Battle Armor: Jennifer and Sylvia Soska on American Mary

The twin sisters on their new horror film's metaphor for women in the film industry and the importance of fashion in movie promotion.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I met the Twisted Twins, Jennifer and Sylvis Soska, at Fantastic Fest. Their film American Mary played there and won awards for actor Katharine Isabelle, and the Soskas made an impression all week with a different provocative outfit every day. Isabelle plays Mary, a struggling med student who gets into body modification surgery for quick cash, and ultimately has to get revenge on people who abused her. We chatted with the Twisted Twins about their film, which was inspired by a lie they told Eli Roth after their first film, and their unique look as directors. American Mary came to L.A. as part of Screamfest on Saturday. If you missed it, American Mary will have its Canadian premiere at Toronto After Dark on October 18. The Soskas will be back in L.A. October 25-28 at the Son of Monsterpalooza Convention, and speaking at the Aliens to Zombies Convention October 29 – 30. Then they’ll be going to Australia and New Zealand for 6 festivals along with Elvira and a Bloody Burlesque troupe doing American Mary themed stripteases!

CraveOnline: Is this a very relevant economic situation to do a movie about these days? There are so many college students who can’t afford their loans.

Sylvia Soska: Oh, absolutely.

Jennifer Soska: I know a couple people that can’t pay their student loans for f***ing film school.

Sylvia Soska: When we were writing it, it was right after we had finished Dead Hooker in a Trunk and were just trying to get the film out there. We maxed out our credit cards to pay for that movie, to pay for us to be out of work and to make sure that we weren’t homeless. We weren’t eating. My phone, when it wasn’t cut off, it would only be bill collectors phoning it. It’s a very different feeling when you’re in a household full of people and you know everyone’s starving and you have tap water in a nice jug so you can pretend you’re not as poor as you are. When the opportunity to write this script happened, when Eli Roth asked about a script and I bullsh*tted that I had one and we were forced under the gun to write it, it became a very therapeutic thing that I could take all these situations in my own life that I had no control over, and now it was somewhere that was tangible and it was something that was very relatable and I feel like with the recession we have right now, it’s something that’s on everybody’s minds but we’re not really talking about it. We don’t want to talk about it in a boring, typical way. It’s nice to talk about it in a fantastical, underground surgery way.

Mary is always in high heels when she’s doing surgery. What is the importance of that image?

Sylvia Soska: This is a film where appearances have such a strong focus on it. Katharine’s character, Mary, is a woman that always wants to have a particular look to her. Especially when you are as poor as she is, she doesn’t want to look like some sad charity case. Even in the beginning when she’s wearing just her little sweaters and her pencil skirts, you can see she’s putting an effort into the image that she puts out. After the midpoint of the story where something happens that dramatically changes her, it’s almost like that gets kicked into high gear and she’s taking back her own sexuality in a very severe, almost a dominatrix way.

Jennifer Soska: Also, it’s one of the idiosyncrasies that Sylv and I both have. When our world is just going to f***ing hell around us, when we have no money, when we’re starving and we’re just having to go, go, go, because people function under the assumption that if you have a film that anybody’s heard of, oh, you must be rolling in it. Well, we’ve never been rolling in it. We’ve had some hard times with our family. We have a very sick family member that also takes part in what we did in the film so we dress up so people don’t look at us and feel sorry for us. I would never want anybody to look at us and be like, “Oh, they’re just bitches.” The opposite of the Facebook update where it’s like oh, my life sucks and I need a break from Facebook, and then you get all the sympathy things. We put on the war paint which is our makeup and then we put on the armor, our outfit down to our shoes, and we act the part of feeling better about ourselves because we look controlled. You might not be able to control the sh*t around that’s going on in our lives that is out of our hands, but we can control our appearances and that gives you some groundedness.

I was going to ask how important your look is as directors, and that’s a fascinating perspective.

Sylvia Soska: This is my battle armor and my war paint. One thing, if I’m working 16 hours and some dude in sweats and running shoes complains, I’m like, “I’m running around in this and I don’t f***ing complain once. Suck it up.”

How important was Katharine’s horror recognition from Ginger Snaps in what you wanted to do with her in American Mary?

Sylvia Soska: The biggest horror movie to ever come out of Canada was Ginger Snaps, and my favorite actress is Katharine Isabelle. I could relate to Ginger and I loved her performances in all of her films but I never saw the next step up from Ginger. I wanted to see just Katie carrying an entire movie because she can do things with her eyes, she can do things with her voice. Just the inflection she has on something, she has such a depth to it and a lot of the time, talented actresses in Canada get overlooked because they’re like, “Oh, that’s just Canadian talent. Get someone from Los Angeles that’s a real person.”

Jennifer Soska: Add some legitimacy to your project. Pick a name that can act.

Sylvia Soska: So having Katharine as the lead title character was a huge thing to do, especially [since] we had a very humble budget. We had a very modest schedule. We had 15 days to shoot it and I knew not only would I need a great actress to be able to have the complexity of Mary where she’s hilarious yet very severe and pained at times. She had to be so f***ing good to do that in like three takes or less, otherwise we were f***ed. We were not getting a movie. That’s just a testament to the caliber of actress that Katie is.

Jennifer Soska: And she’s absolutely a horror icon. Everybody knows Ginger Snaps. Everyone knows Katie. There aren’t a lot of roles like Ginger for weird young girls to grow up and look up to and be like, “It’s okay that I’m kind of different. It’s okay that I have some balls to me.” Because of that, she’s just stood out to so many people and they remember that role, and they remember Ginger and they wish like, “F***, I wish I had a Ginger in my life.”

Will Suicide Girls love this movie?

Jennifer Soska: [Laughs]

Sylvia Soska: I bet they would. You’re judged on appearances whether you look like Katharine, if you have extensive modifications, everyone looks at you and they judge you based on that. It’s almost like you have to dig through all that bullsh*t for people to actually see the person that you are. I think everybody has to deal with that and I think it’s going to be very relatable, but there’s hundreds and thousands of people that have body modifications. Most people don’t even realize they have one. The most popular body modification is circumcision, because penises don’t come out of your mom looking like that.

Not to get too personal, but that means I’m part of the body modification community!

Sylvia Soska: Congratulations! [High fives me]

Jennifer Soska: One of us. One of us.

Does the rape and revenge in this movie reflect any of your personal feelings about how people look at you or women in general, and the rest of the movie may be a revenge on the people who do that?

Sylvia Soska: Absolutely. I had a girlfriend who was a high-end escort and I didn’t know. People would go over to me and be like, “Your friend’s a whore” and I’d be like, “How f***ing dare you say that about her.” I didn’t care what she did. I thought she was a beautiful, very wounded person. We used that as an analogy, the whole film as an analogy for our adventures into the film industry because you’re looking at a lot of people with a lot of money and a lot of power, not a lot of sense and they see women that look a certain way and then all of a sudden they think, “Oh, you should f*** me. You should suck my dick. I might give you a role.” For every woman who says no like Jennifer and I do, there are women that say yes. There was one line that I really am bummed didn’t make it into the film where Mary’s talking to the stripper that was blowing Billy and she says, “Do you know how much harder girls like me have to work because girls like you exist?”

There’s just such a commentary on things that a woman with a lot of ambition has to go through and I don't think Woody Allen went through his career being like, “Stop trying to f*** me. I just want to make movies.” It’s just another level that you’re always combated with. You can be a male director and you can be handsome and make out with all the ladies and everyone’s like, “Oh, look how perfect and wonderful he is.” If you’re an attractive woman and if you date a lot then all of a sudden you’re a f***ing whore and look at the way that f***ing whore looks. Jesus f***ing Christ, if I had a penis, and I do have massive penis envy by the way, it would be just so much easier. Even look at a situation like with Brown Bunny with Vincent Gallo. That infamous blow job scene, he wrote it, his dick is out in there but his girlfriend is the one who cannot be f***ing hired anymore because oh my God, you gave oral sex on camera? But it’s like oh, he’s just a boy, oh, whatever. Ha ha, penises are awesome.

Jennifer Soska: That’s true. It’s his f***ing girlfriend too. You think she hasn’t blown him before?

Hearing you describe your battle armor is awesome and we’ve been admiring you all week. Hopefully we’ve been doing it the right way but is there a risky line with that kind of body armor, that you might feel objectified at some point?

Jennifer Soska: The funny thing is you’re marketing yourself regardless. If a guy wears a really nice suit, for me to watch a guy in a nice suit is the equivalent of him walking around in lingerie. He looks f***ing sharp. He looks sexy. He looks beautiful. Women wear dresses. They look beautiful in dresses and the funny thing is, the first group of people to tear us down for wearing makeup or wearing dresses or wearing heels are other women, and that’s f***ing bullsh*t because they start saying, “Well, you’re asking for negative attention.” Other female filmmakers actually say, “Guys only like your movie because they want to f*** you.” If my movies are so f***ing awful that you couldn’t possibly take something from it, if I was making pieces of sh*t over and over again and somehow I was like, “He he, I still have a career,” it wouldn’t make sense.

Sylvia Soska: And then playing devil’s advocate, a Fantastic Fest staple, Nacho [Vigalondo] is not here this year but he streaks and he dry humps everyone. I don't think he feels sexually degraded by anything he’s doing here. The first night I was here, a guy actually went over to me and he grabbed my ass and I slapped him across the face and said, “You don’t f***ing do that.” He came over to me the next morning, he’s like, “I was so drunk last night and I am so embarrassed but I have to say that I am so sorry for what I did to you. I wasn’t thinking.” But you can’t just be like oh, I’m shying away. You have to have a strong reaction to that because I feel it’s almost like a cattle prod, that there is bad behavior out there but we’ve gotten to a point where it’s not acceptable so you do have to respond to it. He’s never going to forget that and if he ever grabs an ass again I would be very surprised.

Where do you shop for your battle armor?

Jennifer Soska: Victoria’s Secret because they make clothes that fit tiny people with bums.

Sylvia Soska: My ass has ruined so many clothes. I’m so lucky that our costume designer from American Mary, Enigma Arcana, which is Jayne Mabbott and Ray Little, will design things for me and I’ve always apologized when it comes back and there’s always a tear in the ass. I’m like, “The ass didn’t like it. It wanted to eat it.” Nom nom nom nom. They have a great way of designing clothes that makes you feel like a vengeful goddess and a superhero at the same time. You wear these things and all of a sudden you have a little more pizazz, you’re like I feel powerful. Another place that I go, because thrifty but I want to look hot, is $40 dresses, this is one of them.

Jennifer Soska: And they’re unique pieces too. Girls don’t want to show up somewhere and be dressed the same and they’re like, aw f***. Especially when we show up looking the same already. Both Modcloth and Victoria’s Secret are where we get our best heels and best boots as well.

Sylvia Soska: So that officially means that they’re going to have to start sending us sh** now that we’ve plugged them.

I really liked your widescreen photography. Did you think about mise-en-scene, to bring up a film school term?

Jennifer Soska: We are super wide fans. We had to fight for the super wide. During the editing process, we were going back and forth with some people. When you write and direct something, you already see it. You’re not creating something, you’re just letting it out of you. They were back and forth about, “No, this is wide enough” and we were like, “No, it’s going to be super wide.” When we showed it at super wide they were like, “Oh my God, it looks so good. What did you do?” We said, “We did it the way we shot it.” We shot it so that if there were some mistakes, and you’re working on 15 days, there are going to be a couple snafus.

Sylvia Soska: Boom mic is going to make a few cameo appearances.

Jennifer Soska: The boom was an aspiring actor and he kept creeping on. Once in a while, it was a benefit to be able to hide and adjust whatever our shot was. Even the storyboards were done in super wide because it’s just more beautiful. It’s more cinematic and of course we’re very inspired with this film in particular, by Asian and European cinema, things like I Saw the Devil and Let the Right One In so we wanted it to have that beautiful look to it.  We wanted to make a horror movie that you didn’t have to look away from. I say horror movie because it’s considered such a dirty word but it’s not going to be everything in North America, but in general North America isn’t making a lot of the same things that there are in Europe and Asia, except they’re remaking a lot of the things done in Europe and Asia but the funny thing is even with Rec into Quarantine, they remade that movie almost literally but the heart and the soul is missing. You watch Quarantine, you see an empty film. You watch Rec and you’re scared titless.  

Sylvia Soska: I had to resew my tits after that.

Is this what Eli Roth does now, mentoring other filmmakers who are where he was 10 years ago? How involved was he in production?

Sylvia Soska: Because the script came from a suggestion from him and a lie and then I admitted it to him, it’s not like I passed over the script to him and Eli’s like, “Oh, here’s where you go to get it done and here’s my advice on it.” He’s very good at giving you advice but it’s really up to you what you do with that advice. He’s not going to hold your hand through it. Jen has this awesome analogy she said for independent filmmaking. It’s like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon. There are struggles there and if you don’t learn how to struggle out of it yourself, you’re not going to be strong enough to make it on your own. There were some days that everything exploded in my face. There were some things I was like Jesus F***ing Christ. Eli being the coolest guy that he is, I could text him and be like, “Oh my God, guess what happened?” And he doesn’t have to be like, “Oh, little girl from Canada, you’re not getting your day, boo hoo.” He gave me legitimate advice that helped me get through it that shaped the film to what it is. He has not seen it yet. He’s just wonderful and we actually dedicated the film to him because he’s been such a mentor and I don't think I would be at this place, at least not in this time period, had Eli not been involved in the production the way he has been. Going to Fantastic Fest, you drop the name Eli Roth, everyone’s got a story about something f***ing awesome that he’s done. He’s just like the little independent horror fairy, just goes around and he’s helping you.

Jennifer Soska: He’s one of us. He’s a f***ing horror fan. He’s not like, “Oh, what kind of movies am I going to do? I guess horror movies make money.” They do.

Sylvia Soska: And he’s such an encyclopedia about horror stuff.

Jennifer Soska: He knows everything about horror. He’s the real deal.

Sylvia Soska: A lot of the inspiration we got for Mary was films he told me about. I remember talking to him and he listed off six different movies and I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He’s like, “Rent them all. You need to learn them.” Okay, and I did and they were f***ing phenomenal films. He’s just so cool. I went downstairs and I was talking about a problem I had during an interview and he’s like, “This is what you do.” He never stops. He’s always giving and always being kind. He introduced me to people from Dimension. He never stops. He’s going to f***ing Vegas to open Goretorium. He doesn’t have to be doing all this. He could be very focused in his own stuff but he isn’t.

What were the films?

Sylvia Soska: Pieces was one of them. New York Ripper was another one of them.

Jennifer Soska: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Sylvia Soska: He introduced me to Fulci, he introduced me to Argento which I was so embarrassed I didn’t know before. Suspiria had a huge effect on the lighting that we used in Mary.

Jennifer Soska: It had a huge effect on the sound.

Sylvia Soska: The shots.

Jennifer Soska: The shots and how we made a lot of the scenes really have your imagination going wild with some of the gorier scenes, like when she’s torturing [SPOILER] round one.

Sylvia Soska: A lot of people miss this and I wish there was some way to be more obvious about it, but the contraption that goes into his mouth is actually used for gynecology exams. It’s just an additional f*** you, buddy.