Casey Neistat on Shadowing Shawn Mendes for His YouTube Documentary: 'He Has This Singular Focus'

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for YouTube Music
Shawn Mendes attends a special screening presented by YouTube music of "Shawn Mendes" YouTube Artist Spotlight Story on Sept. 27, 2018 in New York City.

When a then-unknown Shawn Mendes was attending Pine Ridge Secondary School in Toronto, he had a morning ritual of watching the vlogs then-rising YouTuber Casey Neistat would upload to the platform. Mendes saw how an online personality could use the fledgling technology to their advantage, building a global fanbase with raw talent, a camera and an Internet connection. So it stands to reason that roughly five years later when the powers that be at YouTube came to Mendes about putting together the latest installment of their continuing series dubbed Artist Spotlight Stories, Mendes knew exactly who to call on to helm the project. 

“The series serves as a portrait of a musician’s life,” Neistat explains of the series, which in the past has shined their spotlight on artists including Camila Cabello and J Balvin. “They are always really, really well done. What excited me most was telling a story how Shawn went from being this kid to an adult, and how that transition happened in the eyes of the public.” For Neistat, a powerful voice on YouTube who boasts over 10 million subscribers on the platform and a rabid online fanbase, the basic concept for what would become the Mendes mini documentary was built around the release of his recent self-titled album, which Neistat regards as a landmark in the singer’s career, boasting the Billboard Hot 100 hits “In My Blood” and “Youth.” 

“Listening to the album, I think it’s one that represents his maturing as an artist,” he says. “In the future, people will see it as a turning point when he went from teenager to respected musician.”

With that angle in mind, Neistat’s goal was to capture a side of Mendes that only his friends and family see, aiming to get the usually guarded pop star as open as possible. To achieve this, he requested he shadow Mendes during whatever was the most chaotic period on his calendar, which turned out to be the weeks after the album's release. “It’d be much easier to find out who he is as a person by getting in the middle of that chaos,” says Neistat. “When you sit down with a person and you have 100 percent of them, it’s easy to shape how they want to represent themselves. But if there’s a lot going on, they let their guard down. I wanted to show a part of him not many people know.”

Those moments included picking his brain immediately after performing at the Billboard Music Awards in May. “One of the more impactful interviews we had with Shawn was when he was running out of that show before it even ended, jumping into a van and driving to McCarran Airport. It was a 10 or 15 minute ride and we shoved a mic in Shawn’s face because his guard was down and he still had such an endorphin rush after walking off stage.” There’s also a scene towards the end of the documentary when Shawn tears up thinking about his improbable journey, a moment when Neistat knew Mendes was showing a different side of himself. “That was the only time I wouldn’t let Shawn escape,” Neistat says. “We were going for over an hour and I kept pushing him to remember what that was like when he first started. I didn’t stop asking him that until I could see that I actually brought him to that place.”

Shooting hundreds of hours of footage in total, Neistat and his team spent a week and half with the singer, bouncing between the United States and Europe. In addition, he took a trip to Toronto to see the places where Mendes’ early career took shape. “There was never any time where were sitting still, literally,” he explains of the experience. “The whole thing was chaos.” Along with documenting everything from radio interviews to the obligatory throngs of teenage girls, Neistat also smaller moments, like Mendes warming up his voice in a bathroom before performing at the BBMAs. “I have an hour and a half of footage from that bathroom,” laughs Neistat. “He was back there with his vocal coach and then he runs into Zedd and they start spitballing lines for a song. This was hours before his performance. He just never turned it off.” In fact, it was the singer’s intense dedication to his craft that struck Neistat the most. “Everything from seeing him work with his vocal coach via FaceTime twice a day and the fact that there’s nothing but olives and organic spinach in his tour bus; no booze, drugs or even junk food. He has this singular focus on his art form, and all of this when he was just 19. I was really blown away by his level of commitment.”

At the end of production, Neistat then had the monster task of sifting through the enormous amount of footage he captured for what would become the final cut. “What makes a great editor is not what to put in but what to leave out,” explains Neistat, who made it a point to stray away from thematic cliches. “I didn’t want to tell the Shawn Mendes biography. This was about what it actually means to be sitting on the edge of his bed with a webcam to becoming a star.”