by Martin Parsons
Sylvia and Jen Soska, identical twins with a passion for offbeat horror, burst into the filmmaking world in 2009 with their exploitation flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk, a rough, cheap ride every bit as subtle and sweet as its title suggests. Despite a truly minuscule budget, the film is an insanely likeable and funny piece, and quickly became a festival favourite. In 2012 the Twisted Sisters, as their production company is known, returned with American Mary, which saw them teaming up with cult film icon Katharine Isabelle. Isabelle, who plays the titular Mary, is most recognisably the star of Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett’s punky, lyrical 2000 werewolf film, but also has an enviable list of genre and mainstream credits to her name. Sadly, despite festival successes, American Mary has gone straight to DVD in the UK, but the Twisted Sisters and Katharine Isabelle travelled here to tour with the film through a select few cinemas. We had the pleasure of sitting down with them for a quick chat at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema.
SS: We’ll speak fast!
JS: And try not to digress too much…
How did the Soska sisters get into filmmaking in the first place?
SS: Stupidity! We didn’t know any better. Our budget for film school got pulled and we were in the theatres every day watching Grindhouse and one day Jen walks up and she goes ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk!’ and I was like ‘what’s that?’ and she said ‘like Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun, we should just make a faux trailer for our final project!’. And the school had a list of everything that was too inappropriate like bestiality…
JS: Necrophilia, we added that one in!
SS: We put everything humanly offensive in there and it was actually a lot of fun and it was a fake trailer so it could be the most exciting things. We presented it at graduation and half the audience walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could barely hear the very intentionally disgusting dialogue.
JS: They thought we made it as a faux trailer for something we were making so, like many things in our career, we lied and said ‘yeah, absolutely!’.
SS: We actually had no idea what it took to make a movie so we just maxed out our credit cards and it became a film. And you watched it!
Katharine Isabelle, for us you are Ginger and you will always be Ginger. How do you feel about that association?
KI: No, that’s great. I mean, Ginger was a really interesting strong female character that was not available to girls like us when we were growing up. I’m still thrilled – there are thirteen-year-old girls who weren’t even alive when we made that! That’s amazing! I love it; I think it gave us quirky strange kids a voice, and at least someone to relate to. I’m fine with it! [We pointed out that our guest photographer Sarah Henderson wrote her dissertation partly on Ginger Snaps] Yeah, they show it in Women’s Film Studies in universities. It’s awesome!
On to American Mary – how did you find each other to make this film? Katharine, what drew you to it?
JS: I wrote it for her! That’s a big rule as a director: never write for an actor because you don’t know if you’ll end up being disappointed… Maybe they’re not available, or when you meet them maybe they’re not the people that you were hoping they were… but Katie was WAY worse than what we’d imagined.
KI: Huge letdown!
JS: No, she’s like the Fassbender to our Steve McQueen. Katie’s our special one.
SS: We were such big fans from Ginger and we watched everything and when you see the movie this is going to sound cruel, but this is something I’ve always wanted to see Katie do. I was so lucky that not only was she what I hoped she would be from watching all her movies, but she was even better. She only had three takes to do anything – we had 15 days, a lesser actress would have fucked this movie up so bad but she was just brilliant in it! I can’t say enough good things about her.
KI: I like those answers.
Who are your filmmaking heroes? As actresses, as filmmakers, who is it that really inspires you?
SS: On this one Clive Barker, Takashi Miike, Dario Argento had huge influences on us.
JS: We also joke that her favourite director is Lars Von Trier and mine is Joss Whedon. We joke that I put the heart in and she rips it out, takes a shit on it and rapes it…
SS: The European approach to filmmaking is my favourite!
JS: I’m like Charles Xavier and she’s Magneto. I’m Optimus saying ‘maybe there’s hope for the world’ and she’s like ‘ah, fuck it all!’. But oddly we take very different paths but we always get to the same goal. Robert Rodriguez is a huge, huge hero of ours but not as much in this. In Dead Hooker it was half Rodriguez and half Ed Wood, half do-it-yourself and half fuck it, that’s the best we can get, just keep going.
SS: Oh, there’s snow on the ground today, oh well!
What was the difference this time working with a budget?
SS: It was really different. We were very lucky that on Dead Hooker in a Trunk we did every department so we understood how a film set moved. Here, I think we over-wrote the script because we still didn’t have money… We had people coming out and volunteering to do it. What was the same in both experiences was that it was people who cared about the project and they came along and they did awesome jobs. The professionals in the departments like Tony Devenyi, our production designer, our costume designer, Brad Jubenville that was our First AD… I didn’t even know what a First AD was – they’re REALLY useful! Brian Pearson, our director of photography. It was just a huge blessing to have them on board.
JS: I remember the first day we got to set I saw all the trucks and I was like ‘oh, is something else filming here?’ and they were like ‘no, those are yours!’. I still, when our first AD says ‘quiet on set!’, I stop talking and they’re like ‘no! quiet so we can hear the two of you!’ And if we needed something I’d get out of my chair and start running and they’d be like ‘sit the fuck down!’.
SS: And Katie kept telling us that’s not our department and we were like ‘fuck, that’s right!’.
How do you divvy up the workload? And Katie, as an actress, is working with them different to having one director calling the shots?
KI: No, they’re so on the same page with what they want. They both know exactly what the end result they’re trying to achieve is. It’s helpful having two of them… A director has so many jobs and so many things they have to do on set. Sylvia’s Mary [apparently she subconsciously wrote the character with many of her traits], and she’s more ridiculously emotional about it. She would have emotional breakdowns and Jen would be like ‘oh okay, she’s just going to have a little cry, and I’m going to get things done here’. I could go to either one of them and either one knew exactly what they wanted or needed. They had little twin fights very rarely, but they’d come back unanimously, standing strong together united as one.
JS: We’re born collaborators. I feel sorry for you guys that are singles, we call you normies. I don’t know how you get by in the world because when I say I want to be alone, it means also with her!
Having spoken about sticking in everything that was on the banned list… What are the chances that your next film will be a family musical comedy?
JS: If Disney shows up with a truckload of money, then we’ll absolutely be, you know, whatever the fuck, the musical… with the theme park ride!
KI: Whatever the fuck, the musical! The next film by the Soska sisters!
JS: The next thing we’re working on, or hopefully because you don’t know what the fuck’s going to show up… you don’t know if Disney will show up!
SS: It’s an original take on the forgotten monster genre. It’s called Bob and the tagline is ‘there’s a monster inside of all of us and sometimes it gets out’. It’s probably our most comedic piece because it’s probably our most disgusting and offensive piece. We just like to balance that shit out!
JS: It’s right in between Dead Hooker and American Mary. It’s got the spontaneous gore and the hilarity and the what the fuck moments of Dead Hooker, but we are also tricking people into seeing a clever movie, because you’ll leave and be like ‘oh no, I’ve learnt something again, fuck those Soskas!’.
Do you have an ethos as actresses and directors and everything else?
SS: I always like there to be a commentary on something. If you’re not making some sort of a statement or a thought about the world I don’t really know why you’re making a film. I mean, there’s stuff that you can enjoy, there’s pretty lights and pretty ladies wearing nothing, but at the same time there’s something deeper going on. I think that’s really important. Especially in horror which is almost being shot like porn now, there’re no characters…
JS: Especially in North America. Here and in Asia you have it a little bit more sordid!
KI: As an actor I think all you’re really trying to do is reflect humanity back to itself, the quirks of human nature. Regardless of whether it’s on paper or not, and I’ve done movies where it was fully fleshed out and movies where there’s absolutely nothing, that’s all we’re trying to do… just try not to suck!
Is this a case of ‘the Canadians are coming!’? What do you think the state of the Canadian film industry is like at the moment?
JS: There are a couple of rebels…
SS: There isn’t really a national cinematic identity. I mean, you look at Jason Eisener and you’re like ‘oh my gosh, exciting stuff’s happening!’, and then Telefilm’s like ‘no, we’re not going to pay for that unless you’re a family drama and that’s fine, we’ll throw tons of money into it’. They actually told us that we should go up for some grants because we’re women, and I was like ‘I don’t feel that’s a disability at all’. I’d rather get funding on my own, like a dude would, and just make a good film. And then, hopefully, around the world they’ll be a success and then our government will be like ‘oh, maybe we should throw money at this!’.
KI: I hope it does inspire them. Canada is an odd country in that respect, we’re not quite sure who we are or what we’re doing. And I hope it inspires other kids to go ‘you know what, fuck it, I’m going off on my own to make what I want and see who likes it… Fuck the people that don’t!’.