Five Questions for Casey Neistat about His SXSW-Premiering David Dobrik Documentary, Under the Influence
When Casey Neistat, along with his brother Van, made Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces list in 2006, he had already made over 300 shorts that had played at film festivals, museums and online. Three years later he launched an HBO series. But Google Neistat now and the information panel for the 40-year filmmaker offers a single blunt ID: “American YouTuber.” It was only in 2010 that Neistat began posting his work on YouTube and in 2015 that these postings became daily, a profusion of content (and subscribers — 12 million) that have made him a progenitor of a newer generation of social media stars that share Neistat’s viral flair if not his penchant for sly social commentary.
All of the above makes Neistat’s choice of subject matter for his first feature documentary both expected and not. Under the Influence began as a portrait of David Dobrik, a younger, more popular YouTuber whose platform took off in 2016 just as Neistat was slowing his down. With his Vlog Squad friend group, the Illinois-raised Dobrik skyrocketed to social media stardom with diaristic posts detailing various stunts, pranks and adventures that made him in pure business terms formidable even if his broader cultural impact is highly debatable. (Google Dobrik and the first question the search engine answers for you is, “Who is David Dobrik and why is he so rich?”)
But if Under the Influence began as a kind of baton-passing exercise — equal parts curiosity, respect and “Losing My Edge”-style ressentiment — the doc’s purpose found itself redirected when members of the Vlog Squad were accused of sexual assault, incidents that were connected to the filming of Dobrik’s videos. Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge broke the story and becomes, in Neistat’s film, a kind of parallel subject, offering a moral counterpoint to Dobrik and, at least initially, his blithe, responsibility-shirking attitude. With a sort of anthropologist’s eye, Neistat does a great job of explaining the Dobrik phenomenon — not just the Vlog Squad and their videos but their fan communities and major-brand sponsors — and when the assault allegations emerge, he’s equally adept at following that story to its conclusion while allowing the viewer to recast all that came before in its light.
Over email I conversed with Neistat ahead of his film’s SXSW debut, asking him about his film’s generational dialogue, working with documentary writer Mark Monroe, and changing the direction of his film when Tenbarge’s article was published.
Filmmaker: There’s a generational dialogue going on in Under the Influence, one that’s acknowledged at the start when you discuss how your stopping daily posting coincided with the rise of Dobrik’s platform and celebrity. Unpack this a bit more for me, the motivation for you to make a film about another — and younger — creator. Did it initially strike you that he was doing something fundamentally different than you were doing? Obviously the controversy around David shaped the film, but, before that happened, what were you hoping to discover in him and perhaps regarding yourself?
Neistat: Before I started on YouTube I’d had a pretty decent career in the more traditional film industry. My brother Van and I had our short films in some festivals, directed TV commercials, produced feature films with Josh and Ben Safdie and had a series on HBO. But Youtube was something else entirely. The experience of being a prominent creator on the platform was nothing short of extraordinary, and I wanted to make a documentary that showed that world, the world of a prominent YouTuber. It was evident very early in David Dobrik’s career that he was going to be huge — his growth exceeded anything I’d experienced. Additionally there was something raw and crude about his videos. My videos were about creative expression and my desire to tell well-crafted stories; David’s felt like snapshots, like looking through a window of what it was to be young and free from responsibility. This made David an interesting case study — a perfect subject for me to focus on. We set out to explore this generation’s obsession with social media fame. More young people today want to be YouTubers than astronauts, and David represented the very apex of that world, of that aspiration.
Filmmaker: You are largely off-camera in the film, although your presence behind the camera is acknowledged at times. Tell me about this decision as well as your decisions regarding the film language and form for the doc. And why was it important that this story involving a YouTube creator be told in a feature documentary format as opposed to some other form (series, web doc, etc.)?
Neistat: When I first started filming three years ago I had no idea where this undertaking would lead. My assumption was that I would tell a story from my perspective, leaning into my own experience on YouTube. As the controversy came into focus and the story shifted, the relevance of my perspective felt less so. The seriousness of the subject matter, on issues of sexual assualt and victimization, required a journalistic objectivity. In the end I wanted the subjects involved to speak for themselves. I didn’t want the style of the filmmaking to distract at all from the story at hand. Regarding why this is a 95-minute doc versus a series: I think it could have been shaped in myriad ways but it had to be long form. The characters in David’s videos, the subjects in this documentary, are only known to the world as the versions of themselves that they portray in slickly edited four-minute videos on YouTube. While I wasn’t 100% sure whether this would ultimately be a series or feature I was confident I needed a longer format to really peel back the layers of who these individuals are and what motivated them.
Filmmaker: Mark Monroe, who is among the small group of top-tier documentary screenwriters, is a writer and executive producer of the film. How did he become involved, what did he bring to the film, and what was your working relationship like?
Neistat: To be totally honest the credits Mark has in this film do not do him any justice — his brilliance and deep insight made this movie what it is. Years of creating short videos for the internet left me impatient, and Mark’s ability to see the forest for the trees is what kept me focused, gave me the confidence to let this breathe and let the story reveal itself. Christine Vachon produced my HBO series years ago, and she and I have maintained a great relationship (I have always been a huge fan of hers). When this project started to take shape I called her and she joined as a producer and ultimately introduced me to Mark. Mark and I would speak prior to every interview and every shoot, he would outline our scenes, find structure where there was none and give shape when all I could see was a drive full of randomness. There was something special in the perspective he brought to this film as he had never heard of David Dobrik. His lack of familiarity with the YouTube creator industry was refreshing and made clear that this story was relevant to an audience outside of Youtube.
Filmmaker: When the sexual assault allegations arose around David and the Vlog Squad, how specifically as a filmmaker did you rethink your project? Aside from including Insider writer Kat Tenbarge as a prominent interviewee, what other ways did this development affect the approach you had been undertaking until this point?
Neistat: David’s videos were always controversial, the humor questionable and exploring the overall appropriateness of his content had been a theme throughout the production, but the revelations of Kat’s reporting crossed a bold line. Her article reshaped every aspect of the documentary. It was clear that the focus of the movie needed to revolve around her article. If this documentary was to be a commentary on the pros and cons of having no distance between the creator and the audience, then what could be more relevant than what she had uncovered. Regarding the production itself, David agreed to be on camera only once after the article was published.
Filmmaker: At the beginning of the documentary you ask David to assess the issue of sensationalism equaling more views — it’s not explicit in your conversation with him, but you’re obviously asking him to respond to the moral and ethical issues surrounding producing content that exists with the goal of becoming viral, or perhaps producing a kind of addictive voyeuristic response. David has one way of answering — or perhaps non-answering — the question. After finishing this documentary, how would you answer your own question?
Neistat: My question to him was about the circular and destructive nature of pursuing sensationalism in the unfiltered, unsupervised and largely unchecked world of social media. David’s story, wherein the very same things that lead to his extraordinary rise ultimately contributed to his extraordinary undoing, is not unique on YouTube. In a world with few checks and balances the fastest way to garner attention is through sensationalism, and to maintain that attention greater and greater risks are taken, and ultimately it has led to something truly awful happening — in David’s case multiple awful things. When I asked him that question I guess I was thinking that this is a flawed approach to making videos, and perhaps in retrospect he might see how troublesome a recipe this can be. This line of questioning always leads to the greater consideration of “what should be done,” and I do not know that I have an answer to that.