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Exclusive Interview: “CAM” creators Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber on horror and the sex trade, Part One

Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Debuting tomorrow on Netflix and also playing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas across the country, CAM takes a sympathetic look at a webcam performer that becomes a chilling horror film. Its writer and director discuss both sides of that story in this exclusive chat.

The movie, which was snapped up by horror hitmakers Blumhouse Productions, stars Madeline Brewer as Alice, who does a cam show under the name Lola and strives to attract enough fans to win top ranking at FreeGirlsLive.com. She is just starting to achieve that goal when she finds herself locked out of her account—and an identical double of herself performing under the Lola name. Someone or something has stolen her identity, and the movie follows Alice as she attempts to determine who/what and why, while also exploring the ways in which her family, fans and strangers react to her work in the sex trade. (See our review here.) Screenwriter Isa Mazzei based her script on her real-life experiences as a cam girl, and RUE MORGUE spoke with her and director Daniel Goldhaber following CAM’s world premiere at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where it took Best First Feature and Best Screenplay awards.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to turn your experiences into a screenplay?

ISA MAZZEI: It was based on a conversation that Danny and I had, actually. He had come out to shoot some pornography for me, some promotional videos for my site. He was watching me work, and he became fascinated with my world. We were talking a lot about it, and I expressed some of my frustrations with how the outside world viewed my profession, and I really wanted to change that. It became important to me to tell a story where a large audience would empathize with a sex worker, and would also see that they’re just normal people. Often, I would encounter people who said, “Oh, but you’re so normal,” “Oh, but you’re so smart,” “Oh, but you’re educated. You’re not addicted to drugs, why are you selling your body?” It was those opinions that made me think I wanted to change some minds, if possible, and it was that conversation with Daniel that kicked off the project.

DANIEL GOLDHABER: For me it was, I studied at Harvard, and I went through their VES [Visual and Environmental Studies] film program, which is primarily oriented toward documentaries. It was at a time when VES was very closely linked to the Sensory Ethnography lab, and there were all these experimental docs coming out of it. I had always wanted to make commercial genre films, but I’d also had this ethnography/documentary education, and it had left me, after I graduated, wanting to find a way to unite those two experiences. So when I started working with Isa on the camming stuff, we were originally talking about doing a doc, and I had to kind of contend with the fact that I’m not a very good documentary filmmaker. When we started realizing that maybe there was a narrative film/genre way into this material, that immediately felt to me like a way to unite my two passions.

Then, when we actually started working on the material, it was a way for me to not only kind of talk about and explore my own experiences with loss of digital identity, but to challenge some of my own notions about femininity and female sexuality, as a man. That took a lot of different tacks, and there were all these different doors Isa opened for me to explore myself through this material that were really cool.

How did Blumhouse become involved with the project?

IM: They read the script pretty early on, we met with them and they basically said, “We love this movie, but it’s too small for us, too low-budget for us.” They set us up with our producers, Divide/Conquer, and basically said, “Go make this movie, and if we like it, hopefully we can buy it later.”

DG: They stayed creatively involved as much as they could. They gave us notes on the script, and then some on the edit that we used in the final cut.

IM: They were very supportive, and in the end they were like, “Yeah, we want it!”

How did you deal with bringing the horror elements into what starts as a straight dramatic story?

IM: One thing that was very important to me was to subvert expectations about the sex-worker narrative. That’s why there are some threads in there, like the Tinker [Patch Darragh] stalking one, where I wanted people watching the film to think that it’s going in one direction, and then constantly be second-guessing themselves. It was also important to me that none of the negative space is derived from the fact that she cams, and so for that to work, it had to be something supernatural that comes in. I personally am a huge fan of genre films, so for me it was fun to figure out how to get all those horror moments in there, and how to tie them in thematically. One huge reference for me was David Cronenberg, and how his elements of body horror and violence are always tied in to emotional states and tied in to theme, and looking to him for inspiration and trying to bring that into CAM was really fun. I think I watched VIDEODROME six times while I was writing, just over and over again [laughs]!

A horror film set in the sex trade lends itself to the possibility of shooting it in a very voyeuristic way, so can you talk about how CAM subverts that?

DG: For me, it was a process of asking a lot of questions of the women around me, and being very willing to say, “Show this the way you want it to be seen,” and finding opportunities to step back. Isa was on set, and that was huge, so there were moments like the Vibratron scene where I wasn’t directing the actors. I was in another room, on the monitor, thinking about how it was ultimately going to be cut together; Katelin [Arizmendi], our director of photography, was giving camera directions to the Steadicam operator; and Isa was the one in the room working with the actors. The critical thing in all of this is that there was a co-authorship between the two of us, and the movie is 100 percent mine and 100 percent Isa’s. It’s a shared vision.

I wanted to make sure we were making images and telling a story about somebody who is empowered being a sex worker, and at moments where I felt I didn’t necessarily have the immediate insight to give the right note to the actor—because it wasn’t something I had personally experienced—I could very easily step back and Isa could come forward and share what she needed to share with that actor to get the right moment of performance. And same with the director of photography or the production designer or what have you.

IM: There was a balance we had to figure out, playing with male and female gaze in the film. That was very interesting, because it was important to us that the scenes shot on the Alexa, the ones where we’re in Alice’s world and outside of the webcam, feel like the way we would shoot any other movie, about any other person in any other career. We were not going to pan to her body and focus on her ass or whatever. But then when we did cut in to the GoPro, which was what we used for the webcam scenes, that’s where Alice expresses this performative femininity, and we’re expressing a little bit more of the male gaze, because that is where she’s playing to a different audience. Juxtaposing those, cutting between Alice performing for the webcam and Alice in her real world, was a really fun balance to strike, because that’s really what camming is. It is this performative femininity, and then there is the male…well, not exclusively male, but often male audience, and we wanted to reflect that interplay in the filmmaking process.

DG: Another thing that was critical, in terms of the upper-level creative approach we were taking, was that we were looking at movies like WHIPLASH and BLACK SWAN, which are very athletic movies about incredible performers, and we wanted this to be similar. We looked at the way neither of those movies really explained why their protagonists do what they do—why drumming, or why ballet? It doesn’t really matter; they’re kind of taken as givens. That was the other thing we discussed early on between ourselves and with Madeline: We wanted camming to feel like a really athletic form of performance. That also made a lot of those decisions easier.

TO BE CONTINUED

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.