Jen and Sylvia Soska on American Mary
Dead Hooker in a Trunk isn’t just a title. It’s also a warning shot, serving notice of the film’s intention to come out swinging and pull no punches. Sure enough, the 2009 debut feature from Canadian writer-directors Jen and Sylvia Soska made good on its promise, boasting beguiling swagger, badass one-liners (“Like dying could kill me”) and more gore than you might reasonably expect from a $2,500 budget. And while Dead Hooker capably illustrated The Twisted Twins’ appetite for exploitation and aptitude for tempering gruesomeness with biting comedy, it offered little hint that their next feature would be as accomplished as the singular, sinister American Mary.
While every bit as transgressive, provocative and wildly entertaining as its predecessor, American Mary sees the Soskas honing their craft and wielding metaphors with deadly proficiency. Featuring a spectacular deadpan performance from Katharine Isabelle (still revered in horror circles for her acerbic turn in 2000’s Ginger Snaps), the film follows a cash-strapped medical student whose moral compromises leave her on a slippery, blood-slicked slope. Having collected a healthy paycheck for stitching up an underworld figure, she’s next enlisted to perform body modifications on outsiders such as a woman who wants to be as desexualized as a doll. (The Soskas appear as the “Demon twins of Berlin,” two particularly discerning clients.) In short order, Mary realizes that her knack for reimagining the human form can be used to exact perverse vengeance on those who’ve wronged her.
With the Soskas frequently serving as costumed mistresses of ceremony, American Mary has traveled the genre festival circuit, earning acclaim and awards at the likes of Fantastic Fest, Screamfest and Toronto After Dark. Currently available on VOD, it receives a limited theatrical release on May 31. Filmmaker spoke with Jen and Sylvia Soska when their film played at the Whistler Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Your parents were at the Whistler Film Festival screening. Was that the first time they’d watched American Mary with a festival audience?
Sylvia Soska: That was my father’s first time at a festival screening. Both of my parents are in the film. They mortgaged their house to be investors in the film. It’s not like they were, “You need to make a movie about body modification!” They were like, “You’ve been struggling with this. Everyone’s freaked out. But, we think you’re actually going to do a good job with it. So, we’ll risk the house that we’ve spent 40 years buying.”
Filmmaker: That obviously put no additional pressure on you whatsoever.
Jen Soska: When they first offered, we refused. But, they asked, “Do you believe in your film?”
Sylvia Soska: Our parents always taught us a very strong work ethic. When I was a little girl and I wanted something, they wouldn’t buy it for me. My dad owned his own company and said, “You can work in the shop and you can earn it yourself.” And even with this loan, we’re contractually obligated with my parents to reimburse them. I’ve never even seen that kind of money. I’m a filmmaker who maxed out her credit cards on the first one. So I was like, “Oh! A giant amount of debt now. Getting into six figures. That’s exciting.’”
Filmmaker: Were they excited about appearing in the film or did they require some convincing?
Sylvia Soska: It was the first time my mom had ever been in anything. I put my dad in Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Scorsese puts his family in his films…
Jen Soska: “Weird Al” does it too. Both of his parents are in his video for “Amish Paradise.”
Sylvia Soska: They’re pioneers. You have to follow in their footsteps. (laughs) But, you watch your edit so many times… No matter how much you love your movie, after watching it for the thousandth time, you’re like, “Ugh.” But then you see your parents and you’re uplifted.
Jen and I are actually retiring from acting, just to be able to focus on directing and writing. And so, our dad is in our last scene, doing something really horrendous with us.
Jen Soska: My mom is also good enough to read all of our scripts. We have some very controversial scripts compared to Mary.
Sylvia Soska: This is our romantic comedy.
Filmmaker: Given its subject matter, American Mary employs almost a shocking amount of restraint. You’ve described Dead Hooker in a Trunk as your “fuck you” to film school and said that you wanted it to be as inappropriate and offensive as possible. Were you consciously reining things in with this follow-up?
Sylvia Soska: Dead Hooker was a love letter to grindhouse filmmaking. American Mary was more of a love letter to European and Asian cinema, where it is horrible but it’s shot so beautifully that it doesn’t really affect you. Like, the cliterectomy scene. I told people it was going to be so beautiful and they were like, “Are you fucking insane?”
Jen Soska: The thing in Mary that’s very different from Dead Hooker is the [element of] suggestion rather than actually seeing something on screen. If someone is disgusted by one of the scenes, it’s because of themselves. Because they are seeing something that isn’t happening.
Filmmaker: Your film’s cliterectomy is certainly handled more artfully than the one featured in Antichrist. Nevertheless, I attended a screening of Lars von Trier’s film where a senior woman was extolling its beauty to anyone who’d listen.
Jen Soska: It’s wonderful that someone can see the substance of a film behind the violence. I know so many people that watch something like A Serbian Film and, yes, I know there’s a taste issue but… It’s beautifully shot and it’s wonderfully performed. The fact that people are emotionally put off by it is because they’ve done the right thing.
We saw Aftershock down at Fantastic Fest and there’s this awful scene where there’s a double rape and someone is horribly murdered. People left offended. “That was awful.” Yeah! It was a rape and a murder. It should’ve been awful. If people aren’t squirming and uncomfortable during a rape, you’re either playing it to the wrong audience or you did it wrong.
Filmmaker: Using horror as an allegory is a fairly common practice. With Mary, you also use the genre to explore the body mod subculture. When you were at the script stage, was it a challenge to determine how best to introduce this world to the uninitiated?
Jen Soska: The film is very much an analogy for our own ventures in the filmmaking industry. We use mainstream medicine as mainstream Hollywood. Then, we use body modification as the independent horror scene. This is where, as we were trying to get Mary and our other films out, we found so much more kinship and acceptance. Just very honest, straightforward people who actually cared about what they were doing.
I think the body mod community is one of the most misunderstood communities in the world. It was important for us to show them to the world in a truthful manner. When we were pitching it, Sylv would start with, “Have you ever heard of body modification?”
Sylvia Soska: Because I was fascinated. I found a story on the internet about these twin brothers who swapped limbs. It was an April Fool’s prank but it left me so fascinated. Jen and I would go on message boards pretending we were enthusiasts trying to get different procedures. “This is infected! What do I do?”
Jen Soska: “There’s something wrong with my subincised penis. What do I do?”
Sylvia Soska: We ended up writing the script with a gun to our head. Eli Roth was so sweet and was helping us with our first film. Then, he asked what other scripts we had. I had nothing but I lied.
Jen Soska: It’s only bad if you can’t pull it off.
Sylvia Soska: I listed everything I thought I could make up in two weeks. One of them was about this medical student who does these underground surgeries to pay for school. He said, “That one. I want to read it.” Then, Jen and I just put everything we had into it.
At the time, we had no money. We were starving. We didn’t know if anything was going to happen with the movie. We just thought we were going to fail miserably. We were going down to Los Angeles and meeting horrible people who would say these disgusting things. Wearing these kind of outfits and this makeup… This is kind of our battle armor. We feel comfortable like this. A lot times, people are like, “Identical twins. Look at them. They’re party flavors.” You get some shocking things said to you. The sleazy producer is real.
Jen Soska: That’s why they’re represented in film and television.
Sylvia Soska: When we were writing it, I didn’t realize what we had. People were like, “Wow. Are you sure you’re comfortable with that? That’s so much of the stuff that you’re going through.” I think that’s why people can relate to the movie even with its fantastical edge.
Filmmaker: Katharine Isabelle has this wonderful ability to openly acknowledge the absurdity of the situations Mary finds herself in without ever diminishing the stakes of the story. It seems you’re remarkably well-suited to working together. You all bring a certain playfulness to horror while also fulfilling all of your genre obligations.
Jen Soska: When we met Katie, it was fantastic. She was everything we wanted her to be and so much more. She was so into telling the story about the mods in a truthful and respectful manner.
Sylvia Soska: We were thrown out of three different restaurants for speaking passionately about the script and body modifications. Here’s Katie in a sushi restaurant saying, “And the part where the nipples come off!” I’ve loved her since Ginger Snaps. I met her briefly as an extra on Josie and the Pussycats. She doesn’t even remember that she was nice to me.
Jen Soska: It’s actually an amazing lesson. Always be nice to the people you work with in the film industry because you never know whether that P.A. is going to be a studio executive one day.
Sylvia Soska: Katie has been doing this since she was five. She’s had horrible experiences. She’s had troubles with money. She brought that out. She doesn’t do those horrendous things that Mary does but she had to find a dark place so that it could be honest. You don’t see female characters like that all the time. Clive Barker says that it’s interesting to write characters with no likeable qualities. Everything Mary does is selfish. But people are like, “I love her.” That’s because Katie is brilliant.
Jen Soska: We’ll be working with her a lot in the future. It’s like when Steve McQueen found Michael Fassbender. She’s just phenomenal. I think like so many other Canadians in the film industry, she just hit the glass ceiling. Especially for actors. The first question any studio asks is, “Who’s in it? Oh… That’s not a L.A. name.” Katie is a name. Her fans are loyalists.
Filmmaker: Horror is one way for actors to get around that glass ceiling. There are people worldwide who’ve loved Katharine as “Ginger” for over a decade. It seems that the genre offers directors a similar chance to escape what’s sometimes considered the Canadian filmmaking ghetto. You’re considered horror filmmakers rather than Canadian filmmakers. It must be incredibly rewarding to be embraced by the community you’ve admired for so long.
Sylvia Soska: I met Clive Barker. Hellraiser was largely drawn from his experiences in the BDSM body mod world. I was so nervous meeting him. We saw Hellraiser when we were 12. That’s probably why we’re so fucked up.
Jen Soska: We’re going to reenact Hellraiser from beginning to end now.
Sylvia Soska: I went over to him and said, “Mr. Barker, my sister and I are such huge fans. And because we’re so inspired by your work, we’re doing a movie about body modification.” He goes, [adopts British accent] “The funny thing about body modification is there’s no one general group for it. There’s some people here who do one thing. There’s extremists here. Religious people over there. Are you going to represent everyone in this film?’”
Jen Soska: You didn’t think she’d do a Clive. She does a Clive.
Sylvia Soska: We talked for an hour. He just recently saw the film and said the nicest things about how we handled the prosthetics… Katie’s performance… The imagery… It always means something to me. Anyone who sees the film and gets something from it, it makes my lifetime. But to see someone like Clive Barker, who’s seen a lot of horror and been such an inspiration… He dug it? It just blows me away. I feel so honored.
When I was 10, my mother told me the [horror] films weren’t real. Now I’m obsessed with prosthetics. That’s why when Charlotte Gainsbourg cuts her clit off [in Antichrist], I’m like, “Oh! What a cool effect. That looks like a vagina.” Jen is such a snob though. She’s like, “There’s one cut before, so I know…”
Jen Soska: There is. There’s a frame. It’s locked on the vagina shot. Then, it readjusts slightly and it looks slightly different. She cuts it and there’s a moment it before it bleeds. I’m sorry. I was also the only person in A Serbian Film watching it, going, “That baby doesn’t react naturally.”
Sylvia Soska: My sister. I love her. “More realistic baby rape, please.”
Jen Soska: But then I’ll watch something like Six Feet Under and I’m like, “How did Todd [Masters] and MastersFX do that?” It looks perfect.
Sylvia Soska: We’re such prosthetics nerds. We go to all the Monster Makeup conventions and people are like, “Oh. Do you know me?” We’re like, “Yes! You made this and this and this and this.” Tom Woodruff Jr. … He’s the alien [from the later Alien films]. He came up saying, “You probably don’t know me…” We were just like… [starts hyperventilating]
Filmmaker: So you manage to take what should be an incredibly flattering experience for these people and freak them out instead?
Jen Soska: It is so weird for them. Also, we’re a little like the Children of the Corn. There’s two of us… We’re speaking the same sentences…
Sylvia Soska: They’re like, “I’m not sure what’s happening right now but I’m going to say thank you and politely excuse myself.”
Filmmaker: What is the division of labor between the two of you? You mentioned earlier that when talking to Eli Roth you thought, “What can I write in two weeks?” Do you handle more of the writing?
Sylvia Soska: Oh no. I use The Royal I. I forget that Jen exists. What we do is work every aspect together. We like to joke that she’s the Joss Whedon of the two of us and I’m the Lars von Trier. She puts a beautiful heart in and I rip it out and then I rape it.
Jen Soska: I wrote this wonderful Japanese western and then I was like, “Okay, Sylv, it’s your turn. You do the backstory for this character.” And, I come back to my script and it’s like, “You had to put this fucking rape in.”
Sylvia Soska: I was so happy because it was so horrendous. I sat there, watching her reading it… Watching her expression… Then she’s like, “Why would you write this?” I asked, “Does it work though?”
Jen Soska: It works but… God, Sylv… She does have that more visceral side to her.
Filmmaker: You shot American Mary in only 15 days. Splitting duties must be a real benefit when operating on a schedule like that.
Sylvia Soska: Jen’s a much bigger prosthetics nerd than I am. So, she goes on prosthetics. I was so obsessed with the look of this film. So, I was with our cinematographer Brian Pearson all the time.
Jen Soska: And I’d go with our Assistant Director Brad Jubenville. It’s your d.p.’s job to try and stretch the time out and then it’s your a.d.’s job to stay on schedule and make intelligent cuts where you have to. After talking to them, we’d go back, compare notes and find a happy medium. “Okay. We can get everything if we do this.”
Sylvia: Everyone loved the script so much that they really brought the best of themselves. When we were into the last hour every day, I’ve never seen a crew run around like that.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that you’ve decided to retire from acting. However, there’s definitely a performance element when you present the film at festival screenings. Do you feel like you’re products of this social media era that allows you to create personae and brand yourselves?
Jen Soska: People wonder if this is how I’d look if I was going to 7-11. Abso-fucking-lutely. I’m a huge comic book and video game fan. We were horribly bullied when we were growing up. Loving Spider-Man was not cool. Now, I’m like, “Fuck. I wish I was a high school student now.” We really wanted to emulate the strength in those characters that we really idolized. I have a Captain America outfit that I wear out sometimes.
People are constantly surprised when they meet us. “You’re actually like this?” or “It’s not a film interview, you didn’t have to do this.” With all respect to you, I did this for me this morning. I know it’s freezing and I’m sick and I’ll probably die but I like this dress.