Interviewed by Less Lee Moore
When Jen and Sylvia Soska’s feature debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, was released it caused quite a stir, among horror fans and those less enamored with the genre. Their latest film, American Mary, has a less controversial title, but still treads into controversial territory: rape, revenge, and body modification. It’s an emotionally affecting, nuanced, and powerful film that is way better than the most of the big-budget, CGI-laden, Hollywood productions that fill the multiplexes (read my review from last year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival)
Cineplex Theaters have scheduled American Mary for a special week-long run across Canada as part of their Sinister Cinema series, which is an amazing achievement for an indie horror film. I recently spoke with the Soska sisters and asked them about modern horror and the role of women in the genre, the method behind their madness, and what their future holds.
Popshifter: It seems there’s a distinct lack of female voices in horror films as well as the film industry as a whole. What do you think is missing from modern horror that the increased presence of women’s voices could add?
Jen: Before we did American Mary one of the franchises we heard about a lot was Twilight and that was supposed to be a “feminine horror film.” And that really upset us because as far as female horror goes or even a female story, that’s the complete opposite of feminism. You have this girl deciding between an emo boy and a guy with his shirt off the entire time. The whole film is about making that decision to be with a guy instead of going after your own ambitions or what you want to do with your life and extending your own identity.
So I thought there was a real lack of films that actually came from a true female perspective. With American Mary it’s not an uncommon story for a woman to be struggling in a male-dominated business—I like to joke that American Mary is our horror version of Legally Blonde—and you see the situations that she’s in. Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s a lot of stuff that a lot of women can relate to whether we are cutting people up or not.
Sylvia: I think something that women can do that would be more challenging for a male filmmaker is have a proper representation of the modern woman in film. For example, I was talking to an older gentleman about American Mary and what Mary goes through as a twentysomething and he said, “Well it’s not like that for women; this is what it’s like.” And I said, “With all due respect, I’m a twentysomething woman working in a male-dominated business and these are things that actually happened to me. There’s no way you actually know what happens behind closed doors with different people.”
I just feel that these are characteristic of different things that women go through and it would be nice to have that represented in film. Male characters are getting so interesting, so diverse, flawed, and with all these different motivational factors and with women, you see the nagging wife or the love interest. Why are all these interesting male characters pursuing these women? Why can’t we make the women as interesting as the men, if not more so? There’s a definite emphasis on that in American Mary, not only with the title character but also with Beatress and Ruby. So when someone asks, “Oh what girl were you in the movie? You were the Betty Boop one, I remember that, that left a mark on me!” And even though we go to fantastical lengths in Mary, there are also issues of the recession and working in a male-dominated job, there are issues of radical feminism, there are issues of frustration with trying to be something when you’re fighting, it seems, everyone else in the world to get there, and the sacrifices you make the be the person you want to be.
Popshifter: Why do you think horror is a misunderstood genre by the world of mainstream film criticism?
Jen: I think it’s largely with North American horror, which seems to follow this very deliberate formula. If you look at a lot of international films, and American Mary was very inspired by Asian and European cinema, films like Audition and Let The Right One In, or I Saw the Devil—American Mary doesn’t follow that formula. A lot of people hear “horror” and they think “slasher.” They forget that Silence of the Lambs was a horror movie and The Exorcist and American Psycho. And people will say, “Oh, I like those films but that’s not what enough horror films are like today.” I think we really romanticize the films that Sylv and I grew up watching, like the ’80s films with really cool practical effects or even a movie like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is really about human trust and the breakdown of issues when you’re isolated.
Sylvia: Last year, Halloween in North America was an $8 billion dollar industry, so there’s no denying that horror can make a lot of money. And sometimes that has attracted, in Western films that we see, people who want to make that kind of horror movie money, but don’t necessarily have their heart in it. They don’t have a story that they want to tell and they’re not fans themselves. I think that’s a big loss. It also seems, especially in this remake culture, that we’ve surpassed the technology to make our films; we have these great visual effects and all these things we can do, but the storytelling element is somewhat stunted. Especially when you’re remaking something, you don’t necessarily have the same spirit, the same intention as the original feature. Because the genre is so diluted with these less than quality films that people are just ignoring horror altogether. More often than not, you’re not going to see some great film that actually changes your life or actually has something to say; you’re going to see something that’s shot almost like pornography, that as long as they have the money shot and the women are shown in derogatory ways with a little bit of flesh, they think that’s acceptable. These movies come out, they make the box office, and this trend will just keep happening.
Popshifter: How do you develop the characters in your films? Do you start with a personality trait or a real-life event and build around that or do you have another approach?
Sylvia: We try to bring it from a very honest place, either something from Jennifer’s and my own experiences or somebody that we’ve met before, or a character that seems great for the story we’re trying to tell. For example, Lance who is the big tattooed thug in American Mary, this is something that the actor Twan Holliday has gotten all the time: People just assume he’s a big, stupid, thug and those are the roles that are offered to him constantly. But the main emphasis in American Mary was “appearances are everything” so what would somebody like that have in common with somebody who looks like Katharine Isabelle [who plays Mary] or somebody in the body modification community? They’re all judged on appearances before anyone bothers to get to know them. For a lot of the characters there was a certain aesthetic, almost a stereotype that we gave them, but at the same time we wanted to flip those stereotypes on their heads. Billy Barker, played by Antonio Cupo, who is this sleazy bar manager, a disgusting, deplorable human being, but by the end, it’s almost like he’s a high school student, smitten with Mary. You don’t usually see that kind of thing and it’s a very unconventional romance. And people will ask, “Well, why doesn’t THIS happen with them? That’s usually how this goes.” But why does it have to be the usual? What if it’s unconventional, something you’ve never seen before? People kind of make fun of me because that was kind of an ideal relationship for me. It felt like a real thing that could possibly happen. Very rarely do two people meet and they feel the exact same way about each other. There are complicated emotions in every interaction.
Jen: We like to take something that’s based in truth, some honest thing that’s in all of our characters but we really like to play around with stereotypes and break apart people’s expectations. Like with Tristan Risk, who plays Beatress Johnson in the film, from the first moment you see her—most people probably miss her because she’s in the background at the strip club—you get introduced to her and you’re just looking at her; it’s jarring and you’re taken aback. People are shocked at this character but she’s so much more than what you look at. You think, “Wow, this is one very strange girl” and then you find out that she’s kind of the light in the film. She’s a very warmhearted character. She’s a summer or spring, whereas Mary is a winter or fall. You would expect Beatress to be a certain person based on the way she looks or the occupation she has but it completely gets turned on its head. She’s a breath of fresh air.
Popshifter: The indie horror community has had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to you and your work. What have been the most surprising and best things that have come about as a result of this?
Sylvia: I didn’t even realize when I wrote the line that Ruby says—”I don’t think its fair that God gets to choose what you look like on the outside”—I’ve gotten so many messages from people in the body mod community who’ve had these procedures and people who are transgender, people who’ve made decisions to be more themselves and chosen elective surgery to do that. Their friends don’t understand and their families don’t understand and they just feel like they live in a world that doesn’t understand that this is how they see themselves and they need to express it. And they see American Mary and they really relate to that line. And they write us letters saying, “this is my experience and I’ve felt this way” and “a friend showed me your film and all of a sudden I was so glad that people are thinking like this, that there are people that actually are supportive of my life choices and it actually makes me feel better about myself.” I never thought I would get that kind of reaction. I wanted to be very respectful with how Jennifer and I represented the mod community because at the end of the day it isn’t a prosthetic; it isn’t just something they can take away. In the film we either had prosthetic practical effects from MastersFX or we had people from the real community playing themselves. Because of that we wanted to show them in the most real, human kind of way, not the modern day witch-hunt way, which is what they usually get.
Jen: The response we got from the horror community and other people that work in horror films has been bigger than we could have ever expected. At heart, we’re just horror fans ourselves; that’s first and foremost. We passionately care about horror movies. If something comes out we just gobble it up; we have to see it. They say that horror is a boys’ club but Clive Barker watched our film and was so generous and supportive. The first time we met him, he was so sweet to us, we just walked away, turned our backs, and cried like total fangirls. That’s Clive Barker and we just talked passionately for a half an hour about body modification! It’s just absolutely a dream come true.
Popshifter: Earlier we were talking about movies that people don’t think are horror movies. How would you recommend American Mary to someone who doesn’t think that he or she likes horror films? What about the movie will appeal to non-horror fans?
Jen: I would say that American Mary is a horror movie that you don’t have to look away from. Given the context of body modification, the knee jerk reaction is, “Oh, gross, I can’t look at that; that’s too extreme for me.” But while we were pitching the film, we were telling everyone that it was going to be a beautiful film, even the most extreme content and elective surgeries. We’re going to shoot light colors beautifully, so that it’s going to be like a moving work of art. People didn’t think we could actually do it.
A lot of the time, guys who are horror fans will say, “I want to see American Mary and I don’t know how to get my girlfriend to go because she says she doesn’t like horror movies.” And that’s exactly the kind of woman that needs to see American Mary because not only is the film very empowering for women and it’s a very female and relatable story, it isn’t a movie that’s just blood, guts, and nudity. I mean, there is a little bit in there, but the way that we use it, and the context in which it’s in there, it enhances the story. It’s not just there for shock value.
Sylvia: One of our favorite directors is Takashi Miike who’s done Audition and all these really wonderful Japanese films. And people will ask him about his horror films and he’s said, “I never set out to make a horror movie. I make a movie that has horrific elements in it.” And I think that’s exactly what American Mary is. You see it under “horror” everywhere and people will even throw the word “torture porn” out there describing it, which I find incredibly offensive, but enough about that! To me, it’s a character piece about a bunch of flawed people trying to make ends meet in today’s world where we venture into body modification.
There are moments that are absolutely horrific but it isn’t where you expect it to be. It’s going to be in the real life situations. We do live in a world where there is a rape culture; we have slut shaming, and all sorts of horrific elements . . . this might not necessarily get people to come see the film (laughs) but we were very socially aware when we made this film. We wanted to show things in ways you wouldn’t always necessarily see it. And when there is something horrific, where if it happened in real life to a real person, it would be a horrific, non-torture-porny way of showing it. That’s what we did with the film. What I say to everybody I see walk out of the theaters if they get shocked by the content is, “You really should try and make it all the way through, so if you do hate it, you know exactly what offended you about it.” A lot of people watch it and about 20 to 30 minutes in, they’re like, “I thought it was one thing and I watched it all the way through and found myself getting very emotional at the end and I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to feel anything.” There are different types of films that exist within the horror genre and I think this is a good example of “different” from what you’re usually seeing.
Popshifter: You’ve recently been announced as part of the director’s lineup for The ABCs of Death sequel? How did that come about?
Jen: We are such fans of the movie and the producers that are involved: Tim League, Marc Walkow, Todd Brown, and Ant Timson. We were honored to meet them at Fantastic Fest. They were sweet enough to not only screen American Mary twice, but when fans demanded it, they gave us five screenings! And they said, “Oh, would you have done ABCs of Death if we had asked?” and we said, “Oh yeah! Absolutely!” I never thought anything would come beyond that.
A couple of months ago, one of them messaged us and said, “We’re putting together the list of the new directors and we were wondering if you and your sister were interested.” And I think we jumped up and down and screamed and then I wrote in all capitals back to them. And then I stopped and thought, “No, no, he’s going to take this offer back; I need to relax a little bit!” And then I wrote a mature, but as excited of a response as I possibly could. He invited us in that group of talent, like the directors of Inside [Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo] . . . I mean, these are people that I’m such fans of, and to know that I’m ultimately going to be doing press with them, and I get to take pictures and get hugs from them. Yeah, I get to make a film, but I get to hug them, too, right?
American Mary will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Canada on June 18 through Anchor Bay Entertainment.