Netflix’s 'Cam': Writer Isa Mazzei reveals prejudice she faced making debut movie as a former sex worker (exclusive)

Sam Ashurst
Contributor

Forget Hereditary, Suspiria, and A Quiet Place, Cam might just be the most important horror movie of 2018, and it’s available to watch from tomorrow on Netflix.

Dialling straight into the current #MeToo and #TimesUp conversation, Cam is centred around a sex worker who performs for an online audience of fans, but finds her sexual boundaries shattered when a malevolent force removes her agency, and interrupts her career, by stealing her identity.

It’s the brainchild of former sex worker turned screenwriter, Isa Mazzei, who channeled her personal experience as a cam girl into the horror genre. But the story of getting the movie made sounds as horrific as the film itself; before Get Out / Halloween producers Blumhouse got involved.

“I had other production companies who, when we would pitch them the film, said ‘Well, why do you need to be on set, what are you going to do, peddle sex toys for cash?’ These are the kind of things that were said to me in Hollywood trying to sell this film,” Mazzei told Yahoo Movies UK.

“Blumhouse understood the vision, they understood why I needed to be involved, they respected me as a creative voice. Other production companies would say to me ‘You didn’t really write this, did you?’ Questioning my ability, because I was a sex worker, to even write a script.”

Cam smartly explores gender roles in a very unique way, so it’s fitting the young filmmakers behind Cam decided to tear up the cinematic rule-book when it came time to make it.

The filmmakers behind Netflix’s Cam, Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber

Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber had such an equal say, Mazzei would even occasionally step in to direct scenes. The process led Goldhaber to question his own gender identity.

“I haven’t actually talked about this yet, and I don’t even know how to talk about it, but I struggle with the male filmmaker label a lot, because on a personal intimate level I don’t identify as male. It’s not how I see myself,” Goldhaber says.

“I don’t even know if that’s something that should be in the interview or not, but when I talk about being a male filmmaker on stage, it actually feels completely fraudulent. But, in the larger conversation, it feels really valuable, in terms of being somebody who presents as male, who grew up male, my life experience is coded as male, from stem to stern.”

“So, for me, a huge part of this process was questioning that part of my identity, recognising that ‘Okay, I grew up in a society that’s deeply entrenched in a negative view of looking at women, and a negative way of treating women, and I want to re-educate myself.’ A lot of this process was Isa being a patient educator and walking me through her experiences as a woman, but also how we should best portray those experiences on film.”

Yahoo Movies UK sat down with Goldhaber and Mazzei for an intimate, lengthy and revealing discussion about their brilliant film, which will be available to stream on Netflix from tomorrow.

Yahoo Movies UK: Isa, your tweet about the Rotten Tomatoes score was amazing, can you talk about what it felt like to write it, and a little bit about your high school experience?


Isa: It felt f***ing awesome to write that tweet. In high school, I liked taking my clothes off, I liked making out with people – boys and girls – I liked being naked at parties, I liked other people being naked at parties, I was very open about sex, and I was the girl who people came to to ask ‘Can you buy me condoms?’ and all of that.

I carried a lot of shame because of that. I was judged, I was criticised, people would call me a whore behind my back, so I would do things to try and reclaim the word. I remember for my 16th birthday, I wrote ‘whore’ on all my birthday invitations. My poor mother, I had her write ‘whore’ on my birthday cake.

I struggled a lot with that in high-school and feeling ostricised and judged because of the way I chose to express my sexuality.

For me, one of the most intense and harrowing sequences in Cam was the birthday party – can you talk a bit about writing that, because it sounds like it came from real experience…

Isa: Yeah, I drew a lot from my experience of what it felt like, especially in my 20s, as a cam girl, to have people who judged me and called me a slut and bullied me in high school, it was almost like what they had said was validated by my career choice.

And I hated that, because I felt so empowered and I loved being a cam girl, but at the same time, I felt ‘Oh, I’m doing exactly what they said I would do, and they’re mocking me even more for it, perhaps?’

I think that birthday party scene, I tied in a lot of my anxieties of ‘What if the people who I went to high-school with were in the same room and I was outed to them at the same time. What would that feel like to me?’ That’s why we have the Katie character there, who rolls her eyes and says ‘Shocker, I’m not surprised at all.’

One of the key themes of the film is boundaries, and you worked in a different way to most directors, in that you work so closely together. How did you establish boundaries in your individual roles?

Daniel: One of the things that we were interested in from the beginning was saying that a director is not necessarily the author of the film. And that came naturally out of the process, it started from conversations between us, about what would a movie about an empowered creative professional sex worker look like.

Will it be a documentary? No, it’s going to be a genre film. Okay, what’s the premise of that genre film? It’ll be a doppelganger story, because the shared experience between sex workers and people online who will be watching the movie is digital identity, and feeling out of control of your digital identity.

So there’s a throughline of conversation that goes all the way through there. Then we think about how we make that film. I’m a director and Isa’s a writer, so those will be our craftsmanship components in terms of what we’re contributing to the filmmaking process, the same way a director of photography comes in and contributes a craft, or a production designer.

The vision statement, the idea of what the film is, that’s shared. Then the rest of the process is just us yelling at each other. We have a couples counsellor.

Isa: We’re not dating, but we have a therapist who helps us maintain our boundaries. We are spending 20 hours a day together, stressed out of our eyeballs, so we’ve come to a place where moving into our next film together is a lot more peaceful.

How long have you been in couples counselling?

Daniel: About two years.

Isa: Two years.

Daniel: We started about a year into the process.

Isa: We have an appointment next week!

Often the teams that direct together in this way are related to each other – do you guys feel like family at this point?

Daniel: Yeah.

Isa: Yeah, we’ve known each other for 12 years, we’re close with each other’s families.

Daniel: I call Isa my sister’s name frequently.

Isa: We’re very close.

Are you guys fans of the director Reiner Werner Fassbinder by any chance?

Daniel: Huge. World On A Wire is my favourite movie.

Was his film Lola an influence? There’s the name, the colours, and it’s also a film about a sex worker who’s treated sympathetically.

Daniel: Definitely was a reference, for sure. Fassbinder has such important place as a queer filmmaker, and as a genre filmmaker who’s investigating a queer identity through genre film. That’s absolutely something that’s personally been very important to me.

The name ‘Lola’ goes far beyond just the Fassbinder movie, it goes back to the very origins of the femme fatale, and The Blue Angel with Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich. Then there’s the Jacque Demy Lola and his take on it, and then the Fassbinder Lola and his take on it.

Something we were having fun with was that you do have this gradual democratisation, or loosening of something that begins with the femme fatale that destroys men. Gradually, over the course of those movies, she’s becoming more and more of a self-empowered character, and seeing Cam as almost the extremity of that, where it’s all about her.

This is somebody who’s an extraordinary craftsmen at what she does, as a sex worker, and let’s get into her story and see this movie from her point of view.

Daniel, I’ve talked to you about a modern film sold on its feminism that has a lot of the male gaze in it, it feels like there’s a lot of that happening at the moment – women’s stories being directed by men.

And I have to say, when I first heard about Cam, I wondered why it was being directed by a guy. What did you learn about the male gaze through making this film?

Daniel: I haven’t actually talked about this yet, and I don’t even know how to talk about it, but I struggle with the male filmmaker label a lot, because on a personal intimate level I don’t identify as male. It’s not how I see myself.

I don’t even know if that’s something that should be in the interview or not, but when I talk about being a male filmmaker on stage, it actually feels completely fraudulent. But, in the larger conversation, it feels really valuable, in terms of being somebody who presents as male, who grew up male, my life experience is coded as male, from stem to stern.

So, for me, a huge part of this process was questioning that part of my identity, recognising that ‘Okay, I grew up in a society that’s deeply entrenched in a negative view of looking at women, and a negative way of treating women, and I want to re-educate myself.’ A lot of this process was Isa being a patient educator and walking me through her experiences as a woman, but also how we should best portray those experiences on film.

Isa: Yeah, and I think it was really cool to watch. That was something we worked with our whole team really effectively on set, realising that a lot of the way we make film, since the beginnings of time have catered to the male gaze. There’s a lot of standards that we just accept as standards and you really need to be questioning every shot and thinking about it critically.

I can think of two moments on set, and one in particular – it was the Vibrotron scene, and when Madeleine was taking off her robe to get on the Vibrotron, and I don’t even know who said it, but it started circulating really quickly ‘Where’s the ice, who’s got the ice?’

A PA started running to go get ice, it’s just such a standard in making film that, even with such a feminist crew that was all 100% behind the vision, that was the first thing we all thought of.

And so I said ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait – what are we doing?’ And that was all it took, everyone looked at each other and we almost burst out laughing, because of course we’re not going to ice her nipples, that’s ridiculous.

And so it’s important when talking about the male gaze in film to remember that it is the male gaze, but it’s also the way we make movies, the way we’ve been taught to frame shots. We need to rethink those standards if we’re going to take the male gaze out of films about women.

Daniel: Something else I really learned throughout this process working with Isa, is there were other moments on set. We had a female DP, we had an almost entirely female crew, and we’d be framing up a shot and Isa would run on set and say ‘This is problematic, this feels like a super gazy shot. On some level, this doesn’t feel like how Alice sees herself.’ And we’d say, ‘We’re just properly framing the shot – it’s just a shot of a bow tie!’

And Isa would say ‘No, because the way her chest is coding in frame, you’re engaging with a legacy of images that sexualise women. Alice isn’t sexualising herself in this moment, she doesn’t see herself sexually, you need to tilt the camera up.’

That’s really fascinating – traditionally films are the audience looking in, but it sounds like your lead character is looking out in Cam, taking control of that audience, is that fair to say?

Isa: That’s so much of what camming is, you’re watching yourself, you’re watching a live stream of yourself, and you’re performing for the male gaze. So, for us, it really fascinating to play with that contrast. When is Alice playing to her men, when is she watching herself, when is she looking in the mirror in her daily life, and how do all of those different performances manifest?

Daniel: It was one of the coolest parts. It’s a really innovative cinematic language that we’re using in the movie to represent the internet, but it was something that took a lot of time in the edit for some of these camming sequences that were like action set pieces, or musical numbers, that were very highly choreographed.

You’re seeing one shot in the Alexa, and you feel one thing, and you see the exact same moment in the webcam and you feel another thing, then you see the exact same moment in the webcam but you see a little bit of the website, and it becomes something completely different.

Depending on the feel on each of those shots and the way you’re going between them in a scene, you completely change the way the scene is defined for the audience.

The movie took a year to edit, partially because it took a tremendous amount of trial and error, in terms of how we represent Alice’s psychological view of herself, because the whole movie is how is she seeing herself? How do we represent that with cinematic tools we’re developing?

The whole time we were charting new territory from the gaze standpoint, but also how the movie was executed on a formal level.

How does Cam tie into the zeitgeist, do you think? It feels relevant to a larger cultural shift.

Daniel: I think that were in a moment where were we’re questioning who should make movies about what and that’s really valuable because we have such a legacy of film that’s objectifying and degrading to women, people of color, basically anyone who doesn’t code as white and male. And I think that ultimately the goal is everyone being able to make movies about everything, but we have to shift that paradigm first.

So for me, this was a process of shifting my paradigm. So often we make movies about subculture and think all we need is a consultant to make sure it feels authentic.

But often, that consultant is coming in at the latest moment when there’s already a toxic architecture, a misrepresentative story, aesthetic, cast, crew, etc. what was critical in Cam was that the movie was not a monologue from a singular auteur trying to sell their vision as authentic. It was a dialogue between me and Isa. And that’s what’s in the final product I hope.

We made the film together from the ground up. It’s 100% mine and 100% hers. To me, this idea of director as singular auteur is such an antiquated one. Isa and I each had our craft in the movie. I did the craft of directing, she did the craft of writing the same way Kate Arizmendi did the craft of cinematography or Dan Garber did the craft of editing. But the upper level vision was totally shared and was anchored in that idea of collaboration, re-education, and paradigm shifting.

How did making Cam change you as a person?

Daniel: It was the process of making this movie about performative gender that allowed me to recognize the toxicity of my own performed gender. Recognising that allowed me to also see the way that toxicity had induced dysphoria and cognitive dissonance in me from a young age.

I don’t know where I am in the process of letting go of that right now. I’m honestly still in the thick of it. But making Cam catalysed a significant shift in the way I looked at my own gender and sexuality.

What specific scenes did you direct, Isa?

Isa: The Vibrotron scene, first and foremost. Danny definitely set up the shot and talked to the DP, but I was in the room cueing up Madeline (Brewer).

Daniel: Isa’s voice is in that scene – you can hear her yelling ‘Faster, faster!’ We left it in.

Isa: What else did I direct?

Daniel: A lot of the camming improvs…

Isa: Oh yeah, all of the little cut-ins of Alice doing cam shows, I was directing for those as well.

Daniel: Some of the Princess X material, some of the Baby material – if anything was a cam show, Isa was the one working directly with the performers. But throughout the rest of the movie she was in constant conversation with Madeline, not just the body language, not just the authenticity, but also the psychology behind what that moment is. That was something we talked about a lot.

So, to take it right back to the start – in what did order things come, when did Blumhouse come on board, how did you end up getting this amazing deal?

Daniel: Basically, when Isa started camming, she reached out to me, because she really wanted to make super cinematic pornography, some solo porn videos that she could sell on her show.

Isa: Oh, you’re going way back, I thought we were starting with the script!

Daniel: I’m going to do the whole thing. We made a bunch of that work together, which is how she brought me into her world, and to her ideas about sex work and online performance, and this idea that she was a creative professional expressing herself, and I’d never really encountered these ideas before.

And so we said we should make a movie together, first it was a doc, then we came up with the idea of making a genre film and developed it from the ground up.

So, then we had a finished screenplay, but throughout this entire process we were unable to get representation or support from most of the Hollywood system. We could not get an agent or a manager of any kind to support the film

Oh wow.

Daniel: And Isa’s script is a great script, it’s a well-written screenplay. It’s so lean and mean, and we just couldn’t get any support.

But it ended up working out for us, we just took it out ourselves, we reached out to anyone we knew, and the other person we have to credit is Isabelle Link-Levy a producer who came on after the first draft, and she was like us, it was her first thing, so we figured it out ourselves.

A friend of a friend of a friend sent it to Blumhouse, and it got kicked up to Blum, and he said ‘We love this project and we’d love to support it, but it’s too small for us to make.’ So they developed the script for us, and helped package it, and find financing. They said, go make the movie, and if it’s good, we’ll buy it. They had first refusal on it, because they built it.

So Divide and Conquer came onboard, an incredible production company, they did Lucky and The Wind, and they were really passionate about the movie. Then we went and shot it, post production was a nightmare – we were inventing so many things. It was a year in post, there’s 1000 visual effects shots in the movie. We finished it, Blumhouse bought it, and they sold it to Netflix.

Jason Blum made those comments about there being no women horror directors, he’s since apologised, what did you think of that whole situation? Are there two sides to that?

Isa: I think that what Jason said was not only inappropriate, it was completely wrong. Not only are there tonnes of incredible female directors out there, there are incredible female filmmakers making horror out there, many of whom’s films I’ve been watching at all of these festivals I’ve been attending.

Especially this year…

Isa: Especially this year! There’s so many good ones. And I do believe his apology was genuine. My experience inside of Blumhouse as a female filmmaker, striving for this unconventional role of saying I want to be co-author of the film, I need to be on set, I need to be producing, which are all things that are very unconventional for a writer to do, they more than accommodated that, and were incredibly supportive of that, from day one.

I had other production companies, when we would pitch them the film, they said ‘Well, why do you need to be on set, what are you going to do, peddle sex toys for cash?’ These are the kind of things that were said to me in Hollywood trying to sell this film.

Blumhouse understood the vision, they understood why I needed to be involved, they respected me as a creative voice. Other production companies would say to me ‘You didn’t really write this, did you?’ Questioning my ability because I was a sex worker to even write a script.

When I look at Jason’s comment, yes it’s wrong, and it’s inappropriate, but I do believe his apology, it felt sincere, and the company as a whole is working to include female voices, and is really trying to push that boundary in Hollywood.

Daniel: We’re doing our next film with them, and their first offer carved out a huge chunk of space for Isa.

Isa: They understood this is a co-authorship, this is a ‘film by’ credit, so Isa, everything that Daniel gets you’re going to get as well, you’re equals.

Madeleine was in Black Mirror, Cam feels like it could be a lost episode of Black Mirror, was it an influence at all?

Isa: I love Black Mirror, I’ve seen all of it, it’s fun and thrilling and – especially when it came out – it felt so fresh. That’s something that really inspired me when writing this script, I wanted to write something fresh and new that engaged with technology in a new way. Black Mirror does that very well.

My only criticism of Black Mirror is that it feels like most of the episodes are saying the same thematic thing, ‘technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad, technology is bad.’

With Cam, while it does fit into that world, it was also important that the takeaway from Cam isn’t that the internet is bad. We love the internet, we both engage with the internet, the internet can be this fun, amazing, cool space.

Daniel: While rotting our brains.

Isa: While rotting our brains. It’s something to be aware of and to be cautious of, to take a step back and recognise what we are doing as we’re doing it, so we’re not going in blind. That’s a warning that Black Mirror takes seriously, and it’s something we wanted to engage with in this film.

Black Mirror predicts the future, and Cam came before ‘deep fake’ (technology that allows you to steal people’s identities to create pornography), how did you feel when you found out about that?

Daniel: Like prophets.

Isa: We already shot the film when it came out, and we felt psychic, we predicted this. It’s disturbing, honestly. To see something that we intended to be supernatural science-fiction in the future, to happen while we were in post-production was a very surreal feeling. Someone could make a Lola right now.

Daniel: It’s not just deep fakes, which, in all-honesty, is something I’m less scared of, because we’ve had to figure out how to deal with hoaxish imagery for the last 100 years. Hoax photography, hoax video. We’re actually pretty good at figuring that stuff out.

What we’re really bad at is figuring out hoax twitter, and hoax Facebook. Stuff that looks like news, talks like news, but isn’t news. The way that algorithmic filter bubbles are warping our sense of self and warping our sense of identity, and running away with it.

To me, we think of Lola as Alice’s algorithmic performative femininity and, as soon as it breaks away from her, it starts optimising itself, and in the process becomes uncanny.

Isa: No-one realises that it’s a fake.

And even if they do, they don’t care.

Isa: Yeah!

Daniel: I have a friend who’s working on a documentary about Facebook algorithms, and there are people from these companies who have since left who are saying ‘I was there, I helped invent the newsfeed algorithms, I don’t know what it’s doing any more. No-one knows what it’s doing.’

In Silicon Valley, they really do think about these curation engines, these recommendation engines as people, because they are artificial intelligences. I think that’s the supposition of the movie, what if it was, and what if that person was you?

How does it feel to watch this film with an audience?

Isa: I cry every time I watch it with an audience. I find it incredibly moving. It’s wild to have something that’s lived in your head for so long be on a screen and have other people watching it. I cry. It’s incredibly moving.

Daniel: I’m very jealous of Isa, we spent a year cutting it.

But there’s something about that magic of all those new eyes on it, it gives it a completely different dimension, don’t you agree?

Daniel: The first time I saw it, 100%. Then, I’ve tried a couple of times since to watch it, and I can’t do it. I go out of my skin. I’ll watch it one more time, right before we release on Netflix, then that will be it for me I think. But I’ll get drunk first.

Cam hits Netflix in the UK tomorrow.


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