“Our goal from 2015 was to make a film where people empathize with a sex worker, that normalized sex work, and kind of destigmatized it,” explains screenwriter Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl who at first envisioned her film with director Daniel Goldhaber, Cam, as a documentary. “So, we had a very political idea before it was even conceptualized. What’s cool about it now is that because of the climate we’re living in, it’s actually being received a lot more openly. People want to engage in why it’s important to show sex work in this light.”
In lieu of a documentary, what Goldhaber and Mazzei came up with is a mind-melty body-horror film about a cam girl named Alice (Madeline Brewer) whose professional persona, Lola, is taken over by someone or something that is her exact physical match, but who is, infuriatingly, even better at the job. The story explores issues both timely — the corruption of our real lives by the toxic seep of our digital ones — and timeless, like the way society dehumanizes and misunderstands sex workers. As an end cap to 2018, it also joins horror films like Revenge, Cold Hell, and Suspiria in making this a banner year for highly stylized, thematically rich female rage.
Cam is also a movie split in two, and in between the playful beginning where we meet Alice, a rising star on her hosting site, and the surreal, bloody finale in which she faces off with her impostor self (called Lola Two by the filmmakers), there’s a crucial scene that raises the physical stakes and flings us into the movie’s nerve-twisting second half. Unable to get the site to shut Lola down and feeling increasingly isolated, Alice logs onto her old channel, now occupied by a constantly camming Lola Two, fills up her token purse, and goes full troll. As she twitches like a drying-out junkie, Alice pays Lola Two higher and higher sums to paddle herself, then to flog herself, to stop going soft and bring the pain.
It’s a power play, but for whose benefit? Does Alice really pull one over on the ghost in the machine if her only recourse is debasing a mirror image of herself? Her grasp on control then fully slips away when Lola Two brandishes a gun. Licking it, sucking on it, loading it, and teasing her fans until finally she puts the barrel to the back of her throat and pulls the trigger, splattering blood and brains against her bright-pink furnishings. It’s a stunning five-minute sequence that’s all Brewer delivering two diametrically opposed and yet equally immersive performances, and to unpack how it all came together, Vulture had a long talk with Brewer, Mazzei, and Goldhaber about the secrets of what they call the “Jazzercise scene.”
A crucial part of the Jazzercise scene is that in choosing to watch her impostor self, Alice is engaging in a masochistic activity that is at once irrational and entirely relatable (sans the mysterious AI trying to steal your life). When the internet makes us feel bad about ourselves, we don’t typically log off. We just burrow in deeper, and when Mazzei was professionally camming she, too, would sometimes get swept away watching the accounts of her peers. “I wasn’t necessarily competitive with them,” she says. “It was more like a jealousy thing where they were so freaking cool and amazing, and I would be watching their shows under the guise of research, taking notes and figuring out how can I be a better cam girl by kind of drawing inspiration from what they’re doing. But at the same time there was this weird allure. It’s this addictive thing where I would want her to respond to me. I wanted to make her react. I couldn’t help myself, and often I would find myself spending more money than I wanted to.”
The existence of Lola Two is extremely upsetting for Alice in two ways. First of all, she’s taking her livelihood, but second, Lola Two is also a better, more popular cam girl than real Lola. Under the handle MrTeapot, Alice engages with Lola Two out of curiosity and desperation. But she keeps showering her with money at least in part because she, too, has been seduced by the show, and the violence of the scene was also drawn from Mazzei’s own cam experiences. “The Jazzercise inspiration, the BDSM, came from doing a lot of shows where I would be very submissive, and people would tip hurt me,” says Mazzei. “It was always interesting for me, this gray area between people who were fully engaging in the kink in a really respectful way, kind of understanding the power dynamics, and then there were always some people who were engaging with it in a way I would wonder, Are you just here to watch me get hurt? Are you here for the spectacle of it? Or are you here to take out some sort of anger on me? So it was kind of playing with that.”
Brewer is in almost every minute of Cam, sometimes as multiple characters in the same scene, and often interacting with strictly digital counterparts. To make her interactions as real as possible, Goldhaber and the team made them actually real. “We basically had to invent tech to do this teeny little indie feature,” says the director. “We knew that we wanted to have monitors live as much as possible. For Madeline’s performance, it’s critical that she was able to really engage with these guys, these screens, the eye lines, but also the rhythm of Oh, it’s a tip! Oh, it’s a gift! — to have those moments of fun caming.”
To bolster the authenticity of the performances, a designer named Teddy Blanks was hired to build a fully functional cam hub. In montages of the site, Mazzei insisted that the array of visible cam girls be racially diverse and displaying a variety of body types. She also scripted “hundreds of pages” of chat-room dialogue that would roll during the cam shows. “If you actually pause the movie, all the characters are consistent. There are conversations and in-jokes that are happening.” During filming, producer Isabelle Link-Levy was administering the pre-written chat logs for Brewer to engage with. The neon color scheme and catalyst for Jazzercising came from the fact that Mazzei just loves the 1980s and used to do a lot shows thematically built around the decade. Like they say, write what you know.
While Lola Two is a compelling package for an antagonist, she’s not actually the villain of Cam. She was designed by Goldhaber and Mazzei to be “a learning algorithm” whose primary directive is just to optimize what is essentially her source code, which is Lola. “I think Lola Two is this representation of loss of control over her identity, and loss of autonomy,” Mazzei tells Vulture. “In the scene where she slits her throat she’s fully in control, fully empowered, and it’s a moment of fake violence. Then in this Jazzercise scene she’s lost complete autonomy over her body. It’s a fake suicide that, because of the lack of control, is this escalation.”
This makes the scene an existential conflict between Alice and a persona she’s created that has superseded her — a digital production that, to the wider world, is more real than reality. “Right before that scene we talked about it. I would make her do something because it makes me feel like I have some sense of power in this situation,” says Brewer. “As I tip her, she’s flogging herself, and I’m the one who told her to do that. She listened to me, and that’s my tiny bit of control after so much control has been lost. What’s driving Alice through the whole scene is, I’m just going to fucking get this girl. And then obviously it takes a turn that is so, so out of her control.”
To make it so Alice could actually watch herself during the Jazzercise segment, they filmed her Lola Two performance first. As we see Alice fracture, Brewer isn’t just sitting in front of a blank screen that was doctored in post. She is actually responding to and “engaging” with a pretaped version of her dark doppelgänger, egging on the flogging and the giddy self-harm while getting more and more frantic as Lola Two’s behavior grows more distressing. The actress knows the scene ends with one of her characters shooting herself in the face, but to get the most authentically horrified reaction shot out of that climactic moment, Goldhaber engaged in a small bit of subterfuge.
Given that Brewer’s only scene partner was often herself, there was an editor on set cutting together the cam show segments so they could be played back for Alice to work off of in scenes. That way, whenever possible, it wasn’t just empty monitors and improvising. When Brewer filmed Jazzercise as Lola Two, she had a prop gun and pantomimed the “death,” at which point blood was poured around her on the floor. What the actress didn’t know going into the scene as Alice was that Goldhaber had the digital-effects team edit in the gore of her exploding skull. “We shot the scene a couple of times, and we paused because we were just working out the kinks and everything,” says the director. “I think it was the fourth time we shot the scene that we played it all the way through to the gunshot.”
The audience watches Brewer as Alice break down in whimpering terror because that’s exactly what happened. “I ran outside,” she says. “That was my genuine reaction. I was just fucking scared. I’ve seen it like five times, and I cry every time. You’re watching yourself … kill yourself. It’s so psychologically confusing and fucked up and scary. My mom was like, ‘That was horrible. I didn’t like that at all.’” Brewer deeply appreciates the authenticity of the scene now, but at the time was resistant to do more takes so they could get the coverage they needed. A sweeping circular shot required the use of a dolly and a perfectly timed zoom, and Brewer eventually relented to watching herself die again so Goldhaber could get what he needed. Both the take that sent Brewer running and the one that immediately followed appear in the final cut.
“I hate you,” Brewer says to her director. “But it’s brilliant.”
Brewer emphasizes and reemphasizes how supported she felt on set, and how brave the healthy collaborative relationship she shared with Mazzei and Goldhaber allowed her to be during filming. But behavioral conditioning is a powerful thing, and Mazzei especially took pains to make sure the camera didn’t linger too long in the wrong places when delicate scenes were being filmed. Brewer spends a fair amount of Cam topless, and in one scene where she was fixing a bow tie to herself, she recalls Mazzei stepping out from behind the monitor to insist Goldhaber and Arizmendi reframe the shot. “Danny, move the camera up!” the screenwriter insisted in Brewer’s retelling. “Stop framing her tits!” It was an interjection that all parties agree was necessary, and indicative of how subconscious biases even at the shot-listing stage can nudge a sex-positive story into exploitation territory.
“We did overanalyze every single thing in this film,” says Mazzei. “When is the sex gratuitous? How do we make this not male-gazey? Is this scene problematic? Where are the stakes of the scene deriving their tension from? Everything was deliberately thought-out, knowing the type of film that we wanted to make and the types of conversations we wanted to be had around it.” And in a scene like Jazzercise, which is meant to be terrifying and not titillating, aesthetic considerations like how breasts are framed mean the difference between treating women as props and respecting them as people.
“In filmmaking, we often default to what has been done, and unfortunately what has been done is often problematic ways of representing the female body,” Mazzei told Vulture. “I think it’s really important now, moving into this new filmmaking era, to really be engaging with how we default to things and constantly questioning: ‘Is there a problem with our defaults? Can we make them better?’ I don’t know if we would’ve been able to fund this film if we made it a few years earlier. Hopefully, it opens the door for more sex workers to feel like they can tell their stories openly in a commercial, widespread way, instead of just staying in these little corners.”