Director Daniel Goldhaber talks ‘Cam,’ collaboration and the normalization of sex work through cinema

Saturday, December 8, 2018 - 11:16pm

"Cam"

Netflix

A few days before writing this article, my Instagram briefly got hacked. My initial reaction was confusion, followed by a sudden surge of panic and a series of unanswerable questions: How could this have happened? Who could have done this? Why me? Once I logged back into my account, I found that my username and email address had been changed to something completely different. After hastily putting the correct information back in, I thought more about this collective fear embedded in our culture of online identity theft, that at any given moment, a random stranger could access and distort the intimate details that define how we are perceived on the Internet and beyond.

This bewilderment, paranoia and dread that manifested from this momentarily scary situation are the same emotions endured to an extreme by the protagonist of the glossy, thought-provoking psychological thriller “Cam,” which premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival in July and on Netflix in Nov. The film follows cam girl Alice (Madeline Brewer, “Orange is the New Black”), who faces an unexpected dilemma when she is locked out of her account and finds a doppelgänger has taken her place.

While Instagram is not at the forefront of the film’s premise, “Cam” reflects the same existential horror someone might encounter when their online profile has been violated and exploited out of their control. In the specific case of Alice, who operates as an online sex worker, this issue is particularly anxiety-inducing. As Alice sets out on a desperate quest to investigate how this “clone” took over her life, “Cam” gradually blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, resulting in a twisty, unnerving and utterly captivating viewing experience.

Although “Cam” is his feature-length directorial debut, Daniel Goldhaber has directed music videos for ambient rock artists Michal Menert and StaG and worked on several short films and commercials, including an ad for MapQuest that won the 2016 Emmy Award for Best Commercial, Single Spot. In an exclusive phone interview with The Michigan Daily, Goldhaber talks about the process of making the film, finding his lead from a “Black Mirror” episode and normalizing sex work through an immersive narrative.

The Michigan Daily: Tell me a little bit about your background, what got you interested in filmmaking, where you went to undergrad, what you studied, etc.

Daniel Goldhaber: I grew up in Denver, CO. I went to Harvard for undergrad. They have a department called the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Essentially, it’s a combination of film, photography, studio art and visual theory all up in one. I had known about it in high school and that Darren Aronofsky, who I was quite obsessed with, had gone through the department. I learned just a little about what the pedagogy was like there, which is very different, I think, from how a lot of film departments are run in this country.

There’s not so much a focus on production as much as there is a focus on learning what is a movie, how you watch film, what is the meaning of images, what are the ethics of images, why make a movie. The big exercise they do that was pretty formative for me is that the first year that you’re in the film program, the entire class directs a documentary film by committee over the course of a semester. There’s no director, so it takes this idea of authorship and it really focuses the idea of authorship on the collaborative filmmaking process. I think that that’s something that’s really under-talked about and under-thought about, especially in film school. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, but we can kind of just automatically assume the authorship belongs to a director.

When you’re directing a film by committee with a whole class, you really start to think about the nature of authorship and the nature of the filmmaking process quite differently. One of the other cool things about the program is that there’s no permanent film faculty there. It’s all visiting professors. You don’t get that stale sense that I think you get in a lot of film departments where it’s three or four professors with their idea of what a good narrative film is and it kind of just becomes the house style and that’s that. That’s definitely true of Harvard, which is mostly a documentary program, but with new blood, it keeps the intellectual conversation around film alive.   

TMD: How did you venture into filmmaking after college?

DG: I did the (short films) in college. Kind of everything else came after. It was really just me trying to survive post-grad, trying to find work, trying to build a reel. Ultimately, most of it didn’t really help me land a feature film. One of the interesting things about getting “Cam” made and jump-starting my career was that it really was just a script, the idea, the clarity of vision that me and (“Cam” screenwriter) Isa and our creative producers at Divide/Conquer all had. We didn’t get into the Sundance Labs. I didn’t ever have a short film at a major film festival. It really was just faith in the ideas and that we could answer any question that we were asked.

TMD: I read that the film’s screenwriter Isa Mazzei worked as a camgirl, which helped inspire and shape the story. How did you two get together to collaborate and what was that collaboration like?

DG: We’ve known each other since high school. We actually dated in high school. And we’ve been collaborating since that point in time too in some form or another. Ultimately, what happened is she hired me to shoot… long after that, she went into camming and when she started camming, she needed to make a bunch of promotional video content for her show and thought that I might make some good porn for her. That was my introduction to the world of cam. Her story and her approach to her own practice of sex work … I think that we both felt like there was a film to be made about it. Through a series of conversations, we kind of just found that making a genre movie set in that world would be the best way to communicate our ideas to a large, commercial audience, which was really the goal.

TMD: “Cam” tackles a dense bevy of topical themes — namely, the obsession with maintaining an online identity, the commodification of desire, the male gaze and the conflation of sex and violence. What were you hoping people would get out of watching the film?

DG: Politically, I think that the goal was to tell a story that would ask an audience to empathize with a sex worker who was a creative professional and to make a film that was from her point of view formally, that it’s from a woman’s point of view, portraying her sexuality as she sees herself. From a filmmaking standpoint, I think that was another goal. But ultimately, I think that movies are empathy machines on a certain level. We wanted to reflect Isa’s experiences of being a cam girl, being a sex worker, talking about putting forth an example of how she feels like her experience of a sex worker was for her and a way of thinking about portraying sex work in media in a more ethical, representational capacity. Also, just wanting to make a movie that felt true to our experiences of being online… there’s no moral to the story outside of the politics of its representation.   

TMD: Madeline Brewer gives a striking performance as the main character Alice. How did you land on casting her as the lead?

DG: My dad actually saw Maddie (Brewer) in an episode of “Black Mirror” and was like, “She’s really perfect for this.” So, we just really beat down our manager’s door. Luckily, someone on our team knew her manager and beat down his door and got him to actually meet with me before she even read the script, so that I can kind of be like, “Hey! So, this is crazy, but here’s what we want to do with it…” That was really effective. She read the script and then she met with Isa and then came in to read for us and we cast her within minutes later. What was so immediately telling about her earlier work was that we needed a film in which the actor can go from a completely naturalistic person to algorithmic sex robot. Maddie has that kind of rare combination of technical ability and naturalism. She’s a very technical actress and you can tell that in her performance. She never feels particularly “act-y.”

TMD: There’s some stigma surrounding “the cyber-cinema” subgenre — films that revolve specifically around technology. But considering the attention your film is getting and the success of other recent indie films like “Ingrid Goes West” and “Searching,” do you think cyber-cinema will receive more critical recognition in the years to come?

DG: I think good movies should receive critical recognition, regardless of what they are. I can’t think of a cyber-cinema movie about the Internet or technology that’s really good that’s gone horribly unrecognized. Even a movie like “Unfriended,” which is pretty genre, was very well-reviewed and I think was a game-changing movie in a lot of respects. The reason that a lot of “cyber-cinema” hasn’t been taken seriously is that it’s been made by people who didn’t grow up with the Internet. I’ve had social media since elementary school in some form or another. There’s no alienation factor. People have seen the Internet as an impediment — “Oh, movies set in the modern day, we kind of have to deal with this Internet thing in order to do that.” But they’re not taking a step back and saying, “Hey, there’s this new thing that exists. Let’s change the way we think and interact. How do we make cinema that responds to that? Is there one way to do that?”

What we wanted to do with “Cam” was simply say, “How do we show the main character’s experience online with no tricks, just editing? Let’s go back to the basic fundamentals of cinema and build up from there.” That’s where the use of the cut-ins came from. The kind of flat space of the Internet that’s seen in the movie — that was very inspired by “Unfriended.” On some level, I think the movie is a refutation of this screenlife idea that if you’re gonna make a movie online, it has to only take place online. What I’m interested in is the collision between the digital and real.

TMD: What was the process of conceptualizing “Cam”?

DG: It’s honestly really complicated in the sense that it was a really organic process, it’s a talking process, it’s a process of sharing ideas and constantly challenging each other to specify the idea, to dig deeper into the idea and then to find the best possible way to deliver the idea inside of the architecture of a commercial movie. P.T. Anderson says that “writing is like ironing.” I think sometimes, it’s also about layering things into each other, so you start with this idea of a movie about webcam porn. What’s the right story for that? One of the things I really like to do process-wise when I’m working with anybody is trying to build world banks, to build a big bank of, “Here are all the potential stories we could tell in that world.” And then, we start whittling them down: Which of these stories are good? Which of these stories have common ideas?

Eventually, we actually met with a bunch of other cam girls and sex workers and interviewed them. We’re trying to find the similarities between Isa’s experiences and their experiences, trying to figure out which of the more universal things was connecting these ideas. Then, whittling that idea down to the idea of identity, the dopplegänger. You start saying, “OK, well, what’s that look like?” You start talking about the big themes that you’re interested in. Isa would frequently talk about her practice as a former performance artist and how it felt to her. So, OK, that’s something that is a very relatable idea for people. What are movies about great artists that we really love?

TMD: How were you able to get “Cam” financed and distributed?

DG: (Blumhouse Productions CEO Jason) Blum basically financed the movie and set it up at a production company called Divide/Conquer. Divide/Conquer finished the film. Blum bought the film back and then they sold it to Netflix. Blumhouse helped develop the script. They were kind of advisors on the project, but they weren’t significantly involved in the day-to-day making of the film. Couper Samuelson and Bea Sequeira were the two executives over there that we worked really closely with. Bea was the person who found the script and kind of kicked it up to Couper. Both really championed the film and gave notes and helped us connect with people when necessary. It’s an amazing company. They’re doing amazing work. Jason’s some sort of cross between Roger Corman and… I need to figure out who else because he’s not just Corman. He’s taking what Corman did and he’s bringing it into the mainstream, and it’s really interesting.   

TMD: What has been your reaction to the film’s response from audiences and critics?

DG: I’m surprised that the ending has gotten the response that it’s gotten. To be completely honest, I don’t think the movie is nearly as confusing as people seem to think it is. People were like, “What is Lola?” And all the evidence is in the film for what she is. It’s not that we don’t explain it — the main character figures it out. We don’t literally spell it out because you’re seeing it from (Alice’s) perspective and she’s figuring it out on her own. I’m kind of surprised that that’s as controversial as it is. That’s more of an audience response thing than a critical response, and that’s really not something that became clear until after it was actually out on Netflix. It’s been extremely satisfying to see the critical response to the film. (“Cam”) is like the second highest-rated horror movie of the year on Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s extremely gratifying also to see the politics of the movie be embraced in the way that they are. It was a surprise when The New York Times called it a “feminist film.” We have to take a second to realize that that’s The New York Times Arts section embracing the destigmatization of sex work and the legitimization of sex worker narratives from that point of view. That’s a really big step forward. I don’t even think that that was even a conscious decision on the part of (New York Times critic) Jeannette Catsoulis. I think that was just kind of what she took away from the film.

To me, one of the most gratifying things for a filmmaker is when you’ve told a story, you put an incredible amount of work into the politics of the film, but that ultimately, a great political film isn’t necessarily one where it ends with a big speech with somebody explaining what the politics of the movie is. It’s a movie that’s taking you into somebody else’s world and allowing you to empathize with them in a way that only film can. When that’s been successful, you can’t necessarily explain it. You just know that you had that experience. Seeing people embrace the experience they had with “Cam” has been really amazing.