Paul Risker continues our American Mary feature by chatting with directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, a.k.a. the ‘Twisted Twins’…
Yesterday I said, “No American Mary feature would be complete without an interview with American Mary herself Katharine Isabelle.” A rather misguided statement when equally no such feature would be complete without an interview with the humorous and lively ‘Twisted Twins’ Jen and Sylvia Soska. A possible sequel to their debut feature is currently being penned… ‘Dead Film Critic in a Trunk.’
At last year’s FrightFest I learnt that you can never have enough time to talk with Katharine and the ‘Twisted Twins’, full of interesting anecdotes and observations that time in their company will undoubtedly always be an enemy. Following the obligatory hugs Jen and Sylv spoke to me about creating a movie for a reason, their retirement from acting, a possible piss take on the romantic comedy genre, and the only reason to get out of bed: prosthetics and gore.
Paul Risker: Your new film is about underground surgery and body modification. What inspired you to make a film about this particular subject?
Sylvia: I had learnt about body modification through an April Fool’s prank that was online, but at the time I thought it was authentic. It had two identical twin brothers. One brother had his arm severed off and attached onto his other brothers, and because they were genetically identical the limbs weren’t protected. Then he had his ring finger taken off and put onto this other brothers solo remaining hand, so that he had an elongated finger. It didn’t creep me out as much as the love letters that accompanied it that said, “Well in order to do something like this you have to be an identical twin,” to understand why you would want to do it, because they all do it. So every time something scares me I become obsessed with it and Jennifer and I became obsessed with body modification. At first it was like, “What’s the creepiest thing we can find?” Then we started discovering how normal it was, how the people who were actually involved in it, they weren’t the monsters that your knee jerk reaction would be. They were a self-aware, a cool people who wore their passions and their interests and their intergradation of their selves on their skin. We never went, “Oh like well we’re going to make a movie about modification”, but it was something we always had in the back part burner of our minds, “oh something a really cool culture.” We were talking to Eli Roth who was such a mentor to us during Dead Hooker and he asked us, “What other scripts do we have?” So of course we didn’t have anything, so I lied, and I was like, “Oh Eli, I’ve so many scripts, I have this one and this one, and this one about body modification.” He was like, “Yeah that one sounds interesting, send that one over”, and I was like, “Well if there was a spelling mistake I would be so embarrassed.” So I said, “Just give us two weeks and then I’ll send it over.” I look at Jen and, “Holy shit we need a script in two weeks to send over to Eli.”
Jen: Something that identical twins have in common with someone in the body mod community, and I think almost everyone, is people look at you and make certain assumptions about who you are just based purely on the way you look. Often people make wrong connotations associated with us, and I mean our Lance, played by Tom Holliday, people would look at him and just think he’s a thug, he’s just violent, and if you actually meet the guy he’s so brilliant, he’s so down to earth, he’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, which shows in that scene where he and Mary are having that conversation. So it was always something we were fascinated with, how appearances are everything, and you think it’s something you learn in grade school, where you shouldn’t judge someone by the way you look, but you don’t really notice a personality across the room. You know, there are a lot of negative connotations associated with how someone perceives your look.
PR: You’ve said that one of the things you admire most about American Mary is the way it will create a discourse on why cosmetic surgery is universally acceptable, whilst body modification isn’t. Do you see film as a medium that can simultaneously entertain and inform?
Sylvia: I feel if a movie is created it should have a reason it was created. It should be entertaining to yourself, but it shouldn’t be entertaining only to yourself. I’ve seen so many movies and I walk out of them and like, “Why did that have to exist? Nothing happened, nothing original happened.” It would be so nice if we lived in a place where body modification could be done safely, and that’s really the element of it; it can’t be done safely. It’s like saying that prostitution needs to be banned and always needs to be illegal. It’s not safe for those women, and you’re never going to stop it, you’re never going to stop body modification. What you could do is help these people and the quality of their life so they’re not going to some back alley and getting chopped up, and then having to go to a hospital to get themselves repaired from the damage that they had. Russ Fox who was our flesh artist consultant from the body mod community, he does so many procedures to fix people who have gotten butchered somehow. He trained to be a doctor, but he couldn’t continue that because what he wanted to go into. They were like, “That’s never going to be legal.” There’s a case in Alberta where a gentleman had gone in for a penis modification, and he went and did the procedure and everything was fine, but he brought a friend with him. The friend went and told his parents, the parents, and this is an over eighteen gentleman called the police. The police went to his house, looked at his computer, found all the body modification stuff he had done and put him in prison. I mean it’s like if someone as horns in their head or a forked tongue you can’t say they did that because they wanted to reach into somebody else’s aesthetic of beauty. But you see these – and I think it’s because we’ve spent so much time in Los Angeles as of late – bleached blondes, Barbie doll, fake tittied, liposuction women. Maybe part of it is for themselves, but for a lot of them it’s because they want other people to perceive them in a certain way. It doesn’t make sense to me, there’s no difference between having horns and having fake tits to me. It’s just a choice that people have, and they should have the ability to do it safely. Hopefully the film will open a discussion about this, and people will re-examine it, because this is the first film that really highlights body modification. It does ask the question, ‘Well what is considered a real sense of duty?’ ‘What is safe, what should be accepted, and how are people supposed to do these procedures?’
Jen: I think that in general with a lot of North American films if they have a message they really beat you over the head with it. We have many, many messages in American Mary and you go into them and I think there are a lot of things that can be discussed and thought about; but also aesthetically I feel it is an entertaining movie. I mean if you look at something like our original film DHIAT, we do have some messages in there like the value of life even though the characters go round killing indiscriminately; except they really care about putting the dead hooker, her body to rest. With American Mary you can say that its entertaining, but it’s entertaining in a very different way to DHIAT. I think that’s one of the triumphs of the film that it’s very stylistic and it’s got a lot more to say than perhaps DHIAT did.
PR: Is there something behind the use of ‘American’ in the title, and do you perceive the film to be about something uniquely American?
Jen: Being Canadian you’re always looking at America, and there’s this kind of Canadian glass ceiling that if you want to be truly successful, and it’s unfortunate, you really do have to move down to America to reach the American Dream; particularly in our experience in the film industry. I mean I wish Canada would embrace their artists a little bit more, but even our town Vancouver, it’s a little bit more of a service town, where LA makes a movie and then they ship everyone to film up in Vancouver cause of our dollar, and it’s a little bit more cheap. Also if you look at characters like our Ruby real girl, which is in America a pretty average thing to see: a blonde with a lot of plastic surgery, bleached hair and large implants. That is the expected form of beauty, whereas as you look at our mods and people say, “Oh that’s not beautiful”, because you know it’s not the accepted form of beauty. There’s a lot of self-sacrifice to get to the American dream, and you see Mary make sacrifice after sacrifice of her own morality and the person that she is, and it’s just about how far you will go to reach your own American dream.
Sylvia: Throughout it we didn’t want to hammer it over the heads of our audience. There’s no part where she says I’m pursuing the American Dream, I’m willing to sacrifice my own morality because my ambition is so great. But we wanted it there, so the colour scheme you see through the whole movie is red, white and blue, and there’s American imagery everywhere. In the bar its red, white and blue and there’s stars on the wall, and there’s the biggest American flag on the wall. In the very last scene the streaks of blood are the stripes. We wanted it to be there, people to have it in the back burn of their mind, but at no point did we want to be like, “This is how you have to think about the movie, and this is what you have to get out of it.” I think the biggest disservice you can do to your audience is tell them what to think or how to think. It should be something where you can think, and interpret things for yourself.
PR: You directed and starred in DHIAT. With American Mary you have been almost exclusively behind the camera apart from a cameo appearance. Do you feel this impacted the final look of the film and would you consider taking a starring role in future films?
Jen: Our cameo in American Mary has been kind of our retirement from acting. As much as we love acting, it really was our real passion, but it’s a real challenge to be able to direct and do all of the other responsibilities that go along with it, and be on the camera. Even if you’re going back and forth, it was very stressful to be like, “Am I using the right light?” It’s not like an actor thing when you’re directing as well to be concerned with. It’s, “Did I get the shot? Was it clearer enough? Was there another sound going on while I was talking?” We really wanted to focus on the story of American Mary, and all the different elements, so as a choice we wanted to take a step back. But we had such good support from DHIAT that people said, “We want to see you do something.” So we said, “Okay we’ll let you see us do something, one final something.” I would say we could be talked out of retirement for something really amazing, like I challenge anybody to take us out of retirement, but right now we really want to focus on our directing and our writing.
Sylvia: Actually in all of our other scripts that we have there is nothing at all for us to do in it. This was it that was the one final time. So we decided to do things we really like. Jen loves prosthetics so she got a lot of prosthetic work on that. I wanted to kiss a girl and I got to do that because I guess I don’t date ever. It was really fun, but the whole time in the back of my mind I wanted to be behind the monitor, and there were a few little things that were very different from how… looking at it I wish I’d done this or I wish I’d done that, you can’t do that when you’re actually in the seat, especially when you’re working on an independent. You have so little time to get everything done. So its fun, I love acting, and I hope people enjoy the final cameo. I hope it wasn’t too narcissistic like, “Everyone stop the movie, the twins are going to make their cameo now.”
PR: It is well known that you both grew up on a diet of Stephen King (“Ah, our beloved”, remark Jen and Sylvia). I wonder if you would be interested in taking a break from original screenplays and adapt one of his stories, and if so which one?
Jen: Wow, it would be such an honour to be able to adapt one of his novels; of course with his blessing and his input. I find that Stephen King film adaptations are either awesome like The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile or they’re complete shit; insert anything that premiered on television. Actually a few of them were done on TV and weren’t done well that I would love to remake. I hear that they’re remaking The Shining, which is just fucking blasphemy. First of all it was perfectly executed, and I really pity the director who’s going to take that on because it’s just going to be like, “Well you’re not Kubrick.” It’s like Adam Lambert singing in Queen right now, “You’re not Freddy Mercury, what the fuck are you doing?”
Sylvia: It’s really funny that you should mention that because there was a script up for option for an adaptation of one of our favourite Stephen King books. We threw our hat in. I don’t know if we are getting it, I haven’t heard anything so I’m guessing not, but it would be like one of the biggest fan girl moments ever. We are huge graphic novel fans also, and we have been discussing with the creators of one of our favourite comic books being able to work on a big screen adaptation of that, and that would be the first time, like we would have I’m sure script notes. But having the person who actually invented this incredible character, and for them to trust them in our hands to make an adaptation, I would just, I’m up for the challenge, I would love that, and I’m hoping that they are impressed enough with ourselves that it’ll be, “Okay you can have my baby, just don’t fuck it up too much.”
Jen: One of our favourite Stephen King short stories was Room 1408, and when we saw it, I mean… I was such a weirdo. I was at work one day and I come back and the apartment is completely dark, and she’s sitting there holding one of Stephen King novel’s and she’s like, “Sit down I have to read to you”, and I was like, “Oh my God, you psychopath, what’s wrong with you?”
Sylvia: Don’t say that, it makes me sound weird.
Jen: She is weird, she is. So I sit there and she reads this to me and it’s so fucking good, and one of the triumphs of it are the subtleties, how like the picture frames start to get a little bit crooked, and it just kind of snowballs as it gets more and more severe. And then, then you see the film adaptation and it’s a bit of a snooze, and it goes in a completely… it goes into some story. I know when you make a short story you have to write more bull shit so that it’s a feature length thing, but I was so disappointed with it, no part of it was I ever terrified. I mean maybe I woke up startled while I was watching it, but it really was such a let-down compared to how good that story was. There’s also Bag End. It’s kind of his H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. It’s a short story as well and I just love that one too because of again, of the subtlety. The way he writes he really brings you into the world and I guess if you don’t have the same kind of imagination, I mean if you don’t read Stephen King then you really don’t have a place directing one of his films, because you need to be able to already have visualised and been terrified by it, and try to bring that back to life.
PR: Do you consider American Mary a horror or would you say it’s more of a psychological thriller, and what are you going to do next?
Sylvia: The funny thing is, that we thought DHIAT was a buddy, road trip movie, and this, I thought it was a romantic comedy. Everyone just looked at me and like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” So, I think it’s always going to be horrific because that’s kinda where it goes, even though we don’t think that we are making one. To me, it was a modern tragedy, that’s how I looked at it, but Jennifer and I are such fans of prosthetics that if there isn’t a little bit of gore, “What are we getting out of bed for?”
Jen: Everything we will do will have elements of horror in it. I mean DHIAT was our version of Weekend at Bernie’s, and until we started shopping it around and people started freaking out, we were like, “Oh I guess it is a bit of a horror.” It’s hard to categorise American Mary strictly as a horror because it’s a film that really escapes definition. There’s so much that you can take from it. Some people will see it as a horror, some people will see it as drama, and you know sick people like ourselves will see it comedically as well. I mean Sylvia and I even have a romantic comedy script, and it wouldn’t be like ‘Fifty Shades of Crap’, it would be something that was horrific and really taking a satire and taking the piss out of romantic comedies and Harlequin novels, with some gore.
Sylvia: Jen forgot, well failed to mention that it’s also going to be a musical and one of our songs is called Get in the Van. I’m really looking forward to it. I guess we’re just bad at relationships, and we just take the piss out of everything. We’re like, “If we could just have a little slasher, romantic comedy… musical?”
Jen: There’s nothing more romantic than coming home and having someone already in your apartment when it is dark waiting for you.
Sylvia: I know… that’s commitment.
Jen: Oh God fans please don’t break into our apartment.
Thanks to Jen and Sylvia Soska for taking the time for this interview.
This article originally appeared on EatSleepLiveFilm.
Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.