DANIEL Goldhaber’s first feature film Cam is not only one of the best genre films of the year so far, but one of the best films in general.
The story of a young woman (played by the incredible Madeline Brewer) who works in the cam industry, Cam probes at the dangers of our online identities while giving an enlightening view of the diversity of sex work. The result is a film that both grips and informs.
James Prestridge of Close-up Culture caught up with Daniel in wake of the film’s success at Fantasia Film Festival.
Q: You worked with Isa Mazzei, who is a former sex worker, to put this story together. Can you tell us how you met and what led you to put this psychological thriller together?
A: WE actually dated in high school and worked together a lot during that time (she produced my first play).
Long after we broke up, she started camming, and reached out to me to see if I was interested in shooting some pornography for her to sell on her show. I was and so we holed up in a hotel room together for a day and shot some stuff I was really proud of.
After that, I started spending a lot of time following her around before and after and sometimes during her shows learning about her life. We wanted to find a way to make something about this and at first were thinking of doing a documentary before we realized that the point of view of a documentary on porn was not something we felt we could get our hands around.
We are both huge genre film fans and wanted to make a movie that felt like it really brought an audience into the head of a sex worker in an empathetic way. Once we had the opening scene we were sure there was a movie there.
Q: Isa has a first-hand experience of the cam industry. What were the experiences of the cam world heading into this project and how did they inform your collaboration with Isa?
A: WHEN I came onto this film I was somewhat aware of camming but it was always something out there in the periphery. Much of my introduction came through Isa, but we also interviewed a lot of other camgirls and other sex workers in addition to some of Isa’s fans.
More importantly, it was critical for me to also cam myself. Isa and I both felt it was important for me to understand all of the associated feelings around camming. I cammed for a week and found myself suddenly setting boundaries while I cammed – boundaries I did not think I would have set before I had put myself on camera. It was a really incredible experience even though I was absolutely terrible at it. I have zero sexual charisma.
Q: What do you feel your film says about our relationship with technology and why the cam world was the right place to explore it?
A: I THINK the message of Cam is that our digital identities are easily corruptible.
Our goal with the film was to get an audience to empathize with a sex worker… but how? Our way in is that as a camgirl, you are an online performer and that anyone who has ever created an online identity understands such identity can somehow start to get away from you. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter algorithms start to skew who the you online is and to change the ways you express yourself for validation. So people connect to that. And that is fundamentally what Alice is struggling with in the movie––the same struggle most of our audience has faced.
The conflict has nothing to do with sex work – it has everything to do with identity theft. From the point of view of a genre movie, camming also offered elevated stakes. As I said, most people have a digital identity, but for camgirls their digital identity can be everything: their job and livelihood, their social life, their body, their art, their sexuality.
All of that together creates really fertile ground for a genre narrative.
Q: Indiewire’s David Ehrlich mentions that we are not tied to a screen during Cam as we are in films such as Unfriended. Can you talk about the world you wanted to create in Cam and what informed the pinkish, neon visual style?
A: WE wanted to create a world that reflected the hyper-stimulation of technology. Using a smartphone is an insanely fun and stimulating experience. But watching someone use a smart phone in a movie is almost always super dry.
We wanted to fight against that. So we came up with a fairly experimental filmmaking style that constantly interrupts the story to hyper-stimulate the audience and replicate the way that technology constantly interrupts the flow of daily life.
It has been surprising to me that a style that is fundamentally experimental and that on a shot by shot level is pretty crazy is just accepted by audiences. They are already so used to the way technology interrupts daily life.
In terms of the rest of the visual style, most of it came about naturally through the collaboration process with our incredible director of photography Katelin Arizmendi and production designer Emma Rose Mead.
We wanted this movie to be bright, colourful and poppy – and a little campy and were looking at films such as Showgirls and It Follows and also more avant garde fare like Pink Narcissus.
We wanted to present an elevated, fantasy version of camming – and wanted to make sure that the rest of Alice’s world still existed as a part of that elevated approach.
Q: We are already huge fans of Madeline Brewer from Handmaiden’s Tale and Samantha Robinson from The Love Witch. What were you looking for during casting and what did you see in these two actors?
A: FOR Alice/Lola we were looking for a lot. We were looking for someone who was passionate about the politics of the movie, who had the technical ability to seamlessly move between four different characters and who understood the unique collaboration that I had with Isa in this project where she was a full co-author on the movie and was going to be stepping in to direct certain scenes (Isa directed the actors in the vibration scene and some of the other more explicit sequences).
Madeline had all of that and much, much more. She brought such an extraordinary nuance and humanity and vulnerability to the character. She is a true filmmaker and was collaborative through the entire process.
For Samantha, I came into this project as a huge fan of The Love Witch and when I met her I knew she needed to be a part of the Cam family. Samantha is a unique performer who has a really crazy ability to blend camp and character, to take something mundane and make it larger than life in this completely different way.
She immediately heightens any scene that she is in with this crazy star power. She is a bit like Nicole Kidman or Katherine Hepburn in that respect. When she is in a scene it becomes Samantha’s world. For Cam, we were actively wanting to engage with that and Samantha brought that edge to the scenes she was in while still keeping it real.
In terms of preparation, she is a complete mystery. She walked on set knowing exactly what she was going to do. I barely had to direct her. And her performance is so much fun.
Q: Cam won best feature at Fantasia Film Festival and has been picked up by Netflix. How are you, Isa and the team reacting to this success? And why do you feel this film is connecting so well?
A: IT really has been a dream. I honestly do not know how to take compliments so I have just been trying to bury myself in work and not think about it too much.
I think part of the reason the film has connected is because of the support and vision we received from Fantasia. Mitch Davis and the rest of the programming team really got the film from the start. Fantasia was really the perfect venue to launch this––Montreal has a large community of sex workers and camgirls and so I think they were really receptive to this project.
Additionally, I think this film is connecting because its themes and ideas are universal. It is a fun genre movie that talks about real problems that everyone is dealing with. But it is also specific in its plot and what it is representing inside of the world of sex work and camming. It is doing that sensitively and empathetically and I think people are ready for that story.
Q: I am sure you are enjoying the success of your first feature. How have you found the overall experience and have you already started to think about what is next?
A: IT has been crazy. I cannot wait to work on what is next. Isa and I have a few things going – and I want to make a movie about big, beefy boys (bodybuilders).
Q: On a final random note. I noticed you had a credit on the short film version of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash in 2013. Any memories from this project?
A: I MET Damien when he came to my film class in 2012 and that summer Daniel Garber (Cam’s editor) and I worked on the Whiplash short set.
I was only there for a day, but even then there was a really special energy around the project. Damien is the world’s nicest guy and has always been incredibly supportive. The night before our first day of shooting on Cam he spent an hour on the phone giving me directing tips. Since we come from the same film educational background it was a really grounding call and helped me go into our first day with a degree of confidence.