Interview: Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber on Blumhouse’s CAM and being sex-work positive
Josh Slater-Williams | On 17, Nov 2018Reading time: 25 mins
A multiple prize-winner at this year’s prestigious Fantasia Festival, the Blumhouse-produced Cam, now available on Netflix UK, is one of 2018’s most interesting horror films for numerous reasons.
First of all, the film, set in the world of webcam shows, is among the most sex work-positive fiction features to date from any genre, and a crucial pop culture asset in a time when sex workers worldwide are under threat, thanks to livelihood-threatening legislation from various governments.
Secondly, CAM is one of the few films with sex work at its centre that’s actually written by a former sex worker. Debut screenwriter and producer Isa Mazzei had a similar camming career to that of the film’s protagonist, Alice (online alias Lola, played by the spellbinding Madeline Brewer of The Handmaid’s Tale).
Thirdly, although the film is directed by Daniel Goldhaber (his debut feature), it is credited as ‘A film by Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber’. Despite taking on specific roles (Mazzei is the sole screenwriter), the pair are adamant CAM is a 100 per cent joint vision, making it a particularly fascinating case study in a climate where who gets to tell what stories is under more scrutiny than ever.
CAM follows Alice, who makes a living as a camgirl on a popular chatroom site, but withholds sharing the details of her career with her mother (Melora Walters) – until she cracks the top 50 ranking of the platform’s performers. Around the time she does, she suddenly finds she’s been locked out of her account. Someone else is broadcasting from it, though: a doppelgänger of Alice/Lola, who veers into content that goes beyond the rules Alice had set for herself. In a bitter twist, the imposter Lola’s shows help her channel become one of the most popular on the site. With the exception of a fan who seems strangely attuned to what’s going on, no one seems able to help Alice stop Lola, forcing her down a path of creative and eventually violent improvisations.
While they were in London for the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, we sat down with Mazzei and Goldhaber for a fascinating, extensive conversation concerning, among other things, what their film says about our relationship to technology, making such a sex work-positive movie, working with Blumhouse and their thoughts on Jason Blum’s recent comments about women in horror filmmaking, the curious influence of documentarian Frederick Wiseman on the film’s storytelling, working with star Madeline Brewer and how to successfully collaborate with people to empower underrepresented voices, creating a new cinematic language to tell their horror tale, and their unique partnership that dismisses traditional notions of auteur theory. (Read our interview with co-star Samantha Robinson here.)
How did you meet and how did CAM as a film come about?
Daniel Goldhaber: We met in high school. We dated in high school and then I ran a theatre company and Isa worked on all of those plays. So, we had been working together since then. We broke up and then we went to different colleges. And we reconnected when Isa had just started camming.
Isa Mazzei: Yeah, and he came over and he was watching me work behind the scenes, get ready for my shows, talk to my viewers. And he was really fascinated with the world. I actually wanted to shoot some pornography, some videos just to sell myself, and so I hired him to direct that. We worked together on that and while he was getting really immersed, we both talked about how we were both really interested in making a film set in that space.
Daniel Goldhaber: With all the work we do together, I think we treat genre like a doorway. It’s an entry point for a wide audience into a very specific, unique experience. And that’s something I think Blumhouse has really been encouraging more and more recently. And so, we did that and then we basically just developed the whole movie from the ground up together, once we decided we weren’t going to do a doc.
It sounds like you considered a non-fiction approach. What was the main factor in not taking the documentary route?
Daniel Goldhaber: I’m also not a documentary filmmaker, though I actually went through a documentary film program. But I think the biggest thing was that we wanted to make a movie that could access a wide audience, where a large number of people would be able to really empathise with his character. The type of documentary that we would have to make, that would tell the story the way we would want to tell it, would be so non-commercial that there would be no point of access for those audiences.
Isa Mazzei: And we love horror movies. [laughs]
CAM might be the most sex work-positive film I’ve ever seen
Isa Mazzei: Yay!
And it’s so detailed. Until the horror element kicks in, it was actually reminding me of a workplace film like Support the Girls. Could you share a bit about working on the film’s specificity?
Isa Mazzei: For me, that was absolutely important. When I was working as a camgirl, I was very open with people about my job and what I did. And people would often tell me, “Oh, but you’re so normal. Oh, but you went to college. You could have any job you want, why are you doing this?” And there’s all these assumptions about sex work that you somehow have to be a victim or you’re in desperate need of money. And then there are also these glamorising assumptions, too: that all you have to do is take off your clothes and you’ll be rich. And there’s actually so much planning and so much entrepreneurship, craft, art, organisation that it takes to run your own business as a sex worker. And so, it was really important for me to bring all of those details in there.
That’s why I have Alice’s calendar where she’s writing down her token amounts at her shows because all of the camgirls I knew would know that on Tuesday nights, you do this type of show; on Thursday nights, you do this type of show. Oh, there’s a football game this weekend, that means your viewership is going to go down, so you do something to compensate. It’s a very calculated business and I think that’s often ignored in the media that that side of sex work definitely exists.
Daniel Goldhaber: It’s funny that you bring up Support the Girls, in particular, because I went to Harvard through a program there called VES [Visual and Environmental Studies], which is actually the exact same program that Andrew Bujalski went through. I know him a little bit, but I haven’t talked to him yet about the similarities between these two movies. But I think that what’s really interesting is that from Isa coming into this as the writer of the film and me coming into this as the director of the film wanting to make a movie that has this co-vision behind it, I was thinking very actively about how I take all of these ideas from this story that Isa’s written and contain it in a movie where you’re training the audience very quickly on what this world is; giving them very, very specific details, but almost without them knowing, is kind of building a really significant picture of how a system works.
I did a program that’s heavily influenced by Frederick Wiseman and so there’s definitely an element of the training that I had there and, similarly, the training that Andrew had there, where so much of the early work you’re doing is focused on these observational documentaries where you have to teach an audience about an idea using very, very simple cinematic techniques. Making movies about systems are the early projects that you do there.
Isa Mazzei: From the beginning, I definitely wanted it to feel like a workplace. Work-a-day, this is just normal.
How long did the camming career last?
Isa Mazzei: I went back and forth a couple of times, so, in total, about two years. There were breaks.
Is the over-eager fan character of Tinker rooted in any real-life experiences you had?
Isa Mazzei: I would say Tinker is a composite of many guys from my room. He serves as this placeholder of a very common type of viewer that I know a lot of girls have, which is the one that kind of becomes an actual friend. You do cross these boundaries. I did have viewers who knew where I lived and my real name – sometimes just for safety, because I’d be doing weird bondage BDSM shows and I’d be like, “Alright, if I die, someone needs to call 911.”
You do form genuine friendships and sometimes those boundaries are blurry and sometimes someone can cross those boundaries without realising that they’re crossing them. In the case of Tinker, it’s not necessarily that he’s malicious or trying to hurt Alice or trying to violate her. He just doesn’t understand what those boundaries are.
Daniel Goldhaber: That was something that Pat [actor Patch Darragh] was really active about with the character, too. He wanted to make everything that Tinker thought rational for himself. Tinker thinks he’s a good guy. He’s looked at all of the signals that he’s gotten from Alice and just misinterpreted them. That doesn’t make him innocent by any means, because you can almost purposefully misinterpret that stuff, but I think that that was so valuable because we wanted to approach all of the characters from a non-judgmental point of view. It was so great to be working with actors who are doing that inside in the process of building the characters on a very genuine level.
Regarding your joint ‘film by’ credit, could you discuss your rebuke, of sorts, of director-oriented auteurship?
Daniel Goldhaber: It all came out really naturally. This started as a 10-year friendship, now a 12-year friendship, where we just wanted to make a movie together. I came in wanting to be the director, but we reached this point where the idea of what’s the purpose of this movie and how are we going to execute that purpose through an upper level idea of film process, that was just 100 percent shared. We knew that Isa was going be on set, but we also knew that I had things that I was really excited about, putting my stamp on from a director point of view when it came to the execution of how the Internet is portrayed in the movie. And so, in some sense, we knew that we both had these craft pieces that we were passionate about implementing – Isa with the screenplay and the characters and the writing, and me with the film form component – but we always had this same idea of what the movie was. So, to us it seemed very obvious and very simple, and it’s been really, really interesting trying to translate that.
Isa Mazzei: And thanks for asking about that, we appreciate it.
Daniel Goldhaber: Yeah, thank you. It’s tough to translate it. It’s really crazy because there’s no law that says that a movie will belong to the director, and in every way possible, we’ve tried to make it clear this is a co-authored film. This movie does not obey the auteur theory, but people can’t seem to wrap their heads around that. A lot of the time there’s just this automatic [belief] it’s the director’s film.
Isa Mazzei: Even in reviews now, people sometimes refer to it as “writer-director Daniel Goldhaber and friend. And collaborator. And former sex worker.” All of those are true. But I’m also more than that. I think it’s really hard for people to get outside of the paradigm of ‘this is the director’s film’.
Daniel Goldhaber: At other times, she’s credited as the co-director. No, two ideas can exist in the same space. I think we’d be lying if we didn’t believe that there’s also a significant misogyny component to people not wanting to give Isa the credit she deserves for the work that she has done on the film and the authorship that she has over the film.
Isa Mazzei: To be fair, some of it is also that it’s just very unconventional.
I find the writer-director label mix-up strange because you are the sole credited screenwriter, right?
Isa Mazzei: I am the screenwriter. And that is where maybe you have a little bit of misogyny or sex worker prejudice coming out sometimes.
Daniel Goldhaber: And I have a ‘story by’ credit.
Isa Mazzei: He does have a ‘story by’ credit, so then you get into this confusing arena.
“There is a legacy of images and ideas that are part of the male gaze that can leak in to a movie whether you want them there or not…”
Do you feel like having that personal relationship with Daniel was a central component to being able to make this film and tell this story?
Isa Mazzei: Yes, absolutely. It’s such a personal story for me. There’s so much about myself in there, obviously not just with my literal camming career, but also knowing that I was going to have to out myself as a sex worker publicly and stand behind the film publicly, which is absolutely terrifying. I live in a small town and, luckily, I’ve been very supported, but I am now a public sex worker, which affects a lot of the ways people see me. And so, knowing that, having someone standing beside me, supporting the film and supporting the vision behind the film, and also who I trusted completely, was really important.
Daniel Goldhaber: The trust definitely went both directions. This was a process where I came into the movie wanting to actively learn about these things about the female sexual experience that I feel like I don’t understand; that maybe my own head is not screwed on right with. And I needed somebody who was able and willing to be patient enough to teach me and to also help me figure out which parts of my natural compositions are super male gazey. So, I think on that level, for me, process-wise, this was a film about educating myself and hopefully having some of the lessons I learned be a part of the film for other men who come into this thinking that they know something about a woman’s sexual experience or how to frame that.
Isa Mazzei: Even just how to frame a woman’s body. There are so many defaults that we go to that I think it’s hard to think about. I’m remembering one shot, in particular, where we were framing a bow tie on Madeline’s neck. And the way that it was framed was to show her bow tie and then her breasts, and that was all that was in frame. It was a correct framing by all standards of filmmaking and it wasn’t like anyone was trying to frame her breasts. They were trying to frame that bow tie. But as someone who was a little bit outside of… I’ve never studied film, so as an outsider to [the idea of] how you frame this shot, I was able to see it for what it was, which was problematic. It was problematic and it was male gazey. And so, I went onto set and I said we need to reframe this, we need to tilt the camera up.
When you see the shot now, it’s from the neck up; it’s the shot that we used. And that was a really cool process where he was able to just trust me in that. Everyone saw that and it reframed it for everyone: oh, I never would have even thought that this shot was problematic because this is just how you do this shot. Rethinking those defaults is, I think, really important as we move forward for anyone trying to make a film that is less male gazey, less problematic.
Daniel Goldhaber: There’s a movie that is coming out this year that has people talking about it as a movie that doesn’t have a male gaze; that tried to strip the male gaze out of it as a film. What’s interesting is that with me watching it with the lessons that I’ve learned from Isa, I found that there were a lot of male gazey shots, but I know that at every intention point for the filmmakers, that wasn’t the case. But I think that there is a legacy of images and ideas that are part of the male gaze that can incidentally leak in to a movie whether you want them there or not, simply because you’re composing shots for other reasons. And I think that what’s really critical is that we need to be much more aware, especially as male filmmakers, but as filmmakers in general, about that legacy of images, and actively work to combat that if you want to strip a male gaze out of your film. It’s not just the conscious sexualisation of women, it’s images that do it just by happenstance.
In light of the recent Jason Blum interview where he suggested he didn’t think there are many women interested in making horror movies, what are your own views on that in light of having toured this film at thriving genre festivals?
Isa Mazzei: I think the reception of the film by horror audiences, especially with women horror fans, has been really good and that’s been really cool to see. I think Jason Blum’s statements on female directors in horror were problematic. I think he’s wrong. There are many, many very talented female horror filmmakers out there and I have seen many of their films while traveling through all these festivals. That said, Blumhouse was one of the few places we pitched CAM that were nothing but supportive of both the film itself as a very subversive, very feminist, very sex-positive film, but they were also very supportive of my role in it. They carved out space for me to be a producer, to be on set, to be as heavily involved as I wanted to, and they’ve gone above and beyond to make sure that I am credited and seeing my involvement is as credited as I want it to be.
So, I am glad that he apologized for the statements and I believe that they are trying to turn things around.
Daniel Goldhaber: We are doing our next film with Blumhouse and they doubled down on their support of Isa before any of this controversy happened.
What informed the neon pink look of the film’s cam room set?
Daniel Goldhaber: A few different things. The first movie that we watched in reference for this was Showgirls, and I think if there’s another movie that is a big commercial Hollywood film that is pro-sex work, it’s Showgirls. From the very beginning, we really wanted to engage with a luscious visual aesthetic. We wanted camming and sex work to have this kind of fantasy element to it. It’s larger than life. It’s super elevated, it’s super colourful and lush. I was really inspired by this experimental film from the seventies called Pink Narcissus, which is a movie that was commissioned to be a porn but then the director took the money and made this pornographic gay art film. I just love the aesthetic of it and there was just something about what Pink Narcissus does with pornography and aesthetic [in relation to] what we wanted to do in Cam.
And then, the other thing was that I was going through a Twin Peaks phase and I was like, “We should make this look like the Red Room from Twin Peaks, but pink.” And there was also a sense that we joked about that it’s almost… the line Isa wrote is that it’s like a teenage girl’s fever dream. And we wanted it to be as heightened and intense as possible. And the same thing with the camgirl club house. We wanted the sex work stuff to feel larger than life.
Isa Mazzei: We also wanted to contrast it with her regular life because for a lot of sex workers I know, camming is their passion and their career and so they’re putting everything in there. It was really important for us to have her daily living spaces be drab – there’s boxes she hasn’t unpacked, she hasn’t unwrapped her furniture, her room is a mess – but then her camming space is this immaculate curated thing.
Daniel Goldhaber: In some sense, the pink room is where you understand who Alice is because that’s her dream space for herself. And Emma Rose Mead, who’s our production designer… so much of it is also just her and her aesthetic and her brilliance. She knows every single thing that’s in that room and chose it by hand. And I love it.
What do you feel your film says about our relationship with technology and why was the camming world the right place to explore that?
Isa Mazzei: I think for us, something that was really important is that technology is fun. The Internet is fun. It’s addictive, it’s stimulating and it’s exciting. And so often we would watch films where people are using technology and it’s boring. And so much of camming is just someone alone in a room, screaming at a computer screen. It was really important to us to find the language to make that fun and stimulating, and part of that is obviously how we designed the screens with the cut-ins and also the sound design to really bring people into that world and hopefully have them feel that addictive rush that I think camming brings to it.
We chose camming for many reasons, but this film could very easily take place with a Twitch streamer or a YouTube star or an Instagram celebrity or anyone who operates in this gig economy on social media, and I think that’s why it’s so relatable because we all have these curated personas that we’ve put online. And one of the anxieties that I dealt with is kind of where this idea of the Lola double comes from, in that you put so much of this curated identity online and at a certain point you start to wonder, ‘Do these people like me or do they just like this version of me? And how real is this version of me?’ Because no matter how real you try to be online, it’s still, by definition, curated. Dealing with those anxieties and those fears is actually very universal, and that’s hopefully why the film speaks to anyone who does anything online, which is all of us, and not just people who are camgirls.
Daniel Goldhaber: And it was actually something that was so cool about even Isa’s first draft of the script, because she had to figure out on a screenwriting level how we were going to communicate this rush of hyperstimulation on the page. She invented different formatting tricks to make reading the script feel hyperstimulating but actually still make it feel really clear. And that was another thing in terms of the co-vision; from the very beginning, we had to figure out how we’re going to make a movie where were many of the characters of the film are just lines of text on a screen.
Isa Mazzei: Or emojis or GIFs. We’re communicating ideas with flashing cam room donations.
Daniel Goldhaber: For me as a director, what I’m proudest of in the film is that on a shot-for-shot level, the movie is very avant garde because you have these three camera setups where you’re cutting not based on continuity at all in a lot of ways. It’s a completely different kind of language that took us a year in the edit, which is crazy for a movie of this scale. It took so much trial and error because usually when you make a movie, you’re choosing shots and working inside of the existing film language. You have other things to look at and reference. We didn’t have anything to reference in this at all. That was definitely something that was a really cool opportunity to do.
“People are ready for films that tell stories about women that are not just screaming victims… horror has a legacy of using women as props.”
Why do you think the film connected so well with festival audiences and, evidently, the Netflix buyers?
Isa Mazzei: I think some of it is that universality of our experiences online. I think another thing is that people are ready for films that tell stories about women that are not just screaming victims. I love horror. I love it, and I think, going back to one of your earlier questions, it’s important to have more female horror filmmakers be taken seriously because they are the ones writing and directing characters where women are not just props in horror movies to be murdered and look sexy. I think the biggest problem in the genre is that so often people, but especially women, in genre films make dumb choices, and so it was really important to us to have a protagonist that does not make dumb choices.
Beyond the politics that I think are appealing to a lot of people, of sex, sexual empowerment and sex work being work, there’s also this idea that Alice does not make dumb choices. She is a smart protagonist, a smart female protagonist, and I think that is extremely relatable to audiences and I think that’s what audiences want to see. I hope that, in particular, male filmmakers in the genre look at this and say, “Okay, I need to start doing the same with my female characters,” because I think that horror, especially, has a legacy of using women as props. And I think that should change and I think people want that to change.
Daniel Goldhaber: What I would say to male filmmakers who want to do that, though, because there’s this tension right now in the discourse about if you’re a man and you make a movie about a woman, is that being ethical about how we write characters and how we construct narrative and how we tell stories is really important, but it’s also really, really important to really investigate your process as a director if you’re really anybody making a movie outside of your own experience.
Movies are about people and making them is about collaboration and working with families and groups of people. One of the biggest lessons I took out of this was that making a movie doesn’t have to be a director saying, “This is my grand Kubrickian vision” – but, also, Kubrick was an insanely collaborative person who would ask the PAs what they thought of shots. You can make movies into personal learning experiences and you can make movies into opportunities to educate yourself while working with everyone.
Isa Mazzei: And you can collaborate with your actresses if an actress says, “I’m not comfortable doing this.” That was our thing with Maddie. We had to have a nudity rider, obviously, for legal reasons, but everything was day of: Are you comfortable being naked? How naked are you comfortable being? And because of that, it became a dialogue between us about why is Alice naked in this scene, does it work here? And making sure that none of the nudity, and none of the violence but mostly none of the nudity, was gratuitous. And that was such a cool discourse to have with her because sometimes she would say, “In the scene, I think I should have more clothing than written.” And in another scene, she would say, “No, no, no, I need less clothing because of this.” She was so attuned with the character that she understood where this idea of performative femininity was coming from. And so, I think if male filmmakers listened to the women they’re collaborating with, be it directors of photography or their editors or their actresses even, they can really learn because I think often these things are said, they’re just not listened to.
Daniel Goldhaber: At the same time, I think there’s also this line between. I could have gone and made this movie on my own, having seen what I saw with Isa and written the script and cast the movie and then reached out to Isa and been like, “Hey, do you want to come be the camgirl consultant on set?” And she might’ve said yes. And she might’ve come to set and she might’ve even had really great notes about the body language of the actor, and it would have not made an ounce of difference because the fundamental perspective of the narrative would have been lacking her perspective.
What I think is really important when we think about the way that we work with people in consultant capacities is we have to remember that being a consultant goes so far beyond getting the details of the world right. It cuts to what is the structure of the narrative and what is that structure of the narrative doing and saying. And what that means is that you have to empower people around you to participate at that level of the film.
Isa Mazzei: Which goes back to the co-authorship credit and why it’s so important to us.
Daniel Goldhaber: And that framing still makes it sound like it’s my movie, though it started as a conversation between the two of us.
Isa Mazzei: But the default is to give the director all of the credit and all of the power. And I think that we did a really good job of not doing that. We have equal power. We screamed at each other a lot. But it worked out well.
Daniel Goldhaber: There’s a specific thing I’m trying to get at, which is…
Isa Mazzei: Listen to people.
Daniel Goldhaber: But empower them to also be your equal collaborators. I think that’s the key component.
CAM is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.