I remember learning about catfish from my grandmother. She lived on Route 97 between Narrowsburg and Callicoon and had a small pond in her backyard. When I was a boy, we would sit out by the pond and throw pieces of bread in for the catfish. I loved watching these strange prehistoric creatures nibble the bread up quickly.
“Those are catfish,” my grandmother explained while pointing out their whiskers.
Defined in the dictionary (a word since 1612) catfish are “any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels.”
Years later, when friends Henry, Rel and Nev got back from their road trip to Michigan, which would later become the documentary “Catfish,” they told me the story with such excitement that my heart raced. Over the next two years we all worked tirelessly to turn the 100 hours of footage into a taut 90-minute documentary.
(Spoilers ahead.) The documentary followed Nev as he befriended “Abby,” an eight-year-old painter who is inspired by his photographs. Online he met “Abby’s” family—her mother “Angela,” her father “Vince,” and her beautiful 19-year-old sister “Megan.” Nev and Megan hit it off, and their online relationship became romantic.
Eventually Nev got wind that not everything was what it seemed to be, and (with the support of Henry and Rel and a bunch of camera gear) drove out to Michigan to get to the bottom of the mystery.
They discovered that Angela, Vince and Abby were real people, but that Angela was the correspondent behind all of their online accounts, without their knowledge. Actually, she had created an entire online fantasy world with 16 different personalities, including that of Megan. Nev was crushed, but miraculously the denouement was all captured on video.
I always saw the whole piece as a detective story, but once the detectives uncovered “who,” they stuck around to find out why the person acted as he or she did. In this case they found that Angela’s day-to-day life was very difficult; she had two severely handicapped sons and the fantasy—painting as Abby and having a long-distance relationship with Nev—was an important escape for her.
It was always unclear just how much Angela’s husband Vince knew about what was going on between Angela and Nev; seemingly she had told him that Nev was buying her paintings. Nevertheless in support of his wife, he agreed to sit for an interview, and in a semi-prophetic moment he described his wife as a “Catfish” and told this story:
“They used to take cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with this idea that if you put these cod in these big vats, put some catfish in with them. And the catfish would keep the cod agile.
“And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessin’. They keep you thinkin’. They keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish, because we would be dull and boring if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fins.”
I remember the day when I edited the “catfish montage,” as I came to call it. Henry had found a weird, great piano track from a music blog, and I used it as the base for this scene. I cut Vince’s story over the song and added B-roll from around their house. It was, almost instantaneously, the best scene that I have ever cut, and it did not change very much as the rest of the footage morphed around it.
Eventually it was placed at the end of the documentary and became the title and metaphor for the film.
“Catfish” premiered at Sundance in 2010 and was released later that year by Universal. Later, it spun off into an MTV reality show hosted by Nev, where he goes around the country helping people get to the bottom of their online relationships. In pop culture the word “catfish” started to become synonymous with someone who creates a fake online profile.
This past month I received a 2014 copy of the Merriam Webster Dictionary, and it now lists a new definition under the word catfish.
“A person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.”
I told this story to a few friends who weren’t around while I was working on the film, and they looked at me with a blank stare of disbelief, as if I had just claimed that I had something to do with the word Xerox or Band-Aid.
But their disbelief could not squash the pride I feel, and given the definition itself, it actually seems quite a fitting response.