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An Interview with Jen & Sylvia Soska, Directors of American Mary

by Mike Haberfelner

July 2012

Jen Soska on (re)Search my Trash

Sylvia Soska on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your upcoming film American Mary - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Sylvia: It follows the story of medical student, Mary Mason played by Katharine Isabelle [Katharine Isabelle interview - click here], as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted by medical school and the surgeons she once admired. The allure of easy money and notoriety sends her into the messy world of underground surgeries and body modification - which leaves more marks on Mary that her so-called 'freakish' clientele.

 

Jen: It's a love letter to Asian and European horror stylistically. Those of you who have seen Dead Hooker in a Trunk will likely be very surprised. That film was very much inspired by grindhouse-style filmmaking. Where it was visceral and insane and totally random like a rabid dog, American Mary is thoughtful and surgically deliberate and haunting and deeply disturbing. 

 

What sparked the idea to make a movie about the world of underground surgeries, is there a personal relation to the subject, and what kind of research did you do to get everything right?

 

Sylvia: An ex showed me something he found on the internet - it was an April Fool's prank, but I didn't know that at the time - where two identical twin brothers were body modification enthusiasts and opted to have one brother's arm removed and attached to the other's chest plate. Then the remaining ring finger on the initial twin would be elongated by attaching his brother's ring finger to the tip making a super long finger. The limbs wouldn't be rejected because they share the same blood, but what really disturbed me was the write up they had accompanying their story - that only identical twins would understand this need for closeness. I became obsessed with the story and body modification, long after I realized what I saw was a prank.

Anytime something is frightening, once you educate yourself on the material, that fear tends to disappear. That's what happened to me with the body mod community and I realized that the actual members of this community are interesting, self-aware, very kind and approachable people. Isn't that always the case, though? And the ones that appear outwardly to be someone good and harmless are usually anything but - and Jen and I are used to being treated a certain way because of our appearance, why not make a film that explores that relationship between appearances and what's under the surface of those appearances.

 

Jen: You write what you know. Or what fascinates you. If Sylv sees something disturbing, and it's usually rather rare to find something that gets to her, it possesses her. That was the case with the subject matter of American Mary. We have been very fortunate to have had so much support from those in the body mod community. These people are so open and giving when they have every reason not to be. People often want to talk to them under the guise of a human interest story, but it often turns out to be a modern day witch hunt to exploit and ridicule these people. That's the lowest form of "entertainment". To ridicule people who are different. We, ourselves, being twins and seen as dark and unusual, have felt like outcasts throughout our lives so we related on that level.

Russ Foxx was our flesh art consultant for the film and was just amazing to work with. He taught us so much about the culture and introduced us to many people in the community. It was always our intent to approach the subject matter respectfully. Especially because I find you cannot judge people based on their outside appearances. I know that sounds like something you learn in elementary school, but people do it well into their adult lives. I've found people who appear to be normal and the ones in positions that you'd traditionally respect are rarely worthy of trust and those that seem a little different on the outside are some of the kindest, most well adjusted, and wonderful people I've ever met.

 

(Other) sources of inspriations when writing American Mary, and what can you tell us about the writing process as such?

 

Sylvia: My entire life, I've had my sister there. We have a life time of in-jokes and experiences that we share and those personal moments are what we build our stories on. Having an identical version of yourself who you are constantly compared to, it makes for some very healthy competition and we really push each other to be better. We write everything together and we are merciless with ideas until we find something that we are both passionate about, so we are creating something that means something to us. Our interests are actually very different, but that works for writing - you don't want to have a writing partner that is too similar to you.

The process of writing American Mary was what made us create a process. This happened when we were still working on post with Dead Hooker in a Trunk and trying to get distribution. We were talking to Eli Roth, who has been an incredibly supportive friend to us, about scripts and he asked what else we had. We didn't have anything, so I bullshitted. Oh, we have a ton, this one, and that one, and this one about a medical student. Cool, the medical student one sounds interesting. I told him that I wanted to go through it first and that I would send it to him in a couple weeks. Jen and I wrote out a timeline split into three acts and started beating out a story for our medical student. We knew we wanted to talk about body modification and we were also really struggling with our careers with these really weird experiences at the time, so it all fueled the story. We made up different scenes here and there and called which sequences we would write, if one of us got blocked, we'd tag out while the other got to play video games. It's a pretty fun process.

Later, I admitted to Eli about my bullshit. He was cool about it because we still pulled it off. If it wasn't for that back and forth with him, the script would have never been written.

 

Jen: I'm very lucky to have been born with a writing partner. I've heard horror stories about writers actively seeking partners and losing them or clashing. Sylv and I write quite seamlessly together. I don't think people can tell who writes what. We hash out a concept we are both equally excited about and go from there, breaking scenes down on a timeline, filling in the middle, and then deciding who wants to do what. One of us writes while the other plays video games, then we switch off and read over what the other did, make adjustments, and go back and forth from there. We're as similar as we are different. I say she's the Lars Von Trier and I'm the Joss Whedon. She writes the horrible and unthinkable. I throw in a few jokes. Honestly, though, I couldn't ask for a better writing partner. She's so brilliant and comes up with such purely original concepts and characters.

 

How did you approach your subject matter as directors, and did you share the same vision or often clash, aesthetically (or otherwise)?

 

Sylvia: On every project we treat every member of the team respectfully because without their talents, the film wouldn't be possible. We had a tremendous amount of talent killing themselves on American Mary and their passion for the film put it at this whole other level. The one thing Jen and I share always is our insane ambition and passion on each project. There were a lot of departments that had to come together to create the world of American Mary. Thank God there was two of us. I have no idea how a single director handles making a movie. There were two identical versions of us and we were still running around like crazy. Jen was kind enough to give me final say on a lot with American Mary, but she was the one who privately would battle me to make it stronger. There are some big moments in the film that are very much Jen's merit that I would have missed because I would be obsessing about a tiny detail somewhere else.

We agree and disagree like any two separate people. We make sure to have those discussions privately to one another. On set, we each have different focuses and then get together to see where we are on the day. We work like a unit and I wouldn't want to make a film without her. I'm very lucky to have been born with someone who can stand me.

 

Jen: There has to be one person who gets the final say. We have everything well discussed and divided well before we set foot on set. And every project is different. Sylv had final say on American Mary. She had a massive focus on the principal cast and cinematography. I put a large focus on the prosthetics, effects, and make up. We both worked with the cast, but Sylv had a very specific vision for Mary that she and Katie developed. It was also my responsibility to put out fires. That meant if bullshit happened, I'd deal with it so that at least one of us could work. And bullshit happens. Always. If someone tells you different, they're telling you a fairy tale. It was vital especially working with such a tight shooting schedule. There was no place for mistakes or over sights. It really pays off to be able to divide and conquer.

 

Underground surgery suggests a waggonload of blood and guts almost by definition ... and since I know quite a few of my readers are gorehounds: How far are you going concerning gore in American Mary and was there a line you just refused to cross for whatever reason. And what can you tell us about your gore effects, and how important is gore for your body of work to begin with?

 

Sylvia: We had a lady at a test screening have to leave because she was getting ill, but she still filled out a form telling us how much she loved the film. At Cannes, we had a woman run out shaking her head during a semi-graphic depiction of what I call 'radical feminism'. We took a strong stance on keeping the medical aspects as true to life as possible, there is only one scene that is possible but would require more surgeons, but that would not have worked for plot reasons. I didn't even realize the amount of blood in the film until I was talking to Katie about it one day. I replied, We don't get blood on you - except this scene, and that scene, and... oh yeah, there's a lot of blood. It's not an over the top, exaggerated fountain gusher blood fest, but the gorehounds will be happy - we did a few things that you've never seen in a film before.

 

Jen: We are believers in blending prosthetics with reality in this film in particular. We feel CGI should only be used for subtle embellishments. It can look godawful and takes me out of films when I notice it. I'm not really a good gauge of gore. Watching American Mary, I'd see someone cringe or hear them groan or catch them looking away and I'd be all like, "what?". The violence is stylistically different from Dead Hooker in a Trunk, of course, but there is some very harsh imagery in the film.

Or so I'm told.

 

Your last feature, the wonderful and wonderfully titled Dead Hooker in a Trunk, wasn't exactly irony-free. To what extent is irony a factor in American Mary?

 

Sylvia: The humour in Dead Hooker in a Trunk was very mumblecore, but you still had those over the top fantastical moments, so you were laughing a lot. You will laugh in American Mary, there is a lot of situational humour in the film and Katie is phenomenal that creating humour without it being slap stick. I don't think Jen and I could make anything without our dark sense of humour, but there are some just awful moments in the film. It was designed not to be a cookie-cutter, paint by numbers horror film - it has many different dimensions and feelings throughout it.

 

Jen: I enjoy irony. American Mary is much more based in reality than Dead Hooker in a Trunk. I laugh when people isolate certain things that happen in Dead Hooker in a Trunk and say, "that's not possible." If you don't suspend your disbelief, if you aren't able to or willing to, let me be the first to tell you, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is not for you. It's whimsical and just loaded with WTF delights. That style of ironic humor has passed on to American Mary, though it is executed in a very different way. Much of the situational irony in American Mary comes from what you expect and assume and what turns out to be the reality of certain situations. Appearances are everything is a theme throughout the film. And what something appears to be is rarely what it turns out to be.

 

Katharine Isabelle

Your lead actress Katharine Isabelle [Katharine Isabelle interview - click here] - what can you tell us about her, and what made her perfect for the role?

 

Sylvia: Anyone who knew me during the last two and a half years with creating American Mary will likely tell you about my obsession with the film and Mary in particular. I met Katharine on Josie and the Pussycats and she was really kind to me. I had wanted to work with her for a long time, but I didn't really know much about her other than that brief meeting and admiring her work in films. We sent over the script and got a meeting with Katie. I was so nervous that I would hate her, but she came in and was fucking brilliant. And her craziness for creating Mary rivaled my own.

Katharine is intoxicatingly talented. There is a lot to Katie that is similar to Mary, her strength of character, her quirky and sometimes severe personality, she's one of the most interesting women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I remember talking to her on set and watching her do her makeup identically to a scene in the film where Mary does hers the same way and realized that she is the living version of that character. There is a lot to Mary that isn't Katie, the story is very much a modern tragedy and she goes through hell in the film, and Katie had to create these very crushingly dark and dead moments. I watch the film sometimes and think, holy shit, I did that to one of my best friends.

 

Jen: Oh, her. She's the bane of my existence.

Kidding, of course. Katie is phenomenal. She has been acting since childhood and it's really second nature for her. She's brilliant and there's a bit of crazy in there, too. She really brought Mary Mason to life. The character goes through a lot in the film. It was an incredible challenge. We put Katie through hell, especially emotionally and psychologically. And no matter what we put her through, she excelled. She has a deep understanding of the character and put in months of working on her and talking about the script and story with us. You can't ask for a more dedicated actress. And she blew us away, often nailing a scene in a single take. It was a real pleasure to work with her.

 

A few words about the rest of your principal cast?

 

Paula Lindberg as Ruby RealGirl

Sylvia: A lot of American production come up to Vancouver and they have an endless supply of talent to choose from, but these actors are often supporting cast or day players. There are so many countries that make these great films from their own talent and Canada has become a service country, we don't make enough of our own stuff, so it was important to showcase that talent in American Mary. Jen and I had very specific visions for each character - Paula Lindberg (Ruby RealGirl) was our first cast member and her performance as doll-like Ruby got us the attention we needed to get the film into production. She just became this very strange, pixy-like character. I love David Lovgren and Clay St.Thomas - I had them in mind when we were creating their characters as Dr. Grant and Dr. Walsh. That's going to sound less flattering once you see the film.

We had big problems finding cast for Billy Barker, Beatress Johnson, and Detective Dolor. I hand-picked Antonio Cupo and John Emmet Tracy in a short list of actors I wanted to have brought in for our auditions. Antonio was the character when he walked in, I couldn't have written a more perfect actor. You don't get to see him do enough roles like this. John is one of my favourite actors, a complete gentleman who is so honest in his performances. After seeing over sixty actors for the role of Beatress, we had a meeting with Tristan Risk [Tristan Risk interview - click here] for our dance coordinator and choreographer. I think I stopped her mid-sentence and asked if she acted. The role of Beatress is so specific, it was a miracle that Tristan came into our lives. A perfect Beatress, she really stands out in the film because she's this light in a world of darkness.

One more cast member that really sticks out to me is Twan Holliday who plays Lance Delgreggo. He is in many ways the heart of the film. Hearing a film is about underground surgeries, you don't expect any tender moments, but this man is it and the perfect statement on appearance versus the actual person.

 

Jen: We were spoiled with the talent we had on our set. All Canadian cast and all breakthrough stars in their own right. It's a bit hard to talk about them in any detail without giving anything away. The roles they play are vital to the story and the film itself, I imagine that's a fairly obvious statement to make. Paula Lindberg, our Ruby RealGirl, was with us from the beginning teaser trailer and she really shined. She's so giving and such a professional. Antonio Cupo is outstanding as Billy Barker which is a role that he doesn't often have the opportunity to play. David Lovgren as Doctor Alan Grant is going to go down in horror fame and I do have to say that David is in fact one of the kindest people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. He really put a lot of trust in us and the result is astounding. Twan Holliday has already proven to be a fan favorite at test screenings and with good reason. He's amazing and he literally worked his ass off. He is so driven and dedicated.

And Tristan Risk. Well, we'll look like geniuses for casting her. She is a break through star if I've ever seen one and just captivating as Beatress Johnson. She's a real muse for us. I love that woman. She's the most fascinating woman in the world.

 

the Soska-twins frame Katharine Isabelle

Other than in your previous Dead Hooker in a Trunk, you have given yourself only rather small roles in American Mary - why?

 

Sylvia: It's our way of stepping away from acting to focus on writing and directing. We have been acting since we were seven years old, some of it was very fun, we have learned a lot, but we've done what we've wanted to with acting right now. The cameo in American Mary is our goodbye to acting. We have been given some incredible offers after Dead Hooker in a Trunk, but we got even more shitty stereotypical twins roles afterwards which was part of the reason we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk in the first place. The next film doesn't even have a cameo, but I like that. I like that no one really knows what to expect from us next.

 

Jen: We have made the decision to retire from acting. This was our good bye to it. Don't get me wrong, acting was our first love and I still have a lot of love for it. We want to put the focus on making our films and our writing and directing. Before we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk, we were being offered nothing but poorly written, overly sexualized, and stereotypical twin roles. And disturbingly enough after Dead Hooker in a Trunk and being very out-spoken about it, we just got lots of the same crap. For the right role, maybe we'll consider coming out of retirement, but it would have to be one hell of a role. But who knows.

I can say I really enjoyed the roles we played in American Mary. I'm dying to show the world. The whole film, really.

 

What can you tell us about the actual shoot and the on-set atmosphere?

 

Sylvia: That set was our family. Everyone there was there because they felt so passionately about the story. You can see that the cast and crew truly cared in every frame, in every detail. Something I bring with me everywhere is that if you treat people kindly and with respect, the whole world opens up to you. He was right. There was lot of laughing, people were happy even though it was an incredibly tight schedule and budget considering what we wanted to do, but the way people acted and with the final film, you would have never known. Jen and I said good morning to everyone when we got on set, there was a lot of hugging - some of the crew joked that they worked for hugs - we would say good night after we wrapped, everyone knew everyone's name, everyone was treated respectfully - it's the only way for a set to be. I think it's because of that comfortable feeling that we could really push the boundaries when we needed to for the harsher content days. You can't do that if people don't feel safe.

 

Jen: It was a set of respect. Dealing with such sensitive subject matter, it was our intent from the get go to only have a people on set that would treat one another respectfully. We were incredibly appreciative of the crew we had. They truly were they best of the best and I can't wait to work with them again. I love them. People were happy to be there and everyone felt we were really working on something special that doesn't come around too often. Most people read the script and sought to get on the production. People went well above and beyond and worked their asses off. And we had a very tight schedule, it wasn't easy to pull of by any means. We shot right before Christmas and it was like a family. People worked hard but were happy. We even celebrated "Whopper Wednesday".

 

American Mary premiered at the Cannes Film Festival not too long ago - now what can you tell us about that experience, and what can you tell us about audience and critical reception?

 

Sylvia: I still remember opening a fortune cookie on set and it said something about 'travels' and I told the cast and crew not to worry because we would be going to Cannes, the cookie verified it. Although we weren't in competition, we had our worldwide market premiere screening at the festival and it was insane. We had a meeting with a major studio right before, rushed from the Palais to our rented apartment, threw on our dresses, hard pressed for time, and ran through the Cannes streets to our screening. The room was packed, the audience reacted perfectly to the film - which you never know what to expect with these things - and I was treated to an evening of talking about the film with those that attended the screening.

We had one woman run out during a certain scene and that's cool. If it isn't provocative and different, what's the point of making it in the first place. After the screening, we kept running into people who wanted to talk about the film. It's a very rad feeling to stand there while a person describes your film to another person. I like the feeling it gave people, I like what stood out to them. The audience sat through the credits respectfully after the film finished, a man who sat beside me at the screening told me that I 'have a very dark side' - it was just an amazing experience.

 

Jen: I was thoroughly prepared by Cannes-veterans as to what to expect and not expect from a market screening. They said that they are very different from competition or festival screenings where you have a large amount of fans attending. Market screenings are strictly for festival programmers, studios, distributors, and buyers. We were warned that especially because our screening was at 8pm it would be conflicting with the competition films so we could expect around 5 or so people that will not react to anything in the film, will be on their cell phones much of the time, and will more than likely be walking in and out the entire time. So, we decided to expect the worst, suck it up, and, as we were advised, not to take the audience reaction as a reflection of the quality of the film. One friend from Twitch Films suggested we not attend at all as a filmmaker being in that situation can be quite hurtful.

So the night of the screening came and we met up with our investors and producers before. We went up to the theater and were among the first to arrive. There was us and three others, about what we expected. As the start time drew nearer, the audience filled up more. And then more, until the theater was full. With the cautionary tales I'd heard, I counted. We had 4 walk outs. Two returned from the bathroom, I returned from a call, and the other was a woman who became very upset at the content of Ruby's surgery and left shaking her head. I still consider that a win. One man checked his phone 5 times and he apologized after saying he was supposed to attend with his partner and he was giving him shit for missing the film. And there were thirty reactions from the crowd. I couldn't believe that they even sat through the credits. It was outstanding. The audience came down to the hotel bar after with us and spent the night talking and gushing over the film. It was such a proud moment.

 

The $64-question of course: When and where will American Mary be released onto the general public?

 

Sylvia: Not soon enough. If you head out to Fright Fest in the UK on August 27th, you can see her in a special screening.

 

Jen: Aw, man. I only have the answer you don't want to hear. I can't say.

 


From Dead Hooker in a Trunk to American Mary - how do you think you have evolved as writers and directors?

 

Sylvia: It's definitely a more mature project. Dead Hooker in a Trunk was a love letter to grind house filmmaking, American Mary is a love letter to Asian and European filmmaking. Dead Hooker in a Trunk was made to be fun; just turn your brain off and have a good time. That said, we did put some undertones and greater meaning in there, if you want that shit, it's there, if not, you can still enjoy the film. American Mary is a much more meticulously planned and executed film. There is more story and character development there. We could focus more on the script and the directing because we had a larger crew and a bigger budget. Dead Hooker in a Trunk gave us the skills to know every aspect that goes into making a film from concept to distribution, American Mary we used that knowledge and pursued more to create the film we wanted to. The more I learn about writing and directing, the more I realize there is to learn. I like that.

 

Jen: Tremendously. I think as you go through life, you're always changing. We actively seek to better ourselves. We watch something new everyday and break it down, find the triumphs and the failures so that we can learn from both. I love Dead Hooker in a Trunk. I'm proud of it. But it wouldn't turn out the same if I made it today. But I actually think that "I've never made a film before, but, fuck it, I'm gonna do it anyway"-attitude is part of the film's charm. Dead Hooker in a Trunk is where we were at that point in our lives. It's what we wanted to say then. "Hey, we're here, pay attention to us." American Mary is very different. We have very different things to say. And a lot more of them.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

Sylvia: Prosthetic effects are very important to us, so that plays a lot into the next two scripts that are actually shaping up to be next. Both are very unique - one involves a new take on the werewolf genre and the other is a monster movie - both are incredibly comedic and horrifically gory. I blame Masters FX - their work is so fucking good, it makes me extra homicidal and when was the last time you saw an original monster concept? We have also been approached about taking some people's work I deeply admire and taking them into big screen adaptations, so I'm pretty stoked about those opportunities.

 

Jen: It's tough to say, but for good reason. There are so many opportunities that have opened up for us. I'd love to do Bob. He was started up before American Mary, actually, but had to go on the back burner for a while. I'd say that stylistically it's a blend between Dead Hooker in a Trunk and American Mary. It's as hilarious as it is horrendous. And it's damn funny, ha ha. We have several other scripts, too, and the possibility of directing the work of others, which is pretty cool. We have a TV-series we've been working on since we've been teenagers. That's never far from our hearts. We write damn fast, so it really could be anything that becomes our "next one". We'll have to see what people want to see from us.

Right now we've got an amazing online radio show on RadioAmplifire.com called Mondays Suck thanks to 430 Productions, who also brought you American Mary. It's 7pm to 10pm PST every Monday and it's fully uncensored. We play whatever we want and talk about whatever we want and have special guests on.

We'll also be a Comic Con in San Diego doing a special American Mary panel on Thursday in Room 5AB at 11am with Paula Lindberg and Todd Masters. We'll be at the Son Of Monsterpalooza Con in October in LA, too, and can't fucking wait for that.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

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x-rated  find Soska Twins at adultvideouniverse.com

Sylvia: There's two American Mary groups on facebook, there's a Twisted Twins Productions group, you can just plain old add us as friends, or check us out on Tumblr. We like to stay in touch with everyone - it's because of the support front he horror community that we are even able to do this.

 

Jen: We're everywhere. http://www.twistedtwinsproductions.net/ is a great place to start, but please find us on Facebook (under our real names) and on Twitter at twisted_twins.

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Sylvia: You were very thorough. I'm just so excited about our first time Comic Con at San Diego coming up - we have a panel on Thursday at 11am to 12pm where we're going to be talking American Mary with Todd Masters, the mastermind behind the effects and character design in the film, and Paula Lindberg, our Ruby RealGirl, with an exclusive look at the film. It's going to be pretty fun and you can meet Jen and me, if you're into that kind of thing. Also, if you cannot wait to see American Mary, she has a special screening on August 27th at Fright Fest - it's going to be a hell of a show.

 

Jen: Nah, I'm good. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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