The Soska Sisters ('American Mary')
'The Twisted Twins Reveal All!!'
Jen and Sylvia Soska are quite possibly the best thing that's happened to the horror genre in decades!
The 30-year-old Canadian sisters, and identical twins toboot, have spent nearly a decade making influential friends within the business. Plying their bloody trade as indie filmmakers, the results have thus far been 'Dead Hooker In A Trunk' and the just-released on Video On Demand and currently in theaters 'American Mary.'
'American Mary' stars Katharine Isabelle as Mary Mason, a young woman who quickly discovers that neither medical school nor her teachers are quite what she had expected. And so, in need of quick cash, Mary becomes immersed in the underground world of body modification.
Chatting recently with the lovely sibling writer/directors Soska sisters, Jen and Sylv I first wondered being that the sisters are twin writer-directors primarily obsessed with the horror genre, and having acted since they were seven, at what stage had one or the other suddenly realized that the horror genre was to be their chosen cinematic path? Sylv: "I don't know if it was the taboo of being little kids or more specifically little girls liking horror that drew us to it. Fear interested me. One of my earliest memories was getting a cup from a cupboard in our house and I saw this huge spider come out from inside. I ran screaming outside to where my grandfather was talking to my dad. I told them about the spider to explain my screaming, and my grandfather just said, 'So?' Being afraid of things was never encouraged in my house, you would find the humor in the situation or try to understand it to dispel the phobia."
Jen: "Ha ha, obsessed is actually very accurate. It's funny, we never got into horror. There wasn't a time that we weren't fascinated by it. We've been avid gamers since we were little and our video store had the horror section right next to the games and we were just kind of drawn to it. We'd spend so long peaking behind the VHS boxes and looking at the graphic images on the back making up what the film must be about based on the images. We don't have any phobias so people that do have always been an interest of ours. As well as scaring them," she laughs.
Your first movie, 'Dead Hooker In A Trunk' was lauded as highly impressive of a writing and directorial debut. How did its success change your lives at that exact moment? Sylv: "It's funny because there really wasn't an exact moment. It was a five year process for us from the start to the release and everything in between. There was a lot of rejection, a lot of struggles, we put everything we had into the film which left us too broke to even afford food. In a bottom of act two sort of way, we were wondering if we made the wrong decision, if everything was just going to keep blowing up in our faces, then we started to get some support."
"I remember Jeff Atencio of the Jaded Viewer gave us our first press and then through Women In Horror Recognition month in 2010, we got our first screenings. When people started talking about the film and supporting it - everything changed. We were still in the situation we were, but the film was getting this new life of its own. The horror community made it possible for the film to be successful and for us to keep doing this stuff. I will always be grateful."
Jen: "I think it really changed for us when Eli Roth threw his support behind the film. It's weird, but it was almost like someone else had to like it before it became okay for other people to like it. We had been sending out screeners and begging for reviews and screenings for so long and then it suddenly started to change. I will say it was a long road to get from that moment to right now or even to the release of the film. They don't write books about releasing and distributing your film, but they should cuz it can be a nightmare and it's an area where inexperienced filmmakers get screwed over."
'DHIAT' put you on the horror map and gave you instant creditability, but do you think you could have done the same thing back in the '70s or '80s? I mean, technology today has made making a film very hands on for the writers. So, perhaps back then it would have been too expensive, too much of a production, so to speak? Sylv: "I don't think so and especially not at the cost we made DHIAT for. The digital age makes filmmaking more accessible for the filmmakers, it's also significantly less expensive than shooting on film. I think the spirit would have been the same, but our film school came from Robert Rodriguez and his class came into session in the 90s. We are big '70s and '80s horror fans, so being filmmakers in that time would have changed us up a lot - maybe instead of loving those decades, we would have been more into '50s and '60s filmmaking which would have been weird since those decades were so different from one another."
Jen: "It would have had its advantages and disadvantages. With the digital shift in filmmaking, it's never been easier to make a film so a huge part of it nowadays is your promotion and ability to market your film. Independent films don't have the luxury of huge marketing budgets. You need to take full advantage of social media and that forces you to connect directly with your fanbase which everyone should seek to be doing anyways. There is a lot of competition out there right now. Literally anyone can make a film. You need to make yours stand out in a sea of thousands. That's the greatest challenge right now. Even if your film is phenomenal it doesn't mean shit if you can't get anyone to watch it."
Between 'DHIAT' and your latest film, 'American Mary' there was some three years down time. Why was that? Sylv: "We were working, but you just didn't hear about it. After DHIAT got out and we started on getting MARY made, we were working day jobs, waiting tables, going home and promoting our work, and then going to meetings in between. It was the hardest time of my life and a lot of those struggles went into the script for MARY."
"In the last year we have been traveling the world and marketing the film, but in the same instance we are taking meetings and setting up next projects - a lot of what you do next depends on the last film you made and with DHIAT, not too many people believed we could pull off a film like MARY."
Jen: "To take a film from script to release takes a long time. Especially if you, like us, are obsessed with original content. It scares people to make a film that isn't like anything else. They want to know that you're making SAW so they can be like, "okay, SAW made this much and we can estimate that we'll bank that much and we can market it just like they did SAW." When you walk in with an original idea that is hard to even label as just a horror as it envelops so many genres, it's a tough sell and a tough release."
"I had the blind faith always in the horror fans. I knew they'd get it and they have, but it can be hard to convince people that you know what you're doing because you are the fan base. We're horror fans ourselves. We consume everything out there."
It seems that your latest film, 'American Mary' has proven to be a metaphor for your own journey through the independent film industry - as it follows Mary Mason as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted. Although touching on it earlier, what were your own versions of life early on, trying to break into the genre? Sylv: "Mary starts out very naive with this vision of what she thinks the medical profession is like and how the professionals conduct themselves in this world and through her experiences, everything she holds dear, her world is darkened with the reality of it all and the less pure natured aspects. That happened to us when we went into this business. But then we found ourselves getting this tremendous amount of support and kindness from the often misunderstood and villainized horror community. We decided to use mainstream medicine versus body modification as an analogy for it."
"It was a story we had to tell, not just because we wanted to make another film, but we had to make this film. We were disenchanted, but found something real and more special in our ventures. We have never made any money on DHIAT and I don't even want to tell you what we allowed our rates to be slashed to so more money could go into the production of MARY. We're not starving anymore like when we started out, but we're not in this for the money. The most important thing to us is to do justice to these stories because they mean something to us."
Jen: "It's definitely been a long road to get to where we are today. I'd say that we experienced a lot of the sleaze that goes hand in hand with being young girls that want to act or model. There are definite predators out there. The most disgusting treatment we've received have been from producer types who only categorize women as fuckable or not fuckable. My age and gender have been things that I have been treated poorly because of and the sexual harassment that becomes just a daily routine with these people constantly calling us "honey" or "sweetie" or "kid" or the things they'd say behind our backs or the jokes they'd make or the endless suggestions that we could talk about this or that over dinner. We've had major struggles and we still continue to struggle. But we'd never people like that stand in our way."
In 'American Mary,' the allure of easy money sends Mary into the twilight world of body modification and underground surgeries - where obsessed flesh artists will pay anything and go through anything to get their unusual procedures done! Wow, so do these places really exist and if so, to what level of research did you have to explore? Sylv: "I think finding someone as fancy as Mary who brazenly does procedures in her own home would be a killer find. A lot of the body mod procedures that people do happen in tattoo and piercing shops, a lot in hotel rooms where the flesh artist flies in and does the modification, and I was thrilled when a flesh artist told me that she did some procedures in a veterinary clinic. If you're exploring something fantastical in a film, because there are some serious moments where you have to suspend your disbelief in all our films, it helps if there is a foot that stays in reality."
"We wanted to keep the medical and flesh artistry in a real place, so the blood and procedures have been approved by professionals in both fields. We researched endlessly, but we aren't in the culture so we brought on Russ Foxx as our flesh artist consultant to go over the script and be there on set, he even taught Katie how to suture."
Jen: "We never write anything not based in reality. Even if we were writing a werewolf film, you can bet that we'd look at all the folklore and mythology behind it. We approached body mod the same way, though it was actually a focus of interest for us long before we ever wrote AMERICAN MARY. Our mum taught us that fear was a lack of knowing about something and we wanted to learn more about the body mod community."
"They are such a misunderstood and often misrepresented group. We wanted to dispel those negative connotations and introduce body modification to people who either had no idea about the culture or had these false, negative, preconceived notions. Appearances are everything, but what something appears to be can be deceiving."
And, laying all the cards on the table, what things have you girls had done to you over the years that fall under those kind of underground procedures?! Sylv: "I wish! I want to do a suspension. Russ gave me a hook after I witnessed my first suspension as a gift and to help me grow the balls to finally do it!"
Jen: "Oh, nothing exciting. I have pierced ears, one in each, and a pierced navel. I loved the look of the flesh corsets that we had in the film. That wasn't a mod, that was beautiful prosthetic work from MastersFX. I'm seriously missing it. I'd love to have subdermal implants in our backs so we could lace them up anytime we wanted. I think it's just so beautiful."
The fact that Mary soon discovers that her new 'profession' leaves more marks on her own psyche than on her freakish clientele, I'm now wondering if Mary was styled on someone you have run into in life? Sylv: "I met a guy once who worked in clean up for organized crime. He was this cool, young, very polite, confident man, but everyone was afraid of him. A guy was getting aggressive with me and he stepped in and then suddenly everyone was very apologetic and minded their manners. I got a panicked call the next day from a friend that saw we left with him - he dropped us off at home and gave me his number if I wanted to see him again - and was afraid because she knew who he was. He's the only real life 'Mary' that I've ever met."
Jen: "Actually, Mary is Sylv. Her personality, her dark sense of human, her control, her strength, her professionalism... It's a very personal. I knew we were writing Sylv, but she was doing it almost subconsciously. Sylv hasn't sliced anyone up, but she's definitely considered it. We all have. Anyone that says they haven't entertained a malicious fantasy is lying to you!"
And why was Katharine Isabelle ('Ginger Snaps') chosen to play Mary? Sylv: "We've been a fan of Katie's since GINGER SNAPS. I met her once when we were both on set for JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS where she was very kind to me when I came over to her - she doesn't remember this. I did. I told Jen that one day we have to work with her. We kept watching her career and got frustrated because here was an actress with a huge emotional capacity who can easily tackle very complicated, real feelings in a way that seems effortless but so many roles seemed hung up over what a beautiful woman she is."
"It might sound cruel given the nature of the film, but everything that happens in AMERICAN MARY is something we wanted to see Katie do and knew she would be able to pull off. My expectations of her were ridiculous and somehow, probably because she's fucking awesome, she surpassed all of those expectations."
Jen: "We never write for an actor. You just never know if it'll work out, if they'll be available or interested or prove themselves to be the people you expect them to be when you finally meet them. It's never a good idea to get you heart invested because then you end up only being able to see them in the role. We broke that rule for Katie. It was always Katie. We'd long watched and admired her. She is a phenomenal actor and she should be in so many more films. I expect she will be now. She hit like this Canadian glass ceiling. Hollywood films are almost obsessed with throwing in whatever flavor of the month actress into films. It doesn't even matter if they can act, it's all dependent on if they're an "LA name." Katie is one of the most talented actresses working today. Easily. She has this incredible presence. She can convey so much emotion with such subtlety. Katie has this amazing capacity for emotional depth and you can't help but fall in love with her."
"Mary doesn't have an redeeming qualities. Her actions are motivated by selfish desires to advance herself or survive. She never really does anything to help someone else that doesn't benefit herself, but still you love her and you're rooting for her. A lesser actor wouldn't have had a hope in hell of pulling that off, but Katie did it effortlessly, like she does everything. She's the real deal."
It's been said, by you girls, that the creation of 'American Mary' was very therapeutic of an experience for you both. Please explain that some more Sylv: "When we wrote the script, we were still struggling to get our first film out there. We had put ourselves into a bad financial situation, the film didn't cost that much, but not working during the process, being the sole income providers for our household where we never had enough money for food let alone bills, then we were putting what money we did make back into the film or traveling to LA to meet people in hopes of selling it or promoting it. At the same time we were in the hospital for days on end with ailing loved ones where we would watch the oddity of a hospital and the necessary emotional-vaccuum of many of the people that worked there. We were meeting monsters in the mainstream while finding comradery in the indie horror scene."
"We took everything we were going through and put it into the script - I didn't realize it until much later and I don't think I will write anything that personal again for a while. But once you are examining these things in an artistic way at a safe distance, you can handle it better. You have a control that you don't necessarily always get in reality."
Jen: "You write what you know. The more personal, the better. The film is an analogy for our own struggles. Money's been tight and filmmaking isn't this thing that once you're in it all your troubles just go away and you're instantaneously rich and famous. We've had times where we've quite literally starved. Putting that all on the screen was a way of dealing with it and we also are very aware we're not the only ones that are experiencing how hard it is out there. Particularly for young women in industries dominated by men. Most have been absolutely wonderful, but there have been some real assholes and there always are the sexist pigs that make you wonder why you even bother fighting against them and every misogynistic little ideal they stand for."
"I like to think that every shithead I deal with and leave in our dust makes it just that much easier for the next girl that wants to make movies. It's also therapeutic because I can't actually slice some prick up into ribbons and keep him alive and suffering locked away in some storage locker."
"But Mary can!"
Every film made comes with its own set of unique, individual challenges - so what was the main one for you girls on 'AM'? Sylv: "We didn't have the time or money to make this an easy shoot, it was extremely ambitious and with our restrictions, it meant everyone who did come onto the production were not there because of the money or timeline, but because they legitimately cared about the film. People would work for free, donate things to the set, everyone put everything they had into the film and I felt a huge amount of pressure to protect the film all those people came together to make. Jen and I have worked countless hours promoting the film and keeping its soul intact because it's the least I can do to all those people who put their trust in us and the film."
Jen: "I'd say it was the time and budget. You never have enough time or money, but we really had a huge challenge with what we wanted to do and what we had to do it with. The schedule may have been the biggest challenge. 15 days to shoot, no allowance for pick ups, never allowed to go over 12 hours, and only a few weeks to edit. If it wasn't for our amazing crew, it would not have been possible. Our editor, Bruce MacKinnon, was brilliant. What we were able to accomplish under such restraints was a real testament to the talent of our crew and cast."
Now, being that we're not called Exclusive Magazine for nothing, can you please reveal a little as-yet-untold secret about the filming of a certain scene within 'American Mary' that would be of great interest to our readers; and your fans alike? Sylv: "The end of the film, the final sequence with Mary was filmed while we were being kicked out of the location with no hope for reshoots or additional time. Jen ran interference while Katie and the crew pretended we were clearing up and we got what is one the most crucial parts of the film. With a lesser cast and crew, this film would have been impossible and they were fantastic. I never want to work without them, I love them dearly for what they did to make sure we got the film that we did."
Jen: "Okay, but SPOILER ALERT, boys and grrls! We knew we had no pick ups and no allowance for reshoots and had no faith in CGI. When people say, "we'll fix it in post", you're screwed. Sylv pulled a genius move in the storage locker. We were being kicked, no big change from the usual. That one shot where a bloodied Mary walks up to Grant on the ground with the taser? It was the only shot we were allowed to get of that. We are firm believers in practical effects rather than CGI to fix mistakes. To get rid of Grants arms, Sylv had him curl them under his body and positioned the cameras accordingly and voila. We only had one chance to shoot that and it was one of our stand out storyboard moments that we had been planning since we wrote the script. It ended up working beautifully and you'd never guess we almost had to lose it."
Now, what is this we're hearing about your next movie 'Bob'? Can you tell us a little more about what the new film will be about, perhaps? Sylv: "It is an original monster movie. The tagline is: There is a monster inside all of us, sometimes it gets out. It will be the greatest thing ever, I promise you that."
Jen: "Although BOB will be a much more "commercial" film than AMERICAN MARY, commercial from us is still pretty out there. The content is extreme and as a result it's very funny. And it has to be. It's a very complex story and if you want to think about it, there's so much depth there. On the surface level, you can turn your brain off and just enjoy the gore and comedy, but it's a very laired story and, again, very unique and original. You've never quite seen anything like it and it's really going to blow people away. It'll have us pairing with the geniuses at MastersFX again in a big way and we'll be favoring practical effects over CGI."
Being Canadian and women in this business, society obviously tried to train you to avoid confrontation - it seems that you decided to push that envelope and stick a bloody middle finger up to it! Sylv: "I think Jen and I grew up a little different than other kids. We were twins that loved horror, so we were a little weird which meant it was hard to make friends yet easy to be ridiculed. My parents encouraged us to be ourselves. There was a kid picking on me in third grade and my mom told me to tell him to go fuck himself. Shit just went down like that in my household!"
"I knew that the people who were assholes in school and the world are just that, and to not give them power over the people that Jen and I are. We would stand up for other people that got picked on - if you stand by and let bad things happen, you are just as responsible for it. I've been told to change the way I act and conduct myself because it's 'not nice for women to behave' like this, so I tell them to go fuck themselves too. Thank you for that lesson, Mom."
Jen: "Bob and Harvey Weinstein are our power animals. Women, and Canadian women in particular, are trained by society to avoid confrontation. You stand up for yourself or are assertive and you're a bitch. And I'm fine with that. It's a bizarre double standard. Sometimes I catch myself bumping into an inanimate object and apologizing. That's where the Weinsteins come into play. You don't get much tougher than them and thinking about what badasses they are and how much they've achieved reminds me that sometimes you do have to toughen up."
"Kindness can be taken as weakness. You have to make sure they know you have claws. You don't have to rip their eyes out, but you need them to know that if they cross you, it's a possibility. We might be just a little harder to encourage other women and especially any girls that want to follow in our footsteps to not shy away from confrontation. You need a tough skin in this business and with the stupid sexist remarks, you have to deal with it even more as a woman. And you need to let it just roll off your back."
Five Cheesy Questions:
1) What are both your Top 3 horror movies of all time - and why? Sylv: "AUDITION - it's one of the best explorations of women's capacity for evil that I have ever seen and it is masterfully shot in the most beautiful of ways, STAND BY ME - it reminds me of summers when I was that age and it gets kids right which doesn't happen too often, and AMERICAN PSYCHO - it's such a smart satirical look at how self-involved people can be and it's directed by Mary Harron who eloquently defended the film when it got so stupidly attacked in the press."
Jen: "DEAD RINGERS because of probably very obvious reasons. David Cronenberg is a master of horror and his twin film is just brilliant. THE THING because of Rob Bottin's amazing effects. It's the stand out example for our love of practical effects. And AMERICAN PSYCHO, for every reason. We love the novel. It's just a brilliant satire."
2) Does one twin tend to wear darker clothing, leaving the other one to wear lighter, more colorful stuff on purpose - or is that all a publicity stunt?! Sylv: "I have a lot of black, it's always been my favorite colour - it's so cheerful. I'm kind of a bit fashion fan girl, I have shoes and clothes in so many different styles and colours, just because I think it's cool to express yourself aesthetically. The claiming to eat souls is a publicity act, souls are far too fattening, too many carbs."
Jen: "Oh, we're both totally Johnny Cash. We're almost always in black. I've been trying to add some color in there because sometimes I open my closet and say, "do I even have a choice other than little black dress?"," she laughs.
3) Can you, or have you ever been able to "communicate" without talking to each other?! Sylv: "Oh, yeah. But to me it's weird that other people can't. We get the same thoughts and say whole sentences together with the same infliction, it's odd but I'm so used to it. We can have full conversations with just a look which helps on set and when we don't have anything nice to say about a situation."
Jen: "All the time. We can have full conversations with just a look. We get each other on a totally different level. It's part of the reason we work so well together."
4) You've both done body doubling - so, whose body part had the biggest name attached to it that you've done to date? Sylv: "No one! Jen booked everything we went out for. We joke that we're like the twins in TWINS, she got all the good stuff and I'm the leftover shit. I've had some pretty impressive productions have their teams look at my ass only to decide it wasn't the ass they were looking for!"
Jen: "Ha ha, I was Callie's body double on Battlestar Galactica. I was brought in for Sarah Michelle Gellar's butt double in a sex scene, but she turned me down. I was pretty disappointed. I would have really slain at that. Pun intended!"
5) I see you both make an appearance in 'AM' - much like you did in 'DHIAT.' Is this Hitchcockian approach something you can always see yourselves doing? Sylv: "We started as actresses, but it never really went anywhere. We couldn't pay anyone to be in HOOKER, so it made sense to write ourselves parts. In MARY, our appearance is our final cameo to focus on writing and directing - working behind the scenes. Maybe something juicy will come up and we'll do it again, but I don't like doing things that people suspect of me. That said, we filmed a cameo in a friend's film today, so maybe we'll keep popping up here and there."
Jen: "It was a bit of a joke on the way people see us. I love acting, it was by far my first love, but when you're a female director and actor there's this negative connotation. As a result, we want to focus on our directing and writing and producing and distance ourselves from acting. We made DHIAT to not get offered these shittier than shit "twin roles" that were so poorly written and stereotypical without any substance and usually dripping with gratuitous sexuality. And those are the same roles we get offered."
"So AMERICAN MARY will be the last time you see us in front of the camera. At least for a good while. We are very much slaves to the desires of our fans. If they want to see us, we'd have to oblige. And who knows? Maybe someone will write something incredible for us."
Knowing you both have different personalities re: one is the heart and soul of the filmmaking, the other wants to rip the heart and soul out and crap on it, so to speak, has your working relationship always been so accommodating with each other? Sylv: "Jen is the how of our filmmaking process and I'm the why. She makes the production possible so I can passionately talk about the recession and radical feminism. We always complimented one another, but I don't think we really thought of it before we started making films together. She's far better with people than I am, I feel awkward around people. I like them either too much or not at all. I couldn't do this without Jen - because we are born collaborators, we always knew to take on different roles for the same goal."
Jen: "Sylv is truly my better half. She makes everything we do better. She's a true artist by every definition of the word. She's so darkly creative and brilliant and so original. The things she comes up with are just out of this world, but that's Sylv. She's just a genius and so very talented. We may take very different paths, but we always end up at the same destination. We ultimately want the same things and have the same message to convey with our work. On set and with our scripts, we're one unified voice. We take turns writing, but I don't think anyone would ever be able to guess which one of us wrote what scene."
Katharine has said in an interview that you two, on set, have to go into a corner every now and again for a "twin fight" (verbal, of course). Has this always been your way of letting off steam at each other, whilst at the same time never coming to actual blows?! Sylv: "There's nothing more confusing than having two directors that look the exact fucking same saying two different things. We pre-plan everything so we already know the film before we set foot on step, we can see it finished in our minds. Rarely, we got to a topic where we aren't on the same page, we don't have drama on our sets, so we excuse ourselves whisper in a corner to hear each other out, then return with a consensus on the answer."
Jen "Oh, I wish it was more exciting. On rare occasion when we disagree, we'll step aside and quickly remedy that. There's no ego. There's no right and wrong. Obviously we're both always right at all times, but we go with what is best for the film. We've decided long ago that work comes first, each other is second, and whatever else exists in our lives takes third place. We put the emphasis on where it has to be. The work."
"When we trained in martial arts we decided that we'd never physically fight again. We could hurt each other too bad. Of course, we relaxed that rule for Fantastic Fest and the Fantastic Debates where we dressed like Kitana and Mileena from Mortal Kombat and beat the crap out of one another. It was like real life FIGHT CLUB."
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, we here at Exclusive Magazine love Penguins! So, do you girls have any love for them or any stories perhaps? Sylv: "My dad loves penguins too! Any stories about them? I cried watching MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. I didn't know those little motherfuckers were so hardcore. I could never do a doc like that. I'd just put all the penguins in my car and drive them to where they needed to go!"
Jen: "Oh, I feel very strongly for penguins. They're adorable. You think they should fly, but they're trend setters and swim and waddle their own paths. I think they're adorable. And you've got to love their high contrast black and white look. Stunning little buggers."
So, could they ever feature in an upcoming movie?! Sylv: "Yes, but you're producing," she laughs, one last time.
Jen: "Ha ha, if they do, it would be purely to amuse you guys. We might just have to do that, ha ha. I've worked with a cat before. They've got to be easier to work with than that!"
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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