Maintaining privacy in the digital age is no easy feat — particularly if you are the subject of a movie.
And yet Angela Wesselman-Pierce, the woman who holds the key to the mystery at the center of “Catfish,” has remained a quiet enigma for more than eight months since the movie became a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s avoided requests for interviews about the film, which is being marketed as a documentary thriller and has taken in more than $1.6 million at the box office since its Sept. 17 release by Universal. Some locals in her small Michigan town say they’ve never heard of her, much less seen her.
Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, 26-year-old Nev Schulman, a New York City-based photographer, has been heavily promoting the movie made by his brother, Ariel, and friend Henry Joost. Given that the film presents him as an endearing — if perhaps somewhat naïve — goofball who stumbles into a complicated online relationship, that may not be surprising. But Wesselman-Pierce comes off in a far more questionable light.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story said “Catfish” was released by Universal’s genre label Rogue Pictures. The film was acquired by Rogue Pictures but released by Universal, the label’s former parent company.
“Catfish” raises a number of incisive questions about social media, privacy and identity in the era of Facebook and Google. But it also presents some of its own about the ethics of documentary filmmaking: Are the filmmakers exploiting Wesselman-Pierce and taking advantage of a woman who didn’t realize what she was getting into? Or do they have the artistic license (or even duty) to share her bizarre story?
That story, as it is unveiled in the film, begins after one of Schulman’s photographs appears in a newspaper and he receives a painting in the mail from an 8-year-old art prodigy named Abby, who lives in Michigan. The painting is based on his photo, and Schulman is impressed with it. He begins a friendship with the girl via telephone, e-mail and Facebook. As Abby sends Schulman more artwork, he learns more about her family — especially Abby’s 19-year-old sister, Megan.
Ariel Schulman and Joost record Nev Schulman’s blossoming online romance with Megan. Over the course of eight months, the two share intimate phone calls, text messages and photographs. Eventually, Schulman decides to pay her a surprise visit.
The Schulman brothers and Joost pile into a car with their cameras and head to Ishpeming, a town of fewer than 7,000 in the remote Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Those who haven’t seen “Catfish” and want to maintain the film’s suspense might want to stop reading here. But those who have seen the movie know that the guys from New York quickly learn that things in Ishpeming are not as they seemed online.
Enter Wesselman-Pierce, a middle-aged married woman who was actually the one corresponding with Schulman all along — taking on multiple Facebook personalities, posting fake pictures online, and affecting a higher-pitched, sexy voice on the telephone. Wesselman-Pierce does really have a daughter named Abby, but the girl doesn’t paint; Wesselman-Pierce has been sending Schulman her artwork. Wesselman-Pierce’s family members — including her husband and her two disabled stepsons — have been unaware of her online relationship.
The filmmakers catch Wesselman-Pierce on camera telling other lies, including when she says she has cancer.
So it’s perplexing that she would agree to be a part of a documentary that would expose all of these things — potentially damaging her reputation and embarrassing her and her family.
When reached at her home in Michigan via telephone recently, Wesselman-Pierce refused to discuss “Catfish.” “I told you I wasn’t interested. Do not call here again,” she said, before quickly hanging up for the second time. (But she recently granted her first interview with the ABC news magazine program “20/20,” which will air Friday.)
“Catfish” has yet to screen at the one cinema in Ishpeming or at either of the two theaters in nearby Marquette, and many locals said they were not aware of the film. “No, I ain’t heard nothing about it,” said Paul Bedpedio, one of Wesselman-Pierce’s neighbors.
But some locals smell something fishy with “Catfish.” At Jack’s Tee Pee Bar, which is down the street from her home, one patron who answered the establishment’s telephone said he questioned the documentary’s authenticity — even though he had not seen it.
“It doesn’t hold water,” said the man, Derek, who declined to give his last name. “I’ve lived here my whole life, 47 years, and I’ve never heard of her and never seen her. You have to understand where we live, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — it seems far-fetched that this so-called person would be from here.”
Cindy Mack, who lives near Wesselman-Pierce and is the director of the Ishpeming Carnegie Public Library, said she often sees the “Catfish” subject walking with her disabled son in the morning.
“I’ve never spoken to her, but they seem like a normal family, and her daughter Abby is a very normal, polite young girl,” Mack said. “I don’t know her as an artist, though. Some local artists heard about the movie and really had no idea who she was. She’s not an active member of the community.”
There is a website that purports to be Wesselman-Pierce’s, on which her artwork is listed for sale. This week, $1,500 original pastel paintings depicting scenes from “Catfish” were listed, and three of four were marked as sold out by midday Monday. But Nikke Nason, Marquette’s arts administration director, said that Wesselman-Pierce’s name was not recognized by the president of the Lake Superior Art Assn. and that she has never exhibited at the City of Marquette Arts and Culture Center.
The “Catfish” filmmakers maintain that Wesselman-Pierce is happy with the film. She decided not attend Sundance in January, Nev Schulman said, because it was too difficult to travel with her disabled son. She only recently decided that she wanted to be a part of a “20/20" segment, but Schulman said he was not sure what she would say in the interview.
“I think she’s probably had a lot of people who want to talk to her and I don’t know how much she’s comfortable with talking,” Schulman said. “Look, she’s expressive. She has a voice, and she wants to be heard. ... Obviously, I completely understand her feelings of — not remorse, but in some ways, embarrassment that this is how her chance at being heard has come about. She told [“20/20"] her side of the story, and I think gave insight as to where she was in her life that will help people sympathize with her and see what was at the root of all of this.”
Schulman said he believes that, in a way, Wesselman-Pierce wanted to be found out, which is why she allowed herself to be filmed and why she signed a consent agreement so readily. On the first night that he, his brother and Joost met Wesselman-Pierce, they took her out to dinner and informed her that they had been filming Schulman’s side of the story for months and wanted her to be a part of the movie as well.
“We were all sitting across the table, kicking each other’s ankles saying, ‘You tell her, you tell her,’ ” Schulman recalled. “And when we did tell her, she immediately said, ‘Absolutely, that sounds great.’ We had a really informal general release [form] that we always keep in our camera bags, and she signed it.”
When the filmmaking team found out “Catfish” had been accepted to Sundance, it became “very clear that Angela needed to be more involved,” Schulman said. The release she had signed, he explained, wasn’t “good enough, so a very thorough” one was drawn up. Schulman said the filmmakers paid for a lawyer to represent Wesselman-Pierce and her husband to make sure they fully understood what the film entailed.
Ultimately, the film may end up benefiting Wesselman-Pierce and her art career, Schulman said.
“I’m hoping this can really kick start her career locally, because there is a very strong art community with a lot of galleries and shows and fairs where she lives. I think she’s got a real opportunity to change her life and, in some ways, rewind the clock,” he said.
“Looking back,” he added, “I think her agreeing to be a part of the film really speaks to her desire to come clean — because this was exhausting, this online life she was living was so time consuming and intense.”