Casey Neistat is a New Yorker. For a job he makes movies. Some become television shows for HBO, others premier at Cannes and win awards and others are commercials for brands. Like he says, it’s a great gig. However, if he had no responsibility he’d spend all his time making YouTube videos. With one of the most popular YouTube channels on the net Casey’s DIY, low-fi films of him doing things like waiting for the new iPhone or crashing his bike while using NYC’s bicycle lanes get so many eyeballs that Nike gave him a round the world ticket and for their CLA Project Mercedes Benz gave him a car, both with the brief to make a Casey Neistat film for them.
When Warner Bros gave Casey $25k of their marketing budget for the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Casey booked a ticket to the Philippines and provided ten thousand people with food, medicine and then posted a disaster relief video. Now if you were to give the same amount to an NGO maybe a portion of that might reach the destitute after a coupla months. But Casey’s a doer. So he flies there himself, buys bulk from the grocery store, hires two busses, drives the supplies in and hands them out himself.
Being a fan of Casey’s videos I’d watched the one where he surprises his girlfriend Candice by showing up at her house in Camps Bay, navigating with nothing more than an Instagram pic of Lion’s Head. So after watching the Walter Mitty relief video I contacted him asking if he’d be summering in the Cape this year. Casey answered immediately, saying that he’d just arrived.
First thing I notice is the gold grill in his mouth, which isn’t actually a grill but solid gold braces that glisten in the 6am sun. There are hand poked tattoos peeking out from under his shorts – personal best marathon times and tally marks for each completed marathon – and his arms are scrawled with dates and mantras that are not unlike the notes he writes on his hand.
We’d initially planned to run up Lion’s Head but Casey can’t actually run today. “I hate not running right now. My leg is pretty much metal – motorcycle accident – but I’ve run 21 marathons on it and it’s never given me any problems. Before I came down here I ran the California Marathon and sat on a plane for nine hours. The tendons or ligaments that run under the kneecap, you put stress on them when your legs are bent and I slept like that after the run. I’ve never been injured like this before. I can’t fault the running. To put your body through that and then go sit on a plane afterwards was just really irresponsible.”
Still, Casey’s like a shark – he has to keep moving at all time – and he’s up for a brisk walk. Last year the 32-year old filmmaker travelled 190 000 miles. The world is 26 000 miles around. Even when he’s editing his films he’s constantly moving: a timer goes off in his studio every hour so that he can do pull ups on gymnast rings – his record is 35 – and there’s a speed bag in front of a poster of a ‘90s Iron Mike. The installations of both of these are available on the Casey Neistat YouTube Channel.
About the studio – it’s here that Casey’s made the 80-something YouTube videos with some 50 million views. Essentially a storyteller, Casey unscrambles the world, simplifies things and then tells stories – from calorie counting to stealing his own bike to his relationship with his girlfriend – using what can only be described as a Casey Neistat aesthetic. To further appreciate his movies you need to see his space.
“My studio is probably the most important physical possession I have. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but instead of making chocolate I make movies. I don’t have any Oompaloompas because I don’t like having any other people around. It’s constantly changing. It’s never done. There’s a manifesto for the studio – everything I need to make for a movie should be at arms reach.”
Having grown up in a home where if he had to fix his bike he’d first need to fix the tool he was going to use, Casey designed his studio as an answer to a frustrating childhood. He writes his name on everything so that it has more chance of showing up again if it’s lost. He labels everything because making movies is such a grueling process without having to stop to look for a red koki pen.
“It’s an efficiency thing. If you have to stop to spend a few hours looking for a red sharpie, that’s a few hours you should’ve been editing and not looking for a red sharpie. So it’s better to have a box that’s simply labeled ‘red sharpies’. I’m not OCD. I’m just doing it right and everyone else is doing it wrong. I’ve always been like that. I have a rule – if you ever get to a girl’s house and her bed isn’t made, get out, just leave, you don’t want to be any part of that.”
We’re forced to stop our ascent as a group of tourists maneuver the network of chains above us. First Casey confesses the following: “I feel like such a pussy walking.” Then he nods towards the group going up the chains. “There’s a metaphor for you. My biggest frustration in life is having my fate out of my control. We can’t go on because of them. Our speed is being dictated by them.”
So Casey finds his own route, scrambling up the sheer cliff face, even with his bummy leg. When I eventually catch up he’s perched on a precipice waiting for me. I ask if he’s a control freak.
“No. I just don’t want strangers dictating my pace and speed. I see other people as an obstruction. If it was just you and me and we were pushing each other to go faster and climb more aggressively and take tougher routes, that’s amazing, that’s what I would seek, but these people are standing between you and me and our objective.”
Is that why all your work is done your way?
“Sure. It’s the same as making a movie. Same as the other asshole in his car. The second someone’s being provides a distraction to me or my ability to what I want to do I try to eliminate that. That’s a philosophy that can be applied to any aspect of life. Religion. Politics. I believe in all of that. But don’t impose them on your fellow man.”
After thirteen years living in New York City, Casey has never used the subway. He doesn’t like the way someone else decides when you go and how long you must wait for. He doesn’t like when those things are out of his control. So he rides a bike, and takes comfort in the fact that he knows exactly how long it’s going to take him to get to where he’s going.
Casey lives as if he’s on borrowed time, finding it necessary to remind himself how temporary everything is. “If you’re fit now, take advantage of it. If you have a free hour, take advantage of it. If you have an idea now, take advantage of it. All those things are fleeting and all those things are temporary. My biggest motivator to any question is: ‘because I can’. Why run now? Why make something now? Life gets a little bit shorter every day. I feel an obligation to cram in as much as what’s humanly possible.”
In order to carpe diem Casey must first take his health seriously. No drugs, no smoking, minimal drinking and a healthy diet go with all the exercise that he does. “Your brain is so valuable and without your body it’s limited. That’s a really scary prospect for me. I really value my body. Not to the point that I won’t take risks. If I can never walk again because the chute didn’t open, that’s fine. But to never run again because I ate too many potato chips? That’s not okay.”
I ask about his films Calorie Detective and Soda Ban and whether he feels responsible for promoting good health to others.
“I don’t feel responsible, no. It’s more a personal frustration. As human beings we’re capable of doing so much and to curb that for something like sugar water or a cheeseburger – it’s a crime. That’s extreme but just look at the numbers in the States. We won’t have enough physically eligible men to fill our quota for the military because they’re all too fat. That’s not hyperbole. It’s unequivocal fact. More people die from obesity related diseases than starvation. Those things scare the shit out of me. Indulgence until the point of sabotage is completely unnecessary.”
We reach the summit and take in the view. Usually Casey has a ritual where he jumps from one ledge to another. I ask if he’ll do it again for the video I’ve been shooting on my GoPro and he agrees, but not before positioning the camera, framing it and making sure that everything is perfect. I get behind the camera and Casey makes the jump on his bum knee, across the chasm, landing safely on the other side. It’s not so much a leap of faith as confidence of self and a firm belief in his abilities. Like the movies that he makes.
Unfortunately you won’t see the jump in the video below, as my movie skills are severely lacking. Sorry Casey, lets shoot take two on your next trip.