Off the Grid
Filmmaker/provocateur Casey Neistat takes us into his tricked-out Manhattan studio, a place where turning down easy money is cause for celebration
by Giancarlo DiTrapano Photography Christopher Sachs
In a nondescript commercial building on Broadway below Canal is Casey Neistat’s second floor studio. Having read about the omnipresent security cameras that he can monitor from his phone, I definitely felt “watched” upon entering the building. Once inside the door, the many monitor screens above Neistat’s desk confirmed my suspicions. The sunny space is roughly the size of three NYC studio apartments. Once only a third its size, as Neistat’s career grew, so did the place.
Standing in the middle of the studio feels like standing in the center of Neistat’s psyche. Every inch of the place is plastered with images, tokens and tools from his life and work. To facilitate his artistic endeavors, all of the studio’s contents are stored not unlike memories – by their relevance and the frequency of use. Within arm’s reach are several cameras and computers, at the ready the instant they’re needed. “I like to keep everything I need available,” Neistat says.
“Do you want me to get the chainsaw started?”
One can imagine a biographer putting together a pretty decent account of Neistat’s life from the walls alone. Serving as wallpaper is everything from bullet-torn shooting range targets to a wall of Polaroids supposedly taken of everyone who has ever stepped inside. There are also postcards, liquor bottles, a wall of VHS tapes (Gummo, Rumble Fish) and, for some reason, a collection of unopened Heinz ketchup bottles on a shelf with a chainsaw and a tank of gas. “Do you want me to get the chainsaw started?” Neistat asks, more than willing to fire it up.
Physically, Neistat is an intense looking man. With the face of a Russian boxer who has grown out his hair during hiatus, he possesses that kind of rare human energy that, if otherwise directed, could be used for criminal endeavors. He’s also in enviably good shape. You can’t purposely flip over the handlebars of a bike (watch his video protest of the city’s inane bike lane laws to see why) or jump into the sea from a 100-foot-high cliff unless your body can take it.
Neistat cut his teeth making short online films with his brother Van. None longer than a few minutes, they range from a soft vigilantism on the injustices of Apple’s faulty iPod battery to an instructional guide on how to make the Land O’Lakes butter package girl look like she’s baring her breasts. Those early YouTube uploads garnered enough attention to land him his own show on HBO (The Neistat Brothers) and the role of producer on a feature film (Daddy Longlegs, winner of the John Cassavetes prize at the Independent Spirit Awards).
What makes so many viewers watch, re-watch and share Neistat’s films is owed to the execution and his personal style. Many of the titles in the films are hand-drawn and filmed in stop motion, with a texture that feels old-fashioned (as if filmed in the ’70s with a Super 8 camera) and also very ahead of their time. Neistat’s presence in front of the camera is another signature touch. Exhibition is deeply ingrained in him, because you can tell he enjoys hamming it up for the lens. “Different people like different things about my films,” he says. “Some like the story, some like the style and some like to see me in them as well.” Whether he’s narrating or playing the role of a sea monster in a scene written by his son (who arrived unexpectedly when Neistat was still in high school), you immediately trust him. You become his accomplice, and you follow him wherever he decides to take you.
You can’t purposely flip over a bike or jump into the sea from a 100-foot cliff unless your body can take it.
In April, YouTube began allowing all of its the users the option of earning ad revenue from their uploads, a seemingly ideal situation for a guy like Neistat, who self-finances the vast majority of his films and has already logged more than 18 million views. But Neistat refuses to monetize his channel despite the fact that he could seriously inflate his bank account with just a couple of clicks. Those horribly annoying ads are obstacles between the work and the audience, he says, and that gets in the way of what he wants to do.
Despite his righteous decision to keep his work viewer-friendly and commercial-free, Neistat’s most viewed clip was financed by corporate money, albeit not in the way the client had intended. The film begins with Neistat telling us that Nike threw him a pile of cash for a “Make It Count” video. Rather than spend the dough on a slick, “professional” production, Neistat and a very lucky friend instead “made it count” for themselves by traveling the world until the money ran out and filming their exploits along the way. The video has currently tallied more than seven million views, so Nike got what it paid for (and then some).
Neistat has also found a semi-regular gig — and a whole new audience — as an "op-doc" writer/director for the New York Times website, making videos with accompanying articles on topics ranging from the city's bike lane laws to the logical failings of Mayor Bloomberg's ban on sugary drinks.
In the studio are what Neistat calls a money box and a love box. The first contains the work he does to put food on the table; the second holds the work he does because it’s his passion. The better job offers he gets, the more choice he has in how he makes his buck, so the two boxes are slowly becoming one. What he wants to do is film his stories, hit upload and keep giving it to his audience. Neistat has carved out a perfect place in downtown Manhattan, as well as in his life, to keep doing exactly this.