How to Write about Sex and the Internet in 2018: An Interview with CAM Filmmakers Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber

By Ben Larned · November 26, 2018

While 2017 was the year of “prestige” horror, 2018 has been full of tension between old tropes and fresh voices. For every progressive new take on the genre, there’s been a stodgy throwback to long-outdated tropes, along with every shade of approach in between. Only one horror film has truly struck this writer as forward-looking this year, however, and that’s Cam. Following a cam girl as she combats increasingly surreal nightmares both online and off, the film premiered at Fantasia in July, and has since taken the genre world by storm.

When screenwriter Isa Mazzei set out with long-time collaborator Daniel Goldhaber to create a genre film, she wisely chose to write from experience. A former cam girl, Mazzei knew how to depict that world in an immersive, detailed way without exploiting the reality of it. Alongside Goldhaber, with whom she developed the script, Mazzei has crafted a terrifying, exciting nightmare that plays out across the Internet. We had a chance to sit down with the filmmakers at AFI Fest to learn how they wrote this groundbreaking film. Their answers are below.

Were the concerns of the millennial generation on your mind when you were developing the script?

Isa Mazzei: Definitely. We both grew up on the Internet, we had cell phones before we could drive, we had early versions of social media accounts on Neopets. It’s a fun, fascinating, engaging place, and we wanted to bring that to audiences. I think often, unless a film is specifically about the Internet, it can come across as boring and slow. My experience of looking at my phone is anything but that, so we wanted to do the opposite.

How do you write a script that accurately expresses the Internet?

Isa Mazzei: The format came out of conversations that we had – we knew that we wanted the computer screen to be full of chats and emojis, so I had to figure out how to depict that on the page. Some of the chats are plot points – there’s important dialogue in there – but I wanted to figure out how to have some of this feeling that there’s a larger world beyond the story. There are descriptions of gifs and emojis in the script to mirror the emotional response that we get when looking at emojis. 

Daniel Goldhaber: Isa was innovative in her use of double columns to express web chats, and the different ways she would underline or color-code them. As you read the script, you would get the feel of how the distraction and hyperstimulation of the movie itself would be. It’s almost an experimental screenplay in its own right.

I think a lot of screenwriters don’t understand that they’re writing scripts for people who watch movies. A great screenplay should have a visual dimension on the page – and a great screenwriter will know when to bold something, when to break up a long piece of dialogue with parantheticals. The visual layout of the screenplay should set the rhythm of the movie. 

This film employs elements of drama, horror, thriller, mystery – how did you balance these genres while writing?

Isa Mazzei: For us, it was always a question of balancing the central reason why we made the film, with the element of genre that would make it a good film. We both love genre, so from there, the plot started to build itself. There were absolutely moments when the best genre concept was not in line with what we were trying to say politically, though, and so we had to make sure that we could make it fun and exciting without compromising any of our ideas and values.

Daniel Goldhaber: When you take an audience into such a different world, there are political considerations about how the world itself needs to be represented. We wanted to do that in a way that is fully immersive. This a world that has a very specific way of working, so we had to decide what was necessary to convey to the audience. In the first scene, we had to think through not just how to build suspense and tension, but how to teach the audience to watch the movie.

What about the horror genre frustrates you, and how do you hope it changes?

Isa Mazzei: Sometimes the genre has a legacy of relying on stereotypes and objectification – not only of women, but of other types of underrepresented people. Often in horror, sex workers are used as throwaways – their deaths don’t matter as much as the ones that come later. This perpetuates stigmas that already exist in the world, but does nothing to confront them. I think people are tired of that, because it doesn’t ring true to our values anymore. The success of movies like Cam and Get Out shows that people are ready to see different types of representation. 

We also wanted to subvert audience expectations within our own story. Horror films are usually morality stories, and often that moral is “don’t have sex.” It was important to us to turn that on its head. This was non-negotiable for us when we were seeking financiers.

Daniel Goldhaber: It’s a question of using genre correctly, too. There’s an amazing documentary that I would recommend to any young person who wants to work in entertainment – A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. It’s basically Martin Scorsese taking you through the foundations of American cinema, up until the late 60s, when he started making films. He breaks different kinds of filmmakers into different categories to explore how people worked within the system. 

There were iconoclasts like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, and then there were studio directors like Minelli, or B-movie directors like Sam Fuller and Jacques Tournier, who found a way to use the system to smuggle in actual messages. They made some of the most cutting-edge, representational films of that era. You can often look to great genre film as evidence of progressive movements. But you have to be aware of the tools at your disposal, and use that familiarity to create identification with ideas that are unfamiliar. 

We thought about genre as a doorway, an invitation to an audience to access a story that they might not otherwise want to hear. You can do whatever you want, as long as you’re hitting those beats. That’s something that we looked to David Cronenberg for – he’s the master of taking moments of body horror and infusing them with character and theme. We structured Cam so that every moment of violence and sexuality drove at the overall theme of representation.

What are the benefits and challenges of writing from experience?

Isa Mazzei: It’s a huge benefit to be able to share a part of the world that you know really well. Not only was I able to talk about camming, but I put a lot of myself into Alice. I’m writing a memoir now about camming that I hope does something similar – it’s fun and poppy but packs a punch. It’s a really interesting exercise to put yourself on the page and look at your experiences more critically.

That being said, it also puts you in a really vulnerable place. Writing about sex work and putting my name on it is something I’m proud of, but it comes with a lot of risks. People are already spinning narratives about me, whether it be about saving me or how I deserve to be harassed because of my past. There are also a lot of people who seem to be on my side. This film for me is so much more than a story that I’m telling – in some ways, it’s my life. I’m putting it in front of audiences and asking them, what do you think about this? In some ways, that’s terrifying.

How did the collaboration process work for you?

Daniel Goldhaber: The movie is a shared authorship; I did the craft of directing, and Isa did the craft of writing. But the source of that connection were early conversations, when we came up with a united vision. We knew how we wanted it to feel, so we had to figure out how each of us would contribute.

Generally speaking, there are two lenses of a movie. There’s the lens of the outsider, and the lens of the person involved in the story. In the case of Hollywood, most of the work is being made from the outsider lens. Not only is that boring, it can be very destructive, because no matter how empathetic that lens is, it’s not the insider’s story. It creates this narrative that’s entirely about white men looking at things and saying, “This is my opinion on this.” Seeing a story from inside creates empathy from a different place.

Cam is interesting because it was made by an insider and an outsider. We wanted the point of view to be a sex worker’s, but we also wanted people who’ve never had this experience to be able to enter into the narrative. A lot of people think of film as a monologue from the director, and if a writer is attached, then they’re just putting out lines. In this case, it’s a dialogue between the two of us. I really hope directors look at this film and realize that they should open their process to collaboration opportunities that will educate them.

While Cam isn’t explicitly queer, it deals with many themes that cross over. What are your thoughts on the importance of queer themes in horror?

Isa Mazzei: We both identify as queer in similar ways. 

Daniel Goldhaber: There are two writers online – @slayerofcis and @cadenmgardner – who discuss their connection to horror as trans people. Queer people feel fear every day of their lives, and when they watch a horror movie, they can process that fear in a safe space. I think that’s one of the reasons that horror appeals so much to marginalized people – it becomes a way to feel and process the fear without being in any real danger. At the same time, there’s been a legacy in horror – and especially the kind of films that Fantasia, where we premiered, programs – that focuses on representation. You get people in the door with the promise of genre thrills, so you can deal more actively with questions of representation.

One of the things that really made me want to work on this project was recognizing, a few years ago, that I didn’t have the healthiest relationship with women. I wanted to change that. Having the opportunity to work with and learn from Isa, and Isa being patient enough to express her experience, opened up a lot of questions about performative gender.

Isa Mazzei: He cammed before we shot the film – we decided that it was an important experience for him to have.

Daniel Goldhaber: I was trying to perform sexual masculinity on camera, and it made me realize that I didn’t identify with it. Working on this film, and spending so much time thinking about performative femininity, I was able to recognize the performative masculinity that caused dysphoria and cognitive dissonance in my life. It released expectations that I’ve had about myself and how I should perform my gender. That’s one of the beautiful things about working on a film, with people who are actively willing to collaborate with you.

My thesis advisor said something that’s always stuck with me – if a film is to be transformative for the audience, it must be transformative for the filmmaker. I really hope that the transformations that we both went through on this film are in the finished product.

Cam premiered on Netflix and in select theaters on November 16th, 2018.

BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, WeScreenplay and ScreenCraft. His column Forbidden Tomes is published twice a month on Daily Dead. His short stories have been published in The Book of Blasphemous WordsDanse Macabre, and WitchWorks.

Photo credit: Cam

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