‘Under the Influence’ creators Casey Neistat, Christine Vachon talk documenting rise, fall of David Dobrik’s internet fame

Kaiya Little, Senior Life & Arts Reporter

In early 2019, Casey Neistat, filmmaker and Youtube star, set out with producer Christine Vachon to start a conversation about social media sensationalism and its real-world consequences in the documentary “Under the Influence.” Premiered at South by Southwest on March 12, the film tracks vlogger David Dobrik’s career of instant internet fame — and his ultimate downfall following the release of Insider magazine’s Kat Tenbarge’s piece, which featured a victim’s story of sexual assault after a night with Dobrik’s “vlog squad” and friend “Durte Dom” Zeglaitis.

The Daily Texan sat with Neistat and Vachon to talk production, challenges and narrative impact.

The Daily Texan: Where did the creative process for this documentary begin? What made you want to start this project?

Casey Neistat: 2019 is when I conducted the first interview. Prior to being on YouTube, I made feature films. … I had a very traditional trajectory in the industry. Juxtaposing that with my experience on YouTube gave me a good understanding of how unique YouTube was in the world of film or video. I (wanted) to tell the story of what it was to be a prominent creator on YouTube, and as I stepped away from the platform, David was taking off on a trajectory that I’d never really seen before, so he seemed like a fantastic candidate to be a case study for what (that) looks like.

DT: How did that process play out when David started receiving a lot of internet backlash? What motivated you to keep telling this story?

CN: There were really only two directions the movie ever took: Before Kat Tenbarge’s —- the article that shifted (David’s) career dramatically … and (the other) was after that was published. That was a gigantic inflection point for how I looked at this movie.

DT: How does your documentary fit into this discourse about cancel culture?

CN: Cancel culture is one thing, and the matters addressed in this movie are more about accountability for incidents that took place where there were real victims. If you step far enough away and squint your eyes, the line between accountability and cancel culture can get blurred. … My goal with this movie was to make clear that this is about accountability and not something else.

DT: What’s the greatest challenge you faced throughout the production process?

CN: The greatest challenge was understanding that there are victims in the story. When you’re talking about YouTube and a career of astronomical success built on jokes — which was the product David Dobrik really sold and packaged in his four-minute videos — juxtaposing that with real victimization is always a challenge because respect for the survivor of the sexual assault incident was absolutely paramount. Striking that balance was a tremendous priority.

DT: Now that you’re here at SXSW, what do you hope to impart with viewers?

CN: As a filmmaker, I make the best movie I can and try to be as honest as I can. Then, I get to sit back and see what people take from it. … I don’t think I have any say in (that), but I certainly look forward to sharing (the documentary) with an audience and getting (their) understanding. 

Christine Vachon: (“Under the Influence” is) an extraordinary conversation. … These influencers exist, and their impact is so siloed sometimes that we don’t always realize how extraordinarily resonant it is. If the conversation can at least begin getting under the skin of that, then that’ll be great.