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From Teen Welfare Dad to YouTube Icon: Casey Neistat Tells SXSW How He Did It

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire March 11, 2014 at 2:51PM

It's no coincidence that Casey Neistat has made short branded films for Nike because his keynote address today at SXSW might be summarized bet by the sneaker brands slogan: Just Do It.
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Casey Neistat Casey Neistat

New York-based filmmaker Casey Neistat has made short films for Nike and his keynote address today at SXSW might be summarized best by the company's slogan: Just Do It.

Thanks to the Internet and technology, Neistat said, the distribution model has evaporated and "all you need is the internet connection" to "reach the entire world."

Neistat told the inspirational story of how he came to become a filmmaking -- by way of being a teen father on welfare living in a trailer and working as a dish washer.

When the self-taught filmmaker started to make movies with a friend ("He had a computer. I had a camera."), Neistat discovered his passion. "It was the most exhilarating feeling in the world," he said. "We had something we made that was this movie. It was shit. It was unwatchable, but it was fun."

After attaining commercial success with an HBO show ("The Neistat Brothers") and producing a successful indie film ("Daddy Longlegs"), Neistat realized he missed the basics of telling stories and, in 2010, became a "YouTube filmmaker" before it was cool. Now his YouTube films get millions of hits and he makes short films for brands -- and occasionally breaks the rules.

"I don't know of a more noble, a bigger deal as a filmmaker than to be a YouTube filmmaker."

Here are more highlights from Neistat's talk:

On getting his start

It's not a very glamorous story. People say 'how did you get your start?' They want to know about HBO and features… But it was this sensation, this feeling I had that got me so excited that I wanted to pursue it for the rest of my life. That's the love of the game.

My baby mama dumped me. I moved to New York City when I was 20 years old, started making movies non-stop. I didn't have any friends so I would just sit at home all night editing on my iMac.

I started making movies and found some success. I ended up working for an artist named Tom Sachs, and I started making movies about this artwork.

My brother Van and I kept going and going and making movies and constantly hustling… We met this guy who said, 'Let's do something big together.' I think he was thinking of a feature. He said 'let's do a TV show.' For me, that was an excuse to keep making short films and lump it together and it was a TV series (HBO's "The Neistat Brothers")

On commercial success


2010 -- I think I would mark as the height of my success in the mainstream film universe. The feature I produced ("Daddy Longlegs") premiered internationally in Cannes and in the U.S. at Sundance, it won an Independent Spirit award, my HBO show premiered. It was all these big-ticket, big-ego things. At the same time, my brother and I stopped working together, which was tough.

I remember being on an airplane flying home from LA - with my Independent Spirit Award - if you've ever seen one, you know it has this archangel of death on the top of it. It is razor sharp. You can definitely effortlessly bludgeon someone to death with this award. I remember going into LAX security and those guys going, 'There's no way you're getting on the plane with this thing.' Then the head TSA guy came out and said "Congratulations! Take it on the plane."

I had this moment, it was a 'What am I doing?' moment. I call it a Jesus moment, even though I'm Jewish… I wasn't really happy trying to be this big-deal Hollywood producer type…I thought if I'm going to be unhappy in my career, fuck it, I'll go back to Connecticut and wash dishes.

Casey Neistat at SXSW

How he came to YouTube

I arrived at this place where I love telling stories. That's all I want to do is tell stories. What's the place where I can just tell stories and get away from all this bullshit that doesn't excite me? That's what led me back to the internet - to YouTube. I say YouTube, but I mean the internet. There are a number of great platforms.

"I washed dishes so I could make movies. it was never a way for me to make money."

On ideas

Ideas are cheap. Ideas are easy. Ideas are common. Everybody has ideas. Ideas are highly, highly overvalued. Execution is all that matters.

There's that maxim that luck is where opportunity meets preparation. So I think that opportunity has become something that's ubiquitous and accessible to everyone. The internet is opportunity. We all have the same starting point. It's what we do with that opportunity.

On dealing with "bullshit" of the industry

"Daddy Longlegs" was a big success, but European distributors changing the title without permission… All this other bullshit was ridiculous. The process sucks. That's what it is about the internet that turns me on so much. This entire - I call it a bureaucratization of the spirit of the artwork. Your product, before it gets to reach your audience, it has to go through this yucky filter. If you're Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen, maybe that filter is less so, but chances are if you're in this room listening to me now, you've got a pretty big filter… but the Internet is a way of leapfrogging that filter.


How Internet liberated him as a filmmaker

The distribution model just evaporated… All you need is the internet connection, you can do it on your cell phone. You have the opportunity to reach the entire world.

Looking at my canon of movies, I don't know where or how they would have worked a decade ago. I don't know if they would have worked at all. I don't know if I would have had a career a decade ago.

On being a YouTube filmmaker

When I left HBO, to be a YouTuber, it felt like such a stigma. It was such a lame thing… but then I had this realization that I don't know of a more noble, a bigger deal as a filmmaker than to be a YouTube filmmaker. It is the first truly egalitarian platform. To succeed in a democracy, to succeed among a sea of anyone who wants to be there, I think is a higher mark than to maybe get a show on HBO, which is why I'm so proud of it and take such ownership in the title "YouTube filmmaker."

On how he makes a living


When people come to make and ask how they can make money making movies, I say 'make money so you can make movies. Don't make movies so you can make money.' I washed dishes so I could make movies. it was never a way for me to make money. it was just a way of feeding something that got me more excited than anything I've ever done.

None of my movies (on YouTube) are monetized. I live off my HBO paycheck and just put movies on internet and hope for the best.

Companies come to me and I make branded content for them. It's a dream job.

This article is related to: Casey Neistat, Tech, SXSW, SXSW 2014, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), YouTube, Daddy Longlegs, Filmmaker Toolkit