Behind the Brand with Van Neistat

It’s 5:00 am and on any given weekday in Topanga Canyon, California you can count on polymath Van Neistat being up and ready for his 4-mile morning run. First half, uphill in the dark. The thing is, Van hates running. He quotes Mike Tyson as he grudgingly puts on his least favorite over-sized maroon sweatpants, reflective vest, headband with headlamp and darts out on to a cold, dusty canyon trail: “Discipline is doing something that you hate as if you love it. Yes, it sucks running but you gotta do it anyway, just like brushing your teeth.

This pattern of ‘doing what needs to be done‘ and ‘fixing what needs to be fixed‘ is a theme in Neistat’s daily existence. In fact, he admits he doesn’t understand why. That’s just how he’s hardwired. He is particular about everything. From his unique eyewear, channeling a cross between mad scientist and high school Shop teacher…to the handmade belt and large brass buckle donning his name, there is a story behind all of it. Every choice seems to be deliberate and thought through with careful consideration.

Every box and container in his man cave workspace where he writes stories on his circa 1930’s Corona typewriter (same kind used by Ernest Hemingway) and makes videos has a label. He is meticulous about the type of mechanical pencil he uses because, after testing all of them, he found the perfect weighted instrument with a quality of led that doesn’t break when he makes daily To-Do lists. His pencil is hand-etched with the date, (as are most other items he owns) so he has context about when he started using it. Don’t get me started on his compulsion for Post-It notes. And don’t call it OCD.

Van Neistat might be obsessive about some things but there’s no disorder. He’s creative to a fault. In my observation, Neistat, in his own way, isn’t much different from the prolific problem solver and fixer, Elon Musk. Hear me out.

Musk is a persistent observer, who is known for being frustrated with a problem and building a company around solving it. PayPal, Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX, and The Boring Company. All the result of Elon’s pursuit to fix what in his mind is broken or should be improved. Neistat simply can’t help giving a damn when he notices something that should be improved upon or that needs to be repaired. This is a character type he calls The Spirited Man (and woman) in a new video series reminiscent of the early Neistat Brothers style and production that was purchased for $2 million by HBO about a decade ago.

When Van was a young kid, he was extremely handy and curious. He says he liked to take things apart to see how they worked, and with anything he does in life, he’s usually to be found tinkering away, figuring out how things work and if not how to fix them.

“I wanted to build things,” he says. “[Maybe] be an engineer. As a child I would get in trouble for taking everything apart in the house and also I would get in trouble for taking apart my bicycles because I was unable to put them back together.”

Neistat says he even took apart one of the family telephones (rotary phone) to inspect its inner workings. This boyhood curiosity naturally leant itself to becoming creative and artistic and playing with a camera and making little movies seemed to come naturally to Neistat. But it took some time for him to realize his passion.

Neistat’s family story is very touching. When Van was a baby, his mother was a single mom working for tips in a restaurant to make ends meet. Her future husband, Barry Neistat came into that restaurant met her, married her, and adopted Van as his own son. The new couple then had three children together, the second child, Casey was especially attached to Van while growing up. Van would later legally adopt Casey during his college years after his younger brother left home and wanted to be emancipated.

Neistat says that he had a very typically Generation X childhood. He and his siblings grew up in suburban Connecticut and their parents would sometimes travel and leave a young Van in charge of his younger siblings. Van’s journey to becoming a filmmaker wasn’t a linear one. When it came to deciding what he wanted to do for a career, he said that he didn’t have a very specific idea in mind at first. He said he knew he predominantly just wanted to make a lot of money. That there was an aesthetic sensibility to him where he wanted to live in a nice home and be surrounded by nice things, travel etc… and he knew that in order to do that he needed to have money.

While living in New York City in his twenties, Van worked for Scholastic for a time as a writer. While the job paid his bills and he enjoyed living in the city, he felt trapped in an office environment and knew instinctively that that career was not going to sustain him emotionally for a long time.

“I knew when I was at Scholastic…I knew that I wasn’t going to be sitting in a cubicle writing these articles [forever.] All the stories have that: I went this way, and I went all I could this way and it was not the right path. So, then I got the camera and built this little rig that went on my handlebars…and then during rush hour I road my bicycle through the Holland Tunnel.”

Neistat started taking these videos he was shooting from his bicycle and experimenting with putting them online. He continued recording his day-to-day life in New York City and cutting it together on an old iMac computer on one of their earlier versions of iMovie.

Once brother Casey joined him in New York City, the two started working together on these little home-made videos about day-to-day life. Casey himself credits Van with coming up with the ideas for their most successful film projects.

Neistat tells me that there were a few seminal moments in his life that he felt sort of helped to define his creative spirit. As a child he had a close friend whose parents he describes as intellectuals. He says that these parents of his friend were very passionate about the children reading as much as they could, and Neistat says that he would often read so he could impress the family and tell them about the books he was enjoying. This later evolved into him reading the works of Hunter S. Thompson, which Neistat says were influential toward his desire to embody a nomadic spirit. And finally, there was a European trip that he took at the time before starting his career. There was something about navigating a foreign land and learning about new cultures pre the internet, that really piqued his interest in storytelling and finding ways to share art and beauty with other people.

Neistat began working with artist Tom Sachs, doing branded content for Nike and other big brands that allowed him to work and travel and be paid to be making films. But while he enjoyed the work, he shares with me how hard it is to work in this industry, something I know quite well. Part of his coping strategy was a delicate balance of cannabis and alcohol, and eventually he says the combination stopped working for him and he pushed himself toward sobriety. His journey with sobriety forced him to sort of re-learn and reexamine his own personality and he also slowed way down and started to focus on perfecting his craft.

Neistat spent the next few years bouncing between New York City and Los Angeles, creating a lot of content for different brands. He always put his creative spin on projects, often times combining practical visual effects with artistic sensibility. After working a booth for Twitter at VidCon, Neistat says he got paid enough to pay his rent on his New York apartment and his studio space there and then drive himself to Mexico for a four-month surfing trip leading up to his 40th birthday.

“I surfed every day,” he says. “I hate surfing. I hate the water; I hate being wet…but I surfed every day because I thought this is my opportunity to get good at this thing…I didn’t get good at it. I hate surfing. But it was wonderful living down there, I loved the little community, and I knew all the people out in the water, and I was writing every day and I came up with The Spirited Man thing.”

Neistat says he read the book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford and that it inspired his concept. He says that in the book the author describes the spirited man, who wants to understand why things are the way they are, how they work and so forth and Neistat identified strongly with this idea. So much so that he says it was a relief to feel so seen and understood.

Neistat says that in 2016 he made his first Spirited Man episode, not knowing that it would be part of a larger project. He says he sat on the video, but the idea didn’t go away and once Covid hit, things started to change.

“I was supposed to make a feature film that I wrote last year,” he says. “I had producers, and the money, and all this stuff and Covid [came] and the window was shut and went away. But I had that one episode [of The Spirited Man] and I said, okay, you’re locked in your house. I was still doing a writing project for Tom Sachs…but I was able to grind out a few hours a day doing these Spirited Man episodes and I think it became this manifestation of Mr. Rogers for adults and after Neistat Brothers, that was my ambition. Whether you’re in prison, or you’re POTUS…we all have Mr. Rogers in common and he was a good thing. A force for good.”  Put a pin in the Mr. Rogers reference and meet me at the end of this story…

The Spirited Man is an unlimited series of short films about creation and repair, introspection, and thought books combined with living. The series itself is pretty much all of the parts of Van’s personality that make him who he is. It’s equal parts, creativity, tinkering, discovery, DIY, problem solving, learning, critical thinking and more. There’s something familiar and comforting about it and yet it’s also completely and totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Neistat has just wrapped up his Kickstarter campaign for The Spirited Man and raised more than double the amount ($120,442) of funds that he was hoping to raise–and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. The Neistat family has been living off the last fumes of their financial res that were abruptly cut off due to the pandemic and travel restrictions for filmmakers. Not exactly a Hail Mary pass, the fulfillment of Van’s project this time around is more like the story of Balto the Siberian Husky sled dog, who delivered the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska with the diphtheria antitoxin just in time to save lives.

Van Neistat is now recharged and still has a passion for figuring things out and I don’t see him slowing down with new videos anytime soon. He’s a problem solver, and even during a global pandemic he has still found a way to pursue his passion and share it with the world.

My main take away lessons from this spirited man is that there is a value in what might be called the lost art of giving a damn. For fixing things that physically or metaphorically need to be fixed in our lives. This could mean giving up addictions or creating new healthy habits. It’s also a good reminder to push through the hard things that need to be done and act “as if you love it” because it matters.

One last thing…What strikes me about Van’s story is how much he was influenced by his early childhood. I might be wrong but it seems like he is unconsciously living the life his adopted father Barry never got to live. That is, Barry had a modestly successful career in the restaurant supply business but it wasn’t his passion. He took what he thought was the safe route to provide for his family and create stability. What was Barry’s true passion? He wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. He wanted to be Mr. Rogers. Van, as I end this piece I would echo the feelings of the late great Fred Rogers: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”

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