by Rachel Fox
She’s so unusual. Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska dish on AMERICAN MARY
The buzz surrounding Canadian identical twin horror directors Jen and Sylvia Soska is growing increasingly loud, despite the fact that their second feature film, American Mary, has yet to even premiere. Following the unlikely success of their ultra-low-budget grindhouse flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the girls quietly cultivated both a reputation and a serious fan base that includes director Eli Roth.
It was just announced that their highly anticipated follow-up, set to bow next week at Film4 FrightFest in London, has been picked up by Universal Pictures International for distribution in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany. The film was produced by Vancouver, British Columbia based IndustryWorks Pictures, also the worldwide distributor.
On Monday, I attended a private screening for cast and crew at the Rio Theatre in the Soska’s hometown of Vancouver, where the film was shot. American Mary is the story of broke medical student Mary Mason, who becomes disillusioned enough with the “establishment” to drop out when she discovers a more lucrative way to make use of her surgical skills in the dangerous, underground world of extreme body modification. Starring Vancouverite Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps, Freddy vs. Jason) and an eye-popping array of old-school prosthetics and special effects courtesy of Todd Masters and MastersFX (True Blood, Slither), the film is an homage to the kind of classic horror movies Jen and Sylvia grew up watching. “We’re such horror nerds,” Jen tells me.
Following the screening, the jubilant directors (donning a pair of matching dresses worn by Mary in the film) brought their own Mary, actress Katharine Isabelle, up on stage for a round of applause. Sylvia issued a heartfelt apology for “covering her in so much blood, which she hated. But it was worth it!” Isabelle seemed both emotional and overwhelmed. “I’m very happy. I had a little bit of anxiety going in, but I knew that it would be good because of these girls. It turned out to be just wonderful. I love you two.”
I had some time to chat with Jen, Sylvia and cast members Katharine Isabelle, John Emmett Tracy (Detective Dolor) and Tristan Risk (Beatress, pictured at left) about the making of the film and what audiences can expect from American Mary.
Congratulations, everyone, and thank you so much for letting me share this with you all. Katharine, everything having to do with this movie – the world of body modification, the character of Mary and her strange progression – it’s all so unusual. What did you think when you first read the script?
Katharine Isabelle: At the time I had it sent to me my computer wasn’t working, and I ended up reading the entire script on my Blackberry. All 190 pages! I really liked it, but I didn’t know if I was crazy or not, so I had to get other people to read it. Like my mom, who is a very sensitive person. [Laughs]
I read the whole thing and I thought… I didn’t know what I thought. I knew it was interesting and I really liked the themes, and I really liked Mary. The whole thing appealed to me, oddly. It wasn’t anything specific: I just wanted to read it. I wanted to watch it. I wanted to be a part of it. It was one of the best scripts I’d ever read in my life. That was clearly something that was a big deal to me.
I don’t like being covered in blood, wearing no clothes and in uncomfortable and awkward, horrifying situations, but it was so appealing to me that it totally overrode all of that. It made it more endearing, more interesting. It was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ It was a great experience and these guys made it awesome.
Can we talk about the experience of working with two directors?
Sylvia Soska: It’s normal to me.
Tristan Risk: I liked it. There would be one behind the camera and the other one would come and actually talk to you, then they’d switch off. It was really helpful, time-management wise. Because they have really strong telepathy back-and-forth, they could just relay everything so quickly. One always knew what the other was doing.
John Emmett Tracy: Their basic working model is collaboration: They write together, they produce together, they act together. They’re well-practiced collaborators, which was very good for all of us in the cast and also the crew. Jen and Sylvia start that way; they aren’t a singular writer with a one-director vision. They work together.
How did you divvy up work on set?
Sylvia: We split duties up. I don’t even know how one director does it. There’s two of us, and we’re identical, but still I felt like a chicken with my head cut off and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on half of the time.
Jen Soska: It all depended on what we were shooting. In case we got fucked, I would put out fires. We have the benefit that if something goes to hell on set, we have another director who can keep on working with the cinematographer or the actors and can just keep on going.
I know this movie is particularly close to Sylvia, and I could say to her, ‘You can stay on set and if anything goes fucking terrible, I will leave and take control.’ We called it ‘putting out fires.’ There are always problems on any set, and any director that says otherwise is bullshitting you. Something will go horribly wrong when you don’t need it to, and somebody needs to be able to go and take care of it in a way that nobody ever knew that something was wrong in the first place.
Katharine: Sylvia would always be on set, you know, crying and being ridiculous and explaining why, from the depths of her soul, Mary was doing what she was doing. Jen would be in the background, negotiating something so that we could actually continue filming. That would allow Sylvia to continue being the creative tornado that she is on set. That was really special. You don’t get that often.
How were Jen and Sylvia different from each other to work with?
Katharine: Jen’s the manager. Sylvia is the creator. Sylvia is Mary, and Jen makes sure that Mary can exist.
I was amazed to learn that there is no CGI. There are some pretty gnarly prosthetics in the film.
Tristan: To play Beatress, it took about two hours every morning to put it on, and about an hour and a half to take it off. The make-up team was very patient with me.
Weirdly (or not), I was more disturbed by the appearance of those characters, like Beatress, sporting the extreme plastic surgery prosthetics than those characters with the more, uh, ‘unusual’ body modifications.
Jen: That was intentional. [Everyone laughs.]
Tristan: It was weird if I caught a look at myself off of a reflective surface. ‘That’s not my face!’ [In public], a lot of people thought that that was my real face – even on set. If I came without the prosthetics on, everyone would wonder who the hell I was.
American Mary is a huge jump for Twisted Twins Productions – Dead Hooker in a Trunks’s budget ($2,500) was a veritable credit card movie by comparison. What was it like to find yourselves at the helm of such a (comparatively) large production?
Sylvia: It was weird not to be doing everything. We used to just come to set, bring our own wardrobe and make-up, co-ordinate stunts, and make sandwiches for everybody.
[On American Mary] the heads of our departments were vastly, vastly more talented than us. It made what we were doing so much better than we could have ever hoped.
Katharine: But we’d still catch these girls hauling cables.
Jen: It was so unnatural; when you’re doing an independent credit card movie you are the person who runs to get something, decorates, and then cleans up the set. Once in a while we could just sit there [on Mary] and be the director, which was nice.
Sylvia: At one point [on Mary] I got cranky and they figured out that Coca-Cola would make me happy. So any time a Coke appeared in front of me I thought, ‘Oh, I’m being a bitch right now.’
Jen: You drank a lot of Coke on set.
In the credits, you dedicated the film to Eli Roth.
Sylvia: The movie wouldn’t exist without Eli. When Dead Hooker was [first] finished, I sent it to everyone involved with Grindhouse, which really inspired me. I never expected to hear back from anyone.
Jen: We sent it to Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Eli Roth.
Sylvia: Eli got back to us two days later.
Jen: Wait, let’s preface this: We emailed him on fucking MySpace. He was so gentlemanly and kind in his response, naturally I thought, ‘This is some fucking 12 year-old who wants to bang the two of us. There’s no way…’.”
Sylvia: But he was so sweet and nice and he was talking to us back and forth. He asked us about our other scripts and we had nothing at the time, so I lied. ‘We have so many scripts, Eli… this one, that one. We’ve got this one about a girl who does surgeries.’ And he said, ‘The surgery one sounds interesting, send me that.’ I said, ‘I’d be really embarrassed if it had any spelling mistakes, so I’m gonna have to take a look at it and send it to you in a couple of weeks.’
I turned to Jen and said, ‘Fuck! We need a script.’
Jen: And I turned to you and said, ‘What the hell do you know about body modification?’
And so the journey began. Was Eli Roth involved in the actual production of American Mary?
Sylvia: Absolutely not. Eli was my go-to when something went really to hell that I didn’t expect at all. He would give me advice. We were texting back and forth through a lot of it, which was really nice.
You don’t expect that. He’s got other things to do, like opening casinos. He doesn’t have to be, like, [appropriating a male voice] ‘Indie filmmaker in Canada, you’re not getting your day? Here’s what you do.’
His advice was amazing. He told me, ‘Always get your shot, no matter what, no matter how pissed off people get at you. They’ll be more pissed if they worked and you didn’t get all the shots that you wanted.’ Things like that. It really helped a lot.
Jen: He also told us what David Lynch told him, ‘Focus on the doughnut, not the hole.’
The doughnut is the production, what people see onscreen at the end. The hole is all the other bullshit that goes into filmmaking and that really, nobody’s going to know about unless you start running your mouth and bitching about it. And that stuff is unimportant because, like I said before, it happens on every set. There’s no set without problems. Shit happens. People don’t get along, that’s just how it goes.
But the important thing is the final product – that’s the film.
You’re having American Mary‘s world premiere at FrightFest next week. Not too shabby.
Sylvia: I hope I’m not as nauseous as I am today.
Jen: Oh, you will be. If not more!
Sylvia: It’s a 1400-seater! FrightFest is very prestigious among horror fans, who have seen every movie I have seen. I kinda want them to like it the most.
Jen: I’m excited to have the hardcore fans watching. There are references in American Mary to Dead Ringers, Suspiria, American Psycho and so many other films [in this] that a normal human being would watch and not get at all. But a die-hard horror nerd will get it.
When we watched it at the Cannes Film Festival marketplace for the very first time, the German joke flew and I was like, ‘But there’s no subtitles, what are they laughing at?’ Of course, they all spoke German, so they got it.
The French love a good Mengele joke. Dead Hooker spawned a really dedicated group of fans who have been following your progress, many of whom are eagerly anticipating the film when it bows at Fright Fest next week and, hopefully, at more festivals around the world.
Sylvia: We are dedicated horror fans, and a lot of what’s been going on with genre lately is remakes, completely unimaginative films with no original thoughts. We wanted to make something you haven’t seen before. I think we overshot with that, by a lot. I think people are going to be excited by this, and I hope people get behind it.
If people can get behind a movie like this, then studios are going to see that and start making movies like this again. I grew up on horror movies and I don’t see those movies getting made, unless they’re literally getting remade. But that’s not the way it should be.
What are you most looking forward to at the festival? Will you take in any screenings?
Sylvia: My main objective is to promote the film and personally meet as many supporters as I can because they are the only reason that we are able to continue to do this.
If I can sneak into a screening, I would die to see Jennifer Lynch’s Chained. We get off the plane and get to go straight to the director’s lunch where I believe Jennifer lynch will be in attendance. Even being invited to be a part of something like that is kind of unreal for a pair of horror fans like us.
Jen: Being able to really connect with the fans is what I’m most looking forward to. I’m dying to have that huge theatre packed with horror fans and hearing and really relishing in each and every reaction from the crowd. Every laugh, every groan, every clap, every whisper. I get obsessive in screenings. I count! [Laughs]
I really want to see Maniac. Elijah Wood is just awesome and I’m excited to see him in it.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Is American Mary a feminist horror film? There’s no wrong answer!
Sylvia: Absolutely! You don’t ever see a female lead character playing the antagonist, protagonist, and the final girl in one role. Beatress Johnson and Ruby Realgirl are both strong, interesting supporting female characters. And Mary has a strong relationship with her grandmother – there are so many girls!
Yeah, and I noticed that all the blonde ones get the shit kicked out of them.
Sylvia: Blame Hitchcock for that! He said, ‘Blondes make the best victims,’ and he’s right. It has nothing to do with my black hair. [Laughs]
After watching the film and looking at Katharine as Mary, I can’t help but notice that she does, uh, look a lot like you ladies…
Jen: Absolutely! If you watch the scene with the twins, Mary is dressed the way we dress to every interview – a suit dress and blazer. It’s all a very personal story and synonymous with our adventures in filmmaking. Not to the word, but…
Sylvia: They know too much about us, now, Jen. If anyone goes to that storage locker, we’re fucked.