Bert Marcus is the mastermind behind the documentary film The American Meme, starring Paris Hilton, Hailey Bieber, DJ Khaled, Emily Ratajkowski, Josh Ostrovsky, Kirill Bichutsky, Brittany Furlan and more. The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year, and became a Netflix Original shortly after. BELLA sat down with Marcus to learn the details behind the blockbuster documentary and to hear what is next for this genius filmmaker.
Your documentary The American Meme was received with great reviews from critics and viewers, and made a splashy Netflix debut at the end of last year. What inspired you to start working on it, and how did you come up with the people you wanted to include as part of this project?
My inspiration for The American Meme came from simply observing the people around me–namely, the over-saturated nature and inescapable presence of social media in our daily lives. Social media has evolved into a complex and global phenomenon, one deeply rooted within our cultural zeitgeist. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter: people look at these apps when they wake up in the mornings, and scroll through them right before falling asleep. I knew that I wanted to spark a dialogue on what the consequences of this infatuation with social media, and the complicated questions that arise in the intersection of real life versus online presence.
Ultimately, my documentary is character-driven, meant to undertake an examination of the humanity through each profiled social media influencer and their crafted personas. I wanted to explore a broad spectrum of distinct influencers that amassed followings for unique reasons. Ultimately, I decided on larger-than-life individuals like Paris Hilton, Josh Ostrovsky, Kirill Bichutsky and Brittany Furlan because they all represented something symbolic and singular in our current world of social media. Through uninhibited access and perspectives of these characters—as well as other voices, like DJ Khaled, Hailey Baldwin and Emily Ratajkowski—audiences will see the inner-workings of this world in a stark light. These personalities share a different side of themselves and express their vulnerabilities, revealing an often- masked honesty. At the end of the day, on the most fundamental level, it all comes down to the most basic human condition we can all identify with: the need, the urge, and the desire to be loved.
The American Meme displays different takes on the influencer career path, and the stars explain how they are innovating themselves in certain ways to adapt to the changing landscape of social media. After all of your work on the film, what is your view on it? Do you think Instagram fame and virality can be viable careers on their own?
After working on The American Meme, I believe—and I think audience members will share this sentiment, as well—that influencers, while there may be some element of luck that initially sets them apart, don’t coast through life. They are in pursuit of a different kind of fame and success, which, poignantly, may be fickle and fleeting. As a result, I was impressed by the way that the social media personas I worked with continued to reinvent themselves to keep pace with the often capricious and changing demands of the public. I absolutely think Instagram fame and virality can transform into viable careers, but to truly monetize and sustain that requires hard work—more content, more pictures, more sponsorships, more negotiations, and so on.
Can we expect an American Meme spinoff? Is this something you would like to further investigate and document?
Social media in my opinion is not going anywhere any time soon. Therefore, as the technology and global infatuation continues to advance and transform our world, I believe it will continue to pose salient and urgent questions that I would be happy to revisit.
You touch on this in your film The American Meme, but do you believe that social media has had an effect on the fashion and modeling industry and how it is run today? How do you envision this changing in the years to come?
Models have always been ubiquitous in our society, splashed on massive billboards and across renowned magazine covers, but today, what partially drives a model’s success is their social media presence. Although models are indeed muses, once subjected to the unyielding gaze of a camera, their lives may not be as glamorous or empowering as their fabricated online presences may suggest. I find this juxtaposition fascinating, and worthy of our attention. The same holds true of those in the fashion industry. One relevant, recent example are knockoff “brands” like FashionNova that derive their inspiration from social media personas like Kim Kardashian’s high-fashion looks. The way these brands impact the fashion industry speaks to the power and sway of social media.
You’re currently working on a show about the world of fashion and the extreme highs and lows of the modeling industry. How is that project coming along? Are you going to focus on select narratives as you did in The American Meme, or do you think the scope of this project will be broader in comparison?
What I’ve tried to do, in both The American Meme and this upcoming show, is to focus on select narratives as a vehicle to talk about the larger context of the issue in general. I find it to be an engaging format because it allows an audience to connect with characters in new and surprising ways.
You’ve done a great job in portraying the reception of women in media in The American Meme. In the future, how do you think the extent to which underrepresented communities like women and people of color contribute to the industry will evolve, especially in the field of documentaries?
With the rise of the Time’s Up movement, I hope that the film industry in general will become a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The very essence of storytelling lies in diverse perspectives and viewpoints, and it is critical to promote that core value if we care about the integrity and longevity of our industry. I think the field of documentaries if a great way for more underrepresented communities to get involved and let their voices be heard.
We hear that you’ll be premiering another brand new project at Cannes Film Festival this year. Can you tell us about that project a little?
We have a great new feature film that will be premiering at Cannes. Unfortunately, we cannot talk in-depth about the project until Cannes makes their official announcement, but we are very excited to share this fascinating film with the world. I can also mention that we have a new documentary that will be the opening film of the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is called The Apollo, and is an official account of the historical Apollo Theater in New York City—an institution of almost mythic proportions that has had an unimaginable impact on the city and the performers who played there.
At BELLA, we believe in the idea that beauty is defined by everyone themselves. How do you define beauty and how do you capture it?
To me, beauty is manifested in imperfections. Flawlessness is idealized; I find it to be overrated and frankly boring. Our contours are what make us human and that’s always what I’m seeking to uncover and explore in my films.