Canadian writers and directors Jen and Sylvia Soska are known as the Twisted Twins among the horror circuit. Their debut release “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” (2009) was hugely successful as an appreciation to grindhouse cinema; but for their second feature “American Mary” they have gone for a different approach dealing with the fascinating world of underground surgery and body modification. These talented twins have brought a unique and stylish vision to modern, horror film-making and encourage others to get out there and create something that inspires you! In this detailed interview Jen and Sylvia discuss their approaches to film-making, how they dealt with representing a serious subject for their latest film, fan appreciation, Cannes, feminism, influences of Asian and European cinema, doing their own stunts and much more!
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your new film “American Mary”?
S: The film follows medical student, Mary Mason played by Katharine Isabelle, as she grows increasingly broke and disenchanted by medical school and the surgeons she once admired. The allure of easy money and notoriety sends her into the messy world of underground surgeries that leaves more marks on Mary than her so-called ‘freakish’ clientele. I was first introduced to body modification when someone was trying to scare me. It lead me to do what I always do when scared, obsess until I know as much as I can about it – because fears are just stemmed from a lack of knowledge. Instead of differences, I found a lot in common with the people in the community and I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to collaborate with these individuals for AMERICAN MARY.
J: The film itself is very haunting and disturbing, but in a beautiful sort of way. In many ways, stylistically, it is the polar opposite of DHIAT. DEAD HOOKER was very grindhouse and spontaneous while MARY is deliberate and deep. There is depth in the story and the characters. It also deals with the matter of appearances and what makes a monster. I’ve found that in life appearances are very misleading and often the ones in society that come off as good or worthy of trust are anything but, while those who appear a little different and perhaps a little darker aren’t the ones you should be watching out for. We’ve always felt like outcasts ourselves and being identical twins we often have to battle against the stereotypes of what people expect us to be. MARY does question one’s perceptions of right and wrong and good and evil in a very unique way.
2. Would you say there are similarities between “AM” and your debut release “Dead Hooker in a Trunk?”
S: We try to write something that entertains and means something to us and has something personal in it. MARY is much more personal than DEAD HOOKER as it is an analogy of our time in the film industry, but the dark sense of humour, language, and content is the same. We took a fair bit of shit from some people reviewing DEAD HOOKER in regards to the camera work, characters, and story – all those things were a principle focus on MARY. HOOKER was a love letter to grind house filmmaking whereas MARY is hugely inspired by European and Asian horror filmmaking.
J: We put ourselves into our work so there will always be similarities between our films regardless of the content and the genre. I don’t think it’s possible for us to write something without elements of horror and humor, two things that we find go beautifully together. There’s nothing like giving your audience a little breath or an awkward laugh when things get a bit too heavy and dark. I’m pretty desensitized to the horror we put into our films so I can lose touch with how extreme some aspects of it can be. Like the extreme moments in DHIAT, there are some very disturbing moments in MARY. And we enjoy writing strong female characters. It was something that we felt was really lacking when we were acting and we try to write the kind of roles we would have liked to be offered to us.
3. What was the most rewarding part of making the film?
S: The audience reaction to the film is what I live for. It’s also extremely stressful and nerve-racking because you never know how people will react to your film. I felt like I was on the verge of being sick up til the worldwide market premiere screening of AMERICAN MARY at the Cannes market. The audience, excluding one woman who ran out for content reasons, really dug the flick and it was cool to see them laugh and cringe – it makes everything worth it.
J: Definitely the audience reactions. We are horror fans ourselves and we try to make the kind of work that we’d like to see. We’ll always make our films with the fans in mind. Another wonderful thing about this film in particular is acceptance and challenging people’s views on those society deems outcasts. I think this film will open a healthy discussion about body modification and challenge the reasons why it is not universally seen as acceptable while “cosmetic surgery” is. I see no difference between the two accept for the fact that cosmetic surgery is largely used for people to fit into society’s idea of what is perceived as beautiful whereas body modification caters to enhancing one’s own ideal of beauty and individuality.
4. The film’s theme depicts a world of underground surgery, what sort of research did you have to do in order to portray this?
S: It’s very important to Jen and me to have honesty in our work, it makes it more relatable even in a fantastical situation like filmmaking. The underground surgeries, the procedures and body modification community is very real. They don’t stop being who they are after the film is finished and given that this is one of the first films, if not the first feature film, to put that culture into the spotlight, we wanted to properly represent them. I think too often people make judgements without really looking into what or who they are talking about and I didn’t want that to happen in this situation.
We brought members of the community onto the production. Russ Foxx was our flesh artist consultant and him and Katie went through different techniques to keep it genuine. We mixed the phenomenal prosthetics from the Masters FX team with authentic members of the body mod community, so you’re never really sure if you’re seeing something real or something created. From my experience, I’m a huge fan of the body mod community and the people in that community. I think the film is going to change a lot of people’s ideas of what these people are actually like.
J: We wouldn’t be able to write something without researching it heavily. We spoke to the community and I’ve had so many conversations with Russ Foxx, who was wonderful. I felt like a bit of an idiot with the things I’d ask about, but he was always a gentleman, occasionally reacting with a little laugh, and always a deep, thoughtful explanation.
5. You’ve recently taken “AM” to the Cannes Film Festival, how was it received there?
S: I felt absolutely spoiled by the audience’s reaction to the film. It was extremely well received. At a market screening, you’re up against official festival selections and a lot of your audience are buyers that watch ten minutes of a film before rushing to another screening, audiences rarely react the way a festival audience would. I was prepared for that, but it wasn’t what we got. What we got was a packed room with a responsive audience that sat even through the credits and stuck around late into the night with us, talking about the film. One woman got up and hurried out shaking her head at a scene that I call radical feminism, like a bra burning to the nth degree, but I don’t think she would agree with me.
J: It was more than we had hoped for and more than we had expected. AM had her world wide market premiere at the festival and traditionally those are lightly attended with little focus on the film and frequently have people coming and going. It’s vastly different from a festival screening where you have the benefit of fans being in attendance. We had a full audience and people laughed and groaned and whispered excitedly. It was incredible. I felt so humbled to be there. ha ha, and they even laughed at our bilingual jokes. I was all like, “how’d they know what he said without subtitles? Oh, yeah, we’re in Europe, ha ha.”
6. What’s coming up next for the film, will it be going around the horror festival circuit?
S: Next will be the film’s official in festival film festival screenings. We are still waiting confirmation before we can announce it, but we are hoping to start towards the end of the summer. I’m very excited to see how people react to the film because it is so different.
J: We’ll definitely be hitting the film festival circuit as we’re dying to show the film to the fans. We can’t say where it’ll have its official festival premiere just yet, but look for it towards the end of the summer. And don’t worry. When we can say, we will say. Loud. There’s no chance you’ll miss hearing about it, ha ha
7. What’s the main appeal of making horror films?
S: It’s funny because we never set out to make a horror film. We love horror films, we grew up on them, and love prosthetics as that’s what really got us into our horror love. Knowing that everything you see on screen is a collaborative effort with the intention of scaring the audience was something that my mom taught me when I was ten and freaked out by POLTERGEIST. We made DEAD HOOKER as an anti-chick flick road trip movie. We had some pretty serious gore and stunts in there which made it more of a cult-style horror. Then, when we started writing AMERICAN MARY, we planned on making it a more ‘straight forward’ horror and it just ended up taking this life of its own. Sometimes horrible things happen and the best way I can deal with that is if I put it into a script, then I have control over that situation. It’s not that horror films are the only kind of film that I am interested in making, I just don’t know if I would make a story without prosthetics and something horrific.
J: We’ve been drawn to horror our entire lives. I’m not sure if it’s the thrill of it or the ability to watch a horror movie or read a horror story and come closer to darkness and evil and danger than you ever could in your real life and be able to walk away completely unscathed at the end of it. Or it could be that whole “you’re not supposed to” aspect of it. Horror is bad. Stay away from it. The more people hear “no”, the more they are naturally drawn towards the forbidden. It’s like a morbid curiosity or fascination. Fear is a learned emotion. If your mother jumped on a chair and screamed like crazy every time she saw a spider, you would have sub consciously learned to be afraid of them. We were fortunate enough to be raised with a mother who let us watch scary movies and read Stephen King novels at an early age. I highly recommend it. It’s great to vastly improve your reading level at an early age. We were never discouraged from our love of the strange and unusual. I’ve always felt that we, ourselves, are strange and unusual.
8. Who would you say your main influences are in terms of directors and style?
S: Robert Rodriguez and Carlos Gallardo were a huge influence on us and what really got us to make DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK. Also, the directors behind the multi-collaborative GRINDHOUSE had a bug influence on us. If it wasn’t for that film, I don’t think we would be where we are today – it came a perfect time when we needed to feel excited about making movies, enough to make our own. A lot of AMERICAN MARY is influenced by European and Asian cinema and directors like Lars Von Trier, David Cronenberg, Takeshi Miike, Yoshihiro Nishimaru, and Clive Barker.
J: Everyone that Sylv just listed. We are die hard comic nerds and gamers so we’ve taken inspiration from Stan Lee and Hideo Kojima. Another director I adore is Joss Whedon. His writing is superb, his characters are unique and iconic. His dialogue is phenomenal and he writes these beautiful story lines that unfold in the most rewarding of ways. His character interaction is flawless.
9. What’s the best part about collaborating with each other on your projects?
S: I feel really lucky to have Jen. We’ve been best friends our entire lives and we work together like it’s second nature because it is. We joke that Jen is the Joss Whedon because of how she writes and how funny she is and that I’m the Lars Von Trier because I put scarring shit in everything. Somehow, even though we are totally different, we really compliment her. I don’t know how I could work without her. We break down scripts together, then scenes, then tag team write – one of us plays video games while the other types. Either gets blocked or stuck, we swap out, and the other goes over what was written and tweaks. It’s a lot of fun. We also have different focuses on set for the same goal, so we divide and conquer which I always think must be a little confusing for the cast and crew because we look alike.
J: Sylv is an amazing writing, director, and artist. People ask us what it’s like to work with one another and I honestly don’t know how people do it alone. We could work separately, but why would we want to? We can cut our tasks in two and divide and conquer or come together to really tackle something head on. Sylv is very driven, passionate about her work, and has this incredible dark and creative mind. We’re as similar as we are different. I often say we always end up at the same place, but we take very different paths to get there. I’ve read so much about writers endlessly hunting for writing partners. I’m blessed that I was born with one.
10. You’ve both trained in martial arts and are able to do all your own stunts in your films, is that a lot of fun to do? And what challenges does it present?
S: I love martial arts and doing my own stunt work. On the teaser trailer for DEAD HOOKER, we did all of our own stunts and I got a little injured. Our original Cowboy Pimp thought I was a cunt and wanted to teach me a lesson, so he booked it for my horse drag and I lost a few inches of skin. When you have a feature and lots of scenes to shoot in a short period of time, you can risk any injury, so we still did a lot of our own work, but I had this brilliant stunt performer, Maja Stace-Smith, do the horse drag and the double kick in that fight. She doesn’t get enough credit – she is a real super woman.
J: Oh, we love martial arts and stunts! We have so much respect for the professionals that do it. We get pretty excited about it, but we try to not have our excitement suggest that we don’t have a lot of respect for the challenges and risks involved. For us, a new challenge is getting the okay to still do our own stunts. People worry and say “what if something happens to you?”. That’s kind of ignorant, actually. Anytime a stunt professional works, they are risking their safety and often their lives. I understand the risks involved and I would never ever attempt to do anything of that sort without trained professionals preparing me and being present.
And doing stunts is really a thrill. It’s a rush, that’s undeniable. It’s like doing martial arts and sparring. You just get this amazing rush and it’s wonderful. I’ve wanted to be a superhero as far back as I can remember. It makes me feel like I am.
11. So, what’s next for the Soska Sisters? Have you got any future projects coming up?
S: I’m really excited for what we have coming up. We’re very proud of our hometown, Vancouver, and are teaming up with the Rio Theatre, who were the ones to screen DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, to have monthly horror nights which includes horror burlesque shows with Tristan Risk, one of our stars from AMERICAN MARY, and Russ Foxx, whose human tackle box shows are like a cenobite’s wet dream, with us hosting. We are also looking to get to work on the next film soon. We have some very cool opportunities not only with our own scripts but bringing some people’s work that we greatly admire to a big screen adaptation.
J: We have a lot of interest in our “next one”. At this point, it’s tough to tell what it’ll be. We have several scripts ready to go, but we’ve been talking about directing someone else’s work, which is pretty cool. You can expect whatever it is that we’ll have our horror and humor elements in there. We want to have our next one started by year end. I’d really love to do BOB. It’s a script we wanted to get going before MARY, but she’s an undeniable lady. She wanted to be made and she is really relevant to right now. I feel BOB is the same. It’s a blend between the styles of DHIAT and MARY. It’s as vicious as it is hilarious. And, of course, very unique.
12. Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who want to become involved in the horror genre?
S: I would say that you should just do it. You have all the resources in the world, accessible technology, you can shoot on digital inexpensively, and you can learn from your favourite filmmakers through DVD commentary, books, interviews, and even speak to some directly online to learn how to pull it off. Rodriguez’s first hand account of EL MARIACHI, ‘Rebel Without A Crew’, was our Bible on DEAD HOOKER. Lloyd Kaufman’s ‘Make Your Own Damn Movie’ series is awesome. Learn as much as you can, make a project that means something to you, that is different, and that you don’t mind dedicating the next few years of your life to, and make it. Too many people wait for an opportunity to live their dream, we wasted years waiting for ours, so we got a killer group together with the same passion for filmmaking and made ours. As long as you stay focused and work your ass off, you will be successful.
J: Go make a movie, don’t just talk about it. Is it scary? Abso-fucking-lutely. But that’s part of the fun of it. You will never learn as much from reading about it or film school as you will from actually going out there and doing it for yourself. And at the end of it, you’ll have a movie that’s yours. I’d recommend watching a lot of movies. Sylv and I watch something new every day. Start with your heroes that inspire you and then try to see why their work is so good. Is it the way they use music? Is it the editing choices? Is it the framing? Is it the dialogue? The characters? And do the same thing with anything and everything you watch. You can learn more from a shitty movie than a good movie. Try to see where it became a bad movie and why so you can avoid doing that in the future.
And never use the excuse that “we didn’t have enough time” or “we didn’t have enough money”. If something sucks, don’t use it. No one cares why it sucks, they just see that it sucks. Pool your resources. Make a list of things you have available to you from locations (a business, an apartment, a church, a community hall) to props to cool things that will make your film stand out from the rest (an exotic animal, a classic car, anything unique). You’ll be surprised by how much you have available to you. Think of an idea for your film that gets you excited every time you think about it because you’ll be talking about it for the rest of your life. For Robert Rodriguez, it was a man with a guitar case filled with guns in EL MARIACHI. For us it was a dead hooker in a trunk. Also, don’t listen to anyone who tries to discourage you. If we stopped every time someone quite literally laughed in our faces, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Go do it!
Thank You to Jen and Sylvia for taking the time out to do this interview for Hayley’s Movie and TV Reviews, I wish them every success with American Mary.
Interview Conducted By: Hayley Alice Roberts.
The Official Website for the Twisted Twins: http://www.twistedtwinsproductions.net/
The Official Facebook Page for “American Mary”: https://www.facebook.com/pages/American-Mary/167825893248295
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