Like many filmmakers, Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei might’ve had some slight hesitation about hitting the festival circuit with their debut film “Cam” given how personal it is, loosely inspired by Mazzei’s real-life experience as a cam girl, making the two particularly sensitive to the kinds of questions that might be asked in poor taste, either in regards to its provocative content or irrelevant to the film at hand, at post-screening Q & As. But to the duo’s great surprise and delight, that hasn’t been the case.
“We haven’t gotten a budget question. We haven’t gotten a camera question. We haven’t gotten a ‘This is more a comment than a question…’ exclaimed Goldhaber somewhat incredulously on the eve of the film’s west coast premiere at AFI Fest. “People seem to be really intimately and deeply engaging with this movie when we show it and if there’s one thing that I feel so rewarded by, it’s been the opportunity to have some really extraordinary conversations and dialogue about not only what we were trying to say with the film, but how we were trying to say it.”
It is a testament to all the good questions that Goldhaber and Mazzei raise with “Cam,” a fearsomely brilliant thriller about a young woman named Alice (Madeline Brewer), who goes by the online non de plume Lola and finds those identities grow apart quite literally. While she enjoys enough success as a cam girl to rent a house of her own, in which she keeps a plush pink room to broadcast from to strangers who demand more and more extreme acts, Alice grows concerned when she starts to see live shows being logged on her account that she herself isn’t physically present for, watching Lola perform and even able to interact with her as any of her regular patrons do. Eschewing nearly all the tropes of horror films made during the internet age where the terror is inherent in the relationship between people who only know each other virtually, “Cam” taps into a stronger existential dread as Alice loses control over her online persona, as well as being given the unusual opportunity to see herself as others do, and the technology pushes her towards becoming a stranger to herself.
Although its central character may be deeply shaken, a feeling that extends to the audience as “Cam” is hyper-efficiently engineered to rattle you at every turn, the confident filmmaking on display by Goldhaber, Mazzei and crew is breathtaking, getting the intensity of the online experience just right when it no longer feels like there’s any intermediary between what’s happening in the physical world and the virtual one and putting forth a strong, complex heroine in Alice, unapologetic and even empowered by her choice of profession but deeply disturbed by perhaps giving too much of that power over to online gatekeepers, a notion that should send a chill down the spine of anyone with an Instagram or Facebook account. For a film that should scare the bejeezus out of everyone, it’s fitting that “Cam” is being made available to the widest audience possible on Netflix following an impressive festival run after premiering at Fantasia Fest in Montreal and Goldhaber and Mazzei, who have known each other since high school, spoke about collaborating on the film, how the subject lent itself to the horror treatment and blending parallel productions of an online world and a physical world into one.
At one point, I understand this may have been planned as a documentary – how did it take this shape?
Isa Mazzei: When I was camming, I was lucky to be in a position where it was safe enough for me to be out as a sex worker within my community and one of the things that surprised me was the reactions to being a cam girl were so often, “Oh but you’re so normal,” [or] “Oh but you went to college.” People were surprised that I was a cam girl and even before [Daniel and I] started collaborating, I wanted to tell a story that would show how normal sex work is. It’s really normal, and a lot of people engage in it that might be surprising, so we had this idea to create a story where an audience would be brought into this world of camming and empathize with a sex worker, but we weren’t exactly sure how to access that. My initial idea was “Let’s do a documentary,” but we realized you are inherently on the outside looking in, no matter how empathetic you try to be, and we really wanted to try and immerse an audience into it. We both love genre, we love horror, so [we realized this] was probably the best way to bring an audience inside this world.
And what’s so cool about genre is it allows you to take things that are very real and create exciting stories out of them. For example, Lola comes from something I think we both related to, which is this fracturing of your digital identity. I think many of us have that exist onlilne have this paranoia where you wonder, “Do my friends and followers like me? Or do they like this persona that I’ve created?” And “Where do I stop and where does this [online persona] begin?” Lola also came out of conversations that we had about some of my work that was pirated and posted all over the internet without my name on it, without any attribution to me or links back, so I would see my own body labeled as “Frizzy-haired girl” and I had this experience of being alienated from my own self that I found incredibly violating and incredibly terrifying. So with genre, I could take that fear and create a genre moment out of it with this doppelganger with Lola and have a large audience relate to it.
Daniel Goldhaber: Ultimately, when you’re taking something that is often exoticized or mistreated and misrepresented in popular media and create a waypoint for audiences to feel like it’s familiar, what you do is take the familiarity of those genre ideas and bring them into a different world. Since we love genre films and we were really familiar with which conventions we needed to create enough of that sense that an audience is like along with the ride, feeling like, “Oh, I’m just watching another thriller,” so that you can start to subvert and question their expectations and you can take them on a ride that is as narratively surprising as it is politically surprising.
There’s a small but crucial character in the film named Katie (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who seems to represent Alice’s biggest fear, working a dead-end job and having a small-town mentality. She’s very wisely and sparingly dispatched – how did she make it into the film?
Isa Mazzei: Yeah, Katie always had a pretty small role, but she was standing for something very big that I’ve experienced, which is that I was slut-shamed in high school. Then when it came out that I was doing porn, a lot of [those] people were very condescending, like “Oh, I’m not surprised.” And Katie is there to stand for I think something a lot of us can relate to, which is being looked down on by these people when we were kids and now Alice is an adult, trying to engage with Katie as an adult. That moment at the birthday party where Alice is outed [as a can girl], and Katie doesn’t even say anything, she just gives her this look, it says so much about how Alice has grown past this, but Katie hasn’t.
As far as this being an immersive experience, I was interested to learn that Daniel was educated at the Harvard Sensory Lab, which is known for extraordinarily visceral films such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s ethnographic documentaries “Leviathan.” Did that inform how you’d shoot this?
Daniel Goldhaber: I didn’t actually study with Lucien. I studied at the Harvard Visual Environmental Studies program, so I didn’t actually study with Lucien [since the] Sensory Ethnography Lab was an adjacent department at the school. But I was really familiar with those ideas and what I personally take from the SEL, which is really my personal reading of “Leviathan” and of Lucien’s other work is that the idea in ethnographic filmmaking that as an outsider, you can enter into an alien world and make a film about that world that’s objective is false. The decision to turn on the camera or point a camera at something is a subjective decision, so then how do you make ethnographic documentary? Well, you can be objective about one thing, which is your own sensory and emotional experience of a place. You can actually overcompensate for your bias by saying, “This movie is entirely my bias and let’s just start there.”
That was really influential on at least my approach to [“Cam”] because I’m an outsider to this world and I’m trying to immerse myself in it [while] trying to make a film that is also going to feel immersive from the point of view of the character. So Isa and I really actively collaborated to make sure that we knew exactly what that point of view was and we were then translating that to a very sensory approach so it would feel very immersive to an audience.
In terms of shooting the cam shows, it was very instinctual because Kate [Arizmendi], the director of photography, and I had a lot of early conversations about how we wanted it to feel and we built an extraordinarily detailed shotlist for how we were going to shoot everything in the pink room [where Lola performs]. There were a lot of experimental ideas here in terms of how we’re shooting the interaction with technology and in terms of the pink room being a space that was extraordinarily difficult to light and block inside of because a lot of these sequences are just somebody looking and screaming at a television, so We were building it and we didn’t really know what it was going to be like. Ultimately, what ended up happening was our shotlist fell apart. The way that everything was running wasn’t responsive to the way that we wanted to shoot the material and for the majority of the stuff in the pink room for the camming sequences, Kate and I were really figuring it out shot by shot, feeling our way through what Maddie was doing, how the technology was working and really trying to immerse ourselves in that moment.
I suspect most filmmakers would’ve saved creating the Free Cam Girls site in post-production, but it sounds like you didn’t.
Daniel Goldhaber: We actually built a live site that worked and Isa scripted all the shows. There’s a hundred-page other movie that was written for all of the chats.
That’s what I thought because you had to shoot all of those other rooms, which is insane.
Isa Mazzei: Exactly. And that’s something I give Daniel a lot of credit for, which is not only coming up with this visual cinematic language to communicate this camming world, but also he realized that we had to shoot these screens live because we also needed Madeline’s eyeline to be correct. He would watch me cam and he’d notice I spend most of my cam shows making sure that I’m looking the way I want to look and that my viewers can see me – I’m watching myself and then I’m reading messages and I’m checking my rank and private messages and then I’m looking at myself again, so we wanted to make sure that all of Madeline’s eyelines felt authentic. So we built this site and we also wanted a lot of Madeline’s responses to be improvised because there is this organic feeling to camming where it does feel [as if it’s happening] in real time, so we couldn’t have all of her lines be scripted. A lot of her laughs and saying “Thank you” or even talking to the guys are things that happened organically as she’s reading these chats that I scripted for her that she had never seen before.
I understand there was quite a bit of thought that went into putting together the crew with sensitive subject matter like this. What was it like bringing the right people onboard?
Isa Mazzei: We just had long conversations with everyone before we took them onboard and made sure they got it. Luckily, everyone who joined the crew was super passionate and excited and [for many of them] it was their first feature. It was our DP’s first feature, and our editor, our composer and our sound designer – it brought together a lot of people that had a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion and a lot of drive and were also open to this unconventional collaboration that we wanted to build.
Is it tough to get an actress as good as Madeleine Brewer when you’re all first-timers and it’s this provocative subject matter?
Daniel Goldhaber: It was very hard to cast the movie. We were lucky enough to find Maddie before “Handmaid’s Tale” had come out, and I think she was at a place where she was still accessible for a project like this, but she’s an extraordinary talent and I don’t know if we would’ve gotten her six months later. So we’re extremely lucky to have been able to work with her on this.
Isa Mazzei: And we met with Madeline before she even read the script about the ideas and vision behind the script and the idea of our collaboration, which was already pretty unconventional. Then she read the script and loved it and she and I talked about it and then she came in and read. We knew within five minutes she was perfect for the role.
When this is inspired by your own experience, is it interesting to watch it grow away from you as it moves towards a more collaborative space?
Isa Mazzei: Totally and learning how to let go was something that was really difficult but really important for me to learn. Obviously when I’m working on the script and putting so much of myself in the script, especially into Alice, there is this instinct to protect her and keep her the way that I wrote her. But as soon as Maddie came onboard, this collaborative process took off between the three of us where Alice started growing and changing and becoming an entirely different character than maybe I had originally envisioned. At the end of the day, she’s a better character. She’s more nuanced, more complicated, and she has more depth to her because she is the three of us bringing our experiences into her and it’s pretty cool the three of us built this person together.