YouTube sensation Casey Neistat rolls on to Nantucket.
Set after set, Casey Neistat keeps paddling into the waves. It’s 6 a.m. on Nobadeer Beach a day after tropical storm Elsa tore through Nantucket and the ocean is angry. With each crashing wave, Neistat gets pummeled back to shore, but he keeps paddling harder and harder until he finally gets through the breaker zone. Bobbing over the swells on his surfboard, encased in impenetrable fog and the din of the ocean, totally alone, this world-famous filmmaker finds reprieve.
At forty years old, Neistat has achieved spectacular success through the same mindset that got him through the waves: bold vision combined with fierce effort. A tenth-grade dropout who once lived in a trailer park with his infant son and worked in the dish pits of a seafood restaurant, Neistat willed himself to becoming one of the most respected creators in the country. Despite having no formal education in filmmaking and limited access to cameras and equipment, he forged his own genre of visual storytelling that’s helped democratize movie-making for an entire generation of creators.
Now, as one of Nantucket’s newest homeowners, Neistat is taking stock of his life and career—and deciding which wave to catch next. “I’m not doing a tremendous amount of work out here and that was by design,” Neistat says. “The intent here was to try and have a sense of togetherness with my wife and our two young kids that we find to be elusive in a big city.”
For a certain generation of readers, the name Casey Neistat might not ring any bells, but in the eyes of tens of millions of online viewers he’s more than an internet celebrity—he’s a cultural icon. Where cinema has Steven Spielberg, YouTube has Casey Neistat. With 12.4 million subscribers and billions of views, Neistat’s boundlessly creative short films and vlogs (video blogs) have helped pioneer an entire industry online. Outside of his work on YouTube, he launched a technology company that was purchased by CNN, founded a collaborative workspace in New York City and directed primetime commercials for major brands.
When Nike hired him in 2012 to make a short film about its FuelBand fitness tracker, he took the entire budget and spent it on traveling around the world for as long as the money would last. The resulting four-and-a-half-minute video titled “Make It Count” was viewed by more than 31 million people. He used a similar tactic when 20th Century Fox hired him to promote one of its feature films in 2013, spending the entire budget on helping people devastated by a typhoon in the Philippines. That video too reached millions of people. But this commercial work—which he does very selectively today—is just one satellite in an entire creative universe that Neistat has built over the last twenty years.
While New York City served as his creative launchpad, Neistat’s first real success is linked to Nantucket. In the mid-2000s, he and his brother Van were hired by Plum TV, the television network launched by Nantucket Nectars founder Tom Scott. “The Neistats were wildly talented and crazy hardworking,” recalls Scott, who is today the co-founder of The Nantucket Project. “I knew right away that I wanted to work with them. I said, ‘How ’bout a movie?’ They said, ‘How ’bout at TV show?’ And we shook hands.”
As they were creating The Neistat Brothers television series, which ultimately aired on HBO, Casey and Van developed a twenty-minute episode that Scott thought could be shown as a short film. “The first time that anyone saw that—or any of the work that Van, Tom and I had done for the HBO series— was here on Nantucket as part of the Nantucket Film Festival,” Neistat says. “That was my very first time ever coming here.”
Since that debut, Neistat has returned to the island again and again for The Nantucket Project and the film festival. He became dear friends with many summer residents like Tim and Alicia Mullen and quickly fell for the island. “It was the warmest way you could come to know a place like Nantucket,” Neistat says. “There’s a thirty-mile moat around this piece of land that forces this sense of community. That was something that dawned on me very early and is an endless source of happiness, inspiration and sense of being for someone like me. It was something I searched for, and I think Nantucket has that in droves.”
This past February, Neistat and his wife Candice purchased a home on the island where they have been living with their two young daughters since June. As many young people who have bumped into him around town or sitting in the surf lineup can attest, in person Neistat is exactly as he comes across in his movies—warm, energetic, interested, thoughtful, unassuming and fun. He’s a forty-year-old kid, cruising around on his skateboard, riding a motorized fat-tire bike and chasing waves wherever they’re breaking. After befriending local surf stars Robbie Goodwin and Ryan Huckabee, Neistat now often finds himself squished under stacks of surfboards in the back of Goodwin’s Honda CR-V as they cruise from surf spot to surf spot in the search of the perfect wave.
“I never surfed before, but now I surf seven days a week,” Neistat says. “The reason I think I have such enthusiasm for that sport is because I leave my cell phone in my car. I’m just out there in the middle of the water because I enjoy it and not because there’s a great Instagram picture to be had or a great video to be made or a story to be told. I’m doing it just for me.”
This has been a relatively new development in Neistat’s life. For two straight years beginning in 2015, Neistat broadcasted his life through a daily vlog on YouTube that became wildly popular. Every day, he shot, edited and released a ten-minute video capturing his comings and goings. “When I’m eighty years old and I look back at my life, I hope that body of work will define what my career has been,” he says. “I can’t imagine creating something that is as impactful, as true an expression of creativity to me as that was.”
The vlog supercharged his following, catapulting him to the very top of millions of YouTube creators and earning him significant income in YouTube AdSense. Yet what began as an experiment ultimately became an exhausting endeavor that started robbing him of his sense of self. “I definitely got lost in there, especially in the latter half of that content when I knew that the more interestingness that I could extract from my life, the more views I could get,” he explains. “It left me questioning so much about my existential existence that now I find myself letting the pendulum swing as far as I can in the other direction where I know I’m doing things just for myself.”
Along with the fame and fortune it generated, his vlog prompted introspective questions that Neistat grapples with today. “Fifteen years of being a filmmaker wasn’t just eclipsed by my YouTube career in a matter of months, it deleted everything I did prior,” he says. Since he uploaded his first vlog, no one asks him about his old HBO series, or the artwork he showed in galleries and museums for years, or the half dozen films he created for The New York Times. “I had ten people come up to me today while I was taking pictures of the waves at Cisco and say, ‘I love your videos.’ Not one of them mentioned any of the work I did prior to that.”
There’s also a high psychological toll paid for making a living in the YouTube space. “There’s a dopamine thing that happens when you’re a YouTuber; you share something and you immediately get praise,” says Neistat, explaining that this instant gratification also exists in social media. “You need more praise, so you share more. And that cycle has no end. That cycle does not stop until you stop sharing.” The more you share, the more of your personal life you give to the world. “You externalize every aspect of who you are so that you’re left in a position of not quite knowing who you actually are.”
Over the last two years, he has worked hard to extricate himself from the YouTube echo chamber that threatened to drown out the most important things in his life. He’s currently finishing a feature-length documentary that explores this phenomenon encountered by successful YouTubers and influencers by telling the story of another creator. Otherwise, the majority of his time and attention are now devoted to his wife and children.
“The real reason for leaving the city was because I wanted to focus on being a father, to focus on being a good husband—and to not just focus on work,” Neistat says. “When I think of looking ahead, I am hyper cognizant of that. I’m not really interested in taking the majority of the pie of my fungible attention and fungible energy in life away from my family and putting it on work. I’ve refocused my life on looking in, as opposed to trying to put so much out.”