CAM: Interview with the independent filmmakers – words Paul Risker
Director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, a former camgirl, seek to offer an authentic communication of the camming experience through the prism of the cinematic medium in CAM (2018).
Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a rising young star in webcam pornography, who has her ambitious sights set on breaking into the top ten ranking of Cam Girls.
One day she wakes to the nightmarish discovery that that her doppelgänger Lola has commandeered her cam channel. Watching as Lola pushes past the boundaries and breaks the rules she has set, Alice is forced into a struggle to regain control of not only her channel, but her sense of self that has become defined by her digital persona.
Ahead of the World Premiere in July at Fantasia 2018, Goldhaber and Mazzei spoke with Flux about their subversive ambitions for their feature debut, respectively. They also reflected on the theme of control in relation to digital identity, the Cronenbergian influence and the importance of the genre space, as well as their desire to take the audience on a transformative journey.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Daniel Goldhaber: Well, I’ve wanted to make movies since I was ten and I can’t even explain it. I think that a lot of people talk about it as like being bitten by the film bug, but that’s as specific as the origin gets. As the last fifteen years have gone on for me, I am drawn by the power that film has to shape the way we see the world around us. I see film as the power of aesthetic and the power of representation; it is real and it’s how we see ourselves, and it’s how we see the outside world. Making images that question that are important, and at the same time I also just like escapism. Uniting those two things is something that film has the unique power to do.
Isa Mazzei: I never thought I would actually make a film. My family is in the film industry and I’d say I was determined to not go into filmmaking. But when it came to wanting to tell this story, it seemed like such a natural medium. It seemed the only way to express what the experience was like, and to bring an audience inside of a Cam Girl’s head. And then to have them feel that empathetic connection with her and to also mirror what it’s like to see on cam, and to have this hyper-simulated environment. It lends itself perfectly to the medium and I am happy to say that I fell in love with filmmaking, and I plan to continue doing it.
To speak about themes, are you attentive to specific ones from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?
Mazzei: Absolutely! From day one, my theme to make a film that would have an audience empathise with a sex worker was mandatory. If you watch the film, then you are obviously rooting for a sex worker to go back to sex work, which is an incredibly subversive idea. And so for us that was why it was so important to use genre to almost not conceal, but to make acceptable such a politically subversive idea, and to package it in a way that was fun and exciting. But absolutely, before we had even conceptualised any of the plot, the goal for us was to create that empathy with a Cam Girl.
Goldhaber: What was so compelling to me when I started this project was Isa bringing me into her world. She had this vision, this point of view that she wanted to bring to a wider audience. So for me, it was an extraordinary thing to explore this point of view and to meet the characters in this world, and to then figure out how to actually turn it into a movie. During that process I realised that for me personally the movie is about digital identity, and there were all of these places that I had a deep empathy for these larger, more universal themes that Isa was communicating. One of the larger points the film is making is that sex workers are people, and the things they struggle with are the things we all struggle with. There is nothing special about them and so it is just like any other job. I think one of the cool things about this movie was not only that it had that political message that is important, but it’s what makes the movie relatable to a wider audience. And at the same time it was an exciting opportunity to tell a story about digital identity that hasn’t been told before.
The Jungian idea of the shadow complex is at the heart of the film, both in terms of the doppelgänger, but also in terms of the reaction to the discovery that Alice is a sex worker. This taps into the demand created by society that is juxtaposed with the demonisation of those who fulfil that demand.
Mazzei: Fundamentally for us, this film more than being about sex is about a loss of control. At the beginning Alice has full control with these boundaries that she has set for herself, and Lola begins to cross these and push this persona further than Alice is necessarily willing to go. What is so violating about it is this sense of loss of identity and also the loss of control over it. And with camming, it is this form of identity that is the furthest you can push it because it’s not just a social media platform, it’s not just your friends, it’s also your income, your sexuality and sexual expression. It’s your art form and it’s your physical body, and so it’s that sense of loss of control over her body that is so violating for Alice, which was important for us to address in the film.
Goldhaber: To address more specifically your question about the Jungian themes we are dealing with here, whenever you make a doppelgänger movie you are dealing with concepts of a shadow self, and that was something we were very conscious of. What we wanted to do was to make it clear that in a digital world where we live our lives online, those shadow selves are digital, and we wanted to ask this question of all of us that are putting this second self out on the internet that is corruptible. We don’t necessarily always have control over it, but people think that it’s us, and that second self can be a repository for any number of different things. People craft their digital identity and the fundamental question the movie is asking is: What happens if your digital identity develops a life of its own, and runs away from you? And that’s where the terror comes from.
In regards to genre cinema, there is the supposition that it chronicles social angsts and preoccupations across the decades. How do you perceive the way in which this film will play for future generations, and communicate its contemporary time period?
Goldhaber: That was something that we were hyper aware of making this movie; that generally speaking movies about technology age very badly. So we were looking to movies about technology that have aged well. A huge reference point was David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which is a movie that aestheticises its tech and that doesn’t feel like the tech of the 1980s, even though it is. But Cronenberg is very conscious of these small aesthetic markers of the technology that can be turned into something a little more fantastical, or grotesque, and that was something that we didn’t miss, and did a few different ways.
One of the things that was important to us was for the overall aesthetic of the movie to be specific, and to feel like it took place in its own world. So you see that in the pink room, which is this complete fantasy space, but also even in Alice’s normal life, in her mom’s house and the Mexican restaurant, everything is just a little bit heightened. We took that even further with the tech itself, which is this blend of different time periods. The website is very web 1.0, but all the devices are from 2004 or 2014 because we even wanted a contemporary audience to feel like the movie was unstuck in time. So the film technically takes place in 2015 and that also creates this strange alienating effect because it’s a very decisively non-sci-fi in the design, which produces an unsettling effect for the audience. But I think it will help it age because again, it feels unstuck in time. And that idea goes all the way down to the clothes that are all from the early 2000s, which is a weird blend. This is then anchored by the webcam, which is totally fantastical and a little sci-fi. The webcam itself is this thing to ask the question: Is this violating her? It’s this weird poppy Japanese thing, and so we wanted the movie to be a snapshot of this moment for sure, but we also wanted it to be something that would age well.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
Goldhaber: Yeah, I think there isn’t a single person who worked on this movie who wouldn’t say that the experience changed them. I know this is a hard subject matter and we all had to learn a lot about ourselves. Laura Walters who plays Alice’s mom told me something really beautiful, which was that when she came onto the project, as an actor she has to make it real for herself. She said: “What was so appealing about the script was that I had to figure out how I as a person would respond to my daughter doing pornography.” And as a result of thinking through that she told me: “My perspective on all of this has changed.” I think she said that she hopes the audience is confronted in the same way and has the same kind of change, and that was reflected down through everyone who worked on the film.
Mazzei: Absolutely, and I would hope that any filmmaker would wish for their film to change or affect an audience in some way. I hope that people come out of the film a little bit changed, a little bit more empathetic and aware of the industry, and for me, it has definitely been an incredible process. When we were selling this script my name wasn’t on it, just because we weren’t sure who it was going to go to and who was going to see it. Then through the process of deciding: I am going to put my real name on this; I am going to be outed as a sex worker very publicly, grappling with that has been incredibly transformative. Fortunately it has been a very positive experience so far, and it has definitely changed me quite a bit.
Goldhaber: The last thing to add is that our number one goal with this movie is just to get an audience to emphasise with a sex worker, and in a way that they never really have before. Ultimately, this is a movie that when Alice is a sex worker, when she is camming, she is in complete control. Then her identity is stolen and by the end of the film when she returns to camming, she is back in control. That is an important journey to take an audience on and that was our number one goal.