Screenwriter Isa Mazzei Subverted Every Shitty Sex Work Trope for 'Cam'

Before venturing into horror, the former camgirl heard many of the film’s chilling lines in real life.

|
Nov 13 2018, 9:25pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The psychological thriller Cam comes to Netflix on November 16, turning sex work stereotypes on their heads to tell a chilling story of power and agency.

The film follows a camgirl, Alice (The Handmaid’s Tale and Orange Is the New Black’s Madeline Brewer), as she suddenly realizes she’s lost control of her online persona Lola. A new Lola continues to livestream for Alice’s fans, having assumed her appearance and mannerisms as an uncanny, seemingly unstoppable doppelgänger. Alice has to get to the bottom of things before she loses her identity to her new double in a Hitchcockian mystery that never once looks down on its fierce protagonist.

And she has to be fierce because the supports many of us rely on are in short supply for sex workers. In one particularly dehumanizing exchange, Alice’s problems are barely even acknowledged by cops who alternate between disbelieving amusement and leering misogyny.

Cam is written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber, though production was largely collaborative. “There's absolutely overlap of things that he wrote or scenes that I directed,” Mazzei says. “At the end of the day, it’s our movie, and it’s our vision.”

That collaborative spirit extended beyond writing and directing, as Mazzei says that actress Madeline “Maddie” Brewer had a great deal of room to set her own limits and boundaries as a performer. “Everyone always talks about how the nudity in the film doesn't feel exploitative, or inviting the audience to objectify Maddie, and a lot of that was from Maddie because we collaborated with her on when she was nude and when she was not nude.”

There’s an important lesson here, which is that we get better, smarter content when diverse voices are heard, whether that’s people of color, members of LGBTQ communities, or women and sex workers. That’s especially true of genres so firmly associated with cis white men, like horror.

Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, which produced Cam, recently faced backlash for his comments suggesting the horror film industry (and his company) had a dearth of women filmmakers because most women simply don’t want to direct horror. He quickly apologized for his “dumb comments” and “stupid mistake” on Twitter.

But Blum is hardly alone in falling short on diversity. And while Hollywood has made huge inroads in hiring filmmakers from historically underrepresented backgrounds, sex workers are rarely invited to the table.

There are plenty of reasons for this—none of them valid. By and large it comes down to the stigma that sex workers still face at almost every level of society (thanks in no small part to terrible representation in pop culture). They’re generally seen as victims or disposable or both, and their words tend to fall on deaf ears, when they’re listened to at all.

Even with Canada’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that criminalized sex work was unconstitutional, sex workers find themselves forced to work underground under the controversial and frankly dangerous “Swedish model.” It’s been five years since the Supreme Court’s Bedford decision, and only now is the discussion starting to slowly resurface with parliamentarians.

Isa Mazzei
Isa Mazzei. Photo by A. Hendricks, courtesy of Divide/Conquer.

VICE caught up with Mazzei to discuss Cam, her own background in sex work, and the importance of representation. The following interview has been edited for clarity and flow.

VICE: I know that you have a memoir coming out soon. What drew you to write fiction?
Isa Mazzei: I love horror films. I love thrillers. I originally thought about doing a documentary, but I didn't feel like a documentary would achieve what I wanted it to because I didn't want to just lay out the facts of this subculture. I really wanted an audience to feel what it was like to be in it. I felt like often, for people that I talk to about camming, no matter how much I would explain it or show it to them, they still didn't fully get it. And so I think the genre is an incredible way to bring an audience inside of a character, or inside of an experience.

At the end of the day, I don't think audiences fully realize that they are rooting for a sex worker to return to sex work." Because what they're feeling is her loss of agency, this loss of control, and they're relating to that on a human level and then rooting for her to get that back. I really thought that doing this genre would be the best way to get that message across.

Is there more room with horror specifically for that subversiveness because it's already a genre that's so interested in exploring taboo topics head-on?
Absolutely. Horror is a place where we can delve into things that we're scared of and things that are subversive, things that are taboo, things that we don't want to talk about. Horror is the place where we get to talk about those things. I think that's why horror is such a popular genre and such a commercial genre. What's so cool about this film is that people are having fun with it as a genre film, but they're also having the discussions around it that I wanted them to have. When you look at something like Get Out, it’s such an incredible example of the way that horror can be at the forefront of these conversations that we need to be having as a society, and I think that's really cool.

The premise feels very much like something that often would have an anti-sex work message, and obviously, that really wasn't the case in Cam. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It's absolutely important to the film to be if not sex positive at least neutral. I think that a lot of horror likes to have a morality to it, and the classic story of the sex worker in media is innocent woman corrupted by a dark industry, and she fights her way out of it, and I find that narrative incredibly problematic and incredibly damaging. It completely takes away a woman's agency to choose. You never see just the normal sex worker who has made a conscious choice to engage in the industry and who views it as their business. And that's actually the majority of sex workers that I know. It was very deliberate to subvert that expectation that we see, especially in the genre.

Similarly, I wanted to subvert the expectations of women in the genre because, especially in horror, we're so used to seeing female characters make decisions that I, as a woman, would never make. As a woman, when I hear a noise in my basement, I absolutely do not go into my basement alone and unarmed and without a light, and we have these female characters doing that all the time in horror. So the other thing was important for me was to have Alice make smart choices. She does call the police. She does seek help. She does try to investigate what's going on. She has a taser. Yes, she goes to meet [one of her male clients], but she protects herself. She brings a weapon with her.

The scene with the cops was one of the most chilling—their reactions to her call.
Super creepy! It was important that Alice calls the cops because that's what someone would do in that situation, but it was important for me that the cops respond realistically to how I know that they often treat sex workers in real life. When he hits on her, when they're not helpful to her, those are based on experiences that I know sex workers have had with law enforcement when trying to get help. And the line, "What's the weirdest thing you've ever had to do?" was actually said several times to me in meetings with Hollywood executives who, instead of wanting to discuss my script, would want to discuss the weirdest sexual act I'd ever engaged in, so a lot of those police lines are drawn from reality.

Representation and lived experience are being talked about so much in cinema, but I rarely hear sex workers invited into those discussions. How important was it to be able to draw on your own background for something like this?
It was absolutely important. And I think it's important to note, too, that it wasn't just me. We talked to many other sex workers. We talked to other camgirls. We talked to sex workers of different types—strippers, some friends that we have who are escorts. We talked to a variety of women and men who are engaged in this industry in order to make sure that it felt authentic to them because I'm definitely not arrogant enough to think that I could make a film that would feel authentic to all sex workers if I just included only my own voice. It was absolutely fundamental that I was involved, but all the other people that we involved were important as well.

What do you think movies usually get wrong in their depictions of sex work?
Sex workers are cast aside to the point of being the butt of a joke. There are two mainstream films I can think of that came out in recent years where the entire punchline is, "We accidentally killed a prostitute." And it's a comedy. They're not treated with the same dignity that they would be treated with if it were, "I accidentally killed a waitress," or "I accidentally killed a software engineer." Sex workers are still seen as less than. And I think that more than that, they're always seen as someone that needs to be saved.

Even now, after screenings, with all the success that we've had, there are still men that come up to me—particularly older men—who say, "Thank God you got out, but are you okay now?" And it's still stated with this ideology that women don't have choice, don't have agency, and somehow need to be saved from this, and again I think that's completely the opposite from the majority of sex workers that I know and that I engage with and that I talk to.

Which ties into the film. Alice's agency is clearly under threat throughout the film, and she's quite tough and takes back control of her own image and brand and narrative. Can you talk a little bit about how that theme runs through the film?
The idea for Lola came from a really personal place. This paranoia of this fracturing of who I am in real life and who I am online. And wondering where that stops and starts. Do my viewers like me, or do they just like this persona? And then it also comes from a literal place of having a lot of my shows pirated, screen captured, and then posted online without any credit or my name on them. I would be reduced to "frizzy-haired pale girl" on PornHub, and that felt extremely violating, and it felt like I was looking at this disembodied version of myself that I no longer had any control or agency over.

That is literally where Lola comes from, and so I wanted to create a genre conceit around this real feeling of violation and loss of agency that I was feeling. And so for Alice, in the beginning, she has full agency and full control over her show. And the fact that the movie feels scary is only because we get an audience to empathize with that in the beginning. They can't feel this loss of agency if they don't recognize that she has it in the beginning. Which is already hugely subversive. She has this show where these viewers are telling her to kill herself, but she's actually orchestrated the whole thing. She has full control over this entire moment, full control over her body, and then that's taken away.

For Alice, it's just about getting that back.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter.

Stories