Fantasia 2018: Interview with Director Daniel Goldhaber and Writer Isa Mazzei of CAM
We had a few minutes to chat with director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei, the duo behind the new psychological horror thriller Cam. We discuss how the film Showgirls influenced Cam – and how main actress Madeline Brewer emerged as the perfect lead.
Cam screened at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 18th and July 20th. Director Daniel Goldhaber was awarded Best Feature and writer Isa Mazzei was awarded Best Screenplay. You can read more about it here.
Dread Central: How would you describe your movie Cam?
Daniel Goldhaber: Colorful. (laughs) No. It’s a psychological thriller set in the world of webcam pornography. It is about a cam girl who has kind of grown ambitious and treats camming as a form of competitive performance art. She wakes up one day to discover she has been replaced on her show by somebody who appears to be an exact replica of her.
DC: You mentioned color. That’s something that I noticed the vibrant pinks and neons of the film. Did you know that you wanted to do that kind of look?
DG: Yeah. The first movie that we watched when we were developing the project was Showgirls. We really wanted to kind of reflect the light in a hyperreal, performative, campy vibe because we wanted the movie to be really inviting, really accessible and really fun.
Isa Mazzei: Yeah. We also wanted to draw a contrast. You’ll notice the colors in the real world are slightly more muted. There is a little more blue in there. And then we wanted to create the camming space to be sort of this really hyper-colored fantasy space that’s really emphasized. It was important to draw that contrast.
DG: I also think that both in movies about the internet and also a lot of the indie films, people don’t always put that much energy into aesthetic. We really wanted to make this movie feel elevated and really aesthetically specific. That was something that was a goal.
DC: You guys certainly achieved that. With the characters, because they are so engaging, did it take you a long time to develop them?
IM: Alice was definitely a process. I put a lot of myself in her. So for me, that was an easy starting point. Then as she developed, she kind of differentiated from me a little bit. What was so nice was working with Madeline. She really brought a lot of herself into the character, too. So it was really fun watching how Alice evolved from the beginning, where I was basically just writing myself. She kind of transformed into an entirely different person by the end of it. It was really cool. I was a cam girl, so obviously it was drawing a lot from my own experience in developing the characters. Drawing a lot from the reactions of people in her town. Drawing from the reactions of people in my life. And that made it easier to pull some of that autobiographical ideas into there.
DC: How was the casting for you guys?
DG: It was really hard because initially, when you are casting an indie film, you send the script and the package out to the agencies, and then they pitch their clients to you. We did that and nobody pitched their clients. Then we would reach out and inquire about actors and they would say, “Oh, I’m sorry. They passed.” Then I would run into those actresses at a party and they would be like, “I never got sent that script.” So the agencies didn’t really want their clients on this movie because it is really provocative and it has a very provocative take on sex work. So that was really tough. My dad actually saw Madeline in an episode of Black Mirror and came to me and said, “You have to see this episode.” I was like, “She is amazing. We have to get her in this movie.” So we basically beat down her manager’s door until he basically was like, “Fine. I’ll get her to meet with you guys before she reads the script. So we went and I pitched her the script and said, “This is what we wanted for the movie, so read it with this all in mind.” She totally got where we were coming from politically. So then she read it and was going to come in and audition that week. I gave her my number and said, “If you have any questions, feel free to call or text me.” She texted me a question about the audition, which was super cool. I was like, “Actually Isa’s in town. You should meet with her.” They went and met up and had this incredible meeting. Then she came in and read and was amazing.
IM: Yeah. She nailed the audition. We had no question after she read it. She just nailed it perfectly. We walked out of there saying, “That is our lead.”
DC: Isa, is there a certain process you have to writing?
IM: I have to create a lot of space to write. I can’t have a to do list hanging over my head. I tend to write in binges, so I will write 18 hours straight just late into the night for 2 or 3 days in a row. Then, I just won’t touch anything for a couple of weeks. Luckily for us, that process worked really well because I was able to send drafts over to Daniel to get notes on them. He would come back with ideas while I was taking some time off. Then I would be able to address those notes and get out another draft frequently.
DC: You guys definitely seem to work well together. How did your work relationship start?
DG: We’ve been working together since we were 16. I ran a theater company in high school and Isa produced the first play that I had written and was directing. We have kind of been working together in different capacities since then. When Isa was camming, she kind of early on wanted to shoot some really artful pornography. I thought of how we were going to do that. That was kind of where the origin of this project came from. She kind of brought me into her world and we started making art that was originally around the cam and porn work that she was doing. Very quickly we were like, “We should kind of keep making stuff in this space.” So at first we were thinking about making a documentary because we just kind of wanted to tell a story about camming and sex work from her point of view. Then ultimately, we settled on making a drama film because we felt that was something we were really excited about making. We both like genre movies and we both like movies that are fun and accessible. But we also wanted to take what are some pretty difficult ideas and put them in a package that a wide audience would be able to access and appreciate.
DC: That’s great finding some one you can work well with.
IM: It’s nice. We certainly fight and yell at each other. It’s not all peaceful. (laughs) Screaming about characters.
DC: (laughs) I have to ask about the poster. It’s amazing. How did that come about?
DG: None of our ideas worked. I had this list that I collected of Isa’s ideas and my ideas. We went and started sketching them all out and they were all bad. (laughs) Then, I took a sabbatical for a month and went to Europe after we finished the film. I wanted to clear my head. I met this designer in Berlin who referred me to her friend, who was a designer in New York. She watched the movie and basically was like, “I need to do this poster.” She also does the covers for like Filmmaker Magazine. So I kind of sent her a bunch of references and was like, “I am completely stuck and have no idea what to do. And we have two weeks…”
IM: Her name’s Charlotte.
DG: Yeah. Her name’s Charlotte Gosch. She came back with it first try… that design you see. We spent some time finagling the text.
IM: Yeah. That was her first draft. She’s insane. She’s so good.
DG: Yeah. She had like this amazing vision like, “I know what I’m doing.” It’s so cool and like so experimental and so colorful but also so creepy.
DC: Absolutely. So you guys mentioned that you love genre films. I have to know. What are your top three genre films?
IM: Can I just say that I’m not going to answer that question? (laughs) I’m going to say Cronenberg. A catch all. But especially for this Cam, I watched Videodrome like maybe 4 or 5 times. And Dead Ringers. Just keeping some of the visuals that he does so well in my head as I was writing I think really helped me. He’s amazing.
DG: Cronenberg was really useful. Not only was he one of the best horror directors ever, but I also think that most Cronenberg films are about an intersection of identity and technology. That is what Cam is about. It’s about digital identity and sexuality. So there is already a natural link there. Something else that was really useful from Cronenberg that we were drawing here is the way he uses body horror thematically. That was something that we talked a lot about in the process.
IM: Especially in Videodrome. We really wanted to make sure that any of the violence or gore in the film was not just for the shock value. That was really important. That was something that he helped me with a lot, just realizing all the thematic ways in which he uses physical violence or gore, or body horror. It all means something deeper. So we focused on trying to make sure that our moments of violence also spoke to a larger theme as well.
DG: My favorite movie, I don’t think it would qualify as a genre movie, is the Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie World on a Wire. It’s a sci-fi film, but it’s crazy. It’s definitely The Matrix, twenty years before The Matrix came out. Made as like a German mini-series. It’s like super queer and colorful and really weird and subversive. That’s like my favorite movie. So I like genre films that just basically using genre but always kind of like altering your expectation of what a genre movie is when the genre moments fall. That kind of keeps you guessing on your toes. Nothing is scarier than being like, “Wait. A scary moment hasn’t happened yet.” Then boom. It just sneaks up on you.
DC: I kind of wanted to take a step back. You guys brought up Showgirls and that was one of my favorite films.
DG: Paul Verhoeven was one of my favorite genre filmmakers. I think that what is so cool with what Pablo Verhoeven does is that he makes a movie that you’re expecting and he makes the perfect genre version film of that movie. It’s all so heightened and self aware that the kind of joke is that you’re buying into this thing. But by buying into it, he’s also almost making fun of what the thing is itself. The best example of that is Starship Troopers, where he makes like a fascist movie but it is so self aware of how fascist it is that it just becomes this extraordinary satire of that thing. I think Showgirls does a lot of similar things. But something else that I think is so powerful about that movie, for being a mainstream Hollywood film, is that it doesn’t victimize its protagonist. They love what they do. And they love what they do in kind of this really fun, colorful, performative way. That was really important for us, and that was why, again, Cam is colorful. We wanted to recreate that excitement of performance.
DC: I do love that your main character doesn’t seem like a victim.
IM: Exactly. You don’t question her ambition watching the movie. You totally understand it.
DC: Thank you guys so much for coming to hang out. CAM is a gorgeous film that I hope everyone gets a chance to see.
DG: Thank you.
IM: Thank you.