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Isa Mazzei drew on her time as a webcam model when writing the screenplay for the horror movie Cam. In it, Alice (Madeline Brewer) discovers that her camming persona, “Lola,” has apparently taken on a life and mind of its own, and she then must fight to reclaim her identity. The movie, which is wrapping up its festival run ahead of its imminent release on Netflix, terrifically exploits anxieties about the integrity of our online identities. At AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where the film was playing as part of the Midnight section, I sat down with Mazzei to talk about the process of writing and then realizing this story.
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Daniel Schindel: Your screenplay works off of your own experience, but beyond that, what movies, horror or otherwise, influenced it?
Isa Mazzei: The general idea that I started with was to create a film where an audience would empathize with a sex worker, and from there I had to figure out, well, how do we do that? The two films I looked at the most when conceptualizing what I wanted to with Alice were Whiplash and Black Swan. Both of those movies have protagonists who are obsessive and ambitious about what they’re doing, who throw themselves into self-sacrifice for their art. The audience never questions why they do this, we just understand. She must be the best ballerina, or he wants to be the best drummer. Even though his hands are literally bleeding, we’re still like, ‘Yes, keep pushing.’ I wanted to create that energy around a sex worker. The scary part of the film is Alice’s loss of agency, her loss of control over her own image, and that’s only scary if you recognize that she had agency in the first place.
I also looked a lot at Cronenberg. I love the body horror in Videodrome — he never uses body horror gratuitously, it’s always connected to a theme or character. I drew from that for the moments of physical violence in Cam, making sure that they were always tied in some way to the theme and were necessary, and were not just there to look cool.
DS: The script has no overt exposition about how being a webcam model works. How did you structure things to instruct the audience on the specifics of the job?
IM: There was a balance where I wanted people to understand enough to not be confused, but I didn’t want to over-explain anything, and I also didn’t want to distract. We decided to build a live site that we would be able to puppet. I scripted all of the cam shows, 98 pages of chats, with commenters having their own personalities, their own backstories, their own jokes. And we had that site running live for Maddie [Brewer], so that she would be responding live to these messages and her eye lines would be right.
When you’re camming, you’re always watching yourself, watching your rank, the messages, and the webcam. So much of it is improvising on the fly in response to all these messages coming in. Madeline’s laughs and jokes and thanking people and talking to these guys, some of those lines are scripted, but a lot of them are improvised. She didn’t get to read through these chats before we queued them up, so she was actively engaging with it.
DS: How involved were you in helping Brewer prep to play this character?
IM: In terms of minute technicalities, there were were definitely moments on set where Maddie was like, “How do I spank myself?” Because that’s not a natural thing, but it’s something that cam girls know how to do. So I was showing her how to do things like that.
But Maddie just took the role and ran with it. She’s playing five different people. She’s Alice as Alice, Alice as Lola online, Lola as Lola, Alice as Lola offline, and then another character at the end. She’s onscreen the entire movie, it’s such an insanely demanding role, and I think she just crushed it. When I met her to go through the script, she already had an annotated binder breaking down when she’s which version of herself. She also had these lists of cam girls, some that I sent her, but also others that she watched and wanted to take inspiration from. I think when I started writing Alice, she was very similar to me, and by the time we actually shot and edited the film, she wasn’t that way anymore, she’d become an entirely different character that we built together, Maddie and Daniel and I.
And how she handled nudity was interesting. We had a nudity rider [in the contract] for legal reasons, obviously. It was up to Maddie on set how naked she wanted to be in each scene. She was able to engage with the character in such a deep way where she could say, like, “Today I think Alice is more nude than written,” or on other days, “Alice is less nude than written.” It really helped make sure that none of the nudity was coming from an objectifying or gratuitous place. It was always tied into the character’s psychology and where Alice was at that point in the story.
DS: Were there any specific experiences from camming that you put into the script, or was it more in terms of the setting and themes?
IM: I definitely drew a lot from my own life, but it was more from the emotions that I felt while camming, rather than specific events. For example, my sister knew I was a cam girl and was very supportive, and I put some of that into Alice’s relationship with [her brother]. But I did have a viewer who moved to my hometown, though he was very different from [the one in the movie]. Overall, it was more about taking these feelings and translating them into plot points that worked for this story. That’s what I love about genre film. I have a memoir coming out next year that will more thoroughly go into my time doing that work.
Lola, for example, came from two very real places. Yes, she’s a fracture of visual identity and this anxiety that I felt about who I was — am I this person or am I myself, and who do my viewers like? But she also comes from having my work screen-captured and pirated and put on the internet without any attribution to myself or my persona. [One scene came from] waking up and seeing myself on Pornhub, labeled “frizzy-haired cute girl” or “frizzy-haired pale girl,” and watching my body no longer be tied to me in any way whatsoever. That feeling of violation and alienation from my own body was really terrifying. Translate that feeling into the horror genre, and it becomes Lola.
DS: That specificity also ties into some more broadly relatable troubles with the internet. At its core, it’s about the horror of being locked out of your account.
IM: That’s the thing that’s so cool about it. Yes, it’s about a cam girl, but at the end of the day it could be about a Twitch streamer or an Instagram star. It could easily be anyone who makes their living online. I think that camming is the furthest you could push this expression of visual identity, because it is Alice’s job and her sexuality and her passion and her friends and her social life and all of that. But we all have these digital identities that we curate. Even if you try to be as real as possible on your Instagram, you’re still picking and choosing what you’re showing people about your life. And I think there is an inherent anxiety there, where if you start to derive your validation from this persona that you’ve built for yourself, it can be unhealthy.
Cam will be released on Netflix on November 16.