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How One Low-Budget Thriller Got the World of Camming Right

The filmmakers behind ‘Cam’ discuss the aesthetics of pornography, the dangers of living through our virtual selves, and why sex shouldn’t equal death in horror movies

In the unnerving new psychological horror film Camwhich comes to Netflix this Friday (and will be playing in select theaters), a young woman named Alice (Madeline Brewer) is luxuriating in her camgirl role as Lola, a friendly, flirty alter ego who’s developed a large online community. Alice has carefully crafted every element of Lola — her makeup, her personality, her background décor, what kinds of shows she will or won’t do — and bases her own self-worth on how Lola’s audience responds to the character. Lola is Alice’s pride and joy — her work of art — but what would happen if that work of art were stolen from her? Cam answers this question in twisty, eerie ways, as one day Alice discovers that Lola is online even though she (Alice) isn’t. Has someone hacked Alice’s account? Or has something scarier and more supernatural occurred?

Cam’s sexiest hook is the fact that it’s set in the world of camming, a realm of sex work that to this point has largely been ignored by mainstream movies. But for Cam’s makers — director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei, childhood friends who consider their movie a joint collaboration — the intention wasn’t necessarily to explore the relative novelty of camming. As Goldhaber tells me, “The interesting thing about Cam isn’t that Alice is a camgirl — the interesting thing about Cam is that her identity is stolen.”

Sitting in a Culver City restaurant — the same one where they nailed down the deal to get their low-budget movie made — Goldhaber and Mazzei make it clear that they want Cam to start a conversation about how movies usually (and falsely) depict porn and sex workers — topics that are especially important to Mazzei as a former camgirl. But they’re just as concerned with how we reconcile with our digital selves: Is that person who posts on Instagram “me”? Or is that just another alter ego?

Cam explores these concerns through metaphor and an increasingly surreal storyline. In person, though, Goldhaber and Mazzei speak bluntly — about her experiences as a camgirl, why she insisted that he had to cam before making the film and how their movie stands in opposition to decades of horror films in which the sexually active characters always die.

Initially, you considered making a documentary about camming before switching to a fictional story. From the outset, did you know Cam was going to be a psychological horror movie?
Mazzei: What we love about horror and genre is that it’s often used to talk about taboo topics — it’s a medium that people expect to have those conversations. We always knew we wanted it to be genre. We just had hours and hours of conversations where we talked about my own paranoia and fears with camming, anxieties that I had, his relationship with his digital identity… That’s where everything started developing.

When you started camming, Isa, were your nervous about it?
Mazzei: I was definitely nervous, but everything I do I’m 100 percent committed and I throw myself in there. I thought about it a lot, and I did a lot of research. I was nervous, like anyone would be, but I was also very much 100 percent in.

What did you learn during your research?
Mazzei: I watched other girls a lot. I figured out what type of camgirl I wanted to be, what I liked about their shows, what I didn’t like about their shows. When you’re working for several hours a night, every night of the week, you don’t want to get repetitive or boring. I had long lists of show ideas, some of which were mine and some of which I took from other girls that I liked.

Did you know your camgirl persona from the start? Or did it change over time?
Mazzei: I definitely had a solid idea of what I wanted her to be like from the beginning. She evolved and grew over the time I cammed, but I definitely had a very curated aesthetic and style. It was very deliberate from the beginning — not just what I wore and my makeup, but also what my bedroom looked like, what pillows I was using, what curtains I was using. All of that was very deliberate.

It’s almost like creating a character, developing a backstory for them.
Mazzei: I had a list of traits that I wanted her to have, where she came from. A lot of it was real, but you kind of exaggerate the parts of yourself that you want to show more of and hide the parts of yourself that you don’t necessarily want to show. I’m generally a very awkward, goofy person. My persona was a very awkward, very goofy version of me.

Which is interesting, because I can imagine someone else might think, “I can be anyone I want to be. I’m going to be this person who’s super-confident. I’ll become the person I can’t be in my real life.”
Mazzei: Something for me that’s interesting about camming — this kind of mirrors the journey that Alice goes on — [is that] when I cammed at the beginning, I very much sought validation for myself. It was very important that my cam persona be very real and very true to me. There wasn’t much distinction for me between who I was online and who I was offline. That’s something that we can see in Alice, too, where there’s not a lot of difference between her on- and off-screen.

Goldhaber: What you’re talking about are questions about the aesthetics of pornography. It’s something that we rarely talk about. We really like to talk about the morals behind pornography, but we don’t talk enough about the aesthetics behind porn. It’s something that Isa introduced to me from the get-go. I don’t think she’s giving herself enough credit here — the aesthetic level of curation of the character and the persona and the space and the costuming — it was something that I hadn’t thought about before.

Mazzei: It’s kind of like meeting Twitter [personalities] in real life — it’s the same when you meet a camgirl in real life. I had girls that I thought were very much one type of person, and then when I met them, they were entirely different. It was because they had this very defined person that they were online.

Goldhaber: In the same way that in film you have aesthetics [that] imply representation, you get into a similar thing with pornography. [Porn] is just a type of filmmaking, and the aesthetics of that approach also have a lot to do with the aesthetics of the representation of that approach. After we started working together — I’m a porn consumer — I started noticing editing in porn and how it was changing the way I was engaging with that work. It kind of changed my taste. The way that Alice curates her space and curates her persona, we’re really hoping that people walk away from the movie with the idea that, oh, there’s a craftsmanship here — and there’s a story behind that craft.

For years, horror movies have been about serial killers murdering sexy, beautiful young women. Sex is punished in those movies. A film like Cam could be a cautionary tale: “She’s being put through hell because she’s a bad person who cams.” I’m guessing that’s something you wanted to avoid.
Mazzei: It was absolutely imperative from Day One that the negative stakes couldn’t be derived from the protagonist’s decision to be engaged in sex work. We had a manifesto, actually, where we wrote down all these rules for ourselves to follow. That was Rule Number One. That was non-negotiable. As a sex worker, I was really tired of seeing those problematic representations of women where they’re just used as props — pretty things to be killed in horror.

Also, I was frustrated with this moralization of sex or the decision to engage in sex work. So often, sex workers are portrayed as victims to be saved. That was so frustrating to me, because I felt like it was so inaccurate to most of the sex workers that I knew. Furthermore, it impacted me in my life, because I was very out about being a sex worker, and people were constantly trying to “save” me. Men were trying to save me. Bartenders were trying to save me. My friends’ parents were trying to save me. It was so frustrating, because I feel like we’re so informed by the media we consume, and there was no media that was accurately representing me or my friends. We wanted to tell a story where an audience might empathize with the sex worker — but more than that, that they’d empathize with her lack of agency.

Something that I think is so cool is the movie is only scary if you can feel that lack of agency. You can only feel that lack of agency if you acknowledge that she had it in the beginning. That in and of itself is extremely subversive, if you think about it, because in order for the film to feel scary, you’re feeling that a sex worker has agency in her sex work, which is incredibly powerful. That was just non-negotiable for us.

Goldhaber: It took a long time to figure out how to do that. But then we pointed to Whiplash and Black Swan and these kind of “brave artist” narratives: “Let’s treat camming like the art form that it is, and then let’s look at these other cultural examples of how we represent great art.” It was one of the reasons, among other political reasons, that we didn’t want to give a concrete reason of “This is why Alice is a camgirl.” If you look at Whiplash or Black Swan, [you think] “It’s just something inside of them that makes them want to perform, that makes them want to do this work.”

At the script level, almost every single executive we talked to was like, “You got to give me a reason here to empathize with her.” I think what’s so awesome about the film is that we don’t get audience members being like, “I need to know why she cams.” That’s a testament to Isa’s writing and a testament to [Brewer’s] performance and the empathy behind that performance where you immediately just identify with these very universal ideas of ambition and self-validation as an artist that that character has.

What do movies about sex workers get wrong?
Goldhaber: I think that many movies about sex work, in some capacity, exotify the sex-work component of the film — where the interesting thing about the movie is that it’s about sex workers. That’s the lens. The interesting thing about Cam isn’t that Alice is a camgirl — the interesting thing about Cam is that her identity is stolen.

What’s important is also that Cam is told from her perspective in which she doesn’t find her own experience exotifying. I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with the interesting thing about a film being its ethnographic information. But I think that it’s the limited number of other movies about sex work with different perspectives that we’re trying to engage with.

In the press notes, the two of you say in a joint statement, “[W]e see this as a shared vision — a blend of male and female perspectives.” How did that blend actually work while making the film?
Mazzei: Danny studied film, and I didn’t. His craft was directing the film — it wouldn’t be half as beautiful or incredible a film without his expertise there. But he did learn from an industry with a history of objectification of women — the male gaze.

For example, there was one point where they were framing a shot on Madeline’s bowtie. That’s what he learned: “This is how you frame a bowtie.” But what I saw from an outside perspective was a woman’s breasts on screen without her face, which is a male-gaze shot. That wasn’t the intention behind the shot — they were just framing the bowtie. It’s those things that were so front-of-mind for me — not just as a woman, but as a woman coming into this very aware of the politics behind it. I ran onto set and I said, “Okay, we need to pan the camera up — ”

Goldhaber: — I’m like, “There’s nothing wrong with it. Just tying the bowtie. What are you talking about?”

Mazzei: We had those conversations [with me] explaining why it’s a male-gaze shot and them explaining why it’s the best shot of the bowtie — and arriving at the conclusion that we did need to pan the camera up, because we do need to constantly correct for this legacy of the male gaze in cinema. More than that, it was really useful to have this marriage of male and female on set, because that’s what camming is. It’s not just a feminine experience in this female space — most of Alice’s viewers are men. She’s interacting with men. I think it does the story justice to have both viewpoints on set.

Goldhaber: Part of my impetus for wanting to do this film was that we started working on it at a time in my life where I was recognizing I maybe have some really unhealthy attitudes and relationships with the women in my life. I wanted to reckon with those and wanted to reckon with the way that I had been socialized as a young man in this country and correct that and rewire my brain. I think that this was a really amazing opportunity to do that and to learn from Isa and to take advantage of her generosity and her wealth of expertise.

Early on, a lot of our conversations were just her taking me through her life and giving me the opportunity to see snippets of that and to be like, “Oh, this is the experiences from the female point-of-view that I’m not having. Let’s take those lessons and put them in the movie.”

Mazzei: Also, I made him cam. I felt like that was something that would be valuable to him. That was kind of a deal term of him directing the movie: “If you’re going to direct a movie about a camgirl, you have to cam.”

Goldhaber: What was really interesting is it wasn’t about me being like, “I’m going to walk away from this knowing what it’s like to be a sex worker,” because there’s a whole world around that that I wasn’t engaging in. But it was, “I’m going to walk away from this knowing what it’s like to put my body in a very vulnerable position on the internet and try to sexualize myself.” You’re there, you’re naked, people are asking you to do things for free. You’re starting to figure out, “How can I get these people to pay me money?” Being asked to do things for free is the life of being a sex worker: “How do I sexualize myself in a way where people want to pay me money?” All of a sudden, I’m starting to think about my male performative gender in a way that I’ve never thought about it before.

What I will say is the process of making this movie helped me release myself from feeling like I had to perform “male.” It made me recognize maybe I don’t fully identify as a masculine person. I have definitely repressed a bisexuality in myself that the process of making this movie allowed me to openly acknowledge. I hate the framing of “coming out,” but I absolutely started more openly dating men, which is something I’ve always wanted to do but never felt like I could. On a very personal level, it was a very transformative experience for me in that way of letting go and recognizing my performative masculinity.

Isa, your pinned tweet mentions Cam’s high Rotten Tomatoes score with the comment, “I dedicate this 91% [fresh rating] to everyone who slut shamed me in high school.” Has the movie been a validation of sorts for what people put you through when you were younger?
Mazzei: Absolutely. As someone who was slut-shamed mercilessly in high school, and then kind of became a sex worker — which is the pinnacle of sluthood, if you will — I’m so proud of the work that I did as a camgirl, and I’m so proud of the work that I’m doing now. None of it would be possible if I weren’t a slut. It’s this incredibly validating thing to say, “Not only am I happy with my choices and not only am I proud of myself, but look at the conversations that people are having now because I’m a slut.” That’s absolutely fantastic.

The tweet is a little snarky, but at the end of the day, some of the people who actually did slut-shame me in high school have come to me and congratulated me on the film and engaged with it to say that I’m really brave or that they’re proud of me. That’s been very moving as well, because it’s kind of seeing how we’ve all grown up since then and are able to engage respectfully with different viewpoints.

Speaking of becoming adults with broader perspectives, I definitely remember growing up consuming media where sex workers were always portrayed as damaged souls in need of rescuing. As a guy, you felt like it was your job to be the big hero.
Mazzei: Oh yeah, people still come up to me after screenings and ask if I’m okay now. Or there are a lot of comments in the press about me where they say, “Oh, well, thank god she’s not camming anymore.”

The problem comes from our puritanical values around sex, because most labor is exploitative in some capacity. For some reason, we demand of sex workers that their work be empowering. We don’t demand that of any other job. It’s literally just the fact that it’s sex and we’re scared of that. I think that it’s so unfair to negate a woman’s agency because of that.

Furthermore, there’s this narrative about how all sex workers are damaged — I would like to address that to say we all have damage. Even if sex workers are damaged, that doesn’t negate their ability to make the right choices for themselves and their body. We have this tortured-artist trope where we revere these tortured artists. Then we look at a sex worker and we say, “Oh, you’re damaged. Your choices are not okay. I have to save you.” It’s just such a double standard.

It may be hard for some to accept that Alice learns not that camming is bad, but that she can’t base her self-worth on her camming identity.
Mazzei: That was something that I had to learn. Lola came from this idea of, “Okay, where do I end and where does my porn persona begin?” But she also comes from this very real experience of having screen captures of my show pirated and pasted all over the internet without my name or credit to me on them. That’s where that gunshot scene comes from. [Editor’s note: In the movie, a camgirl puts a gun in her mouth, shocking and intriguing her audience.] It’s a metaphorical representation of this sense of violation and loss of agency over my body, because I’m watching my body in a sex act without my name on it, real or porn, just no name on it. That loss of control over my body was absolutely terrifying.

Cam wrestles with our uneasy relationship with our digital selves. Did you find any new insight for yourselves about how to navigate that relationship?
Goldhaber: Yes, but not in the way I think it should have. I didn’t really post online before I made the movie. I’ve always been a consumer of online content, but I’ve never wanted to be vulnerable enough to put myself online. But weirdly, in making the movie and in recognizing how much of online life is a performance, it made me more comfortable posting, because I stopped trying to validate myself. I started learning from Alice’s lesson. I started more actively curating an online persona and identity for myself, partially for publicity reasons, but I started feeling more comfortable doing that. I started being more aware of the kind of craftsmanship behind digital identity.

In some ways, I feel like we have to accept that the virtual version of ourselves is simply not us.
Mazzei: We need to make peace with that, and we need to be aware of that — and we need to be aware of that when we consume other people’s content, too. Even if you think you’re being super, super real, the fact is you can’t be real on social media, because you’re deciding what to post and what not to post. Unless you’re literally live-streaming your life 24/7, it’s not going to be real. Even that isn’t going to be real. We just need to be aware of that and protect ourselves from comparison or thinking that these curated lives that we’re consuming are better than ours or happier than ours, because they’re just not real.

Goldhaber: One of the most terrifying and least-remarked-upon parts of the movie is the series of interactions [Alice has] after Alice’s account has been stolen. People start taking that [online] version of her more seriously [than the real person]. [Characters] think that this [real] person is a con artist who is a lookalike of the actual online person.

Mazzei: Again, this comes from my experience [with] camgirls who I first knew online and then meeting them offline. Somehow, because you’ve spent hours consuming their online identities — these super well-lit, airbrushed versions of themselves — when you meet them in person, they somehow feel less real and less tangible. That is so terrifying.

There are clichés of sex workers that Cam eschews — stripper with the heart of gold, etc. — but I was curious how you approached depicting Alice’s viewers, like Barney, who’s a loyal customer and a seemingly decent guy who ends up surprising us. What are cam viewers like?
Mazzei: Barney, for me, represents some men’s idea of ownership over women — and particularly, over sex workers. There’s a moment that’s pretty subtle in the film where someone [off-screen] shouts something, and Barney shuts his laptop [while] he’s talking to her. That moment, for me, is to demonstrate he’s ashamed of what he’s doing — he’s hiding it from someone, whoever that is. But at the same time, because he consumed all of this content, he thinks that he has some sort of ownership over [Alice].

That absolutely was my experience with some cam viewers — they thought that they owned me. They thought that they had a right to know personal information about me. They thought that I owed them something more than what I was offering because they paid for my services. You wouldn’t go into a store and buy something and then demand something else for free, but with sex workers it’s something that we encounter very commonly — especially because you’re selling emotional intimacy as well as sexual intimacy. When you’re selling an emotional intimacy, it can be difficult to enforce boundaries with viewers who demand more.

My viewers were some of my closest friends. I’m still in touch with some of them. Some of them I have genuine friendships with. For the most part, they were extremely respectful. They’re still extremely respectful. Now that I’m out, they’re finding me online, and they’re messaging me and saying, “Oh, is it okay if I follow you? Is it okay if I engage with you in the real world?” I think that a lot of the reality of camgirl viewers is they’re normal people with families, jobs and lives, and for whatever reason, they’re choosing to engage in this industry. I don’t think they should be shamed or judged at all.