Interview - horror directors Jen and Sylvia Soska
The writer/director duo talk American Mary, horror movies and Dead Hooker
Writing/directing duo the Soska sisters made a cult splash with their debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk, a grimy, blackly comic ultra low budget shocker. Now they are back with a far more ambitious second feature, American Mary (out now on DVD and Blu-ray), set in the world of extreme surgery and body modification. Despite the grisly subject matter identical twins Jen and Sylvia Soska are two of the most passionate, funny and down right lovely directors on the horror scene as we found out when they hit Edinburgh as part of FrightFest’s American Mary tour of the UK.
Can you briefly explain the plot of American Mary?
Sylvia Soska: American Mary follows the story of Mary Mason, played by Katharine Isabelle, as she grows increasingly disenchanted by her medical school and the surgeons teaching her and the allure of easy money and notoriety sends Mary into the messy world of underground surgery and body modification which leaves more marks on her psyche than her freakish clientele.
Jen Soska: I love it when she does that.
What interested you about the world of body modification?
Sylvia Soska: I was looking on the internet one day and we found this April’s Fool’s prank, at the time we didn’t know it was an April Fool’s joke.
Jen Soska: We actually didn’t know it was a prank until we were filming and we mentioned it and our body mod consultant laughed in our faces.
Sylvia Soska: But the story goes there were two identical brothers and one of them had his arm sawn off and grafted onto his brother’s chest and the other had his ring finger removed and grafted onto his brother’s hand to have an elongated finger, because they were genetically identical you can do limb swaps with twins without rejection. That didn’t disturb me, or even the photos, as much as these big long love letters about being one half and having this connection and I thought it was very creepy and felt very scared and thought what is wrong with the world? But every time something scares me I become obsessed with it so went online, onto message boards and I would pretend I was going for all this surgery, it was just for shits and giggles.
Jen Soska: It was not originally intended for a film, it was just something that fascinated us, we’ve seen a lot of things in our lives and we’re not really phased by much, we were raised in a very open way. I mean when we were 12 we watched Hellraiser and it wasn’t a big deal, our mom would watch horror movies because she loved horror movies and she didn’t want to watch shitty kid’s shows so we watched them with her and she would explain them to us.
Sylvia Soska: Then later we were trying to sell our first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, and we had no money for food or rent and we were going down to LA to try and get into mainstream filmmaking and every time we did we’d meet these horrendously awful human beings.
Jen Soska: As you do when you are in Hollywood.
Sylvia Soska: I blame Penthouse, people take identical twins in the worst way possible, [laughs] anyway we met a great producer and he said 'why don’t you focus on your next script what else do you have?' At the time we had nothing so I lied, I was like ‘I have so many scripts I don’t even know what you want to read.’ And I made up a bunch of things I knew we could make up in a couple of weeks so I went ‘this one and this one and this one about a medical student’ and he goes ‘yeah the medical student one, I just want to look it over,’ so we wrote it in two weeks and everything we had been through accidentally went into the script. I didn’t even realise how personal it was until people were pointing it out and I started getting very uncomfortable.
Jen Soska: It’s very much an analogy of our own misadventures in the film industry, we used mainstream medicine instead of Hollywood and the body mod community in place of independent film and the horror community. We were always so embraced by the horror community our first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, most people said a title like that it’s got to be a shit film but the fans loved it so much that it became this online cult phenomenon so we managed to get distribution.
Sylvia Soska: And that led to the opportunity to make this one.
American Mary seems like a big step forward from Dead Hooker in a Trunk, was this simply down to having a larger budget and therefore more time?
Jen Soska: The UK was the first place Dead Hooker was seen anywhere, first place it was distributed, we try not to say it when we are travelling elsewhere but we have a huge preference for you guys.
Sylvia Soska: So Jen has to marry a Brit, that’s how we’re going to say thank you to the county, we’re going to marry it.
Jen Soska: Absolutely I have my eye on your king, Tom Hiddleston [laughs], we would mash nicely he could do a lot worse, he could do better than me but he could do worse [laughs].
Sylvia Soska: We only had 15 days to shoot American Mary. We had zero prep and three weeks to cut it. With Dead Hooker we knew we had no money and we had people who said they might show up and they just wouldn’t.
Jen Soska: When people are volunteering their time sometimes they just don’t show up because they get a paid gig, which would have been nice to know but good for you.
Sylvia Soska: But there is a filmmaking style that likes that kind of thing, when there’s snow in one frame then there isn’t in the next, so we styled it very grindhouse because then we could still tell the story that we wanted and all the mistakes, flubs and weirdness we’ll just chintz it up and people will just go ‘oh grindhouse.’
Jen Soska: Generally Dead Hooker was largely to announce our arrival on the scene. A lot of people think we did short films or something more rational first but that was our first anything, we went straight from acting and dabbling in stunts to directing and writing a feature. But we were always storytellers ourselves and as an actor you are really constrained in a way that you are chasing after roles just to work, you don’t have full control and we’re controlling bitches so it was like coming home when we found directing and writing.
Sylvia Soska: We learned so much about filmmaking from that. We like Asian and European cinema, so that was something we wanted American Mary to be like in style, especially because the content, body modification, people were saying it was going to be so ugly, but we were saying ‘no it’s going to be beautiful.’ I’m proud to say I think we have filmed the prettiest clitorectomy you have ever seen in your life, it’s so tasteful.
After taking a starring role in Dead Hooker were you tempted to take a larger role in American Mary?
Sylvia Soska: I think I over did my cameo it was very long, we really didn’t want it to feel like ‘stop the movie the director wants a cameo.’
Jen Soska: Once in a while a director is in a film too much and it takes you entirely out of the moment. It can be pretty self-indulgent.
Sylvia Soska: We’re kind of focusing on being behind the scenes right now because we found even with Dead Hooker we weren’t behind the camera enough there was stuff we wanted to do but couldn’t. So this is our last cameo for a very long time.
You seem very proud to be part of the horror community
Jen Soska: I think horror itself hasn’t been in the hands of the fans for a very long time, particularly you can really see that in North America and being fans ourselves it was almost a frustration that we wanted to see films that horror fans want to see, something that you can really get excited about. Even the way we dress, there’s a little bit of showmanship and excitement and energy to it.
Sylvia Soska: I was actually shocked at how nice the horror community was to us and how inviting they were. Dead Hooker has its flaws but people were willing to look over those flaws and they got so behind it.
Jen Soska: We really wore our hearts on ourselves we’re part of the horror community. We went to Comic-Con last year, the San Diego one, and that’s the closest we’ve been to world peace that I’ve ever seen. I saw DC next to Marvel, I saw Star Trek with Star Wars and everybody was just getting along, you could talk to anybody I think the people that like horror are really excited and passionate with life.
Was it hard finding your Mary?
Jen Soska: We love Katharine Isabelle and we were first attracted to her in Ginger Snaps, we’ve never written a role specifically for an actor but American Mary is the exception to that.
Sylvia Soska: I think people get so caught up in how attractive she is they forget she’s a really phenomenal actress. It sounds cruel but I wanted to see her do all of that nasty stuff, I wanted to see her play that role and she knocked it out of the park.
Horror is often accused of being misogynistic, as female directors in the genre do you agree?
Jen Soska: When I was little I saw Alien with my mum and I was so scared for Sigourney Weaver, but my mom was like ‘it’s ok that’s Ripley and Ripley always wins’ and that was the evolution of the final girl for me. Before the final girl was always very innocent and very pure so she could defeat the evil at the end, but as she evolved she became stronger, more confident and a little bit more of a badass and those roles have always been in horror films, it’s starting a little bit to in action films with Milla Jovovich but Resident Evil is still a horror film basically.
Sylvia Soska: If you want to see misogyny look at romantic comedies. That’s always so insulting, but the final girl, there was always this little chick that could overcome anything and I always found that empowering.
Are there advantages and disadvantages to having two directors/writers on set?
Jen Soska: We always keep each other grounded and we can divide and conquer by being siblings and being very passionate about what we do. Unfortunately sometimes we both think we are right even when our opinions are different we can be like an unstoppable forces versus an immovable object but we compromise and always challenge each other to be bigger and better and stronger.
Jen Soska: It’s not a joke it’s the truth.
Sylvia Soska: She’s wonderful with people, she brings this great light, she’s every part of a human being that I’m not because we’ve always been together and developed in certain ways and I don’t know what I do without her there. The nice thing is we can talk without having to talk so there’s nothing worse than having two directors who both want the same.
Jen Soska: It’s absolutely true, people will go to one of us and ask a question then go to the other and get the exact same answer usually word for word.
Sylvia Soska: We try to always be on set but when things go to shit which happens on every set Jen took on the job of putting out fires.
Jen Soska: With 15 days you don’t have any time to waste and no matter what happened Sylv was always able to stay on with Brian Pearson our cinematographer and Katharine and just keep going.
Finally what are you working on next?
Sylvia Soska: We’re already on early prep on our next film it’s called Bob and it’s an original take on the forgotten monster subgenre and the tag line is ‘there’s a monster inside all of us and sometimes it gets out’ and we’re hoping to be shooting in summer.
Jen Soska: It’s also our first time with a male protagonist, two males if you consider the monster.