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Casey Neistat on David Dobrik, the World’s Most Beloved YouTuber Until His Downfall

SXSW: Neistat explains why his new documentary on the vlog star captures a dangerous side to the era of social media stardom.

“Under the Influence”

David Dobrik was one of the biggest YouTube stars on the planet, a cheery prankster who commanded a vast online following with his so-called “Vlog Squad” and massive brand sponsorship, when everything came tumbling down. After a 2021 Business Insider article detailed the sexual assault allegations against Vlog Squad member Dom Zelaitis, Dobrik’s popularity plummeted, and the drama didn’t end there: That same year, Vlog Squad member Tony Wittek lambasted Dobrik for driving the crane during an ill-fated stunt that left Wittick with major facial injuries and temporary blindness in one eye. 

The unraveling of the Dobrik mythos was a jarring reversal of fortune for a face emblematic of modern-day YouTube stardom, and Casey Neistat captured all of it. A prolific Vlogger himself, Neistat started making a movie about Dobrik in 2017, aiming to explore a unique form of 21st century stardom. When Dobrik’s story took a sudden dark turn, Neistat’s movie went with it. His new documentary, “Under the Influence,” tracks the subject’s rise and fall as a wakeup call to the dangers of unregulated fame that have come to define the social media era. 

And it has left Neistat struggling to come to grips with a creative challenge far dicier than the one he signed up for. “I’m fucking exhausted,” he said in a phone interview. “It was a huge creative and emotional undertaking to me.”

The completed movie, which premieres at SXSW this week while seeking distribution, fits the tech-oriented festival like a glove. The community that once embraced online fame as pure opportunity now recognizes the danger inherent to that phenomenon. Neistat, who identifies as a filmmaker more than an internet star, made a point of distancing himself from the 25-year-old Dobrik’s popularity. While the 40-year-old Neistat has secured his own major brand sponsorships for his YouTube work and billions of viewers, his polished videos emerge from his background as a filmmaker; Dobrik’s are more of the rough-and-tumble variety, with elements of “Jackass” and home movie hangout sessions as their chief selling points. 

“We had explicitly different intentions,” Neistat said. “If these brands had seen all of these videos he’d released, I can’t imagine they’d work with him. I’d like to think the companies I worked with — whether it’s Nike or Mercedes Benz — call me naive, but they were enthusiastic about my creativity. With David I think there’s a real juxtaposition to that.”

Neistat embraced YouTube stardom after his similar vignette-style first-person filmmaking didn’t garner much attention on HBO in 2010, when the show he produced his brother Van, “The Neistat Brothers,” only lasted one season. “It didn’t do particularly well,” Neistat said. “Not a lot of people tuned in. But then I put that same exact style on YouTube and developed a huge audience with billions of views and 10 million-plus subscribers. My own enthusiasm for YouTube and the opportunities provided for me as a filmmaker extends to the audience that’s there. That was where the eyeballs were, not on HBO.”

The biggest upside for the show was that Neistat built a relationship with veteran indie producer Christine Vachon, who came onboard the documentary early on. “I thought Casey would have a really great take given his own background and storytelling abilities,” Vachon said. “He understood how that kind of obsession with internet notoriety gets under people’s skin in such an extraordinary way. Of course, what unfolded was another story.”

In Dobrik’s case, the audience became less infatuated by any creative impulses than they did with Dobrik himself. During the earlier parts of the movie, Neistat follows his subject around ecstatic teen fans who wouldn’t look out of place in a screaming crowd for The Beatles 60 years ago. “He reached a level of influence that was positively unchallenged,” Neistat said. “He could ask for whatever he wanted. He could show up at any airport and he’d have the best flight.” Neistat’s camera captures the turning point in Dobrik’s career when that unfettered power shifted, including his attempt to pitch a Netflix show based on his online material. The streaming platform rejected the idea. “I think Netflix saying no to him was a decision made because they didn’t see the relevancy of it,” Neistat said. “They weren’t looking at him as someone with raw influence.”

Dobrik only participated in a single combative interview with Neistat after the Insider article came out, and while Neistat said he was aware that Dobrik had seen the documentary, the two weren’t in touch. “His biggest fear was that the rug being pulled out from under him,” Neistat said. “My goal was to let him speak for himself. It was less about what I thought about it.”

Now, Neistat said he hoped the project facilitated a better understanding of Dobrik’s situation, and the way the unregulated power of his Vlog Squad led them to exploit the very fans who contributed to his rise. “If this offers clarity as to how someone like him can succeed, and if this holds him to account, then I think that will promote a dialogue that will be beneficial in the future,” Neistat said.

That’s a timely matter as social media stardom continues to accelerate among younger generations. “I think a big part of this younger generation, their North Star is that influence,” Neistat said. “Their goal is to achieve that influence by any means necessary, whatever it might be.” The movie, he added, “is a vivid illustration of the good and bad of having zero distance between the creator and the audience.”

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