‘Appearances Are Everything’ – The twisted twins talk American Mary
When I got the call to come meet Jen and Sylvia Soska for lunch soon after they’d landed in Melbourne for Monster Fest, I spent the entire time in the car on the way over repeating to myself ‘Be cool. Don’t get nerd goo on them. Be cool. Don’t get nerd goo on them. Be cool…” That mantra flew right out of my head the moment I met them. Talking to Jen and Sylvia is like hanging out with old friends you haven’t seen in a while. Old friends who understand that you’re a little creepy and have almost non-existant social skills and for some reason like you anyway. Old friends who laugh uproariously when the waitress at the restaurant you’re dining at forgets that you’re even there and walks off without taking your order. I knew then that I had met two very special people.
And because it was like hanging out with old friends, I spent most of my time with them talking comics and bizarre internet porn instead of, say, getting an interview with them for the Monster Pictures website. So then I had the great idea of getting my very talented and hardworking colleague Zak Hepburn to come up with some interview questions that I could then take credit for and get the sisters to answer them while they were in Sydney, Perth or Brisbane, because you know, what is there to do in those cities besides sit in your hotel room and type stuff out on a computer? Of course none of that mattered because I didn’t email them the said questions until they were on the plane headed back home anyway. Lucky for me the twins are on the ball and I found all the questions answered and sitting in my inbox before anyone could get fired *cough* and now I present them for your reading pleasure.
How did you come to create your first feature DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK?
Sylvia: The whole concept came as a ‘fuck you’ to the film school that had ripped us off and constantly disappointed us with their complete lack of being anything even remotely resembling a school. They cut the funding to our final project, so we decided to make something of our own that we would write, direct, produce, act in, and do the stunt work for. There was a list of material ‘too inappropriate’ for school projects that we used as a guideline as to what to put into the film and added the oddly forgotten bestiality and necrophilia for good measure. The title came from Jen out of nowhere during real film school – us going to see GRINDHOUSE in the theatres over and over again. We played the trailer at graduation where half the audience walked out and the other half was laughing and cheering so loud that you could barely make out the intentionally crude dialogue. It was an epic win and what got us into making it into a featuring by maxing out our credit cards, calling in the best in Vancouver to help out, and following in Rodriguez and Gallardo’s EL MARIACHI, ‘Rebel Without A Crew’ indie brat footsteps.
Jen: The title came inspired by Rodriguez and Tarantino’s GRINDHOUSE. We were going to a god awful film school at the time which was really only that in name. It couldn’t have been more unprofessional or poorly conceived. Sylv and I wanted to learn so we did the only reasonable thing. Saw our favorites in action in the theaters. The whole collection of grindhouse inspired works really inspired us. Jason Eisner’s HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN had to be our favorite title in the whole lot by far. It made me appreciate and see the importance of a strong title. We wanted to be filmmakers, but no one knew us and we realized that the odds to make it or even catch anyone’s attention was going to be a massive uphill battle, especially with our modest cash flow or lack thereof. One day after seeing GRINDHOUSE (I have no idea how many times we saw it, we lost count), I turned to Sylv and said “Dead Hooker In A Trunk”. She asked what was that and I said it’s going to be the title of our movie. Dead Hooker In A Trunk. She asked me what it’s about and I said “I dunno, but we should put a hooker in a trunk at some point or people will be pissed.”
How has the AMERICAN MARY shooting experience differed from the DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK shooting experience?
Sylvia: Having to be in every department in DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK educated us like nothing else could have in the realm of how a film set works. We used the same, get your hands dirty, be involved in every department ethos like we did on HOOKER, but our department heads were the most talented people in the industry – they brought so much to the film and they were very cool with their green, super ambitious directors to make a vision that was everything and more. Our first AD, Brad Jubenvil, our Production Designer, Tony Devenyi, our Costumer, Enigma Arcana, our DP, Brian Pearson, our FX team, Masters FX – are our film family. They have that same independent, let’s make this happen despite modest budget and incredibly tight schedule mentality. We were very lucky to have them.
Jen: Every project is different. The things you’re prepared for and never the things that end up going wrong. DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK taught us the very valuable lesson of being able to think on your feet and roll with the punches. Coming from very indie roots, we can think through a problem likely much more quickly than someone who hasn’t had that kind of background. No has never been an option.
What were the filmic influences for AMERICAN MARY? Both in the script and visual style of the film?
Sylvia:: Dario Argento had a big influence on the lighting and some of the shots. We actually were watching SUSPIRIA when we got inspiration on an edit we were having trouble with. Our intention was to make a horror film that you didn’t have to look away from. Like FREAKS, we wanted to have the authenticity of real members of the body modification community, but the theme of the film is ‘Appearances Are Everything’ because that is so often how people are judged and we wanted to break away from what you would expect in every frame of the film and with every character. IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID were a big inspiration for the club and the doctors’ party scenes. REPULSION was a strong influence on the character of Mary, even though it we were introduced to that film by our cinematographer, Brian Pearson, after the script was already written.
Jen: We are fans of horror, first and foremost. A horror fan can have a real fun time watching MARY and looking for our horror references and shout outs. DEAD RINGERS is probably an obvious one. We adore David Cronenberg and we knew when the Twins scene happens that we wanted Mary in the DEAD RINGERS red scrubs. AUDITION was another, along with AMERICAN PSYCHO and IRREVERSIBLE. The film, especially its pacing, tone, art, and cinematography was very much a love letter to Asian and European films that we love such as LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and I SAW THE DEVIL.
Sylvia: There is this indescribable star power that Katie effortlessly encompasses. Whether you’re watching her survive lycan teenage angst in GINGER SNAPS or going head to head with Pacino in INSOMNIA or redefining the struggles of a young working woman in AMERICAN MARY, she brings these characters to life with honesty and integrity. You can’t get enough of that, you can’t take your eyes off of her when she’s onscreen. She makes you a fan, she did that to me and Jen too.
The character was written for Katie. We have been big fans of her work for years, but hadn’t seen her in roles that reflected the caliber of actress that she is. By the time we sent the script to her and she was coming to meet us for the first time, I loved Mary so much, I was terrified that we wouldn’t mesh or that she wouldn’t live up to my exceedingly high expectations of her.
She actually surpassed my expectations. Katie is just brilliant. She gave everything to the role, she had a definitive idea of Mary and wasn’t afraid to take strong choices with her. I loved collaborating with her – I tell her she looks most stunning when she is crying and covered in blood, yet somehow she and I remain very close friends.
Jen: We rarely write a character for a particular actor. We usually prefer to write a character and then compile a list of possible actors who could fit that role. Katie was the exception. We knew we wanted her from the beginning. She has this immense depth to her and she can pull off so much with such subtlety that so few actors can. She’s brilliant and she is such a professional to work with. You write a character that you love and of course your ultimate hope is that you find an actor that can not only bring that character to life, but bring even more to the character than you expected. Katie was very into Mary and she really thoughtfully developed and brought her to life that truly exceeded our already sky high expectations.
Sometimes a really talented actor will hit the Canadian glass ceiling and people don’t realize how truly amazing they are. It can be like if you’re not in LA, you don’t exist. Katie is just phenomenal and I think this role beautifully displays her maturity, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and charisma.
How did you come to meet and work with performer Tristan Risk?
Jen: We knew of Tristan Risk beforehand, though we had yet to meet her in person. She’s a living legend in Vancouver and you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen her perform her burlesque live. The woman is a living work of art. She is a perfect muse by every definition. We had been hunting for our Beatrice and had seen over 60 actresses locally and taped from LA and hadn’t found the right girl. Tristan was being brought in to do our dance choreography and she just had this energy and life about her. She still does. A room changes when Tristan walks into it. We sat down and began chatting and were just in awe seeing Beatrice in front of us. We told her, “it’s too bad you don’t act.” She assured us that she did. Then we said, “it’s too bad you can’t do voices.” She does. We had written a very challenging character that was larger than life that was very difficult to pull off in an honest way. Tristan was all those things and more. We didn’t know how we were going to find her when we went looking. We do rarely write for an actor. Katie was a special exception.
Do you plan to create roles from yourselves in each feature film you create?
Sylvia: We have been acting since we were seven years old, some of it was very fun, we have learned a lot, but we’ve done what we’ve wanted to with acting right now. The cameo in MARY is our goodbye to acting. We have been given some incredible offers after HOOKER, but we got even more shitty stereotypical twins roles afterwards which was part of the reason we made DEAD HOOKER in the first place. The next film doesn’t even have a cameo, but I like that. I like that no one really knows what to expect from us next.
Jen: We have made the decision to retire from acting. This was our good bye to it. Don’t get me wrong, acting was our first love and I still have a lot of love for it. We want to put the focus on making our films and our writing and directing. Before we made DHIAT, we were being offered nothing but poorly written, overly sexualized, and stereotypical twin roles. And disturbingly enough after DHIAT and being very out spoken about it, we just got lots of the same crap. For the right role, maybe we’ll consider coming out of retirement, but it would have to be one hell of a role. But who knows. We’re slaves to our fans and if they want to see us, we’ll happily come back for them.
Are you familiar with the body modification scene? How much research did you do in order to create the character and story?
Sylvia: Jen and I are very focused when it comes to a project. In fact, it becomes our life from initial concept and I suppose forever after that because it’s now your film. We had researched body modification so much, even posing as people interested in procedures on the body mod sites; it was a great opportunity to put all that information into a script. But we wanted it to be completely authentic and real, so not only did we use things we knew from doctors and surgeons we knew, but also hired a ‘flesh artistic consultant’, Russ Foxx, and had a member of the Church of Body Modification, Elwood Reid, on board to keep what you saw on the screen as true to life as possible.
We wrote the initial draft in two weeks, and the story never really altered two much from that first script. When we write, we try to stay as honest to ourselves and from our own experiences as much as possible. I think as long as you retain that realistic, human element, you can be as outlandish in story as you want and still have something intelligent and relateable.
Jen: The first thing we do is research, and that goes for any topic we handle. If we’re writing about body mod, get our asses online and devour anything we can find, read up on the community, watch and get acquainted with the procedures, and talk to people who both do these procedures or have had them done. If we’re writing about monsters, we research monster mythology and legends and any accounts of them and where the idea of monsters originated and the different stories and beliefs from different cultures. It’s something we both really enjoy. I’d say the research and writing portion is our favorite.
With MARY we also had both people from the medical profession and those in the mod community read the script for accuracy. We wanted to show our mods in a truthful and respectful way. They are often the wrongful victims of modern day witch hunts where people like to exploit them and point the “freak” finger. I find that the community is filled with the most open, self aware, and kind individuals that I ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. I think people are afraid of things they aren’t educated properly on and body mod is definitely one of the things that fall into that category.
How important is it to have strong female characters in the horror genre?
Sylvia: It’s very important and it’s reflective of the times we live in.
Women are changing as are their roles in film. There have been too few strong role models in the past, but they have been there. I would say Eihi Shiina’s character in AUDITION would be a feminist character. There aren’t too many movies where the killer is a female and so fucking scary. The idea behind feminism is just equality between the sexes and that gets confused in the message with some many impassioned people discussing it. You see movies where they force a strong female character, chalk full of one liners and ultra suavity, down your throat and that’s not really feminism – it’s a result of the confusion of the message. I hate ‘heroes’ like that in films whether they be male or female. I like real strength and a human component in my horror, even in my inhuman characters.
Jen: My personal favorite is probably Buffy. I was close to her in age growing up. It was a wonderful series because it was and wasn’t about the monsters. Buffy fought everyday battles alongside her apocalyptic ones. She was a shining example of doing the right thing despite it not always being the most popular thing to do. It’s a sign of being a strong leader and being able to think for yourself. It’s hard to make a decision that you yourself believe in when everyone else is trying to sway your opinion. She was strong and human at the same time. She was feminine without ever appearing weak like so many “female heroes” are written like. Sometimes you just have to pull yourself together and do something even if you’re hurting and even if it’s hard. There isn’t time for a pity party. Joss Whedon took an old horror stereotype, the frightened, cute little blond girl, and created a powerful, unique, unconventional character. I love that.
Sylvia: A viewer tends to feel more empathy for the female characters in a horror. If a woman is threatened, you worry about her well being more than a male character because that’s just how our society has worked for so long. At the same time, it’s more of interesting development to have a female character that could fall victim to the killer of the flick, rise up and take down that mother fucker. I’ve always felt horror films to be very interesting to the female audience – we’re the ones that get chopped up and the ones that get to take down the baddie. The final girl is the ultimate badass.
Jen: I do and I don’t. Many final girls are these sweet innocent things and I do see the poetry in innocence defeating an ultimate evil. The girls who misbehave and are making out with their boyfriends while Michael’s on the loose tend to get chopped pretty early on. It can be perceived that in order to win in the end you have to fall into the stereotype of what a girl should be, innocent, soft spoken, and sweet, and that I don’t like. I think women should live their lives loudly and proudly as there is way too much focus on what others think. It’s not as prevalent with men. They can do what they please with far less speculation on what they should be doing. They can just do it.
How important is the internet for young filmmakers in creating awareness of their work?
Sylvia: It’s imperative. Honestly, it would super cool if one’s talent shined so brightly that you could just let your work speak for itself, but we live in a time where realistically if you don’t have a facebook account, you’re living in a cave. There’s a lot of competition out there and you need to take it on yourself to make your own work seen. If you don’t put the effort in, why should anybody else. But there’s good news there, too. It’s never been easier to make a film and there have never been more ways to get yourself out there. You put the effort in and you’ll see results. It may be a bit of a foreign concept where celebrities are made by sex tapes and winning game shows these days, but there is something to be said for actually putting the work in.
What sort of struggles have you had to face as women working in the horror genre?
Sylvia: When I started with DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, I got talked down to on occasion and had some ignorant comments thrown at me, but that’s life. People are uneducated everywhere and that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a worldwide problem. Then, we went onto our sophomore film making AMERICAN MARY and it’s an experience that changed my opinion on the matter. I had some great support from people who could care less whether they are working with a male or a female team member, it’s all about the work, but not everyone was like that. I had a lot of men argue with me for the sake of arguing with me, questioning my work on the grounds that I’m a ‘little girl’ and unleashing an onslaught of absurdly sexist remarks on me. I’ve had men come onto me and when shot down, they make it their personal vendetta to make my life hell. If they don’t get to fuck you in one way, they try to fuck in other ways. There have been experiences that team members saw Jen and I go through that was downright shocking, even I couldn’t believe how certain men treated us. People disagree when they work together and that’s part of the process, what I cannot accept is being treated like my opinion doesn’t matter in direct reference to my gender. That’s just disgusting.
If that aspect didn’t exist, then I would agree that feminism is a moot point, but it happens. It happened to us. Even in a culture where it is widely accepted that men and women should be treated equally, it doesn’t always happen and that’s why it’s important for the people who believe in equality to continually stand up for it.
Jen: I used to be one of those people. I used to think, “women go around bitching about equality WAY too much, we’re all equals these days, aren’t we?” The sad truth is we are and we aren’t. There are many wonderful men that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, working with, and now calling friends. They are respectful, decent, and intelligent men who don’t have gender play a part in ability. If I can deliver, that’s good enough for them. And then there are the other guys. I couldn’t believe how bad it was. DHIAT was really unexpected. The better it did, the fewer people I had standing behind us and that goes for men and women. There are people who resent us and how well we seem to be doing.
The purely sexist remarks and actions have been something that have just shocked and disgusted me. There’s nothing like going to a meeting and getting feedback after that “they thought you were really hot.” I can’t stand it when I’m talking to someone and I see they just tuned the fuck out, checking me out. I hate it every time someone calls me “honey” or “sweetie” and asks me why I don’t have a boyfriend. I hate it when someone tells me my dialogue is “unladylike” and someone like Quentin can get away with it, but I can’t. I’ve worked with some real assholes who I’ve overheard having conversations about which one of us has a nicer ass. I take a lot of shit for being young and female. And that won’t change because the people with those opinions won’t change. I feel my gender plays a very small part in what I do. I feel that maybe there are things I can get away with putting in our films that maybe a male director would take more shit for, but I like to put the emphasis where it belongs. On the work. I wish it would change, but I know it won’t.
I’ve had people tell me it’s because Sylvia and I dress nice and wear make-up and that it’s because we’re pretty. I should be able to look however I want. I’m not going to “dress down” in hopes of being treated better. That would be an even greater insult. I dress professionally and I conduct myself in a professional manner. I will never change the person I am or how I hold myself or how I look in hopes that if I look more homely I’ll get more respect from assholes who only categorize women as “fuckable” or “not fuckable”.
This interview was conducted by diligent Monster Pictures staffer Ben Hellwig during Monster Fest 2012 with no help from anyone whatsoever.