Art

Casey Neistat is David Dobrik and the dangers of social media

In early 2019, Casey Neistat began filming “Under the Influence,” about a 23-year-old YouTube phenomenon directed by David Dobrik, chronicling his journey from prankster to online star with major brand sponsors and tens of millions of followers across social media platforms. But in 2021, the documentary took a turn when a Business Insider story documented a woman’s allegations of sexual assault against a former member of Dobrik’s vlog squad, Dom Zeglaitis. As the article went viral, Dobrik’s world began to collapse around him and Neistat was there to capture her. The result is a documentary you can’t take your eyes off of, shedding light on the social media ecosystem and the personalities it immortalizes.

Neistat has teamed up with Killer Films and documentary writer-producer Mark Monroe to create Under the Influence, which Dobrik is sure to cause more controversy after it premieres on South by Southwest on March 12. Spoke to Neistat and Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon diversity about why they wanted to do “Under the Influence” and what they hope to get out of it.

Why did you want to make a film about David Dobrik?

Neistat: In 2019 companies had to queue to work with David. Its cultural relevance was something I had never seen before. It was absolutely exceptional. When I started filming I had no doubt that much of its content was questionable, irreverent and crude, but still widely accepted. For better or for worse, this young man would be the face of this (YouTube) platform. So it was all very compelling and interesting to me and it was a story I thought I could tell.

This film is not only a story about David Dobrik, but also examines our society and its relationship to 21st century social media and online fame. Do you think the documentary is a social film?

Neistat: Absolutely. This world of influencers is well known to a large part of the public and, if I may generalize, considered absurd. You see it as people screaming into cameras and getting paid millions of dollars and living this fancy life. There’s not much understanding there. This film takes a close look at how David’s online world works. We capture and share why he was such a phenomenon and what it looks like up close. Then we show how the same things that made him so successful ultimately led to his downfall. So the film takes a very sharp look from the inside out to show what this online world is really like.

They had been working on this project for over two years when the Business Insider article was published in March 2021. In the wake of the allegations, several brands – including HBO Max, EA, HelloFresh, Dollar Shave Club and SeatGeek – have cut ties with Dobrik. Did you have to convince David to continue with the document after the article?

Neistat: The only time you got involved on camera after this article was published was for a final interview. It’s an interview that has a very different tone to the rest of the film. It is an interview that is also peppered through the film and includes the beginning of the film and the end of the film.

How did Killer Films get into the project?

Neistat: Christine produced my HBO series The Neistat Brothers in 2006 and I got to know her very well through the process. When I started making this documentary I didn’t know what it was going to be and Christine was the first person I reached out to. She convinced me it was a real film and gave me the confidence to do it.

Christine, what did you see in the footage that made you know it would make a good documentary?

Vachon: I loved this whole idea that Casey would follow someone like David and really start looking into internet fame and the allure of that fame. What brought someone to this place? But then as the story unfolded it got darker and I just realized very clearly that it wasn’t just a movie, it was an exceptionally resonant movie.

What do you hope the audience will get away with after viewing the document?

Vachon: There are so many layers to our online life and we get so drawn into the public eye. So I think the film will lead to questions and self-reflection or confrontation with our obsession with social media and the pressure to perform that it puts on people, especially young people. Maybe people leave with the question, “What does it mean to live so much online?”

Has David seen this documentary?

Neistat: He saw the film.

Will he attend the SXSW film festival?

Neistat: He and I didn’t speak shortly after that last interview, so I don’t know his intentions. But I can’t imagine that he will be there.

So I assume he’s not a fan of the movie?

Neistat: I certainly can’t speak for him.

Despite the Business Insider article, David still has his YouTube channel and a successful online following, as well as a show on Discovery Plus. Do you think this documentary could have a negative impact on his online career?

Neistat: That’s a question I think about a lot, but I have no idea.

Vachon: One of the strengths of the film is that it really gives the women a voice that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. So I don’t know.

They are trying to find a distributor at SXSW. How are you going to the festival?

Vachon: I can’t wait to see the film with an audience. I think seeing it with an audience will help a potential distributor understand its potential.

Neistat: That is very strange. I have conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I’m incredibly proud of the work that the team has done and that I’ve accomplished. But on the other hand, I don’t think this is an issue that should be celebrated. There is talk about what to do after the performance. do we have a party I don’t feel comfortable celebrating the subject we’re talking about in this film. It’s important and relevant, but there are very real victims whose stories are told in this film.

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