The Vibra-Tron, known to some by the brand name Sybian, is a large, vibrating saddle designed to be straddled by a woman for full-body orgasms of unparalleled intensity. It's also the newest gimmick for cam girl Lola, a driven performer willing to ignore the whispered warnings that prolonged use can short-circuit the clitoris for life if it means she'll climb the rankings of the streaming site that hosts her. Hair draped just-so over her bare chest, she tries to hold her composure while her lower half buzzes with overwhelming sensation. As she shivers and trembles atop the loudly humming machine, it looks like she's approaching something more akin to spontaneous combustion than climax.
Alice, the woman behind Lola, holds herself to three simple rules: She won't use her real name, she won't tell her viewers that she loves them, and she won't fake it. Deep down, she might even believe that final rule is her secret to success, the counterbalance between her flirty routines' playacted fakery and their bedrock of genuine physicality. Just because she's putting on a show, doesn't make what she's doing any less real.
Madeline Brewer, the actress behind the woman behind Lola, found herself in a relatively similar position while shooting the new cyberthriller Cam. She may not have actually been reduced to a jelly by the Vibra-Tron, but, in that moment, she felt acutely aware of being half-naked with a camera pointed at her. How was she going to come off looking? Would the feminist underpinnings she saw in the script be apparent in the finished cut? Had she unwittingly signed on for something sleazy?
Attaining the excruciating intimacy of both this scene and the film that contains it required an absolute, mutual trust between Cam's director Daniel Goldhaber, its writer Isa Mazzei, and their star Brewer. Over the months spent assembling this complicated, uncommonly empathetic meditation on sex and the online business that's sprung up around it, they achieved an extraordinary creative synthesis founded on care, communication, and respect. As television fumbles to form a new protocol for staging and depicting graphic scenes, the three collaborators have constructed an exemplar of ethical erotics.
On a humid afternoon in Brooklyn, at the sunlit apartment where Goldhaber laid his head during post-production on Cam, he and Mazzei perch on a couch dusted with cat hair while Brewer articulates how quickly their minds melded. "The big challenge in playing someone who doesn't always wear a lot of clothes is my physical consciousness of my body, and trying not to think about what my arms look like when I should be thinking about this performance. It was about trying to eliminate that voice." She pauses. "After the first week, it was pretty much gone." By the final week, she didn't bother with the robe between takes.
Goldhaber and Mazzei met as high schoolers in Colorado, brought together by an incident involving testicular torsion that left Goldhaber with an unfortunate nickname he prefers not to repeat these days. The collision of two volatile personalities made their tenure as boyfriend and girlfriend as passionate as it was turbulent; living room screaming matches, astonishingly ill-conceived romantic gestures, declarations of undying devotion. After their less-than-congenial breakup and divergence for their college years, however, they couldn't fully extricate themselves from each other's lives. They accrued some professional experience—he got his bearings on a live set, she got her feet wet in the world of camming—and kept in close contact, sharing a fascination for the mechanics of the other's job.
When Mazzei decided she wanted to try her hand at producing her own pornography, she knew just the director to call. She and Goldhaber learned how to harmoniously coexist as artists where they couldn't as a couple, and an emboldened Mazzei gave thought to a feature-length script. Unsettled by the repeated discovery of her own videos relabeled under unflattering titles on adult tube sites, Mazzei translated that anxiety to the story of a cam girl who tries to log on for a show, only to see her exact likeness already up on screen. Her desperate efforts to vanquish this digital doppelgänger drive Alice to the brink of a distinctly modern madness, the kind that only comes from reconciling ourselves with the alter egos we all cultivate online. It may not be the first, but Cam is without a doubt the truest film about the abject horrors of being on social media.
The challenge of bringing this story to the screen reenergized Mazzei at a time of stasis. "I didn't go into making this film wanting to leave camming," she says. "By the time we had started working on this film, I had left the industry and was working as a web developer. The choice to leave camming came from a lot of different places, but for me, sex work was an incredible thing that helped me learn about myself and taught me how to own my body in a way I hadn't felt before. It was a creative outlet, and then I just started burning out on it. My shows were getting repetitive, I was feeling uninspired. I was no longer doing the cool, weird shows I wanted to do, just a creative slump. I started looking for what could be next. Getting into features was an accident. I thought Cam would just be something I did with Danny."
Her phrasing, the conception of doing this with Goldhaber and not for him, speaks to what he describes as the "egalitarian process" between them that would come to include Brewer. They afforded everyone in their cast a rare degree of control, encouraging actresses to personally select an activity that made them feel comfortable for a montage flipping through cam channels. Brewer fully embraced her sense of "performative femininity," a phrase often repeated on set. Over coffees and educational Showgirls viewings, Mazzei and Goldhaber found in Brewer a thoughtful kindred spirit, who shared their views on womanhood, sexual expression, and the media's fraught relationship to both.
"I was afraid that I wouldn't do right by the community of sex workers and cam girls," Brewer confesses. "Isa and Danny going through everything was so helpful, talking about nudity—both the line of what I can and can't do legally, but what's comfortable, and what's contributing to the story—until I had personally come to terms with what my body looks like. This is it, this is what it looks like, carrying me through 16-hour days. I've thanked it for that. I like that I can look like a regular person, and not a Hollywood actor."
"There were times when Maddie suggested that a scene needed more nudity," Goldhaber adds, "and there were times when she told us that she thought the nudity was unnecessary. In both instances, she was always correct. She had a barometer for this, and through her body, she became an integral part of the storytelling. We could fairly call her a co-filmmaker."
The credits make it official, appending the "film by" title to both Mazzei and Goldhaber in equal standing. They don't see themselves as fitting into the auteurist mold that ascribes a film's intention to a single author; they can hardly tell where his contributions end and hers begin, and vice versa.
"Sets are designed in a regimented way, so people would come to me when they had questions about directing," Goldhaber says. "Something that took a couple weeks to figure out was how we integrate Isa into this process in a way that, on one hand, respects that a film set needs to run quickly and smoothly, and on the other, ensures that Isa's there to protect the integrity of the vision. I had never directed, and Isa had never written, and in many ways, she had more on-set experience than I did."
"We see it as a film that is 100 percent his and 100 percent mine, not 50-50," Mazzei continues. "It's a co-authorship. It's our movie and our vision. Danny was involved in writing and the story process, I was involved in production and casting. We did everything together. The way the credits work, it just made sense to split it this way. Technically, he did the directing and I did the writing, but it's a shared vision."
Mazzei's responsibilities extended beyond that of a mere consultant, someone brought onto set to spruce up a scene with bits of verisimilitude. She and Goldhaber experimented with in-ear radio hookups and quickly accepted that they could not handle having each other's voice in their brain at all times. Mazzei would instead watch takes on a video monitor setup and duck onto the set to give notes, sometimes reframing shots that she perceived as treating the subject like an object. Goldhaber credits her as the director of the Vibra-Tron scene, having set Brewer's body language and called out cues to gradually push her to that fever pitch. Mazzei realized that the only thing standing between cinema and the pervasive male gaze is the willingness to shed it.
"[Avoiding exploitative elements] can really be as simple as placement of the camera," she says. "It's not hard, which is why I think it's ridiculous that we still see so many problematic films in theaters in 2018. Everyone on the crew was 100 percent united in this mission to make a respectful film, but a lot of our defaults in cinematography and direction have faults. For example, in the Vibra-Tron scene, when Maddie takes off her robe, and she's topless, someone immediately started calling for 'ice, ice, where's the ice, where's the nipple ice?' That's something standard on-set, that if someone's nipples are out, you're going to ice them. And I'm saying, 'No, no, no. If they're hard, they're hard, if they're not, they're not.' That's stupid and definitely thought up by men. Nipples aren't always hard!"
I first made Goldhaber's acquaintance at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, and we still trade notes on the day's notable new releases. Over the past two years, I've received regular updates on Cam's long journey to the public, which ends today when the film appears on Netflix along with a small theatrical run in New York. A laborious post-production process necessitated thousands of effects shots to build Lola's computer interface and the 98 pages of text that scrolls through the chat window. Despite a co-sign from hit factory Blumhouse, Goldhaber and Mazzei had trouble landing a film festival premiere slot and a distributor. For a scary movie, it wasn't scary enough, and for a movie about sex, it wasn't sexy enough. Mazzei still tenses up when recalling one encounter in which an executive conspiratorially leaned forward and asked her, "So, what's the weirdest thing you ever had to do?"
Perseverance led them to Alamo, the boutique theater chain that opened Cam during its Fantastic Fest in Austin and will screen it at their Drafthouse locations. The past few months have been a whirlwind of travel, as Mazzei and Goldhaber parlayed their placement at Fantastic into a slew of other festival appearances and preview screenings. The reception has been largely positive, though not without its detractors. Brewer's parents saw the film the night prior to our interview, and her mother "fucking loves it." As for her father? "He's a little set in his ways. He told Isa point-blank that he hates the movie. 'Maddie did great, but I hate that movie. No offense!'"
For Mazzei and Goldhaber, the most meaningful response has come from the sex work community that they strove to support above all else. From start to finish, they made their chief goal the honest portrayal of the day-to-day hustle, the psychological highs of being desired and the lows of being treated like meat, the sense of craft in a valid occupation some still look down on as a last resort. Mazzei lived it, and Goldhaber did his best to approximate the experience with a brief, sobering stint as a cam boy. ("I have a two-second cameo in the film, and it took about an hour to get that one shot. I'm very uncomfortable on camera, and I have no sexual charisma.") Wielding a bit more perspective than most, they were both fed up with films about sex work, from the "hooker with a heart of gold" bull-nonsense to the alarmist concern of Hot Girls Wanted. "Portraying sex workers as victims with no agency, not choosing to do it…" Mazzei shakes her head. "There are people forced into it, but there's also a large faction of women doing this as a personal choice, and that's rarely shown."
She wanted Alice to be a far cry from a sob story. The film introduces her as a motivated young woman with a methodical commitment to her daily grind, charting her progress with a meticulously kept calendar. Mazzei knows sex workers to be industrious, resourceful, and innovative by nature; a cam girl must be, in order to gain a following and hold its fickle attention week in and week out. Situating this intuitive, nonjudgmental vantage point in her deepest convictions proportionally moved the viewers she was most eager to please.
"That's the only thing that really mattered to me," Mazzei says. "To have women come up to me after screenings, sometimes in tears; to be interviewed by someone who brings up that she cammed for a decade; to feel that validation, of being told that someone felt seen for the first time, and really represented—all of it is incredibly humbling."
From the particulars of sex work's thorny politics, Cam expands to a generation-wide register by zeroing in on the internet's peculiar combination of authenticity and artifice. Alice's surreal predicament with the so-called "Lola II" renders literal the millennial's shared unease for losing command over the avatars we curate on social media, or even being replaced by them; personal brand as existential nightmare. The film ends on an ambiguous note and refuses to serve up a definitive solution to the cause of our heroine's shadow identity, in effect leaving her to continue reestablishing just what kind of person she's going to be. A woman certainly knows who she is when she's atop the Vibra-Tron, doing what she can not to explode, and yet Cam contends that in a digital economy, a marketable sense of self is seldom so clear-cut. Mazzei, Goldhaber, and Brewer fostered their delicate codependency first to make properly handling sensitive material a possibility. But somewhere along the way, perhaps in the general vicinity of the extreme orgasmic rodeo, they found solace in one another from the uncertainty that lingers through their film's final shots.
"When I started camming, I was very young and very naive," Mazzei declares, slowly and carefully. "I figured I could just be real, that I'd be myself and people would love that. But it's impossible to be yourself online. You are curating your presence, whether it's about deciding when you log on or putting on a light to make yourself look better, you're creating the impression. In your 20s, you're already having a crisis all the time, and to couple that with having a persona online that people like, and wondering whether they really like her or like you. What percent of that person is me? Where are the boundary lines? How can we know?"