Interviews · Movies

Meet The Filmmakers Who Are Changing The Way Sex Workers Are Portrayed On Screen

An interview with Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber, the filmmakers behind your next Netflix obsession.
Cam Netflix
By  · Published on November 20th, 2018

There’s an undercurrent of excitement that pulsates throughout our conversation with Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber. If they haven’t opened a door for sex workers who want to see their own stories on the big screen, then they’ve at the very least shown many the way towards it. Cam premiered this summer at Fantasia Film Festival and is hitting local browsers November 16th via Netflix. It’s about a successful, determined sex worker named Alice, played with inspired precision by Madeleine Brewer, who discovers that her cam girl persona has been replaced overnight with a carbon copy of herself. As she struggles to regain her online identity, she faces stigma and derision from her family, the police and even the site itself. With its neon pink palette and dizzying screens within screens, Cam is a techno-thriller that feels like if Brian de Palma took a Women’s Studies class and made a sex tape for his thesis film.

In our conversation, we talk about doing justice to sex work and Daniel Goldhaber’s own transformations while making the film. He says, “if a movie is gonna be transformative for an audience, it’s got to be equally as transformative to the filmmakers.”

Here’s our conversation:

How you guys came to work together. You guys were friends from high school, right?

IM: Yeah, we met in high school. We actually collaborated Danny’s theatre company back when we were kids and so I helped him stage manage his first play and we’ve been working together pretty much since then. Even just helping each other out with our college essays and things like that. So it’s been a long ride.

And how did the transition to film happen?

IM: So Danny went to film school. I was working as a cam girl. Obviously.

DG: But also studied.

IM: Yeah, I studied comparative literature at UC Berkeley. I studied Russian and Italian literature and I focused on futurism and the avant-garde. So the world of writing was not foreign to me.

It was interesting seeing Cam at Fantasia because I was seeing it along with so many screenlife films, like Searching and Unfriended. Was there ever a discussion about setting it entirely on a computer screen?

DG: Ultimately I think that the ground that Timor and the other filmmakers that have worked with him on the screenlife films have broken is really important. Because I think they really did an amazing job of cracking the question of like, how do we make movies about living online? How do we represent that cinematically, how do we think about branding, how do we think about frames in frames? I’m a big fan of screenlife films, but ultimately you screenlife films are about, you know, the digital experience. And what Cam was about from day one was the contrast in juxtaposition of the digital experience with the real experience. The movie is ultimately about two people. It’s about Alice and Lola and ultimately about Lola getting away from Alice and Alice losing her agency over Lola. But even from the beginning, in the writing and the shooting and the editing, we were always very conscious about seeing Alice in the real world and what the Lola she created was doing. And so, uh, what I will say is that Unfriended was a real key text that we continued to return to. We recalled certain shots in the film “unfriended mode” and the earliest conversations both between and Isa and then ultimately with Daniel Garber, our editor, we’re wondered “How do we take Unfriended and chop it up? How do we take ever shock out of Unfriended and take different lens lengths into Unfriended and make the visual language of screenlife more dynamic.

And I think what’s great is that you really allow inner and surrounding worlds to develop in a way that can be hard to pull off in screenlife films. And what is so compelling to see from Madeline Brewer’s performance is that contrast between the performance within the performance that you were talking about. Seeing how sometimes Lola comes out when she’s offline, even when she’s with her brother or her mom. Madeline does such a good job of showing that range. How did she get cast? I read that you guys had trouble casting.

IM: Yeah, it was a really difficult process because agents just wouldn’t send the script to their clients. And so we realized if we were going to cast the movie, we’d have to really come up with a lead that we wanted and really aggressively go after her. Luckily for us we were working one day in the basement and Danny’s dad, who is a physicist and in no way a filmmaker, he came in and he was like “I found your lead.” And we’re like, “Sure Steve, whatever.” But he’s like, “No, no, no, I found your lead. I just saw on her on an episode of Black Mirror and she’s incredible and her name is Madeline Brewer.” And we were like, “okay, whatever Steve.” We looked her up and she was incredible. So we were really excited and luckily someone on our team knew her manager so we were able to talk to him and meet with her. Both of us met with her before she came in and read and just told her about the vision behind the film. And she really connected to that and really engaged in those discussions with us. And so when she came into read we knew within the first few minutes that she was perfect for it.

Wow, that’s amazing. Thank God for Dads and physicists.

So I think it’s really interesting that there’s now this unwritten rule in our culture that defines who you can and can’t tell a story. And it’s mostly been discussed in reference to art that deals with race and gender expression and various lived experiences. But this discussion hasn’t reached sex work. Maybe because there are a lot of SWERFs in Hollywood.

DG: You know, I think that there’s kind of two components to that. Number one, we don’t know of any other movies about sex work that were written by sex workers openly and especially no other mainstream films. They might exist. We literally don’t know about them. So I think that in some sense that conversation has existed around sex work because there’s no precedent for it. And that’s something that we were really aware of going into this was that Issa was really discovering and forging new ground with the work that she was doing. But I think that more generally than that, you know, the nature of our collaboration on the film, the nature of our rebuke of authorship or like conventional auteurship on the film was meant to really engage with the exact cultural movement that you’re talking about in regards of like we are trying to adjudicate right now who can and cannot tell what kinds of stories. And I think that ultimately at the end of the day, the best case scenario is that everybody is telling every kind of story, but that number one hinges on equal access, equal opportunity for all kinds of people to enter into the film industry. But more importantly it means that you know, we have to have a lot more rigorous conversations around production practices. And especially production practices, if you are somebody who is telling the story outside of your immediate life experience, there are ways to do that ethically. And there are ways to do that ethically. They can actually create a richer film.

IM: There has to be a dialogue. And that’s what was so cool about working with Daniel is that he really forced this idea of filmmaking as not a monologue but rather a dialogue. And it was a dialogue between the two of us. And so it wasn’t just that I was there as like some sort of consultant. I was there as a co-author of the film. My voice was in every part of it. I was talking with the production designer, with the cast. I was talking with the crew and the DP and we were all having this dialogue the entire time to make sure that we made the film as ethically as possible. And again, it wasn’t just us, we also talked to other cam girls and other sex workers in different fields and tried to include their voices as much as we could too. Because I’m not arrogant enough to think that I can speak for all cam girls.

And what’s so radical is that in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, there’s a film in which we are rooting for the female character to return to sex work. We do not want her to get saved. This is not Pretty fucking Woman.

IM: Exactly. And that was kind of the goal of the film from the beginning before we even knew the plot or the characters or anything. The idea was to create a film not only where you would empathize with a sex worker but where you would be rooting for her within her career choice. And I think that is so rare and I love that. People sometimes go into this film thinking that it’s going to be a savior narrative or some sort of morality story. And then it totally reverses that and that was done so deliberately. From the beginning, that was so important to work towards de-stigmatizing sex work and showing it for what it is, which is work. It’s so easy to look outside of sex work and judge it based on what we see in the media and how it’s mainly represented, which is “girls that need to be saved” and people still come up to me after screenings and say, “oh, are you okay now?” Or, “thank goodness you got out of that industry” but I’m really proud of the work that I did. I loved my time doing sex work. It was incredibly transformative to me and it was something that I absolutely treasure and I’m really proud of it. And so in order to translate those ideas and those experiences into the film, it was so important that I be involved in the film and every step of the way.

DG: Honestly, I think that this goes back to your question earlier that we didn’t flesh out as much as I would like to, with the question about who can and can’t make what certain types of films. Because I think that the answer that I gave was a little bit too focused on like “everybody should be able to do stuff” but not quite focused on the kind of work that actually needs to happen and the kind of process that needs to be set up.Issa: To give you an example, like we were really aware of stripping the male gaze and it was really important to us to do that because cinema has had a legacy of the male gaze and female objectification since its birth, but in order to engage with that, we had to really address it on several levels. The first thing we did was we had Danny cam. He got naked on camera on the Internet for a full week before we shot because I felt like it was very important for him to feel that vulnerability and that kind of performative gender that comes from putting yourself in that place. And so once he was in that space, I think he was able to relate more to the experience of the cam girl which helped us when we were on set and talking about framing shots Daniel. And that was something that ultimately I think for me, my experience caming and my experience working on this film and kind of digging into not only performing to femininity masculinity, it really helped me recognize the levels to which I was performing masculine and have never really been to in my life. And I didn’t even recognize that’s what I was doing and I think that my experience on the film and learning from Issa, it really changed me and it really allowed me to recognize that maybe I do have some gender dysphoria and maybe I do have some dysphoria just with the way that I’m looking at my own sexuality. And that’s still something that I’m dealing with. But it really unlocked that in me because Issa created a safe enough space for me to really question my own sense of gender and sexuality and to finish fleshing out the answer from before, I think that if you are going to go into a kind of a different world and you’re going to build an opportunity for yourself and the way that Issa built one, that you leave yourself open to transformative into change. And something that my thesis advisor used to say was that if a movie is going to be transformative for an audience, it must have been equally as transformative for the filmmakers. And I think that that you have to be willing to challenge yourself if you’re going to go outside of yourself.

I think so much of what I admire about the film is how it shows Alice as an ambitious woman crafting her digital persona. She could be an Instagram influencer. It really defies the stereotype of sex workers.

IM: Yeah! She could be any other type of social media star. And I think that’s why we all relate to her because we all have these digital identities. And so in a way, it’s just like another form of digital expression.

Exactly. But there’s also this moment in the first scene, that I only picked up on when rewatching it, in which she’s talking to Tinker about the show and she’s realizing how many of the people in the chat wanted her to actually go ahead with it and kill herself and Tinker thinks it’s so cool but there’s just this flicker on her face that registers how fucked up that is.

IM: I mean for that show came from real experiences I had camming where I was personally engaged in a lot of BDSM-type shows. And there are people who are engaging with the kink very respectfully and engaging with it in a way that was really empowering and fun. And then there was a whole group of people that I think we’re there just to watch the scandal and who actually wanted me to hurt myself and even when I wasn’t engaging directly in that I became kind of known as the girl that would that would do that. And so people would joke about me dying or choking to death or things like that. And a part of me started to wonder like, do these people actually want me to die? Like how far are they willing to dehumanize me because I’m on the Internet and somehow not real, you know, I have no doubt that if I had met these people in real life and was standing in front of them, they wouldn’t want me to die. But Daniel and I had a lot of discussions about that. And we actually came up with the idea that I would do a show where I could see if I could get the Internet to tip me to kill myself and I didn’t end up doing it, but that idea for that show is kind of translated into Alice’s show in the opening scene where she is engaging with the psychology of the Internet. He is dealing with this dehumanization that we have for people on screens and she’s engaging with that fully in a way where she has full agency and she’s orchestrated the entire thing.

And she uses that internet psychology, or maybe it’s also whorephobia, to her advantage and capitalizes on it.

IM: I mean, that’s the thing. She has so much agency in that first scene and that’s what’s horrifying in the gunshot scene with Lola. All of a sudden Lola is exploiting suicide and kind of auctioning off her death in a way that’s incredibly gross and terrifying and totally takes away any agency that Alice has over her own image and her own identity.

One of the other things that I really love about the film and really took me by surprise, is Alice’s relationship with her brother. I love that she just really wants to share her success with her brother and, and ultimately with her mom and that it’s not necessarily just the stigma that’s stopping her. It seems like it’s more the feeling that she needs to be the best at something in order for it to be seen as legitimate.

IM: Right, right. Totally. And I mean I think that that’s an experience that’s common with sex workers to not share that part of their life because we see their reaction when it does get out. We see what happens at the birthday party and we see what happens with the cops and how, your safety can be at risk, your ability to get employment can be at risk, your friendships and your familial relationship could be at risk. So Alice is lucky in that she has a brother who is mostly supportive of her, at least in the beginning and has a mother who struggles to accept it but comes around at the end. And I think that we should see Alice as very lucky and privileged in that. I’m very lucky and privileged that that was a similar experience for me where my family is very loving and supportive of me and my friends have stood by me. That’s not always the case and people are not always comfortable sharing because it’s not always safe for them to share.

DG: And I think that that’s something else to comment specifically on her relationship with the brother Jordan. You know, I think it was, it was a conversation that Devin and I really had was talking about the power of shame between men and the way that men violently shame each other to kind of keep them in social line and to keep them performing masculinity, but only in a very particular way. And it what we were trying to show with the Jordan narrative was that this is somebody who genuinely loves his sister and is supportive of his sister. And he’s woke enough and Internet-aware even at that age to kind of recognize that like what my sister is doing is kind of cool and I’m kind of proud of her in this way and I’m not going to get involved in the sex side of things, but I see the way that she is happy and validated and the kind of power that she has in her life and I’m going to support that. And I think that that then you see the kind of tragedy of that being taken away from him and taken away of their relationship by other men and by other men who were trying to enforce the societal norms that we need to shame women for using their bodies in a particular way. I think that it’s something that’s extraordinarily important that we talk about a lot more as a society, which is the transference of toxic masculinity and specifically the toxic masculinity through violence between men. And that’s something that you see in the birthday party. And you see it destroy their relationship and that’s really, really tragic. But I think it’s really important because those social stigmas and social shames exist, but we still rarely talk about their origins and that’s something that we were trying to explore with that relationship in this film.

How have any sex workers responded to the film?

IM: So far the response has been really positive. We’ve had girls that have worked as strippers, girls that worked as escorts, come up to us after screenings and say that they liked the movie that more than that they felt respected by the movie and the authenticity of the cam world came through and I think that’s been really incredible, I know that a lot of cam girls have viewing parties set up to watch it when it comes on Netflix. I’m really excited to see what they think because, at the end of the day, we said going into this, if cam girls feel seen and respected by this film, then we will have succeeded all else aside. Even if no one else likes it. As long as we do justice to that world that we’re trying to represent, then we will feel like we succeeded. And so we’re really hopeful and really excited to see what that response is or how that response continues. So far it’s been really good.

Lastly, I wanted to talk a bit about the ending. Did come from that need to show her dedication to caming?

IM: For the ending, we looked at movies like Whiplash, Black Swan and these sports movies where there are these protagonists who are so passionate and so driven and they love the thing that they’re doing. No one ever questions why Miles Teller needs to go to Lincoln Center at the end, or why Natalie Portman literally dies to be the best Ballerina. And I think we all relate to that because we all accept that those are acceptable things to have passions about. Those are acceptable ambitions. And so for us, it was really important to mirror that with sex work. The first 30 minutes of the film are so much fun. You’re seeing this girl have this creative expression, crushing it at her career in this beautiful fantastical space that she’s built for herself. And then the rest of the movie, you just want her to get that back. You want to go back to that fun time from the beginning of the movie.

DG: And sometimes people say like “but all this stuff happened to her” and “the site can copy her again.” And I think that the other thing that we always try to reflect on is the hypocrisy when those ideas are applied to sex work because, at the end of the day, all of our digital identities are incredibly fragile. Twitter and Facebook are run by artificially intelligent algorithms that are not only there to keep us on the platforms as long as humanly possible, but they have deeply and negatively affected our discourse, our society, and our creative industries. And we all know this. We all know how bad things are for us and yet we log on every day because it’s where we connect with each other and express ourselves. And I think that the sacrifice that Alice makes is knowing that yes, this platform is maybe bad, but it’s also the only place where I’m able to express myself.

IM: Same with Miles Teller and his bleeding hands and Natalie Portman with her feet. It’s the same thing. These are sacrifices you make for your art.

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Writer/Director/Actor/FKA the girl at the party who'd ask, "does anyone wanna watch a movie?"