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Lithium In conversation with Isa Mazzei, writer of Netflix’s 'CAM'

May. 24, 2019
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Alice Ackerman is very much a normal girl. She has a family, a pet cat, hopes and dreams and insecurities. Alice is also a cam girl, broadcasting live shows from her bedroom under the screen name “Lola_Lola.”

Isa Mazzei wants you to know that these states of existence—being a normal girl and being a cam girl—are not mutually exclusive. When we chat over the phone, Mazzei is quick to tell me that there is, in fact, ‘no normal’—a sentiment evident throughout all of her film CAM, currently streaming on Netflix. Here, Mazzei’s script reads like a masterclass in portraying the humans so often treated as anything but: sex workers. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and partially drawn from Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam girl, CAM’s Alice exists in a world entirely different from the one sex workers in film have been forced to inhabit for so long.

This world is bright, fun, welcoming. Talkative patrons crowd the cam site on which Alice hosts shows. In the makeshift studio space of her bedroom, powerful Alice calls the shots.

But where Mazzei truly shines in her portrayal of Alice is how she showcases Alice’s duality. How she holds power; where she loses it. This is a horror film whose plot is deeply rooted in the insecurities that come with being online in the 21st century, and so our protagonist struggles with social media, just as we do. She battles episodes of crippling self-doubt and hyper-comparison after seeing her ranking on the cam site drop; she frantically checks user engagement the same way we robotically refresh our Instagram likes. So the thing is, Alice—flawed, relatable, multifaceted—isn’t just strong or just weak. She is, like any other human being, both. 

Repeated misrepresentation has reduced the sex worker in film from a whole character to a dimensionless, hyper-victimized trope. But at the end of this film, Mazzei’s Alice is a character, a person, whose choice to participate in sex work does not mark her as a broken thing to be saved or fixed. And so Alice Ackerman, and everything she represents, is someone worth celebrating. Even more so is the woman who created her.

Lithium Magazine: CAM felt like it was, above all else, about control. Like, I went into it thinking, “It’s about a cam girl,” when, at its core, it was more broadly about a girl losing agency over her very carefully curated online persona. As a writer, how did you approach this script so that it was so relatable—so that it could apply to essentially anyone?

Isa Mazzei: Wow, what a good question. How did I do that? [Laughs.] I think that the most important thing for me with this movie was always to bring an audience into a cam girl’s experience and have them empathize with her. For that, I knew that I needed to have a really relatable thing happen to her that everyone could understand. I think what’s so cool about camming is that it’s very similar to a lot of other online work. It’s very similar to YouTubing, or Instagramming, or even just people who have Facebook or Twitter or Twitch or TikTok or wherever you’re posting about yourself—there’s a lot of similarities between that and camming, because you are, in essence, curating a digital identity. So the movie, yes, is about a cam girl. But it could be the same story about anyone in any of those online mediums. And I think that’s what makes it so relatable, because it is about control. It’s about a loss of agency over your image. And for Alice, that’s magnified, because it’s not just her image; it’s also her body, and her sexuality, and that agency. I think that we all have this experience of putting images of ourselves out into this void and then almost waiting for validation on that whenever we post anything online. 

Lithium: I think that’s what it made it so scary for me. Being a teenage girl who’s constantly tuned in to social media, the themes of validation and comparison were so real.

Mazzei: Yeah! Thank you. I wanted to show that with how the site ranks these girls, which, you know, is how a lot of cam sites actually rank their models. But, more than that, it’s how all of these online platforms rank us and give us validation and almost control the kind of content that we’re posting because we want to get more likes, we want to get more comments and engagement. We’re kind of continually being directed on how to express ourselves on these platforms.

Lithium: You said in a past interview that you looked to the films Whiplash and Black Swan for inspiration. Both are films about the lengths people go to for their art. With CAM, how did you balance portraying sex as both an art form and as a business? 

Mazzei: I think a lot of that was balancing the actual things we were showing and then how we were showing them. So Danny, the director, and Emma Rose Mead, our production designer—a lot of our early conversations were about how to show the camming space and what it should be like. We made a very deliberate decision to make it very rich and colorful and almost oversaturated. With the lighting, Kate, our DP, did such a good job with that. It’s this fantasy space, it’s expressive, it’s fun, and it contrasts a lot with Alice’s offline spaces, which are messy and kind of boring—her furniture is still wrapped up and a lot of stuff is still in boxes. We show this ultra-colorful space to show that this is her creative outlet. You want to be in that space. You want to view that space.  A lot of what was going through my mind while I was writing the script was like, how are we going to show this space as a really creative, artistic expression of Alice? Then, balancing the work side of that was like, okay, within this space, how are we going to demonstrate the ambition and the hard work? And that was literally just showing those moments that I feel are so often lacking in depictions of sex work in media. Her with her calendar, writing down all of her token amounts and the dates that she’s doing, and that scene where she’s watching Baby, who’s the number one camgirl, and she tells her cat, “Go away! I’m studying!” I think it’s so important! I remember a guy actually tweeted about that scene, like, “Shit, I had no idea camgirls were watching game tapes like Kobe Bryant,” and I was like, Yeah, that’s exactly what I want people to think! When they watch this, I want them to see that and think, Oh! This is like an athlete watching game tapes, or any other comparison they want to draw that helps normalize and destigmatize this field of work.

Lithium: I feel like there are often these assumptions or expectations that, because you’re hot or sexually in touch with yourself, you can’t be...normal. What specific things did you do while writing CAM in order to portray Alice as someone so different from the sex worker that audiences might expect?

Mazzei: Well, I think a lot of that just came from drawing from my personal experiences. I live in a very liberal, progressive area. I was very open about being a camgirl, and, luckily, the most common response I got from telling people that I was a camgirl was, “But you’re so normal.” I was very lucky to be sheltered from more derisive, hateful comments. But even amongst very open-minded people, I still did get this, like, “You’re not what I was expecting! You’re not who I thought!” And I realized that, when I looked at my camgirl friends, we were all just normal people. We were all camming for different reasons, we all were camming different amounts, and we were all very normal, because, like, there is no normal. You know what I mean? That was what was so frustrating to me. So, with writing Alice, I really wanted to write a girl that could very easily be your best friend. She could be in college with you, she could be the girl that lives two doors down—she’s just a normal girl. She’s got her family, she’s got her brother who supports her—that’s another misconception, I think. That all sex workers are not supported by their families. A lot of sex workers are supported by their families. A lot of sex workers are married, a lot of sex workers have children, and a lot of sex workers are open with their children about what they do. There’s all these misconceptions about it that I really wanted to break by trying to make Alice super relatable and super approachable. At the end of the day, the Alice that ended up in the movie is a combination of the Alice that I wrote, the Alice that Danny directed, and the Alice that Maddie brought to the character. And I think that’s what makes her so dynamic and so likeable.

Lithium: When you partnered with Blumhouse Productions to make this film, they had just finished Get Out, so I definitely felt like they understood the political genre kind of horror. Did you feel respected and seen by them in your work and in your creative vision?

Mazzei: Oh, yeah. One-hundred percent. I mean, Blumhouse was incredible. They were on board with the politics, they were on board with the vision, and, more than that, they trusted me. They understood why I was co-authoring the film. They understood why I was producing the film. They understood why I needed to be on set. They carved out that space for me. They understood why that was important, you know? That was really unique to Blumhouse, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for that, because I think with Get Out and now with CAM, they’re understanding that, to tell these stories in a way that is going to resonate with viewers, they need to allow for that authentic representation. And they’re really—for lack of a better word—putting their money where their mouth is. It’s not just lip service; they’re not just saying, “Oh, we need a camgirl to consult on this,” or “Oh, we need this.” No. You wrote this, you’re producing it, you’re going to be on set, you are as involved as you need to be. And I really, really am thankful to them for that. 

Lithium: Do you feel that the portrayal of sex workers in media has improved recently in any way? Do you foresee more of that kind of change happening soon? 

Mazzei: I hope so. I’ve been a little hopeful because, since CAM has come out, I’ve been approached by some people in Hollywood who are working on things about sex workers, who have asked me to advise them. That’s a really good sign. But, on the other hand, I’m also talking to a lot of my sex worker friends who have projects that they feel like would be doing some of the similar work as CAM, and they’re very talented, creative people who are still not being taken seriously by the industry, not getting the momentum they need, not getting the producers that they need. It’s this frustrating juxtaposition of, like, on one hand now, people are somewhat listening to me, but on the other hand, I’m not the only one doing this work! There’s still so many other sex workers out there that could be bringing brilliant films and brilliant TV shows to the mainstream market who are still not being listened to. I’m hopeful because there are so many great projects out there and so many great voices out there, but I’m still not convinced that everything is—you know, we still have a long way to go. We still have a long way to go.

Lithium: Do you have any advice for people looking to get into writing for film? I sometimes feel like there’s no linear way to get into it, and that kind of confuses me as someone who wants to possibly pursue that.

Mazzei: I think it’s hard because there isn’t a linear way. Oftentimes, a lot of people have different opinions on what the linear way is. People were telling us, “You need to write a short first. You can’t do a feature before you do a short.” People were very confused by me. They’d say, “Oh, but you’ve never written a screenplay before!” and I said, “No, I’ve never written a screenplay before. But I’ve written other things.” There’s no experience that you need, necessarily, to write a screenplay. The most important thing that I did was that I watched movies and I read screenplays. You mentioned earlier Black Swan and Whiplash. I looked at Whiplash, and I said, okay, what’s happening in this story? I literally traced out the emotional plot of the movie. Like, when am I happy? When am I sad? When am I anxious? When are things going bad for him? Where are the turns? On a minute-by-minute basis throughout the movie, you really understand the structure of story. You can watch really conventional films and really commercial films and then you can watch more experimental films and contrast them and figure out the balances of what you want. CAM, at the end of the day, follows a pretty standard structure. We introduce the world, we say, oh, something’s going wrong, and then there’s a turn in the third act. It’s a very standard story, but it doesn’t feel that way because it’s set in a really fresh world. I think the more that you analyze films you like, it gets easier to see these underlying structures that are universal in a lot of stories, and that can really help with your writing. The other thing that I think is really important is to just observe people and how they talk and what they talk about, because I think that writing people, one thing that I do—I don’t know how involved you want me to get, I have so many things.

Lithium: Just go for it.

Mazzei: One thing that I do is I write what I call garbage drafts. I’ll write the first draft of the full screenplay and it’ll be, like, a hundred pages long. And it will just be utter garbage. But it’s got the story beats where I want them. Some of the dialogue is literally just like, “ALICE: Says something that expresses she’s disappointed in her mom.” And then, “LYNN: Says something supportive of Alice but politically incorrect.” Whatever. That’s what some of the early ones are, because I know the emotions that I want to be in that scene, but not necessarily how to get them. And that’s where literally just listening to people and eavesdropping and observing the world around you comes in. You know, I was watching some family at Starbucks one time and the mom was kind of trying to be woke, but was actually kind of fat-shaming her daughter, and I watched this interaction, and I said, okay. That’s kind of the emotional thing that I want to happen in that moment when Lynn says, ‘I understand this female empowerment thing.’ She’s trying to be supportive, but in this really dated way where she’s trying to be a good mother but she doesn’t quite understand what that means. I just borrowed that moment, and said, okay, how do I translate this moment into this context? Yeah. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Lithium: It definitely does.

Mazzei: But I think the other thing to get into screenwriting that’s more of an overarching thing is to, like, just do it. Just write a screenplay. Like, write a movie. There’s no right way to do it. And share your work. The other thing is, I did not write this in a bubble. I shared it with hundreds of people, and kept getting notes, and kept getting feedback, and kept getting told why it was bad or what parts were good, and the story changed so much from sharing it with my friends and learning and adapting. People would say, “Oh, have you seen this movie? This movie might be a good reference,” so I would watch that movie, and all of that is so important. I felt very precious over it at first. I think there’s this kind of emphasis on, like, protecting your ideas. But I think that ideas in and of themselves aren’t as valuable as the execution. And you’re the only one who’s going to be able to execute that idea with your vision in the way that you want to. So feel free to share it, and feel free to get feedback—it’s good for practicing when you’ll be working with production companies in the future, because you’re learning how to take feedback and criticism and not take it personally, and which notes you want to take and which notes you don’t want to take and why, and that’s a really important practice to, you know, rehearse before you’re actually doing it, too.

Lithium: How did that process, of getting your script on board with everyone, work? 

Mazzei: I mean, again, it’s different for everyone. We got our script to Blumhouse through a friend of a friend of a friend, who sent it to them, and they called us in for a meeting. Like you said, they had just seen the first cut of Get Out. And they called us in and said, "Okay, we like this script. Tell us about it. What’s the vision behind it? How is it not problematic? What are you doing with this?" So we just had a really open and honest conversation with them. And their main note from the beginning was, "Okay, it’s great, we like it—it needs to be more of a thriller."

Lithium: Interesting.

Mazzei: And that was kind of the direction we wanted to take it anyway. They were very helpful with that, with helping make it feel scarier. But what was so cool about Blumhouse, because they were so on board with the vision behind the film from the beginning, their notes never conflicted with that. They never said, "Oh, well, Alice can’t go back to sex work in the end."

Lithium: It was definitely important for her to go back to sex work in the end.

Mazzei: Right! And they understood that! It was really nice to be able to work with [their] notes—we took a lot of them, we didn’t take some of them. But at the end of the day, we made the exact movie that I think we both wanted to make. The notes process with production companies depends on what production company you’re working with, depends on the movie you’re making, depends on how finished the script is when you bring it into them. But I think the most important thing we did was that we wrote a manifesto. It was this document of things that were so important to us politically and ethically behind the film. As long as notes didn’t conflict with that manifesto, we were willing to consider anything. It was like, the whole plot can change, as long as the vision of the film doesn’t stray from this. I would recommend that for anyone with any film going in, you know? Decide what is really important to you to protect, and then be open to changing things beyond that. You don’t ultimately have to take all the notes, but they’re coming from a good place. Your production company wants you to make a good, successful film. Be open-minded to changes. Don’t be precious and don’t be defensive. I think that will get to the best product in the end. 

Lithium: So, I think I read that you studied comparative literature in college?

Mazzei: I did.

Lithium: Yeah. How did you feel that that course of study prepared you for working in film as you do now?

Mazzei: I read a lot of weird books, which was amazing. I read a lot of books from different countries, which was also amazing. I think college in general opened my eyes to different viewpoints and different cultures that I hadn’t been exposed to. College also made me really uncomfortable at times, which I think is really important. And I think studying literature is an incredible way to experience a lot of viewpoints and periods of time. Reading a lot, writing a lot of papers, analyzing things obviously help with understanding story and character and plot. 

I actually just wrote a book. What was so funny to me is I remember in college writing so many papers, you know, you’re kind of trained to write, like, “The author uses X to show Y.” And I remember writing this, like, fifteen-page in-depth paper on some book and just thinking, There’s no way the author did this on purpose. Like, I’m just inventing this. There’s no way that this is intentional. And then having gone through the process of just writing a book, I realized it really is intentional. I was having all of those thoughts, but from the other side, from the side of author: how do I thread this motif through my book? I did that with CAM, you know? Like, the switching of names. When you’re using usernames, when you’re using real-life names, when Alice is Lola and when she’s Alice. Those are so important and I realized that that is really deliberate. And so I think it’s really important to learn how to read a book or any piece of writing, and how to pull those things out of it, because that will help you when you’re trying to put those things in your own work. I also was on a lot of literary journals in college, which was really helpful, because it allowed me to read a lot of student writing that wasn’t my own. I became a lot stronger of a writer because I had the way that I wrote essays. And then I would read other people’s essays. Some of them were academic journals; one of them was a literary journal, so I’d read other people’s fiction, other people’s poetry, other people’s essays, and it was really nice to see what other people my age were producing, and it really encouraged me to find my own voice and figure out how I wanted to write as well. To be fair, though, the one thing I think that was interesting is that I actually came out of college thinking I would be a very different type of writer than I actually am. And I think that’s about being really open to figuring out your voice. Like, I remember when I started writing my memoir, I was like, this is going to be a very serious book. And I just couldn’t write it and it was so bad, and I was so frustrated, and I remember I was walking down some, like, street in Santa Monica, and all of a sudden I was like, Wait. Maybe it needs to be funny. 

Lithium: Like that lightning moment.

Mazzei: All of a sudden, it was so easy to write, it was fun to write, I sold it really quickly—everything just cracked open because I had this shift where I was like, maybe I’m actually supposed to be a funny writer. That was something that had been introduced to me in college, the idea that pop culture literature or commercial film could be taken seriously critically. When I went into college, I was like, there’s only one type of writing that’s serious. And when I came out of college, I had taken some classes that had introduced me to the idea that there are things worth studying in pop culture. So when I had that revelation, it was after college, but it brought me back to that moment, and I realized, "Hey. I can be a funny writer. I can write funny, commercial things that are poppy and fun and they can still be taken seriously and they can still be doing important work." So that’s the other thing. I think the greatest thing about college is that it allows you the space to explore. Like, take the weird classes. Take the weird astronomy class. Take the classes that are not related to your major. Take the things that interest you, and see college as this space to really explore and figure out what you’re interested in, what your style is, what you want to learn more about. That’s the greatest thing you can get out of college, because no matter what major you do, you’re going to come out of college as a better writer and a better reader if you apply yourself. The best thing you can do is really take advantage of that opportunity to just learn new things and new ideas and new ways of looking at the world. 

Lithium: That’s really good advice. 

Mazzei: Thank you! I’m glad. I hope it’s not too general. But I read some weird-ass books in college. Like, bizarre Russian avant-garde stuff that influenced CAM so much, I can’t even explain. When you read something that’s so bizarre it’s almost fragmented, and then you watch a really commercial horror movie, you say, okay, I want to bring really weird elements into my movie, but I still want it to be accessible to people who maybe don’t like super weird stuff. And it’s a really fun thought experiment! Or maybe you want to make the really weird, experimental movie. But I think the more you can read things that you wouldn’t normally pick off a shelf, the more you develop yourself as a writer and as a creative in general.   

CAM is currently streaming on Netflix. Isa's memoir, Camgirl, is currently available for pre-order on Amazon, and will be released November 12th in the U.S., November 22nd in Canada, and November 28th in the UK. 

Photos courtesy of Isa Mazzei and Netflix