By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Continuing our interview with the writer and director of the topical and tense chiller CAM, about a webcam performer named Alice (Madeline Brewer) discovering that someone or something has taken over her on-line identity as “Lola” (see the first part here)…
Basing the story on her own experiences as a “cam girl,” Isa Mazzei scripted and Daniel Goldhaber directed CAM, which is now on Netflix and in Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas nationwide (see our review here). The film played numerous festivals this year including Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, where it won Best First Feature and Best Screenplay awards, and where this interview took place.
Daniel, had you worked in the adult-film field before the pornography you shot with Isa, to promote her site?
DANIEL GOLDHABER: That’s the only pornography I have made, and I would actually be totally interested in making more porn; there just hasn’t been the opportunity to do it. It was a fun and creative exercise, and very interesting to come in and be like, how do I make a film out of this that I’m proud of as a movie? I think the porn that we made is awesome.
CAM is the opposite of porn, where it’s not using the subject matter for titillation. How did you make the transition from one mindset to the other?
DG: I didn’t, necessarily, in the sense that there are moments in CAM, when she’s performing, that are more pornographic.
ISA MAZZEI: Something that’s interesting is the difference between when I’m performing for the camera vs. when the camera is voyeuring on me. Those are two very different experiences, and thinking back to the porn we made—and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it—it did almost feel like I was performing for the camera, rather than the camera observing my body.
DG: That was very interesting to me, and it’s actually an intriguing question to unpack, because they feel like part of a similar lineage of engaging with a reality of performance. The exact reason we didn’t want to make a documentary [about webcam girls] was because the point of entry into both documentary and porn is similar, in the sense that you’re giving the audience something authentic. What I was interested in exploring in the porn we made was, can we capture a moment of sexuality on camera that’s both authentic and erotic? CAM deals with a similar question in a very different way, because the horror comes from Alice’s loss of control over this more eroticized component of her. They’re part of a similar lineage of ideas about performative femininity and erotic imagery.
How much of the film is autobiographical in terms of your dealings with family and others in the outside world?
IM: It’s definitely inspired by my real life, though a lot of it is hypothetical. I have a sister, and when I told her I was a cam girl, she was like, “Oh, that’s awesome, you’re so great!” [Laughs] But thinking about how it would feel if I had a sibling who was younger, who dealt with it more like Jordan [Alice’s brother, played by Devin Druid], and tapping into those anxieties I had before I told her—when I was scared about rejection and her friends maybe not being OK with it—was absolutely instrumental. In terms of dealing with the town and all of that, I’m very fortunate that everyone in my life has been pretty accepting of what I’ve done.
But it was important to me to present it not as this happy, cheerful picture, because I have a lot of friends who have not been so fortunate with their experiences in coming out to their friends or their family or their town as sex workers, and it has been a very different experience for them. I think the cops are perhaps the most realistic depiction in the movie, and I have to say that every single line the cops say in the film, or just about, is something that either I have heard or a friend of mine has heard, from law enforcement or people in authority.
DG: Or people we pitched CAM to. The question “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?” is something that was asked of Isa in the vast majority of pitch meetings we had for this film.
IM: Yeah, and it wasn’t relevant to the movie, it wasn’t relevant to funding the movie. It was like, why are you asking me this? It’s a very voyeuristic question.
DG: And people would, like, lean forward… The other thing that was really amazing, that Isa brought me into in terms of the real-life component of the story, is the two men [Patch Darragh as Tinker and Michael Dempsey as Barney]. When we started working on this, Isa and I met a number of her fans in person, and I interviewed them because I wanted to understand how they were engaging with her, how they were engaging with camming in general, and what it brought them—this community they got from it. We took those interviews and distilled them down into what we felt were the two most composite personality traits. Obviously, we couldn’t represent the 15 different kinds of people who were in her room, so let’s try to do the two extremes of the helper and the whale. That’s another thing that gives the movie a real sense of authenticity.
IM: Though they had to skew negative, and I’d like to clarify that I love my guys, I love them all. But it’s a genre film, so there had to be evil people [laughs]!
Was the person or thing that takes over Alice’s persona intended to represent the threat to one’s identity in the cam world in general?
IM: Yeah, it really is reflective of a loss of identity at a certain point. You perform so much; I was working eight to 10 hours a day as this different person, and to try to reconcile that identity with who I actually was, that paranoia started. Do the people I consider my friends actually like me, do they just like this persona, would they like me in real life? Do they only like me because I’m showing them certain curated parts of myself? Feeling that fracturing of identity can be terrifying, and can make you very insecure.
On a more literal level, a lot of the ideas regarding Lola being stolen came from seeing a lot of my content pirated and put up on the Internet without crediting me. It felt like that part of me was being taken away, because all of a sudden I and my porn persona were turning into, like, “frizzy-haired pale girl.” Feeling that loss of control is something I took a lot of inspiration from.
DG: The other thing, kind of building off of that, is that again, the primary goal of this film was telling a story that allows the audience to empathize with a sex worker in a way they’re rarely given an opportunity to in a film. And when Isa was sharing her feelings of violation and loss of control of her digital identity with me, I suddenly felt, oh my God, I really identify with that. I’ve also felt a loss of control of my digital self. So there was an amazing opportunity where we thought there was a larger universal message that was important to talk about, that people could identify with, and that would be a doorway for them to identify with a sex worker.
That’s particularly relevant in terms of situations like the James Gunn controversy, where a part of your digital identity from years ago can come back, or be brought back, to harm you.
IM: Yeah—you have no control over it, and that’s what’s so terrifying. As soon as you put something on-line, you have no idea where it will go, who will take it, how it will be used, if it will be used to catfish someone. That’s a very universal thing we all experience.