier in the year, with its quite-now tale of trying to assemble a persona in an age where everybody has numerous public ones – nervously tended to on multiple devices (like, say, the iPhone on which you’re reading this) – but few private, or “interior” ones. Or “one.”

In this case, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who have been documenting their lives to a heroically Proustian degree (only they’re not waiting to filter it through memory, years later, after a fateful cookie: instead, they digitally capture everything as they live it) took notice of the unfolding story of Ariel’s brother, the NY-based photographer Nev.

So they kept documenting the equally fateful fan paintings – not cookies – he received in the mail from a young painting prodigy who saw one of his dance photos in The New York Times, and was a fan of dance herself.

Nev responded to the fan and struck up a Facebook friendship with her family – and thereby hangs the tale.

To give away more would be unfair, but let’s say the film does a wonderful job of creating a story about people living in an age where they have no clue what “story” they’re actually in, or what characters they should play.

Assembling this story fell to editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, and Below the Line caught up with him – virtually of course – as the film begins unfurling across the USA.

Below the Line: How did you work with the directors to shape the film’s story and pace the revelations?

Zachary Stuart-Pontier: We worked very closely together on the edit. Our idea basically from the start was that the film needed to unfold in real time. We wanted the audience to always be with the guys on their adventure. We found it to be much more effective when the audience doesn’t know anything that the guys don’t know. The audience is right there with Nev as he figures out every step of the mystery.

BTL: Did you collaborate at all during shooting? Were you assembling cuts while the story was still being explored?

Stuart-Pontier: The story, as it exists in the film, was all shot when I came on to the project. But since it is a documentary, the story was continuing – it was constantly being explored and changing.

Even though the film had already been shot, there was a constant stream of new footage because we were pulling footage from Henry, Ariel and Nev’s real lives. They have been filming everything and we went through almost all of their old hard drives.

I also had the password to Nev’s e-mail and Facebook pages. I spent weeks reading all of the correspondence, and going through the photos and videos. Nothing was off limits. Nev was bravely open and patient about the editing process. It was great, and while it yielded incredible results, it was daunting at times. There was just such a wealth of fantastic stuff to go through. I felt a bit like a detective sifting through a sea of evidence.

The only thing in Catfish that is recreated after the fact is most of the stuff on the computer screens. We always knew that the screens would be a huge part of the film, and it was challenging to figure out what the most effective way to present the e-mails, Google maps and Facebook items. We always wanted them to be included in the way that the story is told, and it took some figuring out on how to accomplish that.

BTL: So at what point were you brought into the project? (After which “reveal” in the mystery?)

Stuart-Pontier: I’ve cut a bunch of things for Henry and Ariel in the past so I was actually working in their office for stretches of time, while the whole “saga” was unfolding. There are times that I remember Nev opening boxes, and I’d see all these new paintings starting to cover the walls. I had always wondered what was going on.

Henry called me after they had made the trek to Michigan, [where the painter lived] and were heading back to NYC. He told me the whole story step by step, and described what they had shot in great detail. It was unbelievable. It took him over an hour to tell me. A few days later, I came into the office to watch some footage, and a week after that I started editing.

BTL: What kind of gear do you cut on? Was anything about the toolbox different for this project?

Stuart-Pontier: I cut with a MacPro, two monitors and Final Cut 6. Nothing in terms of the hardware I used was different on this particular project from anything I’ve done before.

The challenge technically was that the majority of the film was shot on three cameras, all of which shoot different formats. There was a lot of converting to be done before I could start cutting. I used the program MPEG Streamclip to convert all of the footage to DVCproHD 720P so that it would match the stuff that was shot on the HVX. Then at the end we blew everything up to 1080P.

BTL: Given that much of Catfish works on a “meta level” – it’s a documentary about people who, in large part, sit around documenting themselves and creating personae – how did that affect your editing choices?

Stuart-Pontier: I think that the personal style that Catfish was shot in adds so much to the film that it would not have been able to exist if Henry, Ariel and Nev didn’t document themselves all of the time. The film certainly would not be unfolding right before our eyes the way that it does.

The Internet was always really important on an aesthetic level. We knew we wanted to use the tools that it provides to help tell the story. We wanted the experience of watching the film to be a little bit like poking around Facebook, YouTube, and Google Earth. We wanted the audience to meet all of the “characters” through their Facebook profiles. Since most of the story takes place online, it was all part of keeping it happening before your eyes.

It’s definitely slightly challenging when the people who are in the film are also the ones making the movie. It was certainly something that I was conscious of. Whenever Henry or Ariel fought for a particular clever line of theirs I would ask them, “Why is that line important?” In the end Henry, Ariel and Nev were really good about being able to separate themselves from their “characters.” I was very impressed.

I think whenever you are creating a “character” in a documentary, the “character” turns out to be a lot different from the real person, especially considering the “character” is not as complex as the real person is. It’s a conscious decision to choose which elements of a person you want to highlight, and which elements you want to downplay.

I think the connection is that nowadays we are all able to edit ourselves on the Internet though our various profiles. For example, if you are on Facebook, you are creating a character and living out a certain persona online. We are able to create, and edit that persona however we see fit.

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