Brutal as Hell interview
by Ben Bussey

The American Mary interview: Katharine Isabelle, Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska

Everything you’ve read is true: the Soska Sisters love to hug. And, good grief, they really hug you. As soon as we were introduced in the Sheffield Showroom Cinema’s green room, just prior to that evening’s screening of American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska both darted in my direction and took turns squeezing the almost-literal shit out of me. Truthfully, given my back was a bit stiff from the train, it was just what I needed. (Yes, I said my back. Shut up.) Katharine Isabelle, meanwhile, played it a great deal cooler; a friendly handshake whilst remaining seated was the extent of it, and amicably so.

Also true – Jen and Sylvia Soska are very friendly people. Warm, welcoming, eager to put you at ease – and yes, at least a little bit flirty. Spend a moment in their company and it’s immediately clear why their cult status has mushroomed the way it has, as they’re people you feel better for being in the company of, and the more I watch their films, the more I realise this may also be the secret of their success as filmmakers: a knack for creating characters that audiences enjoy spending time with. Given how we tend to think of the film industry as the proverbial wretched hive of scum and villainy in which back-stabbing is akin to breathing, it’s easy to be suspicious of the Soskas’ über-friendly reputation, and assume it to be part of their game plan for winning over fandom. Perhaps there’s a degree of truth to that… but having been face to face with them, all I can say is if there’s anything fake about their warmth and enthusiasm, then they’re very good indeed at putting on a show. Call me a sucker if you will, but I found them a genuine pleasure to talk to, and I would be more than happy to do so again.

And no, before anyone says it, I haven’t forgotten about Katharine Isabelle – although, as we touch on later, she does tend to be the less-emphasised party in the American Mary success story. Whether you like the film or not, there can be little question it would not have resonated so widely with festival audiences without so gifted and versatile an actress in the lead, equally adept at conveying the comic, the tragic and the psychotic whilst maintaining a sense of the same character throughout. Given she’s been in the business a good deal longer than her writer-directors, it’s little surprise she’s a great deal more reserved in person, but no less amiable, and every bit as liable to casually break out the profanities. (When technical difficulties with recording on a borrowed Blackberry compelled me to haphazardly call the device a cunt, all three of them were frankly encouraging.)

Sheffield was the fourth stop in the FrightFest Presents American Mary tour, following shows in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Showroom was not especially packed (whilst awareness of the film within the ‘horror community’ has pretty well reached saturation point, outside of these circles word of mouth still evidently has a way to go), but the bulk of the audience seemed appreciative. I must also confess – and no, this is not the hugs or the mini-dresses talking – that I have warmed to American Mary somewhat with repeat viewings. As of this screening I’ve now seen the film four times, and as such I’m coming to disregard my initial expectations of the film and the extent to which it did/did not reach them, and instead start to accept the film on its own terms, and note the finer details. And, on closer inspection, there are a lot of little details to be seen; quiet set-ups that quietly pay off, underemphasised actions that explain a great deal. A few of these do put my mind at rest regarding certain elements of the film that bothered me, as do some of the answers below (which is not to say there aren’t still things in the film that bother me).

Although I have interviewed the Soskas before via e-mail, I haven’t done much in the way of face-to-face interviews before, so this was a fairly new and ever so-slightly nerve-wracking experience for me, partly out of anxiety that I’d get the twins mixed up – although in fact, they’re not that hard to tell apart in person (for reference, Sylvia’s the one on the left in the top picture) – but also from knowing that I’d have to broach the subject of the overall reaction to their film here at Brutal As Hell. As I should think everyone’s aware by now, Nia absolutely adores American Mary (so much, that one review was never going to be enough), but Steph and myself were not quite so convinced, and Keri’s overall feelings were largely negative. However, once again I needn’t have worried, as it quickly became apparent the Soska Sisters have read pretty much everything we’ve ever written about them: Jen immediately recounted my description of them as a midway point between the Coens and Elvira (which I acted a little coy about, but yes, Jen, you got that exactly right). And, most importantly, they quickly made it clear they don’t mind that we haven’t always been unanimously positive about their work. Even so, I knew I had some relatively tough questions to ask, and whilst the Soska Sisters’ easy-going reputation preceded them, there was more of a question mark over how the more poker-faced Isabelle would react. So, whilst visions of Tarantino versus Guru-Murthy danced in my head, I ventured in… and here’s how it all went down.

Naturally, some American Mary spoilers ahead.

(Note: in the transcribing process I may have deleted a few ‘erms,’ ‘sort-ofs’ and ‘y’knows’ from my questions to make myself seem at least vaguely articulate.)

Brutal As Hell: (trying and failing to casually get notes out) I’ve got notes.

(Laughter)

Jen Soska: “Ladies, why are you such cunting fucks?”

BAH: Wha- when did you see this sheet?

(More laughter. Go me.)

BAH: Hello Katharine Isabelle, hello… (attempts to guess – Sylvia whispers her name) Sylvia Soska! Okay, right, I wouldn’t have known that at all, obviously – I mean, I would have known. Ahem.

(More laughs. I’m on a roll.)

BAH: And Jen Soska. Hello.

JS: Hello Ben.

BAH: So first of all, how is life on the road treating you?

Sylvia Soska: We’re like a band. It’s a good thing we like each other, because we could have killed each other by now.

JS: We’re pretty much Led Zeppelin right now.

Katherine Isabelle: Yeah, we’re pretty much Led Zeppelin.

BAH: You haven’t done anything with… fish…?

JS: No, we’re on a very tight schedule. No hookers and blow.

BAH: Excellent. Well, the whole going on tour thing, taking the show out on the road, is something we don’t generally associate with filmmakers so much. It does kind of feed into a perception of you as kind of rock
star filmmakers in a way…

SS: Oh, I like that.

BAH: …or celebrity filmmakers.

SS: Well, it’s nice what FrightFest did, because it’s an experience that’s not downloadable. It’s hard to get people to come to the theatres, so when you get to see this three-horse show go out and do whatever it is, and we’re kind of funny, we can be funny…

KI: It’s nice for us to see how each different place reacts to the film when they watch it. That’s interesting for us, I think, and just to see, to meet people – you know, to see their reaction afterwards, and to hear their questions in the Q&A afterwards is enlightening, and there’s always – you always get the same questions, but everywhere we’ve been we’ve had an original question that’s interesting, that’s made us think about stuff that we might not have thought about before.

JS: It’s really awesome for us to be here in the UK, because this is where Dead Hooker in a Trunk first came out, and actually, people like us a lot better here than they like us back home.

KI: Yeah, they get us. They get the humour, which is a big part of American Mary, which isn’t always embraced back home.

JS: I think it’s because it’s like, the laugh-track generation. If they’re not told when to laugh – I bet if we re-released Dead Hooker in a Trunk with a laugh track, then everyone would be like, “ha-ha, it’s funny!”

SS: And I’d just be, like, cutting myself in the back.

BAH: One thing that sometimes gets said about you two in particular is there’s a sense that the film – that you yourselves are promoted more heavily than the film perhaps is. That it’s more your image… I’m particularly interested in your take on this Katharine, as being the more established person with a longer, more illustrious career, and suddenly these two take all the spotlight more or less. Is that an issue, ever…?

KI: Yes. Bitches in my spotlight…

(Laughs)

KI: No, I think these girls are geniuses at – I mean, they’re naturally gifted with a brandable image. And I think they’re very, very smart in what they do and how they use that. And they are worth coming to see, just because they are so funny, and they are so smart, and they are so interesting, and they have giant tits…

(More laughs)

JS: Only in this dress.

KI: I know, that dress will give anyone huge tits.

(Note: Jen and Sylvia are both wearing black and white mini-dresses similar to ones worn by Katharine in the film. Further note: I was looking in their eyes the whole time, I swear. Especially if my wife is reading this.)

KI: And I think, like – I think they’re geniuses, and I think that’s not done a lot, especially in the way these two girls are so powerful, and they don’t give a shit. And they’re fascinating to watch and hang out with, that’s why I follow them around, I’m obsessed with them, I love them. Yeah, I think they’re geniuses. I’m, kind of, a lot more shy, and like, “oh, you know, can’t you just, like, watch the movie? Do I have to, like, talk about it?”

(Laughter recommences)

KI: By myself it’s weird. But these guys are amazing at it.

BAH: Okay. Now to – the less pleasant portion of the interview. You see what I did there?

(As if on cue, Sylvia and Jen look at one another, sigh, and stand up as if to remove their tops. This whole exchange might not make sense if you haven’t seen American Mary.)

SS: Starving filmmaker…

JS: You’re not fat under there?

BAH: Well, I don’t have any money to give you…

(A few more laughs. They’re just being polite, I’m sure; that wasn’t one of my better quips.)

BAH: So – the overall reaction to the film, both critically and with fans, has been pretty overwhelmingly positive, I guess, hasn’t it? At Brutal As Hell, as you may or may not be aware, reactions have been a little bit more mixed…

SS: I’ve read all of your reviews.

BAH: You have?

(Note: there was no dread in my voice whatsoever.)

JS: We actually read every review that comes out; the ones that think we’re Jesus in twin form, and the ones that think we should die and that we’re cunt-demons and everyone hates us.

SS: I read every independent blog – I have a thing for my name, her name, the movie, everything, I read every single thing –

(Jen interjects, something I can’t quite make out)

SS: No, I – I did that on Dead Hooker, and I found that the criticisms were that they didn’t like the camerawork, they didn’t like the characters and they didn’t like the plot. And because of that, I wanted the characters to be really in-depth in this, I wanted the camerawork to be awesome, and I wanted the plot to be interesting. And on this one it looks like – I know what people don’t like. I know exactly what they don’t like. So, the next is Bob, so I’m going to take all the lessons learned on this and –

JS: What is it they don’t like?

SS: They don’t like the third act, and there’s some of the characters they don’t like. And our ability to grab so many themes at the same time and put it all… but it’s a learning experience, some people like it and some people don’t. I was asked a lot of time by my producers to make it broader, and take a lot of the things out, and just add more nakedness and… non-thinky-ness, and … you know what, for the maybe ten thousand people that really love it, I don’t want to make a shitty movie for them.

JS: If you try to make everyone happy, you end up making nobody happy, and this film – I think everyone can watch it and enjoy it at a surface level. We try to do that with our films. But the people that it’s really made for – the outcasts, and the people that feel they’ve been kicked a lot – we really catered it for them, particularly the body mod community, and, you know, struggling working girls. It couldn’t have also been for the Dr Grants of the world.

SS: A lot of it also came from personal experiences, and I know that… it gets abstract, and it’s not explained enough, and – it was just something I had to say at this time in my life. The next film is going to be a completely different film, but I’m really happy with how it went, and – you know, I already know what people are going to hate in the new one.

JS: I’m glad you guys, regardless, you say your opinion. There are people who are good friends of mine that hate my movies, hate everything I do, and they’re like, “one day you’re gonna do something good,” and I’m like, “maybe! Who the fuck knows, right?” But I think people are surprised to learn that we’re not put off by the fact that they like our film or don’t like our film. I appreciate the attitude over here a bit more than, say, in Los Angeles, because I’ve had so many people say they love our work, and then I ask them about it and it becomes fucking increasingly evident that they haven’t even seen it. They’re like “oh my god, oh my god!” but it’s just what they’ve seen online. I’d rather someone say, “oh, you know, I thought it was alright.” Okay, we’ll get you on the next one! But – you haven’t written a review for Brutal As Hell have you?

BAH: I didn’t, I didn’t write a review –

JS: You said you were holding your tongue –
(I did as well. You can’t put anything past these guys.)

BAH: I did actually talk about it in my end of year round-up article that I did, and I talked a bit about my mixed feelings toward it there. And – what I would like to do now, if I can, is give you the chance to respond to some of the key criticisms that have been made against the film –

SS: Absolutely.

BAH: – just to get your take on that. Now – we mentioned of course the body mod community, obviously a big part of the whole thing. First of all I’ll admit I have no first-hand knowledge of body mod culture whatsoever, really, but some people have claimed that they feel the representation that is given of it is –

JS: Is a glee-like fashion?

BAH: Sorry?

JS: A glee-like fashion?

BAH: A glee-like fashion?

(This one threw me a little. I’m still not sure if she meant glee as in the emotion or the TV show.)

SS: No, he’s talking about Brutal As Hell stuff – (can’t quite make out what she says. Twin secret code, possibly.)

JS: Oh, no – usually they say we depict them in an unrealistic, one-sided way where they’re always just these wonderful, sweet people.

BAH: I was just going to say as – it being part of this dark, seedy, even criminal underworld. A lot of people I’ve spoken to say they feel that was a bit misrepresentative, that there are a lot of places, a lot of procedures that can be done in fairly open places. Tongue-splitting – there’s somewhere within about half an hour of where I live, I think, where you can have that done.

SS: In Seattle it’s illegal.

BAH: Oh really?

SS: Any procedure… when you use anaesthetic it becomes illegal. In Calgary there’s actually a gentleman who went in to have his penis modified, and brought a friend with him. The procedure went awesome, and he left. His friend told his parents, his parents told the police, the police came to his house, they went through his computer, and they arrested him for his procedures.

BAH: Oh, alright.

SS: It might be a North American thing, and it’s awesome that you guys are way more open-minded here.

(Mike, the nice gentleman from Universal, quietly interjects to let me know I have three minutes – I get slightly flustered and say ‘oh blimey’ as I have loads of questions left.)

JS: We’ll talk faster.

BAH: Well, as far as your claims to normalising it and humanising it somewhat, there are certain elements that might be seen to detract from that a little bit. The fact that Mary uses the surgical procedures as a form of revenge seems in some ways to undermine any sense that you’re promoting it as a healthy thing, body modification.

SS: The people themselves are healthy; the character, Mary herself is deeply flawed. A lot of the time in cinema you see these female characters and they are without flaw. Clive Barker said when he made Pinhead that he didn’t give him a single redeemable quality, and that’s something we went for with Mary. She does adventure in body modification, but she is in no way a good human being who doesn’t do horrible things.

BAH: So as far as her spiral into – descent into a sort of madness whilst going further into the body modification thing –

SS: It’s an examination of her capacity for evil through – (I miss her last few words.)

KI: I think – I mean, if you choose to get a procedure done, that’s your choice. If you are forced to have anything amputated that becomes a form of torture, just like anything else. If it’s up to you, then it’s totally healthy and totally fine if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re totally down in why you want to do that, whereas if you’re forced to do anything… if you want eat all day long until you’re morbidly obese, that’s totally fine, you can do that, but if it’s forced on you, that’s incredibly – it’s torture, you know, it’s the same thing, right?

JS: There’s an inclination to make female characters more vulnerable and more forgiving than male characters, and we didn’t want to put that element in Mary. It’s just so force-fed that a woman can’t have so many inclinations toward darkness as a male can. Like when we heard that people were saying that Elizabeth Bathory couldn’t have possibly have committed the murders that she did, because she was a female.

KI: That’s insulting.

SS: We also had Russ Foxx and Elwood Reid from the Church of Body Modification – Russ Foxx was actually a flesh artist himself – and they went through the script and gave us their thoughts on it.

BAH: Okay. The last question I guess I’ve got time for is to talk about the rape. Now this is something that – rape has become a very, very hot topic… that’s probably the wrong way to put it, but for the last year it’s something that’s been talked about a lot in horror, it’s something that people are feeling is often used in an exploitative fashion. Opinions have again been varied as to how it’s used in your film, and how necessary it was. How would you say your use of rape in the film differentiates from how it is in, I don’t know, say V/H/S? Or is there a differentiation there?

JS: I haven’t seen V/H/S yet.

SS: There’s a women’s studies at NYU that looked at rape scenes in cinema, and said that they’re usually done to be sexually gratifying for the male audience. You see breasts, you see penetration, you see legs, you hear slapping noises during the sex part. For us, I wanted to make it as horrific as possible, so most of it is focussed on her face and his face, just so you can see the real horror of the situation. She does something very unspeakably evil to Grant, and I wanted to make sure that what happened to her did show her whole deterioration and how horrific it was, but at the same time I wanted what she did to be even worse, because a lot of the time – you make a woman mad, you do one thing and she comes back with, your cat’s dead. And I wanted to have that explored in the film.

KI: I think, when you said, like, is that rape totally necessary; I really don’t think rape is ever necessary, in any way. I mean, shit fucking happens, it happens all the time. I mean, whether you choose to use that or not in your film is one thing, but it’s a daily reality for women in the world. So to say whether it’s necessary or not is kind of a redundant question, it’s never necessary?! I don’t know!
Unfortunately that was all we had time for, meaning I didn’t get to ask a few of the thornier questions I had planned, and (following more hugs) I was whisked away; but here are a few tidbits gleaned from the post-screening Q&A:

– The rape scene was considerably more traumatic for actor David Lovgren than it was for Katharine Isabelle.

– Sylvia Soska admitted to knowingly including two body mods which are not accurate; the heart-shaped nipples shown in the film are in fact tattoos, and the arm swap operation (as pointed out by Keri) would in fact be a much more complex procedure requiring a much larger team. But they felt they had to include an arm swap, as their initial inspiration for what became the film started from an April Fool’s story about twins surgically exchanging arms.

– Isabelle has no fears about being typecast in evil bitch roles, as good girls are “boring twats.”

– Jen and Sylvia Soska are confident their cliterectomy scene beats Antichrist hands down.

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