Director Ben Hozie discusses his psychosexual semi-thriller about a lonely gambler whose life is thrown into disarray when he falls for a dominatrix
“If you want to cum, you have to tip me,” affirms Scarlet, one latex-covered arm folded indifferently across her stomach, the other gesturing to her webcam, half a smoked cigarette in hand. Jack presses a button and *ding*, a neon pink message appears on screen: ‘Scarlett was donated 100 tokens’. “Stick your tongue out,” she demands. Jack obeys, furiously masturbating as Scarlet virtually stubs her cigarette out in his mouth.
We’re one and half minutes into PVT Chat and the tone has been set. Directed by Ben Hozie, the film is an unashamed exploration of power dynamics, online relationships, and the unexpected fallouts that come with addiction. Centred too is the world of sex work, specifically camming, which has seen an immense surge in popularity over the last few years and particularly during the pandemic. Hozie offers a nuanced portrayal of the industry and those who work in it – for Scarlet, it’s an empowering hobby, a way to make money while exploring her true passion of painting; for her boyfriend, it’s degrading and veiled in stigma (though he’s happy to reap its monetary rewards); and for Jack, it’s a cure for a lonely life.
Set in New York, PVT Chat invites its audience to re-evaluate their preconceived ideas of both cam girls and their clients. ‘Professional’ gambler Jack, played brilliantly by Peter Vack, is a multi-layered character, who turns the sleazy stereotype of men who pay for sex on its head. As well as fulfilling expected tropes – creepy, pathetic, and desperate – he’s handsome, charming, and intelligent. He rejects IRL sex for his perceived virtual connection with Scarlet. You’re not sure whether to love him, hate him, or feel deeply sorry for him. And that’s the point.
Scarlet, portrayed by Uncut Gems’ Julia Fox, is a dominatrix and a painter, who remains an enigma until the second half of the film. She’s charming and loves the work she does – Fox, who used to work as a dominatrix herself, fed into her character’s development – and offers uninitiated audiences the chance to see a different, positive side to the sex industry.
Above all, PVT Chat is a romance film, of sorts. A modern day love story which plays out in the ‘sordid’ underbelly of the internet, and concludes under the glaring lights of a cheap motel. “The big thematic crux of the movie is seen via Jack’s nihilistic point of view in the first half of the film,” explains Hozie, “and is the question of: Are all relationships based on exploitation?”
Here, Dazed talks to Hozie about the inspiration behind his film, what he wanted to portray through his characters, and whether PVT Chat’s narrative takes on a new meaning in a mid-pandemic world.
Why did you choose to explore the worlds of camming and online gambling for PVT Chat?
Ben Hozie: When I first started writing the film, I wanted to make it a movie that explored how computers are changing consciousness for good. Then I decided I wanted to do a romantic story, and thought that I could update the classic trope of a guy falling in love with a prostitute by having a guy fall in love with a cam girl. And then I was thinking a lot about how the dopamine reaction you get from gambling is so similar to that on social media and the internet. So all those thoughts were swimming in my head.
I don’t know when it started to resemble a classic film noir – where there’s a guy who’s hanging out with femme fatales and is a gambler – but the twist is that, in our modern world, it’s not glamorous. You’re this loser sitting in an empty room just staring at your computer. That sung out to me as being both comic and really expressive of this moment in our history.
Did you consult sex workers during your research for the film?
Ben Hozie: I spent a bit of time interviewing cam girls. A lot of the stories I heard were quite tragic, where people would say, ‘The only reason I’m camming – even though I hate it – is because I have a bunch of kids and I won’t be able to make dinner for them unless I do this’. But I quickly realised that that’s not the kind of movie I wanted to make. I have friends in New York who’ve done various forms of sex work, and that’s what I had in mind – freelance sex workers who are skilled performers and are very comfortable with their sexuality. It was super important to me to make a movie where the sex work is enjoyed on some level.
Julia herself worked as a dominatrix when she was right out of high school. The experience of being a dominatrix might be the closest to being a cam girl because the guys aren’t allowed to touch you, so there’s an invisible screen and most of the performance is verbal. It actually requires an extraordinary level of acting commitment to be this character for an hour.
“The experience of being a dominatrix might be the closest to being a cam girl. It actually requires an extraordinary level of acting commitment to be this character for an hour” – Ben Hozie
Julia Fox is also a painter, like her character Scarlet. How did Julia’s life feed into her character development?
Ben Hozie: Julia, in some ways, is playing a version of herself. Obviously it’s fictional, but we did do a lot of improvisation in the movie, so lots of what Julia said was things she’d come up with. In some ways, Julia was looking back at this character and thinking about her younger self, and the alternate reality (she could have lived) as someone who hasn’t quite figured it out yet.
Scarlet is shown to have full agency over her sexuality, her work, and pleasuring herself. Masturbation scenes are central. Why was this important to include?
Ben Hozie: I wanted to show that sex workers can go into the industry because they enjoy it. Obviously they’re going into it to make a lot of money fast, but a big part of it has to be because, for whatever reason, these people are more sexual or more comfortable with their sexuality, and they’re gifted at performing sexuality.
Peter Vack’s character Jack is a very complex and interesting character – you veer from thinking he’s creepy, to sad and lonely, to our hero/villain/adversary. How were you hoping to portray men who utilise cam girls?
Ben Hozie: I didn’t want to let him off easy. You have to see the criminal aspect of him, but something that Peter and I talked about a lot was that he has to love people. He’s actually a genuinely sweet person; whenever he talks to anybody, he lights up – whether it’s the girls or the house painter. He’s a people person, but he’s also alienated and he’s lost. I want Jack to be a stand in for so many people from my generation who are lonely, perverted, very loving people, but kind of lost at the moment. There’s a version of the movie where we show him discovering that his roommate has died, but we chose not to reveal that information until later in the movie, because I didn’t want people to be like, ‘He is the way he is because he’s in mourning’. I wanted it to be that even if his roommate hadn’t died, he’d still be into cam girls.
Viewers only see Scarlet through a computer until the second half of the movie. When the screen wall between her and Jack disappears, how does letting us see Scarlet in a different setting and as a more human character change things?
Ben Hozie: To me, that’s the most fun part of the movie. Rewatching it, it doesn’t really come alive until that moment. It was important to me to show that Scarlet has a whole world beyond the fantasy that she’s creating for Jack. The big thematic crux of the movie is seen via Jack’s nihilistic point of view in the first half of the film, and is the question of: Are all relationships based on exploitation? Even with friends, people you encounter on the street, or even your closest family, it’s like, ‘What can you do for me?’ And Jack really sees (life) that way, and I wanted the audience to feel that way as well – they’re in this cynical world for 45 minutes, but then it flips. Scarlet doesn’t see the world that way. All of a sudden, the audience has the rug pulled out from under them, and they can breathe a little bit.
After you leave Jack’s world, which is basically just his apartment, you get to see more of New York. What idea of the city were you hoping to present?
Ben Hozie: Unfortunately, New York is not a very cinematic place anymore; every street has a bank or a McDonald’s. So, it’s never going to look like Sweet Smell of Success or The Naked City. Although, there are a few neighbourhoods that still have that kind of energy, one of them being Chinatown. I wanted to evoke these classic movies – neon signs, smoke coming out of the ground – and in order to do that, you have to go to Chinatown. I also wanted to show the New York that I know, which is – for lack of a better word – the new type of Brooklyn bohemia, except a sad comic version of it. So much of the movie isn’t New York, it’s just online, but it was important to me that when you’re in the outside world, it’s a total relief from the claustrophobia of Jack’s apartment.
The movie was filmed pre-pandemic – how does it feel navigating this narrative now in a world where relationships we form through screens are all the more relied upon?
Ben Hozie: It’ll shine more relevant now. I’d like to think that the movie, even 50 years from now when there’s a completely new technology, is still going to capture (online relationships and how they enable you to) build a false persona of someone in your head.
PVT Chat will be available online from February 12