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In the new Blumhouse horror-thriller Cam (out Nov. 16), Madeline Brewer from Orange Is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale plays a cam girl named Alice who discovers she has been replaced by an onscreen doppelgänger. Unfamiliar with the term “cam girl”? We’ll let the film’s screenwriter Isa Mazzei explain.

“A cam girl is someone who performs online for money,” she says. “There are cam girls, there are cam boys, there are gender non-conforming cam performers, there are cam girls that don’t get naked, there are cam girls that do ventriloquism, there are cam girls that do straight pornography. There’s a whole wide spectrum of different cam girls. Really, the only definition is, someone who performs online in front of their webcam for money.”

Mazzei knows of what she speaks. The writer grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and studied Russian and Italian literature at UC Berkeley. After graduating in 2013 she got a job in web development and then spent around two years working as a cam girl herself.

“I had always wanted to try sex work,” says Mazzei. “I had toyed with the idea of being a stripper, and then I found camming, and I realized it was just something I wanted to do. I just fell in love with it.”

The writer’s positive experience with camming is reflected in the film. Brewer’s Alice is put through hell as she attempts to reclaim her web character “Lola” and her audience from the mysterious lookalike, and Mazzei doesn’t shy away from depicting the real life threat potentially posed by obsessive virtual admirers. But Alice is also shown as, essentially, an ambitious entrepreneur of the internet age, albeit one who hides her profession from her mother (Melora Walters).

“We’re not opening the conversation, ‘Is camming good or bad?’” says Brewer. “It’s totally subjective. I would never tell someone to do cam, if they weren’t comfortable doing cam, because for someone, it might be a bad decision, it might make them hyper-aware of their body, or it might make them feel pressure to do things that they’re not necessarily excited to do. Cam is not for everybody. [But] it’s honestly not up to anyone else to decide. That‘s the whole point of the film. It’s not up to anyone else to decide whether or not this is a good decision for the person. She wants it, it is her ambition, she is passionate, and she loves it. There are people in my life who would tell me, ‘Acting is ruining your life. It’s making you a crazy person. It’s making you neglect your mental health and your physical health. It’s not benefitting you.’ But I want it and it’s mine, you know.”

Mazzei conceived Cam with the film’s director Daniel Goldhaber and the pair share the movie’s “a film by” credit. Goldhaber also grew up in Colorado and dated Mazzei while they attended rival high schools before studying at Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.

“It’s mostly focused on documentary and experimental films,” he says. “The second semester, the entire class of students directs a documentary by committee. There’s no director. What it forces you to do — at a time when filmmakers are told that auteurship is all that matters, and that filmmaking is a single-player adventure — it really forces you to think of [filmmaking] as a collaboration, about knowing how to communicate.”

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After Mazzei asked Goldhaber to shoot some footage for her cam business the pair started to explore the possibility of combining their respective interests and skill sets.

“I hired Daniel to come film some porn for me, just some videos for me to sell on my show,” she says. “While we were working together, he became really fascinated with the world of camming. He would watch me set up for my shows, and watch me plan things, and my calendar, and my spread sheets, and all the behind-the-scenes stuff to get the shows ready. He decided we should do something in this area. I had always [thought about] doing something like a documentary. But it was really important to me to tell a story that would get an audience to empathize with the cam girls, empathize with the sex worker, and to understand just how normal it can be. I feel in mainstream media, sex work is either glamorized to the point of absurdity, or it’s treated as something that is inherently exploitative, when in fact it can also just be a very normal job.

“We had many discussions around that intention of mine and realized that genre was perhaps a better way in to the material, not only because I love horror movies, but also because I think that when you make a film that’s very exciting, and thrilling, and colorful, sometimes these subversive messages aren’t quite so obvious as they are in other genres, like a documentary. Really, when you look at Cam, what we’re asking an audience to do is to root for a sex worker to go back to sex work. [Laughs] That’s incredibly subversive, but when you’re watching it, you’re not even realizing quite how political that is, because it is a thriller, it is a horror, and so you’re on the edge of your seats, wrapped up in that.”

Even after Blumhouse got involved with the project, Hollywood agents weren’t too wrapped in the script’s horror-thriller elements to put their acting clients up for the risqué, and potentially controversial, lead role.

“The way that you normally cast a movie in the Hollywood system is, you send the script out to the agencies, and they pitch their clients,” says Goldhaber. “That didn’t happen. We got no clients pitched to us. You go and you say, ‘Well, can we talk to X actress?’ and their agents would say, ‘They’ve unfortunately passed on the role. Then I would meet that actress at a party or something and they would say, ‘I’ve never heard of your movie.’ The agents just didn’t want their clients in the film.”

Goldhaber was eventually pointed in the direction of Brewer by an unlikely third party — his own father.

“Isa and I did a lot of this work in my parents’ house in Boulder, Colorado,” says the director. “My dad is a physicist, but he really likes to pretend that he’s part of the filmmaking process. He walks into the room and he goes, ‘I found your lead actress.’ And we’re like, ‘Sure you did.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I did. She’s in this Black Mirror episode, she’s perfect for the role. Madeline Brewer. You’ve got to cast her.’ I looked her up, and we watched her material, and she was absolutely incredible. Somebody at Blum knew her manager, got us a meeting. I met with her, Isa met with her. She not only got the movie but was really excited about the politics. [She] came in, and read, and that was kind of it. It was so obvious from that first moment that she was really born to be in the film.”

To prepare for the role, Brewer studied “hours and hours” of cam footage.

“I knew cam existed, but I hadn’t really watched much,” says the actress. “It’s just not my thing, I guess. But in research for the role, I studied cam girls, their personalities, and their nuances. It was really important to me that this story has authenticity, because if you’re going to tell a story about a sex worker in a way that a story about a sex worker has not yet been told, you want to do it right. And the fact that our writer is a former sex worker, a former cam girl, was really really important to me.”

Director Goldhaber also felt the need to more fully acquaint himself with the movie’s subject matter, by camming himself.

“I knew that I needed to feel my own personal relationship to this kind of performance, and to the vulnerability of putting your body out there in the way that a cam performer does,” says the filmmaker. “I actually saved it up to the week leading up to the shoot. Every night, I’d finish prep, and I’d cam for a couple of hours. I’m extremely bad at it. I have no sexual charisma and I just absolutely could not get any sort of money.”

Brewer recalls that Goldhaber was very open to input from the women on set.

“If there was any part of this world that was entirely produced by men I wouldn’t have participated in this film,” she says. “Something that is absolutely crucial to this story is the fact that, even though Daniel is a man who directed a movie about a woman, and from a very feminine point of view, he listened to Isa and to me and to our DP, Katelin Arizmendi. He listened to the women at every turn. He was open, and aware of his shortcomings and his misunderstandings about the female experience, because of being a man. If he didn’t have that ability to listen and to be aware, the movie wouldn’t have worked.”

Cam received its world premiere last July at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where it won both the Best Screenplay and Best First Feature awards.

“That was pretty incredible,” says Mazzei. “I cried, definitely. Having an audience of strangers watch it for the first time in a theater was really moving.”

The film has also inspired weeping in audience members.

“I’ve had now several women come up to me in tears at the end of it, telling me that the film has profoundly affected them,” says Mazzei, who is currently working on a second film for Blumhouse with Goldhaber. “Some of them were former sex workers, some of them are current sex workers. One of them wasn’t a sex worker at all, but just felt so moved by having this representation of a female body that is not objectified, and having this representation of sex work where she isn’t vilified or victimized because of her choices, but instead is the protagonist and is this bad a– woman that we want to get her show back. To have a former sex worker, or just women in general, telling me that they feel seen by this film, and that they feel respected by this film, and they feel maybe like the tides are turning because of this film, that has been to date the most incredible experience of my life.”

Cam premieres on Netflix and opens in select theaters Friday. Watch the film’s somewhat disturbing trailer, above.

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