By Chris Pomorski | Indiewire October 31, 2012 at 1:23PM
Not long ago, 29-year-old Canadian twins Jen and Sylvia Soska were just another typically disgruntled pair of film school students struggling to cast and finance their final project. Modeled on the exploitation trailers in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse,” the Soskas’ brazenly-titled short “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” was an absurdist, blood-spattered, lo-fi romp that cost the sisters their funding and earned them the disdain of school administrators. Having been expanded to feature length, however, in the wake of a raucous graduation-day screening, “Dead Hooker” was picked up last year by IFC Midnight for On Demand and DVD release, and won an eager following among horror acolytes that included Eli Roth, director of “Hostel” and the “Grindhouse” trailer “Thanksgiving.”
The Soskas return this year with their sophomore effort, “American Mary,” the disquieting tale of an abused, debt-burdened medical student who turns to performing unorthodox body-modification surgery as means of both profit and revenge. The film, which debuted in May at the Cannes Film Market, marks a significant jump in production value for the twins, and though it retains some of “Dead Hooker”’s clever camp, “American Mary” also probes dark sociological territory that broadens its appeal well-beyond the horror-junky market.
“American Mary”’s opening scene—a winning allusion to Mary Harron’s beautifully composed title sequence in “American Psycho”—gives us Mary (Katharine Isabelle) in her dingy Seattle kitchen, at work with needle and thread on an expanse of tanned flesh that turns out to belong to a turkey, but which, at a glance, could be easily mistaken for human. It is the first in an array of alluring, disorienting images that include women surgically reconfigured to resemble Barbie and Betty Boop, and a set of horned German twins played by the Soska sisters themselves. With these and an accompanying collection of characters equal parts endearing and horrific, "American Mary" touches on some academic-grade issues without severing its roots in satire and dread.
Reached by phone this week in Los Angeles, the Soskas discussed the body modification community, American standards of beauty, and, of course, their affinity for gore.
"American Mary" screens next on closing night of Australia's Monster Fest, on November 9. Check out the festival's full lineup here.
I understand your first film, "Dead Hooker in a Trunk," began as a stand-alone trailer. Is that right?
Jen: Yes. It was our final project—or our final short film project, but our funding got cut off, so we ended up doing it on our own time with our own resources, calling in all the favors that we had, and calling our friends up to work on it on their own time for free. I think we played it dead-last at the graduation screening, and half the audience got up and walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could hardly hear the intentionally very offensive dialogue.
Sylvia: So everything with “Dead Hooker in a Trunk”—our first—which we maxed out our credit cards and called in even more favors in order to have our feature-length version of, started as a “Fuck you,” to film school, because they pulled our funding and we were really pissed. They had a list of everything that was disallowed because of school policy, and we put in everything in “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” and then we put in necrophilia and bestiality, and we didn’t really know what to expect. We just wanted to get a big reaction. And we kind of walked ass-backwards into it. We’re such big huge film nerds. It’s just such a thrill for the two of us to be able to actually do this.
Did you have a feature in mind?
Jen: While we were shooting the trailer, we would make jokes to ourselves, you know: “We’ll do this in the feature version, or in the full-length version we’ll do that,” because the scenes that we wrote had no connection to one another in the trailer, and we ended up using all of those scenes still in the film. But then when we decided, “OK, we have these stand alone scenes, and we’re going to write ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk,’ and we have ideas for what happens in between, but we have a series of scenes that we’ve already created that we definitely want to have happen in there.” It was a bit of a writing challenge.
Sylvia: Thank God for Robert Rodriguez’s book on how he made “El Mariachi,” “Rebel Without A Crew,” because the way he wrote that is he put a bunch of crazy scenes together, on cards on his living room floor, and decided what order he was going to go in. And that’s exactly how we did “Dead Hooker.” We put in a bunch of crazy scenes and we were like, “OK, so how is she going to get there? How are they going to get over there?”
How did this project came about? What has your journey been like from that first “Dead Hooker” trailer to “American Mary?”
Sylvia: Actually, when we get afraid of anything, we start to research it, because fear really comes from ignorance. The theme for “American Mary”—body modification—actually came from what we later realized was an April fool’s joke. There was this image that this guy had of these two identical twin brothers. And they had taken off one brother’s arm and connected it to the other brother’s chest plate. And he had had one of his ring fingers removed, and it was attached to the remaining hand on the one-armed brother’s body. It was also accompanied by this story about body modification, and only if you were identical twins could you understand wanting to have this kind of process with your other, and I though that was so crazy. And it scared the shit out of me, so Jen and I got obsessed with it and we researched it and we thought it was this really cool topic that hadn’t really been displayed since Clive Barker and his “Hellraiser” series. So, years later, we actually started in film with a film called “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” and were working on getting that filmed, and we were talking to Eli Roth—who’s been a great mentor, really supporting our work—and he asked us what other scripts we had. And we had nothing but we didn’t want to admit that, so we thought of a bunch of things that we thought could write in two weeks—really fast—and we just bullshitted about this script and that script. And he said, “The one about the medical student sounds interesting, I’d like to read that one.” And I was like, “Oh, no problem. I’ll just send that to you in a couple weeks.” And then Jen and I had knowledge about body modification that we could finally apply to something.
And after all that, the image that started it all turned out to be an April fool’s joke?
Jen: Yes. I didn’t realize until our flesh art consultant Russ Fox had told me. He said, “What even got you girls into body modification?” And I told him the story and he was very sweet in explaining different things in body mod culture to me—because I’m not in this community myself and he was always very sweet—but he started laughing at me. And I was like, “What’s so funny about that. That’s so disturbing.” And he’s like, “No, no. That’s very well-known as an April fool’s joke.”
Sylvia: It was kind of cool because we got a lot of authenticity from the body-mod community—because Russ Fox is a flesh artist as well—he came out and supervised all the medical stuff. He taught Katie how to do all the suturing. And we also had Elwood Reid from the Church of Body Modification come on and a lot of real mods from the community so we could blend some actual people from the culture with prosthetic effects.
I wondered how many of the details about the body modification community were based on research.
Jen: When Mary does her mod book ultimately—you can see it I guess—those are all the top, most popular procedures that are available. Of course, being a flesh artist isn’t really medically allowed. It is often medical students that end up doing it. The horn implants, the brow implants—that’s all commonly being done.
Sylvia: The actual types of people—we based everything on people we already knew. There were a few doctors—that are great surgeons, but neurotic as hell—so we based a lot of the stranger, more unique qualities on people we knew. A lot of Mary’s character is based on Jennifer and me, and Dr. Grant we based on a lot of different types that you meet in the industry.
Jen: Ruby Real Girl was based on what is the American ideal of beauty, as well as an object that’s very American—the Barbie doll, which was originally supposed to be called “The Real Girl.” And that’s what we based her look on, and we also wanted her to look—even though she’s very striking and very pretty—there’s also something off-putting. There’s something very strange and not quite right about the way she looks. We wanted to draw connections between body mod and cosmetic surgery. Because one is the accepted form of beauty, and, you know, that’s completely legal and fine—getting cosmetic surgery. But then you look at body modification, and people say that people who want that kind of procedure done to them are mentally unsound. I don’t really see the difference between them.
It seemed to me that men on the whole didn’t come out very well in this film. Would you agree with that?
Jen: I would disagree because of Lance [A hulking, tattooed bodyguard who is helpful to Mary]—who is played amazingly by Twan Holliday—is absolutely the heart of the story. Sure, there are men that don’t come out great in this, but it was very important for us to take a character who you don’t expect to have that kind of heart and that kind of soul to him. And again one of the themes of “American Mary” is appearances are everything. And what does a girl like Mary have in common with a guy like that? Well, they’re both judged by their appearances. And usually wrongly, according to who they actually are.
Sylvia: We’re huge Clive Barker fans, and I remember one of the things he wrote about Pinhead was that he never gave him any single likeable quality and he never made him do anything good, yet men and women both adored him. And I thought, “That’s so cool,” because you rarely get a woman in a movie and you give her a lot of flaws and make her a horrible person—and if you really look at Mary, I mean you can identify with Mary a bit—but she never does anything unselfishly. Not once through the entire movie. And I bring that up to people afterwards and they’re like, “Oh yeah!” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you were kind of on her side—all those horrible things she was doing. You horrible person!”
How important to your storytelling techniques are special effects and prosthetics? They feature rather prominently in “Mary.”
Sylvia: The way Jennifer and I actually got into liking horror movies and really getting an appreciation for it was through prosthetics. We saw “Poltergeist” when we were ten, and after we saw it we were terrified. But our mother had watched it with us and she knew how much we liked horror movies and she knew we were scaring ourselves, so she explained exactly what we had seen. She explained the director, the script, the actors, and then she explained the prosthetic artists, who make all the blood and all the gore—the monsters—and that their job was to scare people. And after that, Jen and I were completely hooked on prosthetics. That was the kind of movie we rented—with great gore, with special effects, with FX character design. And we always wanted to do something with that, because there’s so much CGI that’s being used in film now, that it’s almost like people are forgetting how awesome practical effects look, how awesome MastersFX effects look—to get them on board for the body horror, which they became really well-known for when they were working on Six Feet Under, and have them create these characters, was really cool for us. Total fan-girl moment.
Jen: I really feel that prosthetic artists in a lot of ways are unsung heroes. Dick Smith, who did “The Exorcist” and the “Godfather” films—most people don’t even know who he is. And I’ve always just believed practical effects even may stand up against the time better than CGI effects. So I think that regardless of what we were going to do this time or what we’re going to do in the future, we’re always going to prefer practical effects over CGI.
Sylvia: Yeah. So definitely when we decide we’re going to do anything, we always think of something you haven’t seen before, something that really showcases these artists’ talents, and the idea of “Mary” was very close to that—of wanting to work with a really talented prosthetic team and seeing what kind of crazy things we could come up with.
Why does horror seem so often to get segregated outside the realm of “serious” film?
Sylvia: A lot of times I find that people look down on horror movies. They think of it as some kind of lower-class style of filmmaking. And they forget that there are wonderful stories that you can tell in the horror genre, because they’re so visceral. They deal with things that all of us are going to have to deal with at some time. And sometimes they’re just fantastical, where you can take a serious issue—like some of the issues that you see in “American Mary”—and it’s not just like you’re sitting there getting lectured at. You’re actually watching something fun and something wacky, and then there’s also some serious things touched on. Nobody likes to sit there and be talked at or preached at. It’s kind of cool to have an abstract way to have those messages.
Jen: And I also feel with a lot of horror films—they really insult the horror community, the fans. A lot of people don’t acknowledge that “Silence of the Lambs” was absolutely a horror movie, and I always get the response, “Oh, but it was good.” And it’s like, why care if you’re just going to treat it like pornography? Where as long as you have the money shots, or, you know, the gore scenes, that’s good enough for the fans. But I think the fans really do want a story. I mean, we’re not idiots.
Was there a deliberate homage to “American Psycho” in this film?
Sylvia: Yeah, you’re totally right on with that. Our favorite film is “American Psycho,” our favorite book is “American Psycho.” Mary Harron was a phenomenal Canadian lady-director that directed that, so it wasn’t a coincidence that we named our character Mary and that we have a big a very big horror-girl hard-on for “American Psycho.” It just was so horrific and filled with satire and so well done and so quotable and so beautiful.
Jen: I guess because I know what happens in the film, the turkey looks like skin, just like the beginning of “American Psycho,” all the beautiful food looks really bloody.
Sylvia: And with “American Mary,” we didn’t want to have a big—oh she’s pursuing the American dream or whatever—but we wanted to have lots and lots of weird versions of Americana, like the red, white and blue of the strip club and all the giant flags. At the very beginning, it’s kind of like she’s having a perverse version of Thanksgiving. She’s not going to eat the turkey. She’s just going to put some extra limbs on it. So it’s kind of a cool way to be like, “Here is this crazy chick.”
Are there any other films that are particularly important to you?
Jen: “The Thing,” definitely, John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” and also “Jacob’s Ladder.” I’ve always loved—I think both of us have always loved—how practicals are used, and how disturbing those movies are. And how long ago they are. They’re still every bit as fucking terrifying now as they were at the time. I guess the other film that would have respect from us would be “Alien.” Where Sigourney Weaver, instead of being this scared, cowering girl, is actually a badass. That was where it all started, where the final girl didn’t have to be this scared little virgin. She was kind of a badass.
Sylvia: We watch so many horror movies, so some of them are absolute favorites, like Dario Argento. I love “Suspiria.” I love his use of lighting and how he had his scenes play out. So we did a theme of red, white and blue color through the entire film. And I love Asian and European cinema. “I Saw the Devil” was just perfectly done, and I love the super-gory movies that are still really beautiful to look at—so that was a big influence. And of course Cronenberg—we just love him so much. He’s like a hero.
Can you talk about what you’re working on now?
Jen: We’re hoping to do “Bob” next, and that’s our original monster story. We grew up with really cool monster movies like “Alien” and “Predator” and “Pumpkinhead” and “Gremlins” and “Critters,” and then as we got older they stopped making original monster movies, and it’s been a long time, and I don’t really care for vampires, frankly. But it would be a trip to do our take on a monster film.
Sylvia: We’re also lucky enough to work with First Comics. Jen and I are giant comics nerds, and one of the cool things that happened at least year’s ComicCon was that we met with the co-founder, and we’re going to be doing graphic novels adaptations—director’s cut versions of the films that we write. So that’s really exciting. And there’s a collaboration with this other writer, but I’m not allowed to say anything. But it’s a big-screen adaptation that I would lose my shit over.