I really cannot believe how lucky I am. I can't believe two of the biggest directors to break into the horror genre over the past 10 years, Sylvia and Jen Soska, would agree to an interview with me, never mind even reply to my messages. But I did get a reply, and I even got to ask The Soska sisters some questions about working in movies, Dead Hooker in a Trunk and American Mary. What follows is the interview in full. I hope you all enjoy this amazing opportunity I was given.
I first saw Dead Hooker in a Trunk on The Horror Channel in the UK. What did it mean getting your debut movie out to such a large audience?
S: It's the start of a life long love affair with the UK. We're pretty smitten. The first festival screening was in the UK, the first DVD release, and the first time on television - it's an honor to have that kind of support for the film and the Horror Channel has always been so kind and supportive of our work. It's wild because a lot of our biggest support comes from the UK and it's because of the Horror Channel audience and the Monster Pictures release of DEAD HOOKER that we were able to reach out to so many people. I'm very grateful for the opportunity.
J: It meant everything to us. I do have to say that the UK will always have a big place in our hearts. When we were starting out and struggling, the UK gave us every break. At Nia Edwards-Behi's GHOULS ON FILM FESTIVAL, we had our very first screening for DHIAT. The support never stopped coming from there. We go over there and the people are so warm and welcoming. I sincerely miss the UK every day and all the wonderful people we've met over there. Being horror fans ourselves, we just hoped that our work would be appreciated by other fans. We overshot it when we got the support of an entire country. And the UK Horror Channel has never stopped. They play us all the time and we always love to chat with them anytime we can.
Did the movie getting such a huge following change your lives in any way, and if so, how?
S: Absolutely, if we hadn't gotten the support that we did with DEAD HOOKER, it wouldn't have been possible to make another film. We went back to work after wrapping the first film, working long hours to pay off the huge debt we put ourselves in, putting money back into the film first, then still cutting and working on getting it released between shifts. People stood by the film and got the word out. By the time that the film went to the market, major studios had already heard about it from the online and festival reaction. Making films was a dream of mine and Jen's and now that's a reality, and I owe it to everyone who has supported the films, I can never thank them enough.
J: The fans have all the power. We might not feel that way all the time, but it's true. When we made DEAD HOOKER, we were virtually unknown filmmakers. We were first timers that made an indie, uber low budget film and let me tell you that that not only closes a lot of doors, but slams them in your face. Hard. It's the fans that embraced DHIAT that made it into the success that it has become and it's their support that made it possible to make AMERICAN MARY. They demanded another film from us. We'd mention AMERICAN MARY in interviews and they just went rabid over it. It's that demand and support that's made it all possible. I'm still blown away by our followers. They're just the best people in the world. Everything we do we do for them. They make it possible for us to continue to do what we do.
There is a lot of heart in your movies, and Dead hooker in a trunk is incredibly reminiscent of exploitation movies from the seventies. Was it a conscious decision to use exploitation movies as an influence, or is it something that just came about whilst making the movie?
S: DEAD HOOKER started as a faux trailer that we made as a final project and a fuck you to the film school that ripped us off and wasted our time. It was inspired by GRINDHOUSE, that was in the theatres at the time and was real film school. We played it as our own project at graduation to a huge reaction which made us decide to make it into a feature. We knew we had little to no money for the film and that it was going to be the same people crewing as acting in the film, so the grindhouse style really played into what we were doing and how we would tell our story.
J: It was us winking to the camera. Indie filmmaking really lends itself to the whole style of Grindhouse and much on the time in those films you see filmmakers using creativity over cash to make it happen. We never write for a budget. We write and then figure out how we're going to pull it off.
What do you think of your (deserved) near iconic status as horror directors after only two movies?
S: It's fucking weird. We've been working in film as actresses since we were little girls and nothing really hit home. We started directing at 23, now we'll be thirty at the end of April and it feels like the last seven years just flew by. I'm happy that people are enjoying the work. We have a lot of cool stuff lined up with original scripts as well as big screen adaptations of one of our favorite artist's work, so we promise to keep making different cool stuff for the people who dig what we're doing.
J: It's a massive honor. I sometimes just stare off and think about it and can't even come close to believing it. It's a dream come true in every way. to have so much support and influence, I feel we really owe it to our supporters to deliver the absolutely best product possible and always keep them guessing what we'll come up with next. In a sea of remakes and sequels, we're very into shaking things up. We've got a lot more in store and we're not even close to pulling off everything we want to do. We're just getting started.
Tell us about the making of Dead Hooker in a Trunk and American Mary.
S: DEAD HOOKER was grindhouse, completely volunteer with people who wanted to see something different get made. It was zero budget, but we ended up spending $2500 on the film, and mainly got in debt from taking the time off from working and having bills pile up from marketing the film and traveling to sell it. You get in some pretty desperate times when you start off, but if you love it, it's all worth it. We were in every department. We would hire the actors, get the locations, set dec, bring food, bring costumes, go through the motions of the scene, check the footage, shoot the day, clean up the set, and go home and dump the footage. We learned how a film exists in wearing so many hats. Then we had MARY where we literally had the best people in the business heading every department and making up the crew. We had limited time and a modest budget, but with this team, it didn't matter, there wasn't anything we couldn't do. We planned everything out meticulously, storyboarding, and making shot lists and planning the holy hell out of every day because we knew there would be no reshoots or ability to fix things in post - if we didn't get our day, we would be letting everyone down.
J: The best thing about DEAD HOOKER and having that indie, DIY background is that we really learned to roll with the punches. As soon as a problem comes up, you need it solved and you don't have time to stop and give it a good long think. I love martial arts and we've both trained heavily. There's this term, "munen muso". It means the state of mind where worries, attachments, fears, and mundane thoughts have been purged from the mind so that the natural intuitive mind can respond unhampered as the situation requires. That's how you need to react. You need to just react. It has to be instinctive and DIY filmmaking really fine tunes those reflexes.
No two sets are alike. The problems and challenges you plan for never come to pass. It's always something out of nowhere and often it's stuff that is just so insane you couldn't even fathom it. I do have to say it was outstanding to be surrounded with such an experienced crew. They were all masters of their fields and I cannot say enough good things about them. They are the reason that AMERICAN MARY was even possible. Without even one of them it would not have been possible. Everyone went above and beyond to make it happen, many of which volunteered their time or put their own money in to help out. The love that they put into the film just pours from every frame and I cannot wait to bring them together again on the next one. It was a huge learning curve from running around with a camera and now having this incredible force behind you.
How did the experience differ on each movie?
S: Having a team and a budget means you can put your focus where it needs to be, on the film, its look, the story, and the performances. MARY was meticulous, HOOKER was whimsical. Both films had one thing in common, no one was there for the money. Everyone who came out and worked on the film worked on it because they loved the stories and wanted to make sure they came out right. I think that's what makes the films special because you can see that dedication from the team in every frame. I love my team so much - I'm dying to get back to work so we can be reunited.
J: Every film is different. You learn from each one and obviously take your lessons and found wisdom with you, but every time it's like the first time. Having an army behind us in MARY was the biggest difference. It felt like being an Avenger with SHIELD behind me, ha ha. Actually, that's a very accurate way to describe it.
Unbelievably you had people complain about the title of your first film. How do you feel about this, and how do you feel about censorship in general?
S: I didn't expect it because it's a satire. It would be ludicrous to give a film that title and not have some sort of socially responsible commentary to how we treat prostitutes and how they are constantly murdered with little to no effort put into bringing their murderers to justice. We live in Vancouver where the Pickton Killer was at large in 2007 and the police were remarkably unaffective in bringing him to justice. In our film, there is a commentary on that, the police are useless in the film, and this younger generation of people who are in no way unflawed decide to put this dead body they find to rest. The violence in the film is cartoonish, until the Hooker's death scenario where the film takes a decidedly darker tone as she is taken apart for two song lengths. We didn't create the term 'dead hooker in a trunk', it's a joke. But we didn't want the title character to go on through the film unhumanized. Yet, the title of the film kept many festivals from even viewing it, and got it banned in Saskatoon with HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN and THE TAINT because it is far easier to hold artists on trial for their films than seek out true justice in real world matters and horror has always been an easy scapegoat.
J: Sylv said it perfectly. It plays into the theme of AMERICAN MARY and our tagline. Appearances are everything. People are so judge~y. You make assumptions and jump to conclusions you're going to reveal your ignorance. You can't judge a book by its cover, a film by its title, or a person by the way they look.
Censorship breeds ignorance. The world is indeed a beautiful place and life is a gift to be cherished, but that doesn't mean that there are some unspeakable horrors in this world. Art imitates life. As artists, we should be saying something with our work and at times that means we have to turn a mirror on the world and expose its darkness. Censorship just throws a big blanket over the horrors of life and the world and says, "if we don't see it, it doesn't exist." We need to be active in making the world a better place rather then hiding the bad parts away. It becomes an elephant in the room. Just because we don't talk about it, doesn't make it go away. The shitty parts of life and the horrendous acts that are committed across the world need to be exposed and we need to have a dialogue about it. I'm appalled when a film comes out and the filmmaker is blamed for the acts in the film. Films are make believe, they are saying something about the acts that are depicted in them. We should all strive to think for ourselves and be informed adults. More so, I find it disturbing how much children are sheltered these days. Kids have more access to information than ever before and we are in no way depriving our kids of a childhood by making them informed. Kids are all different, albeit, and capable at different ages dependent on the individual of being able to understand complex ideas. If parents don't educate their kids about mature content, they will get their education somewhere else and I feel it's a parents responsibility to be the ones to teach their children and answer their questions. Even the hard ones.
The premise of both of your movies have been incredibly intelligent and original. Is intelligent and original filmmaking something you both want to bring back to horror?
S: When Jen and I grew up watching horror, falling in love with the genre, the stories were original and intelligent. Now the technology of making a film, how a film is made had overshadowed the story that is being told, hence the onslaught of remakes and paint-by-numbers unoriginal horror. It's gotten to an almost depressing point where the word horror is synonymous with 'crap' because that's what the studios are pumping out at an alarming rate. Fads go in cycles, I think a lot of fans are bored by the films being made and they are fighting back with original storytelling. I'm hoping that becomes the new fad and we can see a brilliant new age for horror films coming to life. I hope with the success we've seen with our films, it makes studios and distributors seek out the storytellers that are out there.
J: Horror should be intelligent. It should have a reason to exist that's more than just for the sake of making a film. It should be artful. We forget that in the sea of "paint by numbers" horror. You see a lot of that in North American horror. Horror here has become like this dirty word. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE THING, DEAD RINGERS, THE SHINING.... there have been so many clever, haunting, beautifully done horror movies, but somewhere along the line they just started to be about blood and boobs. I'm clearly not against either, but either being used for pure shock value and without substance is just a waste. There is still intelligence and originality in horror, but you have to look internationally or independently. I SAW THE DEVIL, REC, LET ME IN, AUDITION... there have been so many incredible international films. Independents like MANBORG, PONTYPOOL, SPLINTER, DONKEY PUNCH, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH... they're just amazing! But you have to hunt to find them because they don't have the millions to market themselves like the latest big Hollywood piece of shit. I hope we are even a small part of bringing originality and intellect back into fashion in the horror scene.
Could you both tell us your influences in movies, and perhaps list some of your favorite genre films?
S: Robert Rodriguez, Carlos Gallardo, Eli Roth, Clive Barker, Mary Harron, Alice Guy, Takeshi Miike, Jason Eisener, Dario Argento, Dick Smith, Yoshihiro Nishimura, John Landis, Garry Marshall, Lars Von Trier - there's a lot, I'm probably missing some big ones. Films I love are AMERICAN PSYCHO, AUDITION, SUICIDE CLUB, FUNNY GAMES, MANBORG, HOSTEL 2, THE MARIACHI TRILOGY, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 1 & 2, SUSPIRIA, PONTYPOOL, EXCISION, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, I SAW THE DEVIL, DREDD, HELLRAISER, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, MARTYRS, STAND BY ME, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, JAWS, TOKYO GORE POLICE, THE ABCS OF DEATH, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, SLITHER, THE DEVIL'S CARNIVAL - I know I'm missing a lot on this list too.
J: Oh! EVERYONE and everything Sylvie just mentioned! I'd add GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH, DEAD RINGERS, REC, and Joss Whedon. He's a huge influence on us. And it's my list so he totally counts, especially with how he redefined the final girl in BUFFY. Stephen King, but I imagine that one's fairly obvious. Anne Rice and her vampire chronicles were what we had instead of TWILIGHT. I wish those books got the attention that TWILIGHT has. They're infinitely better in every way.
Why do you think women have such trouble getting recognized in horror circles? Are they not taken as seriously as male filmmakers?
S: I think there are many misconceptions on who likes horror, who works in the genre, and who the audience is. Women have been a part of horror filmmaking since Alice Guy was the first director of fictional cinema and went on to work on over 700 productions, creating the Solax Film Company on the east coast, the biggest film organization that rivaled the west coast's Hollywood. It is a predominantly male industry, at least in the regards to people who get the recognition and celebration of their works, that's why I am honored to be a part of Women In Horror Recognition Month that focuses on female artists throughout history and their contributions to the genre. I've met misogynistic assholes while working in film, but I've also met them while working at Starbucks, there's a lot of them in the world but thankfully like many dinosaurs, they are dying off and replaced by forward-thinking humans that are more interested in individual merit than genitals. From my experience, men and women are excited to have more female artists getting recognition in the genre, more on unique story telling and work than just being female artists. There's a trend of support for one another, Jen and I have met heroes from the genre and the well known male horror icons have been very welcoming and supportive of us and our work.
J: I am happy to say that every male director and writer we've met has fully welcomed us into the boys club. I think there are still real assholes out there and I've met and worked with my fair share, but they are dying out and no one wants to work with someone who is a poison. And that's what these misogynistic pricks are. A disease that poisons and destroys everything they touch. This business can attract monsters. People that get easy access to hopeful young people that are desperate to make their dreams a reality and most of these hopefuls make easy prey. It's not everyone, but everyone should be aware they're out there. It's why the horror stories exist. They ultimately do reveal themselves and after you meet a few, they're easy to recognize. They're just miserable human beings and you can't let your experiences and encounters with them put you off. They're a dying breed.
What do you find harder? The film making, or the tireless promotion you both seem to put yourselves through after the film is made?
S: Because of the way we started in this industry with being with a film from concept to execution to final distribution and everything in between, we know our commitment to a film is a matter of years. Our focus is on the films before anything else and you have to make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to really prevail in such a career, but it's also one of the most rewarding experiences even with all the challenges, so it feels like work but it's so second nature to us at this point. I love what I do, I'm blessed to have these opportunities. All of it is exhausting to some extent, but I'm very mathematical and looking at the big picture. Creating a film is exciting, it's invigorating even though there is little sleep, high stress, and even higher stakes. Non-stop travel for work can be physically exhausting, but getting to meet the people who have supported you in the flesh and sharing stories and experiences - that's a reason why you make films in the first process. The only hard part of anything is when you don't have everyone on the same page, you work five times harder with a bad partner than a good one and I'm lucky that I was born with a phenomenal partner for all this craziness.
J: I love both and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel so much and connect with the people who make it all possible, our fans. Both come with their hardships. Making a film is dependent on who you work with. Always surround yourself with good people. Ask around. Always. If you don't know someone, ask around and take heed of any horror stories. Again, they exist for a reason. You work so much harder with bad partners. Avoid them at all costs. Making a film should never be just a battle, but it happens. I'd say the promotion can be hard because we never turn down a chance to promote or connect with people. We can get pretty exhausted, but I have such an amazing support in Sylv. I don't have to face any challenge alone or embark on any adventure alone. I don't know what I'd do without her. She's always there for me and we can easily continue to divide and conquer together.
How did you both get into filmmaking?
S: Unintentionally. We have been acting since we were seven, nothing exciting ever came of it. Our resume was filled with stereotypical twin roles, so we decided to try our hand at stunt work because of our extensive martial arts background. That led us to an excellent outsourced stunt portion in something that was not the film school it advertised itself as being. It was the final straw in a line of industry disappointments. When the funding for our final project got cut, we decided to make a final project that we directed, wrote, acted in, did the stunt work for, and crewed just to make something that we wanted to see get made. It started as a fake trailer and became a feature. We just wanted to see it through, so we dedicated all of our time and resources into it. Five years later, it has toured the festival circuit, gotten a limited theatrical, been released on DVD, and has had its television premiere. We wrote more scripts and kept our focus of creating a career for ourselves.
J: I honestly didn't realize it was an option. All of our life experiences and odd jobs and weird skills that never seemed to go together. It all fell into place when we found filmmaking. It felt like it was a path we were on long before we even realized it.
Do you have an agenda/ethos with your movies?
S: There is a reason why the film exists, more so than I just want to make a film. It needs to have a philosophy, reason to exist, some sort of commentary on something in order for me to have a passion to make it. You are with your films for a very long time, there are years of a very strong focus on each film and then it becomes a part of your life - it's important for there to be something more there that you're dedicated all that time and effort into.
J: We like to make people think. We want people to feel something when they watch our films and take something away from it. You know that feeling when you leave a film and you just have this film watching after glow? I LOVE that! I want to make that happen. I love when you can sit down and grab a coffee and pastry and just chat about what you just saw. It's what every film should aim to do. In too many films and entertainment, the audience is told how to react and what to think. They throw in utterly useless laugh tracks into everything. I want our work to inspire thought. I think good art is interpretive. It should be in the eye of the beholder. It also means that our audiences either passionately love or hate our work, but that's okay. At least there's passion and feeling there.
Can you tell us about how the story of American Mary, and your interest in body modification came about?
S: We stumbled upon, unbeknownst to us at the time, an April Fool's prank that featured two identical twin brothers who had swapped limbs in an extreme body modification procedure. Along with a photo diary, there was a story from the brothers that accompanied it that said you would have to be an identical twin to understand why they would want to do this. It scared me. My mother taught us from a young age that if something scares you, it's because you have a lack of knowledge about the subject. So, we studied it. Our fear turned to fascination, to admiration. Here was a group of people focused on self expression who are one of the most villainized and misunderstood groups out there. We wanted to have them reintroduced to the world in a film that focuses on the people they are and not the monsters that the media would witch hunt.
J: It had been such a long time interest of ours. I never even imagined we'd end up making a film with such heavy body mod influences all over it, but it was a really big part of the story we wanted to tell.
Was it hard finding the right actress to portray Mary?
S: We wrote the part for Katie. We had been fans since GINGER SNAPS and continued to watch her career, but were frustrated to have our favorite actress not in more multi-dimensional interesting roles because she is so talented. It might sound cruel considering the film, but everything that happens in AMERICAN MARY was something we wanted to see Katie do and knew she would be killer in.
J: We never write for anyone and we knew how important and vital to the film the role of Mary was. We wrote it for Katie and never even considered what we'd do if she turned it down. We'd long been in love with Katie as an actress. She has this outstanding depth and maturity to her work. She can convey so much emotion with such subtlety. She walks into a room and you notice. She just has this indescribable quality to her. Either you have it or you don't and she has it in spades. I just love her. We're far from through working together.
What were the advantages/disadvantages of having two writers/directors on set?
S: Jen is awesome, so it's an advantage. Having to deal with me is probably a huge disadvantage for her. We're born collaborators, so we've always tried to work together, we do well as a team, we're a unified front even though our personalities are vastly different, we share the same passions. We're so close that it really is like having the same person in two different bodies. Nothing would be more confusing than having two directors that look the same that are saying two different things, but we're so on the same page that it rarely happens. If we do disagree, we simply talk it out and come up with a solution, but we pre-plan everything extensively so it is rare.
J: I imagine if you have two people with contradicting ideas, it can be very difficult having them both on set, but Sylv and I have a very definite vision. We're two very different people and take very different paths to get to the same destination, but we are unified on set. We've never had the luxury of time, you never really do, so we have to be one about everything.
Can you tell us what you are working on next?
S: We have an original monster film called BOB that puts the focus on practical effects being a part of the story telling process. The tagline is: There's a monster inside all of us, sometimes it gets out. We are very lucky to have had the support that we have with MARY, so a lot of very cool opportunities have been presented to us. We're going to be very busy for the next few years.
J: We've got quite a few projects on the way and were recently announced in the incredible line up of talent on THE ABCs OF DEATH 2, but we can't talk about any of it just yet. For now, our crimson lips are sealed, but like with everything, when we can make some announcements, we will and they'll be loud ;)
Many thanks for answering these questions. I feel incredibly proud to have interviewed such talented people as yourselves.
S: Thank you for accommodating our crazy schedule and taking the time to chat with us!
J: No way, thank YOU, Dani!! You are fucking awesome. We're so happy to chat with you! Anytime :)