Interview: Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary)

Jen and Sylvia Soska are twin sisters who kick all kinds of cinematic ass! Having been involved in acting since they were kids they have been in the film business for a long time and after having funding pulled from a film project that they were working on while in film school they simply forged ahead and finished it on their own with their own money. The resulting short film got them a lot of fans and they went ahead to write, produce, direct & star in their debut feature “DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK” which became an underground hit and got the attention of many people including director Eli Roth (“HOSTEL”, “HOSTEL 2″) who said “You should check out the Soska sisters, who made a film called Dead Hooker In A Trunk. They made it low budget and it’s f*cking awesome. It’s really violent and the stunts are superb. They are two Canadian twin sisters who made a feature that they wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. And it’s fantastic”. After the success of that film they formed their own production company called TWISTED TWINS PRODUCTIONS and their latest film, “AMERICAN MARY” is being released to DVD/Bluray on June 18. I spoke with them about their latest film (which is the best film I’ve seen this year so far) and what it’s like to be women working in the horror industry.

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Horrornews.net: Before I ask either of you any questions I just have to tell you how much I absolutely loved “AMERICAN MARY”. I went into it with no knowledge of what it was about and when it ended it immediately became my favorite movie of the year. It’s so bizarre and unique, like no film I’d seen before. I loved every second of it and didn’t want it to end. It also made me your biggest freakin’ fan!

Sylvia Soska:Thank you so much! You have no idea how much those words mean to us. It’s because of people like you who’ve seen the film and told their friends to see it that have made the film the success that it’s become.

Jen Soska: I just want to echo Sylvia’s words and add that fans like you have really helped by speaking kindly of our film on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media outlets. There aren’t enough words that can describe how grateful we are over the support we’ve received from our fans. We love you all so much!

HNN: I think it’s safe to say we love the both of you as well! What was it about Katherine Isabelle that made you want to cast her as Mary Mason?

SS: Jen and I are huge horror nerds and we loved what she did in “GINGER SNAPS”. It was our introduction to her and it made us fans. We would watch everything that she was in, but got frustrated when we didn’t see the next ‘Ginger’ role; here’s an actress that, aside from being drop dead gorgeous, is ridiculously gifted who can sell a performance with a micro-gesture that would take other actors pages of dialogue to express with that emotional capacity. We wrote the part for her. It might sound cruel given the nature of the film, but everything that happens in “AMERICAN MARY” was something we wanted to see her do. She plays three versions of the same character: Sweet Mary, Severe Mary, and Fantasy Mary and the film rests on her performance which was just phenomenal. Also, with our strict fifteen day shoot and modest budget, we had three takes max for everything and she was perfect every single time. I love that woman.

JS: We were teased pretty relentlessly in school. One of the things they started calling us was the Fitzgerald Sisters. We hadn’t seen GINGER SNAPS yet, so we picked it up to figure out what exactly we were being called. I think it was at the title sequence with all the cool deaths where we decided we were totally okay with being called the Fitzgerald Sisters. They were so cool. Katie came onto our radar in a big way after that. She’s so good at playing that angry teen girl type, that just smokes and cusses, but we waited to see her play the next step up. We wanted to see her play a mature, grown woman that could carry a whole film, but we didn’t see it happen for her and couldn’t understand why. I think she hit the Canadian glass ceiling. We don’t support our talent enough here and anything out of LA is obsessed with throwing some flavor of the month LA “name” into their films. We never writer for an actor, but we broke that rule for Katie. It was always going to be her. We never even considered anyone else or fathomed that she might say no. She’s just got “it”, that indescribable star quality. She’s effortlessly brilliant.

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HNN: Are any of the events in “AMERICAN MARY” based on actual occurrences? Personal experiences perhaps?

SS: Much of it is. I honestly didn’t realize it when we were writing the script because we had our self-imposed deadline of two weeks, but at the time we were incredibly poor – we couldn’t afford food let alone bills, we were in the hospital with loved ones for days on end, we were trying to sell the first film and venturing into the film industry where we met our share of monsters – so all that we were going through funneled into the script. Now with all these uncontrollable elements of our lives, we could take a step back and have some control in this creative way.

JS: The party scene is sadly something we’ve experienced on many an occasion. The film itself is an analogy for our own struggles in the film industry. We’ve been invited to parties with directors and producers believing we’re on their level. That we’ve been accepted and invited in, but we’ve quickly realized were there as party favors. Thankfully, we have each other and we’ve gotten out of those situations very quickly. It is the living Hollywood cliche and just every level of disgusting. It’s insane to think that shit actually happens or that there are men that think it’s perfectly acceptable to treat women that way.

HNN: The character of Beatress Johnson is especially memorable. I thought she was so lovable yet eerie at the same time. What inspired her creation and her “Betty Boop” voice?

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SS: We live in a society where certain cosmetic surgery is acceptable whereas body modification is not. Because of these preconceived notions, it was important to us to have a creepy nature to our two characters that have had extensive plastic surgery – Beatress and Ruby – and show the mods as the self-aware normal people that they are rarely shown as. We had the Barbie-esque ideal of Western beauty in Ruby, but we wanted to find someone else iconic who had a totally different aesthetic that would make sense for a stripper to want to emulate, Betty Boop. Her artists would have her dress flip up or fall down for frames, flashing the audience in a time where you didn’t have too many risqué female characters like that. Beatress is a real person that wants to be like this cartoon character which makes her sweet in a very damaged way.

JS: Tristan Risk beautifully brought her to life. Beatress is larger than life, but it was so important to us to make her real and relate-able. It was important that her appearance strikes you when you first see her, but the more and more she shows up in the film, the more you just come to accept her. It’s so common to see women that look like Ruby even though it is a lot of work and would have been considered shocking a couple decades back. Now you wouldn’t even bat an eye seeing her. With our literal translation of Betty Boop, because it isn’t so common, it’s still shocking and we wanted to take that really unrealistic ideal of beauty and bring it to life to show how shocking it truly is.

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HNN: Are either of you into the whole body modification scene?

SS: I am as into the body mod scene as a vanilla person can be. I love the culture. I love the community. I love the spiritual aspects of it. I love the showmanship. I love the artistry. One day I want to experience a suspension for myself, it’s on my bucket list. I carry a hook with me all the time to remind me to grow some balls and do it already.

JS: Not just yet. I have my ears pierced and my navel. I love the look of a flesh corset, the kind we had done on ourselves in the film. You can’t do that permanently. It’s temporary and piercings in those place would eventually just push themselves out of your body. If it was long term, I’d love to get it done. I think it’s so beautiful.

HNN: Was Ruby Realgood’s appearance based in any way on New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein?

SS: She was mentioned quite a bit when the Masters FX team was designing the look of Ruby. It was important to make the prosthetics look like plastic surgery and not a makeup, so they drew on a lot from people who have undergone similar procedures and how they would look.

JS: Yes, absolutely. We look to real life for inspiration all the time. Art imitates life, after all.

HNN: Your appearance in the film is quite striking and unnerving. Did the both of you have anyone in particular in mind when you decided to play those roles or were they written that way in your script?

SS: We call ourselves the Twisted Twins, because of the material we make and our interests, a lot of people have this idea of what we must be like in real life. Sometimes they are disappointed because we are peppy and nerdy, but the aesthetic is pretty much the same. I’ve read that in Germany, you can find some of the more hardcore body mod enthusiasts, so we wanted to mix those ideas together to create the Demon Twins of Berlin. I dig the look of a corseted back, so we wanted to do that. Mary meets the twins at a time in her life where she doesn’t quite have a relationship with herself or anyone else, whereas the twins are the opposite. We wanted to give them a bit of an edge which worked well for the characters.

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JS: They are exaggerated versions of ourselves. Being so much in the media, people make assumptions about who you are and what you’re like. We wanted to play with that. It was also a shout out to our first insight into the world of body modification and the twins April Fool’s joke that started it all.

HNN: I went apeshit over the look of the film, the production design is just incredible! Was that all your production designer’s work or did you have any pre-conceived ideas of how you wanted it all to look?

SS: There are mentions of locations and their looks in the script, but (Production Designer) Tony Devenyi took everything to the next level. The man is so gifted and creative and genius. I will never work without him on anything. Every set piece became its own character, you got drawn into this world because everything was so thoughtfully orchestrated. I have pieces of his production design in my apartment, I need to look at them every day and have them as part of my life.

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JS: Everything we had envisioned initially was just taken to a whole new level with Tony Devenyi’s work. He is a genius. The way he translated and built on what was in the script was phenomenal. Our tagline is “Appearances Are Everything” and that has to play into every detail of the film. The camera work, the editing, the production design, the make up, the wardrobe, even the blood and gore. It all had to be beautiful and even the inanimate had to have a life of its own. Tony is just brilliant. So many intimate details, like the water damage in Mary’s first apartment that was representative of the bruising on Mary’s psyche. There are details like that throughout the film. You’d have to hear the directors’ commentary to hear it all. There’s just too much. The lay out of every little medical cut out in Mary’s place, the choice of colors, the placement of each object, it was all so thoughtful and full on intention. Perhaps the x-ray lamp shades were my favorite. We kept them for our apartment.

HNN: Now that it’s all said and done, would you consider “AMERICAN MARY” a true horror film? Not that I don’t consider it one but I do see threads of black comedy woven into the script and I could understand if people thought it to be so.

SS: I think we live in a world obsessed with labels. You shouldn’t be able to put an artistic statement into a category. It shouldn’t be that simple, it needs to be provocative and undefinable like life. “AMERICAN MARY” is a character piece with horrific elements to it, which is my favorite type of horror film.

JS: I agree with Sylv. Nothing falls neatly into one category or another. True art is interpretive. It should force you to think and draw your own conclusions. We’re all so different and everything is perception. One person’s horror is another’s love story or tragedy. One of the things I love most about David Cronenberg and his work is that it escapes definition. He would be categorized or labeled as a horror director, but his films bleed with originality and are so masterfully unique. We never set out to make a horror film. We tell a story and that story has different elements to it. They have some very horrific elements and I guess that’s why they’re dropped under that label but our films are just as much horrors as they are comedies or love stories or dramatic pieces.

HNN: How do you separate the jobs of writing, producing & directing? Do the both of you contribute equally to all three jobs or do you each have one job you do better than the other and work that way?

SS: Jen and I are born collaborators. We compliment each other, we have similar interests, even though we are very different. We joke that Jen is the Joss Whedon and I am the Lars Von Trier, she puts the heart in and I rip it out. We are one mind on everything, Jen’s way better with people than I am, I feel awkward most of the time. We both love prosthetics, but she really gets into it with Masters FX in crazy detail. On MARY, I spent a lot of time with our DP, Brian Pearson, and talking to Katie, and Jen spent a lot of time with our first AD, Brad Jubenvil – it’s really handy when there’s two of you. We were still running around a shit ton, I don’t know how a solo person does it.

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JS: We divide and conquer. We share a vision. We’re very different people and may take different paths, but it’s always to arrive at the same destination. Two directors that are so in sync have the benefit of being able to work seamlessly side by side or break apart and cover twice as much ground. Sylv is a true artist by every definition. She has this genius creativity and amazing focus on the story we’re telling. She can tell you the answer to any question you could ever possibly hope to come up with in regards to one of our films, no matter how obscure. She can tell you how Mary takes her coffee. We can be like on entity in two bodies. I’m really blessed to have her. She’s the best thing about work.

HNN: Can either one of you envision working without the other one day? Is it even something you want to do?

SS: I don’t really see a reason for it. Jen is a great creative partner, she pushes me to be better, and she brings so much to everything she’s involved in.

JS: Not really. We could, but I don’t see why we’d ever want to. We work hard, very hard. We get up and work and we’re working before we go to bed. I just don’t see why we’d want to do twice as much work, it just seems awful. She just makes everything I do better, we constantly challenge one another and it just makes us better versions of ourselves. I love working with her.

HNN: However the both of you do it…do you ever argue over a decision the other one has made?

SS: Yes. There are a few scenes in the film that are much better because Jen fought me to make them what they are. I can be stubborn, but she’s got an eye for details that I might miss for whatever reason – because I’m such a pained artist, ha. We don’t argue on set, we pre-plan everything because there is nothing more confusing than having two identical directors that say two different things. We’re usually of the same mind on what we want and if we do disagree, we take a moment to talk it over and come back with a consensus.

JS: Never in front of anyone. Except our wonderful editor, Bruce MacKinnon. I told Sylv if we couldn’t agree that she’d get final say on MARY. We’re an unstoppable force and an immovable object. We rarely disagree, but we need a fail safe in case we do given that with this film we only had 15 days to shoot and couldn’t go over 12 hours a day including lunch. We decided long ago that work comes first, each other second, and whatever else comes first. We always do what’s best for the film. It’s what matters most.

HNN: Women like Mary Lambert, Mary Harron, Katt Shea, Katherine Bigelow & Roberta Findlay paved the way for female horror film directors. How do you see yourselves in comparison to them (if at all) and what message do you want to convey to the female horror film fan of today?

SS: Definitely. Women have been paving the way behind the scenes since Alice Guy-Blanche pioneered early cinema and Dorothy Arzner fought hard as the only female director working in Hollywood’s Golden Age. I admire these women and the sacrifices they made to change how women and their work is perceived in the industry. They inspired me a lot, and if our work does that for any other artists thinking of getting into this industry, I would be very proud. Film making is a place where honest story telling from different points of view is important, there’s strength not only in the aspect of the final girl but the integration of the modern woman into the characters we are seeing today. There are lots of misconceptions about horror and women’s place in it and we’ve done a lot to change that and with men and women continuing to focus on that change, I really look forward to the artists and stories that will come in the future.

JS: As weird as it is to say, I don’t really compare myself to other female directors. I admire what they’ve done and look up to several of them, but I think a part of equality is not thinking about gender. The focus should be on the work and the gender of the filmmaker shouldn’t matter. As far as directors are concerned, there is no boys club. We’ve met so many amazing directors who have really embraced and supported us. If our work didn’t stand on its own, they wouldn’t. We try to put the focus there. I’d like to see more female directors, I really would. Directing is hard, regardless of gender. It’s not just directing, but it’s a lot of personalities you have to deal with. You try to always work with good people, but sometimes a few pricks get in there and you have to deal with them. I’d strongly encourage any females out there that want to make films to go out there and do it. Boys, too. Don’t wait for someone to make it happen for you and don’t rely on anyone to. Take it upon yourself and make it DIY style and never look back.

“AMERICAN MARY” is being released to DVD/Bluray on June 19th and if you haven’t yet seen it I strongly suggest you make plans to either rent or purchase it. It’s the most original horror film I’ve seen in years and the film to beat as best film of the year in my humble opinion. I, for one, cannot wait to see what the TWISTED TWINS have in store for their fans in the future!

You can find out more about the Soska sisters and their work at twistedtwinsproductions.net.

Interview: Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary)

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Those of you who don't know of The Black Saint & have yet to commit yourselves to him body, mind & soul will find yourselves in a most uncomfortable position when my army of acolytes is complete & ready to wreak havok upon this pitiful blue ball we live on. Oh, I really like horror movies as well & will take on all comers in a horror trivia contest. Bring it on!
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