On May 30th I had the great fortune to speak to Jen and Sylvia Soska, the twisted mastermind duo behind Dead Hooker in a Trunk and the now cultish American Mary. Unlike the last time we spoke, our arrangements were far more formal, but no less warm. Bright and excited for the day’s proceedings, they welcomed me with open arms and a great deal to discuss – as anticipated.
What was so special about this particular day was that their latest baby, American Mary, went theatrical. As part of Raven Banner Entertainment’s Sinister Cinema series, Mary would play in 25 theatres across Canada. The Twisted Twins were in Toronto for the big event, both excited and nervous to be here.
Ariel: It’s been seven months since American Mary’s Canadian premiere at Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and now you’re back in Toronto for the theatrical release. How have the past seven months been?
Sylvia: An absolute blur.
J: That was before we even went to Australia, wasn’t it? And after Toronto we went to LA for a week, and then we went to Australia for a month and we just weren’t home for the longest time.
A: No wonder you can’t keep track of where you’re waking up in the morning!
J: I know! We’re like those rock bands like “Yeah we love you! … Where the fuck are we? Chicago, is it?”
A: Your fan base seems to have exploded.
S: They are so sweet! […] It’s just a little, independent horror movie that’s a character piece about a woman’s struggles in a male-dominated work place that features body modification. You don’t usually hear people really reaching out and cultivating the scene of this. And the people that have liked it really like it. One guy, that image (she says as she points to the American Mary poster on the wall) he got that tattooed on his arm. I couldn’t believe it! People are getting tattoos, people are making memes, people are making paintings, people are-
S: People are forking their tongues!
J: I’m sure we’re going to get some angry parent emails of “My son has joined the snake army!” Good! Cool!
S: Well I always say if you have a body modification because of American Mary let us know and we’ll send you a t-shirt. It’s the least we can do! The movie has only done what it has because people have supported it in this way, and I didn’t expect it. I was hoping a few people, the artsy crowd, would be like “yeah I totally get it.” But everyone’s been really cool about it, and getting the little subtleties. So, I’m spoiled! And it’s Toronto that … Toronto After Dark was the biggest reaction we ever had before-
J: And we’re not just saying that because we’re in Toronto! We did this with piss-drunk Australians, and I thought “whoa, this is gonna be the loudest crowd!” But, no, it was the Toronto After Dark crowd! The fans have been so good to us. We only have a career because of how the fans have reacted to us. Because with Dead Hooker in a Trunk made for $2,500, nobody would have given us the opportunity to make American Mary just based on the merit of Dead Hooker in a Trunk. But because the fans wanted so ravenously to see “what’s your next film!?” And we mentioned American Mary and they’re like “we need American Mary!” And because of that demand, we’re able to make [the film] and that’s why we’re already talking about Bob!
S: They’re already on a fan trip for Bob! I love these people!
J: They’re already starting poster art like “is this it?!” and they’re joking about what it could possibly be. I love that!
J: I hoped, and I think every filmmaker just hopes that their film will find the right audience. I think it was Joss Whedon who said he’d rather have a film that a hundred people have to see than a thousand people go to see. I don’t know if those are the right numbers, but it’s the “have to see” and the “go to see”. Because, I think that what we have with American Mary is – on the surface it’s a horror movie, but it’s got so much more going on with it and I always hoped that it would find an audience, and that fans would get behind it. But what they’ve done is just … It’s just blown me away with the GIFs and the memes and the cosplay and the fan art and the tattoos!
A: So what’s your reaction to things like that? Like scarification or tongue splitting or tattoos in honor of American Mary?
S: I love it! My favourite thing is I get a lot of messages from people who are transgendered. These are people who are disowned from their family, and people who don’t understand why they’re doing it, as well as from people in the mod community saying, “This is how I feel more comfortable, and people I know don’t understand that.” And I never even thought about it when we wrote the line for Ruby where she says “I don’t really think it’s fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside.” People have sent me that, and they’re like “when she says that it makes me feel like I’m okay to be me.” And I’m so fucking thrilled that something that cool-! Because once a movie’s out there, then it’s not yours anymore, it’s theirs. And it’s all how their reaction and their relationship with it is. And I think that’s the coolest thing with this.
J: We’re fangirls ourselves. There’s things that have motivated me to do things I was afraid to do. Like Joss Whedon and Buffy! I went into martial arts because I was always very little and I was like “I want to be Buffy, and I want to be able to defend myself!” And that someone can see American Mary and be like “I want to be like Mary” – some people may think she’s not a great role model, I think she is! I think she’s awesome! I think she’s the kind of girl that if I wanted to get my tongue split, I would definitely look up.
A: Your busy streak is only going to continue from the sounds of it: you have The ABCs of Death II coming up, an as-yet unnamed graphic novel adaptation, and you have Bob. Have I left anything out?
S: With the graphic novel adaptation, we are solely directors on the project. The script is so thorough and embodies the graphic novel series so wholly, I couldn’t do anything to perfect it. The fact that I get to do the direction on that film – I’m really really really stoked. Because, we have Dead Hooker [in a Trunk] and we have American Mary and then we have Bob and that’s a kind of timeline in our head where it’s kind of like a trilogy – not in that the stories are related, but Dead Hooker was like “Ahh! Pay attention to me! We’re here!” And then now with American Mary we’re like “Now we have something to say that we’re here.” And then Bob is kind of like our grown-up movie. And I’m really excited about that. And people are like “It’s a monster movie. How is that a grown-up movie?” And I’m like “well, wait until you see it! Because it’s a monster movie done like you haven’t seen done before!” And then we’re gonna start – I’d like to do a few scripts of other people that I like. […] It’s in a different world that I wouldn’t normally write in, but it’s still very much our style. And it’s obviously going to be our style, because we’re going to direct it.
A: How many scripts do you two have in the works or the banks of your mind of your own work? And how many scripts are you considering of other people’s work?
S: There are another couple of scripts from that same writer that we also want to make into films. We have the same interests and sensibilities, which is weird for people with our creative ideals, so when we find someone we like, we like to collaborate a lot. We met other writers – brothers – who have this very distinct style. Just started planning our first collaboration. I get excited by their writing, because it’s totally unique and those are the stories we want to tell.
J: At this point, post-BOB, we have three other writers’ scripts we would like to turn into features. But you never know what’s going to go ahead and when. We like to plan our careers a few years ahead of ourselves.
A: Pertaining to directing other people’s scripts, do you two have a “Great Whale” of writers? Is there a writer you would most love to collaborate with?
S: We’re spoiled, the two writers we mentioned are the ones we’d love to work with. I’d kill and maim to adapt anything by Garth Ennis or Daniel Way.
A: Regarding The ABCs of Death, do you have your letter yet? Do you have any concepts for any letters you have in mind? How are you looking forward to working with the likes of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury of À L’intérieur and Shion Sono of Suicide Club?
J: They asked us if we were interested a couple of months before they actually announced us, and I didn’t realize they were going to announce us at Cannes when they did. I think the first response was all caps locked, and just exclamation marks and all “OH MY GOD I WOULD FUCKING LOVE TO DO IT!!!!!” and then I toned it down and thought “they’re gonna take it back, they’re gonna take it back!” I was just so blown away to be invited to The ABCs of Death because it’s just horror royalty. And even now they’ve extended it [beyond] just horror directors. It’s [international] directors […] working together and collaborating. And the guys that do it – Tim League, Todd Brown, Mark Walko, and Ant Timpson – just the coolest producers in the world. Of all the horror stories I have with producers, these guys are the guys you absolutely want to work with. We don’t technically have a letter, we have a concept because, you know, you get a $5000 budget, and then from there you have to ask in for favours. We’re going to be bringing a lot of our American Mary team back and we have a few letters that we could fit it into. And, you know what, if I get Q I’m still gonna fit it into that!
S: I just can’t wait. You promote something for so long, and you’re really excited about it, but I need to create something! I feel like such a douche just being like “this is this, and that is that.” I want to create something new! So that everybody can be like “Look at this thing! This is cool, too!”
A: So what can you tell me about Bob?
J: Its tag line is “There’s a monster inside all of us. Sometimes it gets out.” It’s going to be favouring practical effects over CGI and we’re going to be partnering with Masters FX again and not just as a prosthetics company – Todd Masters is going to be one of our producers as well. He’s been in the business for years and years, and they’re a phenomenal effects company. But the way they work is that they are filmmakers. They do so much more than just effects, and you’re really going to see that with Bob. It’s also going to be our first boy movie! We have two incredibly strong, unconventional female characters, of course, because if we didn’t it’d be like Cher without the costume changes it’d be like “What happened to the twins?! Have the twins lost their will to live?!”
S: “Where’s their anger?!”
J: But we always get the question “what is your feminist agenda?” and what about this, and what about that? And we do want to say things about feminism, and we are third wave feminists, but we want to do a film where we do write a male lead to show that yes we can do a male story. And this is a story that is very relevant right now, and the content in it is something that I think a lot of people would be very uncomfortable to tackle, especially because there is a bit of a gender reverse. And the thing that is the gender issue in this, for men in particular is a real embarrassment. Isn’t it good that I said it without actually saying it?
A: And of course you’d favour practical effects over CGI because it’s more tactile.
J: It is, and it looks real. I mean, if we got to the point with CGI that you’d put a CGI effect next to a practical effect and you couldn’t tell the difference, no problem! But the way I see it is I haven’t seen any CGI that doesn’t take me out of the moment. And especially when you’re doing an original monster, your sense of disbelief is suspended to a certain point already, and if there’s a moment that makes you think “oh, that looks fake” then you lose the audience.
A: Back on something you’d said before about being third wave feminists, and people constantly asking you questions about “where’s your feminist agenda?” are you feeling a lot of pressure now that you’ve done American Mary, your second strong female role, to follow in that direction? Are you hesitant about Bob over “feminist”?
S: See, I felt with [American] Mary I said my statement. When I started with Dead Hooker in a Trunk I was like “oh, there’s no problems. Everybody’s just elaborating.” And then I went and made Mary and had so many issues while we were trying to get it made, and just the misogyny was shocking. And then after I made Mary I was like “good, I’ve said my piece.” And then this year’s Cannes Film Festival happened, and the misogynistic comments made about women completely shocked me. The fact that Roman Polanski could actually say that the pill has masculinized women, and ruined romance. That Jerry Lewis was allowed to say that women aren’t funny and if you change-
J: This is the second time Jerry Lewis has said women aren’t funny!
A: Granted he got raked over the coals for that one publically on Twitter.
S: Good! But the fact that – if you replaced that word “woman” with any other minority, Cannes would have kicked your ass out. Like when Lars Von Trier said that thing about Hitler, that was it! That was unacceptable! Even though he made an idiotic comment and didn’t know how to save himself, and just kind of floundered and made it worse. But all these guys, and they kept getting press on that… I mean I don’t want to have everything be all “rah rah women!” but at the same time, the modern woman is so interesting, so complicated now, you’re not seeing her represented as characters in film because you still see the nagging wife, or the love interest. And then behind the scenes, you hear all these women struggling to get their movies done. I mean, Mary Harron made American Psycho, one of the best horror movies ever made. What is she making now? She’s struggling to get anything done right now, and it’s like “fuck, there’s still a power to fight.” I always joke with Jen I was born in the wrong decade, I should’ve been born in the 60s or 70s so I could be like “rah rah! Let’s change the world!” But I think we are in a time when the world needs to be changed, and for whatever reason we’ve been blessed with this opportunity where people are like “oh who are these twins? What are these movies?” and they like the movie so far. Maybe I can have social commentary that kind of opens people’s minds about talking and thinking about these things. So, in Bob, even though the main character is male, the female characters are what you haven’t seen before. Very interesting, very flawed, very multi-dimensional. And I don’t even know what the reaction to that will be, because I think people aren’t used to it too much. One of my friends who is a writer in the UK, he writes amazing scripts with really strong female characters, and he gets these idiotic notes like “well women wouldn’t do that, why isn’t she crying?” That’s a note that I’ve always gotten, “why isn’t she crying?” I’m not crying, no one’s crying, why does she have to cry? […] Men do, too! And the worst thing was, he wrote this really strong, badass, emotionally reserved character. And they kept giving him notes, and giving him notes, and then they’re like “we found out what was wrong with the character.” And he he’s like “oh, what was wrong with the character?” and they said “you made it a woman, so we switched it over to a male character so the audience could believe it.” And these are the things that have money. For some reason, these are the people who have the power to make these films. And I think you have to make something in direct opposition of that, or you’re never going to see any change. […] I’ve read some reviews that fucking hate American Mary, they say Jennifer and I hate men.
J: But we do!
S: They [say that we] hate men and then they say that we’re the worst kind of feminist. And I just wonder what do either of those things mean? Okay, so we’ll get shit on. There’s a Winston Churchill quote that I like best and he says, “You have enemies? Good, that means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” I’m probably going to make a lot of enemies, and when we make the next feature that’s a little higher level that gets out a little broader, I’m going to meet people that hate me in new and different ways. But at least I’m always standing up for what I believe in. At least I’m still who I want to be.
J: Yeah, just to round off what you said, I don’t feel pressure to be a feminist, but I feel a responsibility to be a feminist. And I’m very happy to be in the position that I am in with Sylv, that we do have a certain amount of influence. And I feel that anyone that’s in the public eye deserves to do, or needs to do, something good with it. It’s their absolute responsibility. And when you act the opposite – I mean, the whole Rihanna, Chris Brown thing. Live your life, do whatever you want, but there are little girls that will say that it’s okay to go with an abusive guy or stay in an abusive relationship because, you know, “we’ve worked passed it, and we’re close now.” You’re a role model. Whether you want to be, or not, you get to a certain position where people are looking up to you. You have that responsibility to all of those people.
A: Do you think you would continue to “push this agenda” as it were, through film, or would you look to do more activism towards women’s rights not necessarily always use your films as an outlet for that?
J: Absolutely, I would love to. Like what James Cromwell did with animal testing.
S: He went into a university where they [were] testing on cat’s brains and because he’s James Cromwel it gets a lot more attention than if you were just PETA Joe Blow and you were complaining about the same thing. It’s funny because after Bob, and I know what our scripts are, they’re pushing the agenda even more so and in different ways. In a way that you almost trick people into thinking [about it], and I think that’s the best way to do it. That you have a philosophy, where there’s a surface level where you can enjoy the films but at the same time […] you’re trying to open a dialogue between people [so] they can think about these things that maybe they didn’t necessarily think about before. Jennifer and I are on the board of directors for the Women in Horror Recognition Month. […] I was a shitty feminist when I started this. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know that Alice Guy-Blaché was the first director of fiction cinema. I didn’t know that she was involved in over 700 different productions and that she made a company that rivaled Hollywood on the East Coast called the Solax Company. I didn’t know that, and then I’d read something like that, and be like “fuck yeah! Women have been kicking ass for a while!” I’d read about Milicent Patrick who made Gill Man! I get off on learning things like that, and if I can do something to share that with other people, I get really excited.
J: We really are bleeding hearts. With Women in Horror Month the first thing I said was “what is the charity that we can bring attention to?” I always wanted to do blood donation, because I thought horror, blood donation – it goes so hand in hand! And I mean blood services have turned down the PSA’s I’ve made, every month, passionately. And they’re like “off the record, I love what you’re doing, because you’re getting a market that we can’t go after because, you know, it’s not the image we want. But, on the record, we can’t do it.” I want to make it seem cool to donate blood. And I can be a fucking pussy about getting my blood taken, but to even do it, there’s no substitute for blood. Even our bracelets, the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Sophie was a teenage girl and she and her boyfriend were walking through a park late at night and they were dressed all goth, and this group of guys attacked them. She tried to protect her boyfriend and she got beaten to death. And it was just based on the way that she looked. And there’s this huge thing about “well, it’s not technically a hate crime because she was dressed a certain way.” Some people from the organization asked us “girls, would you wear our bracelets?” and I said “send me every bracelet you have and I’ll wear them!” I haven’t taken these off since we got them!
S: Actually, in the UK, now it is a hate crime if you attack somebody based on their appearance-
J: Oh my god, you think?!
S: It’s protecting subcultures, but even the word “subculture” promotes them as different from everybody else. There’s no easy fix for things like that. And it’s so complicated, and you can argue the issues forever. And the base of it is can’t we all treat each other like equals? Isn’t that all we really fucking want to do at the end of the day? That’s what feminism is, this weird notion that men and women are equal. It’s not boys suck, or girls are better, it’s just we’re all people, and different, and that’s cool.
American Mary will be released throughout Canada on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, June 18th, thanks to Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada and IndustryWorks Pictures. I’ve pre-ordered my copy, so be sure to get yours!