Colorado filmmakers Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber recently made headlines in Hollywood – earning particular praise from Paper magazine, which counted Isa among 100 people taking over 2019 – when their debut feature film, “Cam,” premiered to rave reviews on Netflix.
Meriting comparisons to “Get Out” for its use of horror to foster wider social discussion, “Cam” stars Madeline Brewer (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) as Alice, a woman whose camgirl persona, Lola, becomes the target of a mysterious algorithm that overtakes her online identity and robs her of her livelihood. Film and horror genre expert Andrew Scahill, PhD, assistant professor of English, describes this vein of post-modern horror as “millennial horror, which is largely concerned with the illusion of free will,” and arises out of “anxiety at being manipulated by political forces beyond our control.”
“Assassination through online harassment is a form of death in the modern world.”
As Scahill explains further, in the same manner that director and screenwriter Jordan Peele reimagined the idea behind “The Stepford Wives” as a metaphor for systemic racism in Peele’s film “Get Out,” the filmmakers behind “Cam” repurposed the horror trope of the doppelganger to explore themes of online identity and women’s agency. “Assassination through online harassment is a form of death in the modern world. Lola has her life taken away, which is substantially more than identity theft, or the idea that identity can be hijacked.” Because such critical themes provoke closer analysis, Scahill invited the filmmakers to share their work with students.
Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber will attend a screening of their movie on campus and answer audience questions at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 13. In advance of the event, the filmmakers shared their thoughts on their film, the filmmaking process, and their hope that “Cam” inspires other filmmakers from Colorado.
How should audiences interpret a psychological thriller like ‘Cam,’ where the lines between reality, virtual reality and the lead character’s mind are blurred?
[Daniel Goldhaber:] “That’s a bit of a tricky one, because I think that movies work best when they engage you emotionally and maybe in ways that you’re not even aware of. We hope that, in the conversations that emerge after watching the movie, people take those things that have provoked thought for them and interpret those ideas in their own lives.”
[Isa Mazzei:] “We’re always excited to see people’s interpretations of the film and how they engage with it. This question of our digital identities and the selves that we put online is really relatable, especially to millennials, because we’ve grown up with the internet. We’ve grown up in this digital age, and we each have a very unique relationship to how we present ourselves online.”
Where did this story about the fear of being reduced to an algorithm originate?
[Mazzei:] “The character of Lola came from the conversations that I had with Danny at a time when I worked as a camgirl. We were talking about the fears and anxieties I had about the split between who I was in real life and who I was online, and which persona I was deriving my validation from. What’s important to realize about these algorithms is that they do control and manipulate our behavior because we are posting to get the most likes; we are posting to get the most followers. We are posting for that dopamine rush of engagement, and so that is naturally going to change our behaviors, no matter how authentically we try to present ourselves online. Lola came from a place of feeling that fracture and wanting to explore it.”
How does the horror genre lend itself so readily to social commentary?
[Goldhaber:] “I think that one of the reasons it’s so powerful is because genre, genre conventions, genre tropes, genre rhythms are familiar. When you’re trying to take a lifestyle, subculture, or an idea that’s very unfamiliar, you can use the familiarity of genre to create an experience for an audience that they can empathize with. Despite other political aspirations that we had with what we were trying to communicate with ‘Cam,’ the fundamental purpose of the movie is that you’re empathizing with a sex worker. When she loses agency over her body a third of the way through the movie, that’s when the genre stakes begin. But the trick of that is, for the audience to feel for her, they end up having to recognize that she had agency over her body in the first part of the movie. And so you guide an audience through a very, very basic genre structure to empathize with a sex worker’s agency, which is something that film rarely asks us to do.”
How have audiences reacted?
[Mazzei:] “The most amazing personal reactions have come from people who come up to us after screenings, even crying sometimes, from people who had worked as sex workers. Or even just women who felt like their bodies were respected in the film, who felt the film’s absence of male gaze and really appreciated that. That’s been the most moving thing, and it’s incredible to think that, because of Netflix, this film is in front of so many more people who can hopefully have a similar experience.”
In what ways did studying literature prepare you to work in the film industry?
[Mazzei:] “To write anything, the most important thing is to read. I had to learn how to write a screenplay, but I certainly knew already how a story should feel, how characters should feel, and how people talk. The things I read in college influenced ‘Cam’ in a lot of ways, not just in terms of the scenes I was interested in exploring – I studied a lot of futurist literature in college, and I definitely brought many of those scenes into ‘Cam’ – but also just a sense of how a story should feel. I think it’s something you learn just from reading as much as possible, from really absorbing the text, and then looking critically at the words to break them apart and try to figure out what the author is doing. Then, when you’re on the other side and you are the author, you’re able to make these new connections. Studying literature helped me immensely in so many ways, and it was kind of the perfect thing to prepare me for filmmaking.”
What’s your connection to Colorado? To CU Denver?
[Mazzei:] “We grew up in Colorado, and we are very proud of the fact that we’re from Colorado. We also really want to help support other students from Colorado because there’s this mentality that you have to live in L.A. or New York in order to do this. We have had to spend a lot of time in those places, but we got our start here. We ran a theater company here in high school, and we made our first short films here. We wrote ‘Cam’ in Colorado, so we wanted this opportunity to talk to Colorado students, to answer their questions, and to show them that they can do this too, if that’s what they want to do.”
How did it feel to have your debut film picked up by Netflix?
[Mazzei:] “Working with Netflix has been incredible. I remember they did a presentation for us where they went over all the different countries that our film would be in; it was a very moving experience because we realized just how many millions and millions of people would be able to watch our film and to access it in so many different languages. That was really humbling and really incredible to witness.
Any words of wisdom to share with aspiring filmmakers?
[Goldhaber:] “Work with your friends. Find talented people and build a community of art that has roots in an idea that draws everybody together and gives them the energy to make stuff. At the end of the day, that’s even just what Hollywood is: it’s a big, giant community. And I think that you can always build your own.”
[Mazzei:] “As corny as it sounds, just believe in yourself and don’t give up. So many people told us that ‘Cam’ would never happen and that we were crazy. We were 24 and 25; we had never made a feature film before, and so many people told us, ‘You’re never going to be able to do this. You’re especially never going to be able to do this while living in Colorado.’ It’s about not believing those things and pushing past those things. Find a project that you believe in enough to be willing to really fight for.”
[Goldhaber, continuing:] “Making a film, and especially making a first film, is all about urgency. Why this project? Why now? We actually were able to use not being full-time L.A. or New York residents to our benefit. If you live in Colorado and you go to L.A., then you approach everybody you want to meet with the message, ‘Hey I’m in town for the next five days. Do you want to sit down? I have something right now.’ And in L.A. people slot you in three months later. But then we’d come through every two or three months, and that was a really good way to create urgency.”
[Mazzei:] “We have another thriller that we’re doing with Blumhouse [the production company behind ‘Cam’ and Oscar-winner ‘Get Out’], so we’re working on that right now. I have a book coming out in November, a memoir called ‘CamGirl,’ about the real side of what ended up as ‘Cam,’ and…”
[Goldhaber:] “…and I’ve got the flu, so I’ll be working on that.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.