We've talked about Jesse Friedman. Tell me about David Friedman. Has his work suffered as a part of being involved with this movie?
You can tell from the film that David has never been the friendliest person in the world. He has made a career on his slightly cantankerous reputation. He's funny and sarcastic, a good businessman, not necessarily your imagined version of a party clown. On the other hand, he's a good storyteller. It's unfortunate that the biggest story in his life had to be this one. I'm sure David could have had a wonderful life in other ways. This whole case damaged the life of so many people. I always had a manageable relationship with him. It became clear, at a certain point, that the stakes of the film were really with Jesse, that David's younger brother really was the one who had been most damaged by the events that took place in Great Neck in the late '80s. Ultimately, David did a generous thing by agreeing to participate in the film knowing that it might have a negative impact on his career. Do I think it has? I think David would say so, but he's also in some ways healthier than he's been. That's my personal opinion. He has shifted his career from being the guy who goes and entertains at parties. Now he's on the lecture tour circuit. It turns out there are conventions of magicians and children's entertainers in many, many countries. David goes and does seminars on how to entertain kids. I think that's a positive outcome, but there's no question that for him to reveal these things in the film obviously required some guts. He did it, in large part, because Jesse was in jail at the time.
"You don't come out of this situation thinking you want to look on the bright side."
The biggest gap in the movie is Seth Friedman, the one member of the family who didn't agree to participate. Do you think that held the movie back in some way? And will he ever speak publicly about this case?
It's an interesting question. I think if Jesse's exonerated there's a chance that Seth might reemerge because that would be such a big event in their family history. Seth was always mistrustful of the film and anything having to do with law enforcement. He's pretty politicized in the first place. I can understand the desire not to be a part of it. You don't come out of this situation thinking you want to look on the bright side. I never really talked to him at length. But from the standpoint of the mystery of the film, there's something intriguing about having a mysterious character who doesn't show up. In reality, I don't think his absence was in any way sinister. He was long out of the house and in college when these events took place.
You mentioned earlier the connection between this film and "Catfish," which you produced. Disregarding the question of whether or not that movie was staged, it really illustrates the way young people tend to record everything about their lives now. "Capturing the Friedmans," which contains a lot of home videos shot by the kids, now seems to reflect an earlier stage in that process.
First of all, living people generally have some right to privacy -- unless they don't. For example, "All Good Things," which was largely based on Robert Durst, we had some freedom there because he's a public figure and has been in the press many times. There was a certain level of freedom in portraying those characters. But for the documentary, ultimately we needed to have David and Jesse Friedman's permission in order to really make that film. Maybe we didn't need Arnold's permission because he was deceased, but we needed his wife's permission. In "Catfish," we did the same thing. We were very careful to make sure that Angela Wesselman was comfortable with the film that was made about her life. The existence of the footage doesn't automatically make you available as the subject for a film. Unless they're a public figure, they have a right to control that. On the other hand, there's something about the footage existing that makes it come out.
So how do you apply that reasoning to "Catfish"? Did those filmmakers violate the privacy of their subject?
I always think you have to show a degree of humanity and sensitivity when you're dealing with people in extreme circumstances. The Friedmans were in an extreme circumstance and so was Angela. Even Yaniv and the boys who filmed "Catfish" were. And so was Robert Durst. But I'll say two things: I never really understood any tendency to believe that "Catfish" was a put-on. I've seen all the footage, every piece of conversation in the three-hour drive to her house, not the 30 seconds in the movie. It was never a possibility that we were going to manipulate that story. We were really comfortable with what happened. There was a whole news report, a long piece, where they went and visited Angela. It was clear that these people were part of a story that was captured like any documentary. Maybe the movie came out at the very beginning of all this found footage horror movie stuff, and so that there's this idea that maybe "Paranormal Activity" looks kind of like the real capturing events, so what if "Catfish" is somehow the inverse of that?
"I always think you have to show a degree of humanity and sensitivity when you're dealing with people in extreme circumstances."
The directors didn't exactly combat that theory by accepting a gig directing "Paranormal Activity 3."
Yeah, I mean, I think they got a kick out of that, but it didn't make "Catfish" any less true. With respect to Angela, she's a delicate person, so there's a tremendous amount of compassion that went into that. They didn't find out the truth about her in a punitive way. As soon as they knew what they were up against, that Angela was a complex, troubled person, they immediately put their softer side up and really talked with compassion about her. I would say that Angela probably has the best answer to this. She says, "Before you feel sorry for me, let's remember who invented this story. I created the character of Megan and collected 500 photographs of her. I drew Yaniv into this adventure." In large part, I think she sees this incredible story she created, with multiple layers and characters, as one of her biggest accomplishments. It was Dickensian. So it really has a lot to do with what the subject feels about the experience. Does it make sense, if you're making a film about the Friedmans and being genuinely compassionate toward them but they hate the film, that raises an issue. In this situation, they felt this situation would be good for them because it would yield some greater understanding. I think Angela felt the same way.