Creative Spaces: Casey Neistat

When director Casey Neistat was 7 years old, he saw the movie Big. It’s the one where a young kid transforms overnight into Tom Hanks and ends up living in a large New York City loft with a job making toys. Basically, it’s a kid’s dream come true. That’s when it became Casey’s dream too.

“I remember seeing that, and I wanted that,” Casey says. “Here’s a guy with nothing, he has his eighth-grade education and all his child-like ideas and childhood whimsy and he moves to New York City because he has nowhere else to go. And he finds huge success in the city. My dream has always been to emulate that.”

After growing up in Connecticut and dropping out of high school, Casey eventually made it to New York, so check that box. But what about the giant loft and the job making toys?

“We’re sitting in the giant loft right now,” Casey says, “And his job in that movie was to come up with crazy ideas and that’s what I do.”

And you know what, he’s absolutely right. Technically, Casey’s job description is director, but almost all of his films are essentially home movies about his adventures. One time, Nike paid him to travel around the world. He made a short movie about it, where he and a friend run and skateboard their way through Cairo and Rome and a bunch of other cities within 10 days. The climax comes when Casey jumps off a cliff. It’s been viewed on YouTube almost 9 million times.

Right now, Casey is editing a video series he shot for Mercedes-Benz. In this one, he visits a car factory, drives through Germany at 137 mph and face plants (while running) into a snow bank in Switzerland. Even Tom Hanks might be jealous of Casey’s life.

A timer goes off on his desk and Casey jumps out of his chair and starts doing pull ups on the gymnast rings that hang at the edge of his office. “Of all the things that I’ve put in this studio, this is probably the most used,” he says, gasping slightly.

Every hour the timer goes off to remind him to “get off his ass.” Sometimes that means pull ups on the gymnast rings (his personal record is 35). Other times it might mean a run on the speed bag that folds out from a wall of his office, complete with a poster of an in-his-prime Mike Tyson for motivation. Casey built the rig just a few weeks ago. There’s also a video of that on YouTube.

Almost everything in the large Manhattan studio was either built or designed by Casey during the 10 years or so that he’s occupied it. That kind of includes the studio itself. It used to be two separate spaces, but Casey acquired the second wing after years of “coercion and bribery.” Then he tore down the wall with a sledgehammer.

In one corner of the studio is a workshop filled with dozens of tools, everything from hammers and wrenches to a hard hat for when things get really messy. “A lot of people ask me why I have such a gnarly workshop for making movies, but I never want to have to stop when I need something when I’m making a movie,” Casey says.

In the opposite corner is a massive collection of VHS tapes that Casey bought when it looked like DVDs would take over the market. “I think DVDs are the worst medium in the history of moving images,” he says, though he made an exception for the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It wasn’t available on VHS, so he bought the DVD and watched it so many times that the disk practically melted.

“It’s the peak of WWII when England was at its lowest, like it looked like Hitler was going to win,” Casey says. “There’s no money, they’re being blitzkreiged every day and they shot this feature film in London during that time. And Wes Anderson stole everything from this movie, so it’s like you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie that was filmed in 1943. And it has my favorite elements of filmmaking in it, which is the most amazing story ever while having all these amazing visual elements.”

Casey calls the film the “pinnacle” of the brand of low-budget filmmaking that he’s built his career out of. “So there’s this one duel scene and they wanted to shoot it in this gigantic warehouse, but they couldn’t light it because it’d get bombed,” he says. “So they literally took a painting of the exterior of the warehouse and it’s like, fuck yeah. And there’s like a million of those in that movie.”

“I would say embrace your limitations when it comes to filmmaking,” he says. “Can’t afford a set? Fucking figure it out, draw a picture or something.”

Casey figures that he travels about 100 days out of the year and he’s on location for another 50 days. One of the constants in his life is his weekly ritual of picking up his teenage son for the weekend. That leaves only a few days in his studio at a time to edit films. As a result, he needs to have laser focus while in his office. Assistants are scheduled to come in when he’s not around, and the second editing bay is as far away from Casey’s desk as is possible and still be in the same address.

“It’s so incredibly stressful to see what kind of fucking fires I have to put out that happened in the two hours or two weeks that I’ve been away from this place,” he says. “The studio is a microcosm of my world in New York City. It’s the epicenter of my professional world.”

Despite his need for focus, the walls of his studio are filled with mementos. Hanging on a door is a bulletproof vest that Casey wore on a helicopter ride over Kabul. Old cameras line the shelves next to his desk, including several busted Canon S100s. Those are his favorite because they fit in his pocket, shoot high-quality video and they’re always ready to go. A perfect match for his style.

As we poke through the trophies and photos that fill the walls, Casey points out the things he’d like to fix. Small things like the mess on his desk, or the way a row of Polaroids hangs askew. Nothing major though, because if it really mattered, he’d grab his tools and get to work.

“This studio is everything I want it to be,” he says. “If it wasn’t, I’d change it. I don’t really believe in suffering. Which doesn’t do well for relationships, but I’m working on it.”

Photos by Masha Maltsava

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