THE NEISTAT BROTHERS (HBO): Van Neistat Interview

Van Neistat

Van Neistat

I recently had a chance to talk to interview Casey and Van Neistat from THE NEISTAT BROTHERS, a new series on HBO (Read my review here) which airs Fridays at Midnight.

For those of you, not familiar with the show, The Neistat Brothers is an eight-episode series consisting of experimental short films written and directed by Van and Casey Neistat (pronounced “nigh-stat”).

First I talked with Van who talked about the process of filming the episodes, how they got the show on HBO and what are his plans for their future, including his desire to shoot a feature film. (Here is the second part of the interview where I talk to Casey Neistat)

For someone not familiar with your work how would you describe ‘The Neistat Brothers’ show on HBO?

Van Neistat: I usually tell people that it’s a collection of short films about our lives and they sort of manifest as home movies.

Can you describe the process of coming up with these episodes and how you wound up pitching at HBO and how it got picked up?

Van Neistat: We started working with Tom Scott in probably 2005 and he owns a small television network called Plum TV. We did this series of TV shows. It was called ‘The Neistat Brothers Television Show’ and they were like little thirty minute shows and he’d show them on his network and then after that he and Andy Spade said, ‘Why don’t we do a longer form project?’ We did like a fifty minute movie called ‘The Respectability Tour’ where we drove a van across the country and it was inspired by ‘Dumb and Dumber’.

We drove across the country for that and then after that Tom Scott said, ‘Why don’t you come up with a big project and a budget and we’ll see if we can do it.’ So we came up with this idea for a TV series. We told him our budget and he said sure and he gave us the financing to do it. We started then making this show. The way it started out was that every six weeks we’d deliver like a thirty minute TV show and we did that for about eighteen months until we had eight episodes.

In that first episode there’s a bit in there about the day you brought it to HBO and then how it was accepted. Can you talk about how you felt that day?

Van Neistat: When we had five episodes done we felt like we were in a rhythm and we were over the hump of the halfway mark and so we went out to California and first we met with agents and then we decided that maybe we didn’t need an agent and that maybe we could go directly to TV networks. We got interviews or meetings with different networks and they were all pretty interested. Our pie in the sky was HBO. We felt that it made the most sense and HBO was the most forward thinking and experimental TV brand.

We went and Christine Vachon got us the meeting with Carolyn Strauss. This was during the writer’s strike and so I think that they were looking for things that didn’t necessarily have to be written by union television screenwriters. In that respect – I don’t know – that’s the context of what was going on at the time. Christine had a meeting with HBO and she said, ‘Well, they’re interested.’ So then we met with Carolyn Strauss who was the head of programming at the time.

We sat down and she had her little team and she had a couch where the legs were cut off. It was on the floor. Your knees were up in your ears. I immediately brought that up. I said, ‘What the hell is up with this intimidation couch?’ We were all joking around and we talked about the show and she said, ‘I’m looking forward to doing business with you.’ It was like, ‘Holy shit.’ We walked out of the meeting and we have this rule until we’re outside of the building.

Then Casey and Tom Scott started talking like businessmen, like, ‘We need to do this and this,’ and I was just like stunned, trying to process it. This footage is actually in episode seven. Episode seven is about selling the show to HBO. We get to the car, a convertible Volkswagen Beetle and Tom Scott sits in the driver’s seat and he goes, ‘Fuck yeah!’ We started hooting and hollering. That was it. There was more drama after that but it was incredible and so weird.

What inspires you as your coming up for ideas for each episode?

Van Neistat: See, the thing is that a lot of people watch the show and they think backwards. They’re seeing the finished product and then they say, ‘Oh, these people that make this thing, they come up with the idea for the finished product and then they make it until they get to the finished product.’ But that’s not really how it works. We make movies every single day.

Today I’m making a little movie. I’m shooting or I’m writing or I’m editing, everyday. The inspiration, like a lot of artists have really good quotes about inspiration like genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. As far as inspiration we’re constantly, constantly making movies. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. When they work you’re kind of tweaking your brain, like, ‘There were elements of that which worked. Lets carry them into this new thing.’ It’s like if you’ve ever had an old motorcycle.

When you’re trying to figure out how to start it, when you first get your bike, you’re like, ‘Well, I have to choke it in the morning but I can’t shift it into gear until it’s warm enough wherein I can turn off the choke and it will idol without stalling.’ It’s just the process of that over ten years of doing these things and hundreds of movies.

When it came time to work in a television format, and we grew up watching television like everyone else, you’re kind of taking your way, your process and then appropriating it to a TV structural format. I don’t even think that we did that very well in season one. I think we could have had a bit more of an arch from the beginning but we didn’t know where we were going when we first set out. Our goal was that in six weeks we had to have thirty minutes of edited and interesting content.

Then would it be fair to say that the editing process is even more important than the filming process?

Van Neistat: Yeah. Casey and I always joke about it when we meet young filmmakers and they say, ‘I shot this really great thing. I drove across the country and I shot this great movie. All I have to do is edit it.’ In our minds that’s everything.

You don’t need to do anything but edit. You don’t need a camera anymore. You can find footage all over the place. In this day of digital, non-linear editing, editing is everything. That series we wrote during the editing process. We didn’t know that when we went to Amsterdam, thousands of things happened but the storyline that could tell the story was, yeah, Oscar had to get the maple syrup to Amsterdam.

Do you think there’s going to be a season two?

Van Neistat: I hope so. I hope there is. That’s up to the viewers I think. Obviously it’s up to HBO but I hope there will be. I think that season two we kind of have our rhythm and we’ve figured out our process, figured out a bunch of little technical things. We’ve learned a lot and we’re better storytellers. The cameras are better. They’re more efficient. Now we’re shooting almost entirely on SD based cameras instead of tape based cameras and so it’s a much faster process. I hope so but I don’t know.

So you are currently continuing to film and edit and if there is a season two that might end up in there?

Van Neistat: Well, at this stage we’re continuing to shoot everyday and then we meticulously organize all of our footage. I organize mine by date and by the camera that it was shot on because the subject matter on my SD8-70 Canon is just my everyday, in the pocket camera and then subject matter I shoot on the Sony FX1 which is our HD in studio camera.

Different things happen with each camera because the SD8-70 is always in my pocket. The FX1 is always in the studio. We have tons of footage and lots of pretty crazy and interesting things that have happened since season one. So when it comes time to cut season two I think with the present tense of the edit, you sitting down at the editing suite I’m editing the events of what’s going on with that day and also get mixed in with the events of a year ago or two years ago. It’s hard to describe but that’s kind of how it works.

Can you talk about the episodes that are coming up?

Van Neistat: A lot happens in episode two. That’s the episode called ‘Challenge and Reward’ where I challenge Tom Sachs, my mentor, to a model boat race, a start from scratch model boat race. The race begins with us building a boat and it ends with us racing this little radio controlled boat around a statue in a reflecting pool at the Des Moines Art Institute or whatever the name of the museum in Des Moines is. We challenge Oscar, our studio assistant, we challenge him to bring us a bottle of maple syrup to Amsterdam. Casey challenges Tom and me to a rematch of the model boat race but instead of model boats using real boats. I get writer’s block so I have a screenwriting challenge. Those are the main events of two.

In three Casey breaks up with his girlfriend and I lose my go-bag which has all my important stuff in it, everything. The footage for the episode that I’m supposed to be cutting. My Vuarnet sunglasses that I ordered from Singapore. My notebooks. Gone. I left the bag in the bag of a gypsy cab. The bag itself was a present from the Bicycle Film Festival which was just given out to directors. So I spend an entire episode trying to find that bag and I’m not going to tell you what happens.

Episode four is the ‘Nautical Challenge’ where I race Tom Sachs in a real boat race. The first half of that episode is that Casey and I go to Mexico to give a symposium and the whole thing falls apart.

Episode five I do fifteen short movies, like one minute movies and Casey does three five minute movies.

Episode six we go to the Superbowl and we go skiing with our brother who’s a soldier. He’s in the Air Force.

Episode seven was an episode that was censored and I had to reedit twice almost over a year.

Censored by HBO?

Van Neistat: Well, it was someone involved. I can’t say who but someone involved in the TV series objected to the subject matter which I had pursued. So we had this legal arrangement wherein I wouldn’t mention certain events. That’s the ‘Darkness and Light’ episode and that’s also the episode where we sell the TV series to HBO.

Then episode eight is when we celebrate the sale of the show. It starts off with us going to the Emmy Awards and then it ends with us climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. We packed a lot in during those four weeks of shooting.

Would you ever be interested in shooting a feature film?

Van Neistat: Yes. What I’ve been saying over the last year or so, and I’m not very dogmatic, like rule are meant to be broken, but I’ve been saying that I don’t want to shoot an independent feature film, like a personal film on a shoestring budget. I don’t want to do that.

I want to shoot a big, expensive, Imax 3-D movie because I really think these TV’s and the sound system that we have in our homes now are so great that if you’re shooting a two dimensional movie, I think the television is an appropriate venue from the consumer’s point of view. I think if you’re going to get someone to spend over $10 to go to a facility to watch a movie that it should be something that can only really be seen in that facility. I think that we have barely scratched the surface of 3-D. I believe Werner Herzog is doing a doc in 3-D. I’m not sure about that.

I hear that James Cameron is interested in doing ‘Avatar 2’.

Van Neistat: Oh, my God. I’m interested in living ‘Avatar’. Fuckin-A. What a movie, man. Spectacular. When that movie came out every single person I saw, it’s like if I was asking, ‘Have you done your homework?’ I was like, ‘Have you seen “Avatar” yet?’ The guy is a genius. I mean a romantic comedy in 3-D. I don’t know. I’d like to take a crack at an action movie in 3-D. Maybe a motorcycle movie. We haven’t had a great motorcycle movie in a long, long time. [Dennis] Hopper just died.

(Photo courtesy of HBO)