In early 2019, Casey Neistat began filming “Under the Influence,” about 23-year-old YouTube phenomenon David Dobrik, capturing his evolution from prankster to online celebrity with major brand sponsors and tens of millions of followers across social media platforms. But in 2021, the docu took a turn when a Business Insider story documented sexual-assault allegations by a woman against a former member of Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, Dom Zeglaitis. When the article went viral, Dobrik’s world began to collapse around him and Neistat was there to capture it. The result is a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it feature docu that sheds light on the social media’s ecosystem and the personalities it perpetuates.
Neistat teamed with Killer Films and documentary writer-producer Mark Monroe to make “Under the Influence,” which is bound to cause more controversy for Dobrik after premiering at South by Southwest on March 12. Neistat and Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon spoke to variety about why they wanted to make “Under the Influence” and what they hope its impact will be.
Why did you want to make a movie about David Dobrik?
Neistat: In 2019, companies were to line up to work with David. His cultural relevance was something that I had never seen before. It was absolutely extraordinary. There was no doubt in my mind when I began filming that a lot of his content was questionable, irreverent, and crude but still widely accepted. For better or worse, this young man was going to be the face of this (YouTube) platform. So, it was all very compelling and interesting to me and was a story that I thought I could tell.
In addition to being a story about David Dobrik, this film examines our society, and its relationship with social media and 21st century online fame. Do you consider the doc to be a social issue film?
Neistat: Absolutely. For a large part of the public, they’re aware of this world of influencers and, if I can generalize, they see it as absurdist. They see it as people screaming into cameras and getting paid millions of dollars and living these outlandish lives. There’s not a lot of understanding there. This film shines a light on how exactly David’s online world works. We capture and share why he was such a phenomenon and what that looks like up close. Then we show how the very same things that made him so successful ultimately led to his undoing. So, the movie takes a very sharp point of view looking from the inside out to show what that online world really looks like.
You had been working on this project for over two years when the Business Insider article was released in March 2021. In the wake of the allegations, several brands that had deals with Dobrik — including HBO Max, EA, HelloFresh, Dollar Shave Club and SeatGeek — cut ties with him. Did you have to convince David to continue with the doc after the article?
Neistat: The only time he engaged on camera after that article was released was for one final interview. It’s an interview that has a very different tone from the rest of the film. It’s an interview that is also peppered throughout the film, and it sandwiches the opening of the movie and end of the movie.
How did Killer Films get involved with the project?
Neistat: Christine produced my 2006 HBO series, “The Neistat Brothers” and I got to know her intimately through that process. When I started making this documentary, I didn’t know what it was going to be, and Christine was the first person I turned to. She convinced me that it was a real movie and provided me with the confidence to make it.
Christine, what did you see in the footage that made you know that it would make a good documentary?
Vachon: I loved this whole notion that Casey was going to follow somebody like David and really start to dig into internet fame and the fascination with that fame. What put somebody into that place? But, then as the story unfolded and it became darker and just became very clear to me that not only was it a film, but it was also a film with extraordinary resonance.
What are you hoping audiences walk away with after watching the doc?
Vachon: There’s so many layers about our online lives and we get sucked into living lives so publicly. So, I think the film will lead to questions and self-reflection or examination around our obsession with social media and the pressure that it puts on people — especially young people — to perform. Maybe people will leave asking, ‘What does it mean to live so much online?’
Has David seen this documentary?
Neistat: He has seen the film.
Will he be attending the SXSW film festival?
Neistat: He and I have not spoken since shortly after that final interview, so I don’t know his intentions. But I cannot imagine that he’ll be there.
So, I take it that he’s not a fan of the film?
Neistat: I certainly can’t speak for him.
Despite the Business Insider article, David still his YouTube channel and a successful online following and well as a show on Discovery Plus. Do you think this documentary might have a negative effect on his online career?
Neistat: That’s a question that I think about a lot, but I have no idea.
Vachon: One of the strengths of the film is it really gives the women a voice they wouldn’t have had. So, I don’t know.
You are trying to find a distributor at SXSW. How do you feel going into the festival?
Vachon: I really 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: It’s a very strange. I have contradictory feelings. On one side, I’m so immensely proud of the work the team and I accomplished. But on the other side, I don’t feel like this is a subject matter that should be celebrated. There is talk about what we should do after the screening. Do we have a party? I’m not comfortable celebrating the subject matter that we talk about in this movie. It’s important and relevant, but there are very real victims whose stories are told in this movie.