For the first episode of our new interview podcast, we speak to CAM director Daniel Goldhaber about the Netflix thriller’s intersection between online sex work and psychological horror.
Welcome to the first episode of More of a Comment, Really…
For this first episode, Clint speaks to Daniel Goldhaber, director of the Netflix original psychological horror film CAM, about a camgirl (Madeline Brewer) who finds herself contending with a mysterious doppelganger who has stolen her account and threatens her sanity. Listen as Goldhaber talks about his collaboration with friend and screenwriter Isa Mazzei, their perspective on online sex work, and placing those perspectives within the framework of a genre film.
Check out the full podcast, as well as an edited and abridged version of the interview with Goldhaber, below. (Be sure to read Theo Estes’ review of CAM here.)
CAM had its world premiere at Fantasia, right?
Yeah. having the festival run that we had was so cool. But ultimately, I think that being able to be on Netflix and have people have the time to catch up with the movie was cool because we’re able to reach such a large audience on that platform.
Especially considering its subject matter too, about cultivating online audiences. I think it’s a really interesting home for it.
Well, it’s also it’s also a little ironic because the movie is about a demon algorithm, right? And it’s being distributed by algorithm of Netflix.
How were you turned on to the project? How did you meet Isa?
Isa and I have known each other for quite a long time. We dated in high school actually, and worked on a bunch of stuff. Then we had a theater company, working on a bunch of plays together, and we went to different colleges. Not long after that, she became a cam girl, and when she started camming she reached out to me to make a bunch of promotional pornography for her – I thought that would be a really cool, fun, creative challenge. It was really my introduction to her world of sex work, into the attitude she was bringing to it. This idea of sex work as work, that she was really just a working creative professional, but also seeing the craft that she was bringing to what she was doing.
And that was one of the things that was eye-opening about this process of doing pornography with her – it certainly changed my relationship to porn. Because, I’m a filmmaker, and when you’re a filmmaker, your relationships with movies changes. When making porn, you start thinking of porn differently – you start looking at the editing in pornography and then mise-en-scene and things that we don’t really think to ask of porn but they’re there. How does cutting change the nature of a sexual performance in a porn film? That was really interesting to me and with all those things combined, we were like, “there’s a really exciting movie to be made here. It took some time but we eventually settled on making a genre movie – Isa’s always been a reader and a movie maker, and so naturally we wanted to do it together. It felt like the best way to do that was to have her write and me direct.
What was the process behind deciding to make it a genre film? Arriving at something like a thriller, as opposed to a straight documentary or a character drama.
Originally the conversation was about doing a doc, but I think that the issue with doing a doc about pornography is that the lens of documentary is so frequently exotifying. The lens of a doc – saying “hey, I’m giving you this authentic experience” – is also the lens of porn. You’re saying, “hey, the thing I’m showing you is authentic,” even though it’s obviously very carefully curated. I think a movie that broke all of that down on both the dock and the porn side would be an amazing documentary; I don’t think that I was the person to do it. We really wanted to make a movie that had wide commercial appeal and could take this story and blow it up in a significant way.
The best way to do that is through genre film. It uses those recognizable rhythms and ideas to familiarize the unfamiliar for a wide commercial audience. Beyond all of that, we love genre movies. We love fun movies. I think that we in the critical community often look down on movies that are just really fun, but I think that you can have it all – not to say that we necessarily achieve everything we can. I just think that you can have movies that are really entertaining and fun and silly and scary and can’t be and it also have a rich well of ideas behind it.
So when it came time to writing the script, then, I presume Isa was pulling a lot from her own experience. Were there particular things that she wanted to express about life as a cam girl that are either expressed either in Alice’s everyday life as a cam girl, like the entrepreneurship of it, or in these broader genre things.
It’s tough to fully walk back through the process. You build a list of everything that you think is interesting and exciting about camming and then gradually you whittle it down. What can you combine? What is distracting? For instance, I was making porn for Isa that she was selling on her show; we don’t get a huge part of the camming revenue stream for people. A lot of camgirls make their own amateur pornography and sell it on their shows or through other platforms as part of their branding and it was something that really seemed to confuse the audience. That’s an ethnographic detail that is better explored somewhere else.
There’s a lot of conversations like that, where we’re constantly trying to whittle it down and make sacrifices and compromises and drive at the overarching theme – at the end of the day, this is a movie about digital identity set in the world of webcam pornography. So, we have an ethnographic responsibility in talking about the world of webcam porn, but at the end of the day that thing that is moderating what’s in the movie, and what’s out of the movie, is the theme of digital identity that we wanted to talk about.
That part really resonated with me too because that was something I was feeling about I’m getting this look into the world of camgirl stuff, but in terms of what Alice is going through, it feels a lot more broadly that it also touches on the general experience of this one-sided parasocial relationship that we have, especially as either filmmakers or film critics, we have with our audiences, and the emotional labor that tends to go into that and all the relationships you have to manage.
When I was spending a lot of time with Isa while she was camming, one of the things that was the most startling and surprising to me was that this huge part of her job was what she was doing in front of the camera, but just an even bigger part of the job was what she was doing behind the camera – not just in shows but in all the relationships that she had to curate and service. And the way that she would have to build these relationships and maintain them to make sure that she would have a good show, because so much of the show is the way the guys are participating in it. What you see in that first two scenes, when she’s talking to Tinker and you realize he was the one playing the anonymous visitor, I think you start to recognize, “oh wait, this is a show she puts on.”
That was one of the ways that you do find a way to work an ethnographic detail into the overall film. You need to show that Alice’s actively collaborating with her guys for her shows and we found a way to do that right.
The other major group of people that she interacts with throughout the film are not just her fellow camgirls, but there’s also the family dynamic which I was really impressed with. The way you guys were able to include that element in terms of having to keep her livelihood a secret, but without presenting it in this sort of reductive, judgmental way.
I mean a lot of that was just talking about the ways just people in Isa’s life responded. There were a lot of people in her life who were very supportive of what she was doing or offered a spectrum of support. I think it was also important that we subvert the stereotypes that Karen can’t or won’t support you if you’re a sex worker. That’s not always the case. A huge part of the development there was an active collaboration with Melora, who plays Alice’s mom. Melora is an actor whose fundamental philosophy is that it has to be real. As a result, she was really going to ask the question, “how would I respond to this if my daughter said, ‘I am a cam girl?’”.
She brought a lot of these depths to the character because she agreed, “I would be supportive.” The way in which that support manifested, she really came in and rewrote a significant chunk of dialogue to do a better job than we were able to do ourselves at balancing the “I’m afraid, and also I feel confused about the parts of myself that I see in you, but at the same time you’re my daughter and I love you and I want to support you. And I do recognize that what you’re doing has this power behind it.” I think that she really responded to that as a person first and as an actor second.
Well speaking of performances, CAM is an absolute knockout for Madeline Brewer. She’s fantastic in the film. What was the casting process like in terms of finding Alice and working with her with you and Isa to sort of acclimate her to the challenges of the role?
In all honesty we didn’t have to do anything to acclimate her. From the first meeting that I had with her, Maddie was extraordinarily excited about the prospect of the movie. She was really excited to find the cam girl inside of herself, so she obsessively watched cams in preparation for the role, At the end of the day the process of making the movie for her was like any actor: how do I relate to this? For Maddie, part of it was learning the camgirl craft for herself in the short window we had to prep and make the movie.
The casting process was really hard, because we couldn’t get the script out in Hollywood. Not a lot of people wanted their clients in it, and it was a time where Blumhouse wasn’t producing the movie. Ultimately, my dad saw Maddie in a Black Mirror episode, and somebody on our team happened to know her manager. Isa and I became really obsessed with her, because she had this thing we really needed – this ability to act with incredible physical ability and character work, but it feels naturalistic on camera. There aren’t many people like that – where they build this whole character but really disappear into it. Because we need someone who could play the whole spectrum of performance beyond performance, and have her be believable the whole time.
And then there’s Alice’s own levels of performances, regardless of who she’s interacting with in the film.
When Alice isn’t performing at all, it has to feel like Maddie isn’t acting, and I think she does an amazing job of that in the film. Maybe my favorite moment of performances of her is when Alice is going to meet Barney – she’s hunched over on this couch, she sees him coming, and you see her unfurl herself into posing for him. In that moment, you see her going from Alice to Lola, to realizing she has to be Lola in real life. You can see Alice calculate how that’s going to work in real time, because she’s never done it before, and settle on it. Playing that many different notes so seamlessly is really impressive.
I wanted to talk about the look of the film, which is gorgeous – I had to play the white dude film critic game of, “Is this a masterpiece, or is it just really neon?” and I think the answer is both.
[laughs] There’s a lot of Letterboxd reviews that say, “shit film, but I loved the pink room! Three stars.” Which I’ll take. We always wanted the look of the film to be heightened and specific; we wanted the cam world to be a fantasy world that is Alice’s, and the pink room to be a living, breathing organism that is a mood ring for Alice. I wish I had a better handle on my own aesthetic development process, because I look at it now and say, “I have no idea where any of those ideas came from.”
One of my favorite moments of making the film was filming the hallway shot at Cam Girl Clubhouse; it’s a moment where there’s no narrative demand, it’s just all aesthetic. You can do whatever you want there. [Cinematographer] Kate [Arizmendi] and I just had so much fun saying, “can we put a light strip over there? Let’s get some neon there!” Just doing it live and feeling your way through it, and then thinking, “Wait a minute, we’ve built a universe.”
It came through a lot of conversations with Kate and [production designer] Emma [Mead] and Isa. We had a few references that were specific and unique, one of the most important ones being Pink Narcissus, a queer film that was originally financed as a porn film, but instead became this piece of avant-garde expression. That’s where a lot of the Pink Room comes from – it’s both performance art and pornography, because that’s what it is for Alice. This is a stage that Alice has built for herself, her place where she expresses herself.
Going back to approach then, you mentioned you shot porn before for Isa. Was there a translation in techniques or styles? Did you draw from anything you did there into CAM?
Not really, but there were ideas that we were working through in the porn that absolutely carried through. Ideas like, what is an authentic pornographic image? That is one of the fundamental questions of the movie: if the purpose of porn is for me to get off, does it matter if the person behind the porn isn’t actually there? Is that no longer authentic? That also has to do what I personally get off to when I consume porn; something that feels like a real moment of sex. That’s not necessarily the case for everybody, but it’s something I was into exploring in my work with Isa. How do we make something that feels authentic, while still looking very beautiful and designed? That push and pull was fundamental to the ideas explored in CAM.