The Neistat brothers’ handmade films make the big time

"The Neistat Brothers" premieres tonight on HBO. The network calls it a "genre-busting, eight-episode series consisting of experimental short films" by Ledyard natives Casey, left, and Van Neistat.
"The Neistat Brothers" premieres tonight on HBO. The network calls it a "genre-busting, eight-episode series consisting of experimental short films" by Ledyard natives Casey, left, and Van Neistat.

"The Neistat Brothers," a new television series featuring utterly unique and entertaining "handmade" short films by local natives Casey and Van Neistat, debuts tonight on HBO.

It's an amazing and well-earned success story, and one can only imagine the frivolity at the siblings' New York City headquarters this evening at a watching party.

Too bad Casey can't attend his own soiree.

"I'll be isolated in a hotel room," he explains. "I've got a marathon the next morning and I've been training for months. There will be plenty of time for celebration. I mean, it's taken years to get to this point, so we just want to enjoy it."

The half-hour episodes air at midnight on Fridays and the first season comprises eight shows. While it's the brothers' first experiment in television, they've become increasingly renowned in the art world for their videos. They started making homemade videos in 1999 and have made more than 200 short films. Their breakthrough - in 2003, years before YouTube - was called "iPod's Dirty Secret," about the MP3 player's short battery life.

Their e'er-evolving works, which by definition use consumer grade video and editing equipment, are autobiographical vignettes, sequential and free-form real-world observational tangents, and futuristic editing techniques - all delightfully mashed-up. The stars of the films are the Neistats and their pals; there are no professional actors, and the brothers write, edit and co-produce the shows.

"We make short movies about our lives and seam them together in a crazy way for a television show," Neistat says. "It's not the same as reality television, but it's also not scripted. Nothing in the entire season is written. We capture various of our experiences as best we can and try to figure out how to fit it together."

Casey and Van grew up in Led-yard and started making homemade videos at an early age. They moved to New York a decade ago, but retain close ties to this area. Their father, Barry Neistat, owns Muddy Waters Café on Bank Street in New London, and Casey's young son, Owen - who has a juicy role in the series' first episode on a New London beach - lives here with his mother.

Through the Neistats' rising profile in the art world, they drew the attention of Tom Scott, the visionary behind Nantucket Nectars, the resort-centric Plum TV network, and the producer of the film "Daddy Longlegs."

"I've been a pop culture addict for years," Scott says. "I came across some short films (the Neistats made), and I just at once knew they were totally original and very, very good."

Scott and the Neistats hit it off and he offered to finance their projects for a year.

"Tom wanted us to go out West to Aspen and Telluride and make films for the Plum network," Neistat says. "We thought, OK, we can do that. But let's take the travel budget and buy a cheap van. Tom's only rule was, 'Don't be jerks. Not that you are, but be respectful.'

"We can appreciate that. So we called it our Respectability Tour. We made a 45-minute film and for the first time, turned the camera on ourselves and utlized the narration perspective. And it worked."

Scott loved the film and immediately wanted to move to the next level and have the Neistats make a feature-length project. But the brothers figured they'd just tapped into a new creative frontier and, in the words of Casey, "We were determined to squeeze all the juice from the orange called these little movies."

Every six weeks, they'd show Scott what they'd been doing. There was a lot of trial and error, Neistat says, but a theme and method began to emerge - and Scott liked what he saw.

Through mutual friends, Christine Vachon of Killer Films saw some of the films and proposed taking the project to HBO.

"Four days later, we were sitting in Los Angeles meeting with HBO executives," Neistat says. "I mean, the head of programming there is untouchable. We're talking 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire.' And the next day you're in the office shooting the (breeze). And you know what? HBO liked it."

Scott explains there was no way to effectively describe what the Neistats were about.

"There was only one way to pitch what they're doing: You have to see it because you've never seen anything like it" Scott says. "Now, there have been a billion people use that pitch - but this time, it worked. Thankfully, we knew people that trusted us and a few of them gave us the time to show them what Van and Casey do."

HBO bought it. It's admittedly taken two years to get everything coordinated, but the wait ends tonight.

Meanwhile, the Neistats have an amazing office and production facilities in New York and a fulltime staff of five, with two interns. Together and separately, Casey and Van have a variety of other ideas in the works, and are of course hoping "The Neistat Brothers" enjoys a long, fruitful life on HBO.

"It's amazing," Neistat says. "Throughout the process, I kept waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under us. I mean, I was a dishwasher in Mystic when I was growing up. To me, I am a dishwasher and I'll always be one."

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