Vancouver’s very own Jen and Sylvia Soska a.k.a the “terrible twins”, a.k.a the “twisted sisters”, a.k.a “just fock’n awesome”, are taking the film world by storm. Their second feature film American Mary is making its theatrical release this week and it’s already dubbed one of the year’s most horrific highlights. . .“A true modern day horror”.
American Mary tells the story of broke med. student Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) who grows increasingly disenchanted with medical school and the doctors she once admired. The allure of easy money sends a desperate Mary through the messy world of underground surgeries that leaves more marks on her than her so-called freakish clientele.
The film features a standout lead performance from horror icon Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps), and notable performances by Antonio Cupo (Bomb Girl), Paula Lindberg (Fringe, Supernatural), David Lovgren (Masters of Horror, Supernatural) and newcomers Tristen Risk as the disturbingly loveable Beatress and Twan Holliday as Mary’s confidant, protector and BFF Lance.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the sisters. We talk about their new feature American Mary, what’s it like breaking into a film industry mostly dominated by men, their must watch horror flick and more.
Felix: You are known for directing often violent and visceral horror movies, such as your directorial debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk. At what age did you first start getting into films?
Sylvia: We started acting at seven years old, not because we were particularly talented but because there was two of us and that helped with child labor laws. We never really got booked in anything exciting, but there was something about that escapism that really drew us in. Fear wasn’t promoted in our household. My mom would say that if you were scared of something it was due to a lack of education, so learn more and you won’t be scared anymore. The moment that it really hit me hard was when this huge spider was in my kitchen when I was very small and I ran screaming outside to get my dad and my grandpa. I told them what happened and my grandpa just said, ‘so?’ Since then fear and what scared people fascinated me and where better to explore fear than in the realm of horror. We got to watch our first horror at ten and were begging our parents to rent those films since we knew how to beg for stuff.
Jen: I don’t remember a time that we weren’t into movies and particularly scary ones. It’s so very much a part of who we are. Story telling became something we were very interested in since an early age. Books, films, TV, video games, graphic novels, ghost stories, everything we could get our hands on. I know we were begging to watch horror movies since we were little. Eventually, our mum let us watch POLTERGEIST and it changed our lives. We kept it cool until bedtime and then got really scared and our mum pulled back the curtain explaining that what we saw was made with the intention of scaring us. A director, a writer, actors, prosthetic artists all worked hard to make everything in that film to make it seem real, but it wasn’t. After that, we were hooked. I couldn’t believe it could be your job to scare people. I’ve been doing it ever since, now on just a much wider scale.
Felix: Tell us about your latest film American Mary starring the fabulous Katharine Isabelle. What inspired you to create this film, and what can Soska Sister fans expect to see?
Sylvia: I love her. It might sound cruel given what occurs in the film, but everything that happens is something I wanted to see Katie do – as a fan I had these ridiculous expectations of her and she’s one of those people that can actually surpass those kinds of expectations. I stumbled upon body modification through an April Fool’s prank on one of the body mod sites featuring two identical twin brothers that swapped limbs with one another, leaving one with three arms minus one ring finger and the other with one arm with an elongated ring finger. The photo essay didn’t get to me as much as the letter from the brothers that said you would have to be an identical twin to understand why you would do something like this. It scared me, so I knew I had to learn about it. That fear turned to fascination to admiration and we became obsessed. Here was a group that was wrongly villainized and misunderstood; it was the perfect vessel for a story about appearances in today’s very harsh world.
Jen: The film is very much an analogy for our own ventures in the film industry. You don’t see a lot of films with a female lead that isn’t primarily just designated as a “love interest” role. We wanted to create a new evolution of the final girl character type where not only is the stunning and brilliant Katharine Isabelle who takes the title role as Mary Mason the anti-hero, but ultimately also the antagonist. She’s a character unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and the film is a completely unique and original film that transcends categorization. Our tagline is “appearances are everything” and that rings true on so many levels. This is also a horror movie you don’t have to look away from and unlike many films that claim to be 100% practical, we do have no CGI in the film. Everything you see is either awe inspiring artwork by MastersFX or actually members from the body mod community. We wanted this film to be very real and very honest and it is.
Felix: Any challenges or obstacles you had to overcome while filming American Mary?
Sylvia: With a lesser cast and crew it, there would have been lots of them, but there was nothing those people weren’t willing to do or sacrifice for the film. We had people working for free, donating things we couldn’t afford – it was a heartwarming experience. No one was there because of the draw of money, they were there because the story meant something to them and that’s why we have the film that we do, you can see that level of dedication in every frame, in every aspect of the film. To find someone willing to ‘take a risk’ on a horror film that is really an unconventional character piece about body modification with severely horrific elements was difficult. Even when we found someone, there was the issue of someone investing. I have to say, I have the best parents in the world. They say our struggles to get this film made and on our 28th birthday, my dad told us that they were remortgaging the house to be the first investors.
Jen: You never have enough time or money. We had a 15 day shoot, no re-shoots or pick up days, never could go over 12 hours, and an incredibly ambitious story to tell. Our phenomenal crew went above and beyond to make it possible. Brad Jubenvil, our first AD, brought years of experience and expertise to the project and he made sure we never missed a beat. We worked very closely with him and our astounding DP, Brian Pearson, and were always thinking outside the box to maximize our time and never lose any essential elements to the film. Our cast and crew went above and beyond for this film. They were all there because they felt we were making something special and you can literally see the love they put into it in every single frame. No detail was overlooked and no challenge was not only met but risen to.
Felix: Out of all the types of films you could possibly do, what drew you to the horror/grindhouse genre?
Sylvia: We were in a terrible film school at the end of 2007. We were frustrated with the roles that we were auditioning for, so we decided to apply our extensive martial arts training into trying our hand at stunt work. The school had an excellent outsourced stunt program and very little that even resembled a school after that. It was another disappointment, but thank God the multi-collaborative GRINDHOUSE was in the theatres at the time. We were going there every day after school and learning real film school. We walked out of the theatre after the budget for our final project was cut and Jen, inspired by Eisener’s HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, says ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk.’ She said let’s make our own faux trailer, we’ll write, direct, star in, do the stunts for, everything and we’ll present that at graduation. Of course, because it was also revenge, we put everything in the school’s too inappropriate to put in school’s project’s list because we were making this on our own and even added the oddly missed necrophilia and bestiality. The short played very well to half the audience walking out and the other half laughing so hard you could barely hear the intentionally vile dialogue. People started to ask us when we were going to make the feature, so we maxed out our credit cards, called in every favor and made the film.
Jen: With Dead Hooker In a Trunk, we had a very limited budget and resources. We wanted to make the film DIY (do it yourself) style in the vein of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. His book, Rebel Without a Crew, inspired us to pick up a camera in the first place. Grindhouse really lends itself to independent filmmaking. You have to be quick on your feet and learn how to overcome your obstacles with creativity rather than cash and it’s an essential skill to have for a filmmaker. Horror seems to have more chosen us than the other way around. With Dead Hooker, we thought we were making a comedy, but as it turns out our sense of humor is just a touch darker than most, ha ha. No matter what genre we tackle in the future, I can guarantee it will always have elements of horror in it.
Felix: Is it hard to break into a business where it’s mostly dominated by men?
Sylvia: It is and it isn’t. There’s a definite struggle for women and there’s a group of people that like to pretend it doesn’t exist. You only need look as far as the misogynistic comments that were considered completely acceptable to be said by various people at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Replace the word ‘woman’ in their comments with any other group and there would have been serious repercussions. But people are allowed to say things like ‘women aren’t funny’ or ‘women can’t direct’ and it’s a very out-dated way of thinking and utterly ridiculous. It’s essentially saying that women do not have anything to add to the creative world. Despite these struggles, there are many men and women that want to see this change and are working hard to be a part of that change. I’ve had many opportunities because of my unique situation that my twin sister and I are a writing, directing team. That may get me in the door but I have to have something substantial to stay there. Like Dorothy Arzner who was the only female director working during Hollywood’s Golden Age, she is quoted to have said that she remained there because she made good product and that’s really what it’s about.
Jen: Yes and no. There are some real monsters we’ve met in this business that classify women as only someone they’d want to sleep with or not and when you turn them down, beware the bruised ego of a misogynist. I’ve encountered people like this in every line of work, but the film industry really seems to attract the wrong type people for the wrong reasons. That being said, every male director we’ve met has not only embraced us in this business, but encouraged us and offered not only their support, but their help should we ever need it. It’s tough to get your film made regardless of your gender and meeting and chatting with a fellow director is like two war buddies swapping stories. Especially when you’re first starting out, people will take advantage of your inexperience and naivety. Filmmakers do need to stick together. So many male directors inspired me to want to make films myself. I always wished there were more women. I wonder how many gave up because they didn’t want to put up with the sexism and the other struggles that every filmmaker faces. We’ll never stop. I hope we encourage more women to pick up and camera and tell their stories.
Felix: Movie making can be a time consuming job what do you do for hobbies? Do you have any peculiar interests?
Sylvia: There isn’t much free time, but we’ve always watched horror movies, played video games, and read comic books. I collect tarantulas in my spare time; I have a collection of thirteen right now. I wanted to be an arachnologist before and I still love those little beauties. They are sweet, interesting, little buggers but the world is filled with spider propaganda to hurt their public image. I guess, I always gravitate towards the misunderstood.
Jen: We’re married to our careers. We spend so much time working and dedicated to social media and promotion and interacting with the people that watch our films. Work comes first, each other second, and then everything else takes second place. I love comic books and video games. I think some of the greatest stories ever told are in them. When we can, we game and work on our ever expanding comic book collection. I love martial arts and collect weapons and train with them. The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a super hero and I’ve had a hard time letting that go.
Felix: What is your must watch horror flick of all time?
Sylvia: American Psycho by the wonderful talented and intelligent female Canadian director, Mary Harron. I was introduced to the film when I saw her on the news defending the artistic merit and satire of the film when they were trying to get it kicked out of filming in Toronto. She spoke so eloquently, I didn’t know the film yet, but I knew from how she spoke that I wanted to see it. It’s a very smart horror.
Jen: Oh! That’s a tough one. If I can pick only one, The Exorcist. The effects done by Dick Smith, the father of prosthetics, is outstanding. It’s terrifying and is still wonderful even by today’s standards. That film still scares me. I like to watch it entirely in the dark. The Thing (John Carpenter’s) with Rob Bottin’s effects is a close second.
Felix: Going forward, what kind of films would you like to take on? Anyone that you would like to work with that you have not?
Sylvia: It’s very important to Jen and me to keep mixing it up with every film, to not do the same thing twice. We have a pile of our scripts that are all very much different from the other; the next is an original monster movie that we are teaming with Masters FX to create called BOB. The tagline is: There is a monster inside all of us, sometimes it gets out. I like working with cool, driven people, names don’t draw me in as much, but I’ll meet someone like Laurence Harvey and love him and then we’ll start scheming to put him in something. We wrote something for Xander Corvus, I think he’s a great actor and I would love to see what he can do in this genre.
Jen: We have no shortage of films that we’d like to make between the two of us. We’d love to do a comic book adaptation. One that is true to the source material. We’ll be working with FIRST COMICS to bring our films to graphic novel life. Through them, we’ve also met a graphic novelist and artist that we are just the biggest fans of and we’ll be bringing one of his books to the big screen. It’s really a dream come true for us. We can’t say just what it is yet, but fans are going to go crazy when they find out what it is. We’ll be at San Diego Comic Con again this year, so we may be making an announcement there.
Felix: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
American Mary will be screening in theatres across Canada on May 30 as a part of Cineplex’s Sinister Cinema event. It will also be opening for a run at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver on May 31.
Written by Felix Kay, for Vancity Buzz. Stay in touch with Felix on Twitter at @TheFelixKay.
Photo credit: IndustryWorks Pictures