'Catfish': What You Didn't See in Theaters

The story behind the engrossing documentary thriller.

August 23, 2011, 6:43 PM

Aug. 26, 2011 — -- It was an innocent cyber romance that met a shocking conclusion, and it was all caught on tape: The documentary thriller "Catfish" chronicled New York photographer Nev Schulman's relationship with a woman he believed to be an attractive 19-year-old girl and her family, including her 8-year-old artist prodigy sister. He would later learn that the girl, who said her name was Megan, and her family were not at all what they appeared to be online.

"Catfish," which debuted last year and was released on DVD in January, made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival and became one of the most buzzed-about documentaries of the year. But just because you've seen the film doesn't mean you know the whole story.

"20/20" spoke with Schulman, Catfish filmmakers Ariel Schulman (Nev Schulman's brother) and Henry Joost and, in an exclusive, the woman who created the nuanced illusions that fooled a young man into thinking he'd found the love of his life.

The story began in 2007, when Schulman, then 24, heard from an 8-year-old girl named Abby via MySpace. A budding artist, Abby said she had seen one of Schulman's photographs published in a newspaper and requested permission to paint it. Schulman said yes and, weeks later, received a watercolor rendition of his photo.

The painting, Schulman said, was great. "I was kind of floored," he remembered.

Schulman sent Abby more of his photographs to paint and with her mother Angela's blessing, the two began corresponding online. Schulman was soon deluged with packages filled with Abby's paintings and drawings. That's when Ariel Schulman and Joost -- both filmmakers who shot Schulman and their friends hanging around all the time -- began to see a story taking shape.

"That's when I started filming because he would go, 'Pick these packages up, bring them down to the office and slice them open,'" said Ariel Schulman. "I thought it would make a cute short film. Simple as that."

Within two months, Schulman became Facebook friends with a small throng of Abby's fans and family, including her 19-year-old half-sister Megan. Like Schulman, she was a photographer and he was intrigued by the photos of herself which she posted online.

Was It Fake?

"She was smoking hot, unbelievably sexy ... super beautiful," Schulman said.

Although they were complete strangers, he quickly fell for her and found himself opening up to her in ways he hadn't with other women, he told "20/20."

As part of their virtual courtship, Megan, who was also a talented musician, would write songs for Schulman -- often singing them as duets with her brother and mother, Angela -- and post them on Facebook.

Schulman said the songs made him "melt."

"Here's this girl, this beautiful girl, virgin girl in Michigan who's writing me passionate love songs," he said.

The two talked on the phone and exchanged steamy text messages. Schulman even doctored a photo to look like the two of them were posing together.

"I titled the photo 'someday' because I thought, you know what … I'm not going to be guarded. ... I'm not going to reserve the fact that I really do like her and that I'm hoping it works out," he said.

Schulman was ready to meet Megan and a photo assignment in Vail, Colo., soon would provide that chance. Schulman was planning a trip to Vail to shoot a dance performance and decided he'd make the 22-hour drive from there to Megan's home in Michigan to finally see her face-to-face.

But before the meeting could take place, Schulman learned something disturbing. Spoiler alert: The twists and turns of the movie "Catfish" are revealed in the remainder of this article.

He, his brother and Joost found song lyrics Megan claimed she and her mother had written together actually belonged to another artist. They also found a version of Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Stud" -- sung by a woman -- on YouTube. The rendition was nearly identical to a version Megan had sent them.

That was when "we realized everything was fake," Joost said.

But the discovery didn't keep Schulman from continuing with plans for his trip from Vail to Michigan's upper peninsula. Now, however, the journey -- to be undertaken with his brother and Joost by his side -- would be about finding answers.

"[My brother] said to me very sort of soberly, 'Don't you want to get to the bottom of this? If nothing else, don't you want to get -- find out what's real here? Who these people are?'" Schulman said.

After a 1,300 mile journey from Vail, they arrived at the house. Sure enough, they found Megan's mom, Angela, and her younger sister Abby. But there were also Angela's two handicapped stepsons -- who Schulman had heard nothing about. Megan, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, while Abby acted confused when Nev Schulman asked her about her paintings.

It turned out that Angela -- full name: Angela Wesselman -- was the artist. She would later divulge that after facing snide comments about her paintings online, she began posting them as 8-year-old Abby -- and found the critics to be much kinder.

Nev turned out to be the kindest of all -- and he became the inspiration for another Wesselman alter-ego: Megan.

"I really created [Megan] to make it more of an age appropriate conversation for [Schulman]," she told "20/20" in an exclusive interview.

Megan became the core of Wesselman's growing cast of characters. She created online profiles for at least 21 relatives and friends to round out Megan's social circle, she said, because "it's not normal for just one person to be on Facebook ... with just one friend."

To bring these characters to life, Angela assumed all of their identities. She posted messages on Facebook in the voice of Abby, Megan, their brother and friends. She said she had no problem navigating such a complex fantasy world.

"I have been diagnosed as schizophrenic," she said. "But ... I don't think I have multiple personalities in normal life, really. I just think I have the ability to create a lot of illusions for people."

Read more of "20/20's" exclusive interview with Wesselman here.

Schulman readily admits how masterful Wesselman's deception was.

"This woman is exceptional," he said. "I'm totally fine admitting she just outsmarted me."

But whether Nev, his brother and Joost really were outsmarted by Wesselman has become a point of contention. Some have questioned whether the whole movie was a hoax.

In a piece written for Movieline, Kyle Buchanan, now with New York Magazine, claimed the filmmakers duped the audience.

"I don't completely buy the idea that Nev was really in love with this girl or that they had no idea what was going on," he said. " I think... these really hip guys from New York, that they found someone who lives in the heartland who has an extremely rough life, who is using this as their means of escape...and they toyed with it."

But Nev Schulman insists he was fooled and that when it came to "Megan," he just didn't dig deep enough.

"It was all right there the whole time, but we never looked," he said.

The veracity of "Catfish" has since become a legal issue. Last year, Threshold Media filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against "Catfish's" producers and distributor, Relativity Media, arguing that filmmakers used the song "All Downhill From Here" by singer-songwriter Amy Kuney -- who is signed to Threshold-owned Spin Move Records -- without permission. More recently, another copyright lawsuit -- related to a different song featured in the film -- was reportedly filed in the U.K.

The original copyright dispute tackles the question of the film's legitimacy because in documents defending against the lawsuit, Relativity cites the "fair use" doctrine, which allows the use of copyrighted material without permission for a limited number of purposes, such as news reporting and commentary. The plaintiffs have contended that the film is a work of fiction and fair use doesn't apply.

If the lawsuits head to court, Catfish's filmmakers may have to prove there that their film is wholly a work of fact.

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