Ledyard native Casey Neistat: Full bore, never boring

Ledyard native Casey Neistat shot this self portrait in June on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, while he was filming a series of commercials for Mercedes' new four-door CLA coupe, background. Neistat has full creative control over the spots, which will culminate in a nationwide 60-second commercial.
Ledyard native Casey Neistat shot this self portrait in June on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, while he was filming a series of commercials for Mercedes' new four-door CLA coupe, background. Neistat has full creative control over the spots, which will culminate in a nationwide 60-second commercial. Casey Neistat

New London - Quick-hitting, handmade, homemade movies are what YouTube sensation Casey Neistat does best.

But the 32-year-old Ledyard native, who maintains a weekend home on Lower Boulevard near the Lighthouse Inn, says that after producing 70 short films in the past three years and starring in the HBO series "The Neistat Brothers," he might be up for some different challenges.

Once "The Neistat Brothers" came to an end - both as a show and as a professional relationship between him and his older brother Van - he ran a video production company for a time, but he didn't like the rat race. He made a vow that he would do only exactly what he wanted to do.

"Now, for the first time (since then), I think I'm ready for a change in the next year," he said during an interview this month at Muddy Waters Cafe, where his father Barry is co-owner. "That may involve a feature film or television show."

Nothing definite is in the works, he said, but few can doubt that once the pugnacious and likeable Neistat heads in a new direction, it will be with the same full-bore enthusiasm that punctuates the viral videos for which he is known best.

Lately, Neistat has been working on a series of YouTube videos that will culminate in a nationwide 60-second commercial for Mercedes' new four-door CLA coupe, priced in the $30,000 range and available in showrooms this September. Neistat has full creative control over the four spots, the first three of which take a lighthearted view of the process of making a car commercial.

To give an idea of Neistat's following, the latest spot was released less than a month ago and already has more than 600,000 views.

"If you're wearing a tuxedo and you're on a skateboard and you're in New York City, there's no way it's not going to look awesome," Neistat says in the video.

That pretty much sums up Neistat's credo in which the cool and the crazy coalesce in a gonzo style reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson.

Neistat jumped off a cliff in one of his most popular videos, a promotion of the Nike running shoe in which he traveled around the world in 10 days. The video has been viewed more than 9 million times.

He also performed his own stunts in the viral video "Bike Lanes," in which, as The New York Times described it, Neistat "had a friend record his painful-looking pratfalls as he crashed into obstructions, including a moving truck and a police cruiser, like a modern-day Buster Keaton."

The video, which has garnered 6.5 million views, was in response to a ticket Neistat received near his New York City home for not riding in the bike lanes. It prompted an outcry that led police to back off on the bike-lane enforcement initiative.

This wasn't the first time that one of Neistat's videos used a mixture of bemusement and outrage to effect change. Back in 2003, a video that Casey and his brother Van produced about Apple's battery-replacement policy for the iPhone, called "iPod's Dirty Secret," put pressure on the company to supply batteries at lower cost.

"I was mad at them for letting me down," Neistat said. "So I made a movie about it."

Other popular videos include "Make it Count," "Casey Neistat - Studio," and "Casey Neistat: Embracing your Limitations and Making Movies," (Neistat's TEDx lecture).

The homemade quality of Neistat's filmmaking is a stylistic choice. But it also was the result of embracing the limited resources he had available, he said.

Even now, when he has access to any gizmo on the planet, he shoots with off-the-shelf technology and edits video frame by frame using the free software iMovie.

"I was never taught the right way to make movies," he said. "I was forced to find my own path."

His path didn't seem particularly promising at the start. A high school dropout at 15, a father at 17 and a welfare recipient living in a trailer park earning a living as a dishwasher until age 20 are hardly the steps to a successful career launch.

"He never followed the rules," his father Barry Neistat said. "He was fearless."

Barry remembered taking Casey at age 10 or 12 to a building he owned on Bank Street to do some business when he realized his son had attached a rope to a chimney and was rappelling down a three-story brick facade.

Even now, Neistat always is on the go, spending about 100 days a year traveling. He runs 60 to 80 miles a week and regularly competes in marathons and Ironman Triathlons, despite a motorcycle accident six years ago that left him with a metal plate in his leg.

At his obsessively organized Manhattan studio, Neistat has a punching bag and gymnast rings that encourage him to exercise in between late-into-the-night editing sessions.

"In New York City, there's no such thing as 'off,'" Neistat said. "My week is never done."

'We just hustled'

Neistat moved to the city in June 2001 at age 20. Three months later, planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, destroying the nearby apartment building in which he was staying.

At that point, Neistat had no money, no steady job and nowhere to live. Yet, for the first time, he knew he belonged.

"I figured, if this is as bad as it gets, everything will be fine," Neistat said. "I knew that if I could figure out how to get through this, that I could get through anything."

Neistat joined Van, six years his elder, in New York with the intention of making movies.

"We just hustled and put everything on the Internet before there was YouTube," Casey said.

And always, he said, they looked for good stories, which inevitably involved conflict.

But the pair gained scant attention until they posted a three-minute video called "iPod's Dirty Secret," which was viewed more than a million times within a few days. The refreshing style of the piece brought notice from dozens of media sources ranging from The Washington Post to Fox News.

Two years later, the birth of YouTube expanded their audience further, and a series of irreverent videos eventually landed them an eight-episode HBO show in which Van and Casey offered quirky slices of their life, with many scenes filmed in southeastern Connecticut.

A second season of "The Neistat Brothers" never materialized for a variety of reasons, including creative differences between him and his brother, Neistat said.

Van and Casey, once an inseparable team, split up after the 2010 series to pursue different interests. Van is now working on a fine arts career in New York City.

"I always had my eye on the mainstream," Neistat said. "Van's ideas are much more esoteric. He is more of a pure artist. ... Van is the most talented person I've ever worked with in my entire life."

After the split, Neistat stepped up his game and at one point three years ago he had 18 employees on his payroll. But he has backed down lately - concerned that the number of employees was driving the work rather than the other way around - and now is down to one full-time studio assistant and a whole host of talented friends he can call on at any time to help out with a project.

"All of my work is character-driven, and I'm always the lead character," Neistat said in AdWeek magazine's June edition. "If people care about me, then they'll probably care about what I have to say."

Neistat figured that for each of his paid projects, he produces another 10 videos that he posts on YouTube for free, without advertising tie-ins. It's not that Neistat objects to "selling out" - for him, that is the ultimate sign of success. The videos are just the most enjoyable work he does and represent what he would do if he had no financial concerns.

"The greatest value for me on YouTube is to reach the greatest audience possible," he said.

His YouTube pieces are slices of his own life or video expressions of simple, absurd ideas that pop into his head and often can be summarized in just one line, such as, "I need a new wallet," "I only carry $2 bills" and "I only fly first (class), and I only buy coach."

"Execution is everything; ideas are nothing," he says. "My contribution is the work I do, not the ideas."

Still, Neistat, who never completed high school, finds himself lecturing frequently at colleges and symposiums to speak about the future of filmmaking and the secret of succeeding in a creative field. It's an irony not lost on Neistat, whose creative mind could never withstand the tedium of classroom instruction.

"It's sort of the ultimate 'I told you so,'" he said.

'The greatest distribution platform'

Neistat said every adult hits a plateau of "arrested development" - the time in life when they were influenced in such a profound way that, regardless of their successes, they can't escape who they were at that time. For him, it's ages 15 to 20, when he seemed to be a nobody with no future.

"I will always be that guy in the trailer park being called a loser," he said.

The frustration, as Neistat realized later, was never being listened to as a kid.

"I never felt like I had a voice," he sadi in one lecture he gave in Chicago. It was filmmaking, YouTube and hard work that suddenly gave him a podium of which most people only dream.

"YouTube is the greatest distribution platform in the history of moving images," Neistat declares in one online interview posted on the website Refinery29.com.

"Filmmaking has never been as egalitarian as it is right now," he said in the Chicago lecture. "It's an absolute meritocracy applied to an art that was once the antithesis of that."

With success has come some perks. Neistat always maintained a residence close to his now 15-year-old son, Owen, but a few years ago, he was able to buy a house in New London, a welcome respite from the bustle of New York. His home here also kept him close to his grandmother, Louise Neistat, who ran a local dance school and died two years ago at age 92.

Neistat still calls Louise, a former Rockette in New York City, his muse. He completed a video about her just weeks before she died and delivered the eulogy at her funeral. He also managed to sneak into Radio City Music Hall and placed an engraving with Louise Neistat's name on the back of one of the seats, a gesture captured in one of his videos.

"My grandmother is my biggest single inspiration," Neistat said. "She was a great example of finding something you love and doing it for the rest of your life."

l.howard@theday.com

Casey Neistat talks about his films during an interview June 7 at Muddy Waters in New London.
Casey Neistat talks about his films during an interview June 7 at Muddy Waters in New London. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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