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Part 1 Of An Exclusive Interview With The Soska Sisters Directors Of American Mary
By James Whittington, Monday 27th August 2012
Regular viewers to the Horror Channel will know about Jen and Sylv Soska. These talented Canadians gave the world Dead Hooker In A Trunk which received its world premiere on the Horror Channel last year.
Now the girls are in the UK promoting their new movie, American Mary to the attendees at FrightFest. We decided to chat to the girls about this movie and their career to date. In fact they chatted so much we had to split the interview into two! Here's Part 1
HC: So then, it’s been a year since DHIAT was given its world premiere on the Horror Channel, what's life been like for you over the last 12 months?
SS: Very busy. We started DHIAT in 2007 and it's been a lot of work since then to get the film to this point - film festivals, DVD release, television premiere, limited theatrical run - and we're very lucky to have gotten the support from the horror community that we have. After being with one project for so long, you get nasty and want to get working on another film, just to keep being creative. We did a few shorts in between for various film contests, but getting the script for American Mary made was a priority. That took some time, but that has been a huge part of our focus in the last 12 months, especially with the film about to hit film festivals now.
JS: Absolutely insane. There have been so many things we've dreamed of doing in our lifetimes and we've been so lucky to have been able to have so many of them happen for us in the last 12 months. The Cannes Film Festival and San Diego Comic Con and now we'll be heading to the place where so much of it began, the wonderful UK, for FrightFest. It's an incredible honour to be going and we are really looking forward to being able to connect with the UK fans. It was where we had our first festival premiere at Nia Edwards-Behi's Ghouls On Film Festival with DHIAT and where it had both its DVD release and television premiere. But we're nowhere close to slowing down just yet. We're just getting started with promoting American Mary.
HC: Where did the idea for American Mary come from?
SS: There was an April Fool's prank online - which I was, at the time, completely unaware of its false claims - that featured a pair of identical twin boys that had undergone an extreme type of body modification. One brother had his severed amputated and then grafted onto his brother's chest plate. Then the brother with the solo arm had his ring finger elongated by attached his brother's amputated ring finger to the end of his finger. It was accompanied by a write-up by one of the brothers proclaiming that only an identical twin could understand the reasoning behind this procedure and their need for this extreme closeness. It just disturbed me to no end. So, I did what I always do when something scares me, I became obsessed with it until I knew as much as I could about the subject as I find all fear is stemmed from a lack of knowledge. The more I learned about body modification and the body mod community, the more fascinated I became with this very misunderstood and self aware group. I thought what an interesting premise because the knee-jerk reaction is fear, but these are people more self aware and kind than the people you meet in the mainstream that are generalized with those same qualities.
JS: We don't get disturbed much, especially Sylvie. When something gets under our skin, it really sticks with us. We've just got to explore it and play with it. We try to expose ourselves to everything out there as you really don't know where inspiration will come from. From our experience, it rarely comes from traditional means. We cannot talk about making American Mary without thanking Eli Roth, a wonderful and disgustingly talented director, and a man who's been an outstanding friend to us. After DHIAT, he was asking us what other scripts we had. At the time we had nothing concrete so we decided to do the only sensible thing. Lie. We gave him a list of concepts that we had been throwing around and American Mary was one of them. He said he wanted to read American Mary, so we asked for a couple weeks to just "polish it up" for him. We came clean with him and he told us that's what you've got to do. Not a chance in hell we could've said we've got f**k all, ha ha!
HC: Did it take long to write and what is your writing process?
SS: We needed the script fast. Thank God, that I have Jen as she is my writing and directing partner - we work incredibly well together. First we hit out the storyline, not in chronological order, but in various scenarios and characters. We break the story into a timeline with three acts and main points that drive the story forward. After the plot line is filled up, we pick sequences that we like to write. One writes while the other plays video games and we swap back and forth. If one gets blocked, we tag the other in, then we look over what the other has written and tweak as we go. The original draft took two weeks. We modified a lot up to the actual filming process.
JS: I'm lucky to have such an insanely awesome writing partner. Sylv's a machine. So ambitious and driven and when we get into work mode, it's non stop. She's so brilliant and darkly creative. The stuff in that beautiful and deranged head of hers just blows my mind.
HC: How did you go about casting the lead role?
SS: Jen and I are big fans of Katharine Isabelle. We were ridiculed growing up and one of the things that they called us was the Fitzgerald sisters - I didn't know what that meant, so we rented Ginger Snaps and realized we didn't mind it so much. Later, I met Katie on Josie And The Pussycats and she was kind to me. I followed her career and kept wanting to see her play a role like this. When we were writing the script, we had Katie in mind for Mary. We didn't really know her, but hoped that she would be a good fit for the vastly complicated character. We submitted the script to her agent and got a meeting. At the time, my expectations were so high that I was making myself sick over the meeting, but Katie is perfect. She was even better than I could have hoped and her stunning performance as Mary is something that I know horror fans will really enjoy.
JS: There was never really anyone else. Katie just burns with this deep intensity. She's a natural actor. She just gets it. And our title character, Mary Mason, is no small feat. It's a truly challenging role, not only in that she has so much going on with her and she's a very unique creature, but we really put her through hell in this film, particularly psychologically and emotionally. Whatever we threw at her, she just excelled. I've long admired her work and acting prowess, but I've longed to see her do something different from what she seems to often get locked into. I wanted to see her take on a truly mature and powerful role such as this one and I think audiences will be blown away by her. Those who already love and know her will just love her more and I think she will get a whole new onslaught of fans.
HC: Was it easier to finance American Mary than DHIAT?
SS: No. With DHIAT, we knew we had no money, so we worked within those confines to be very low budget and call in a lot of favours. We kept the premise in a world and filmmaking style that we knew could work in DIY/no budget filmmaking. American Mary is such a vastly unique story with content no delved into before that I think it really scared people. The first people to put money into the film were my parents that mortgaged their house to make sure that the film would get made. The financiers that we got on - 430 Productions and Riaz Tyab - were the best people in the world for this project. They stood behind this strange film and fought to keep it as it was intended to be made. Them and the team at Industry Works - who were the ones to handle the sale of DHIAT - made it so the film could be made.
SJ: Not at all. It's hard to make a film these days. no one likes to pretend it's happening, but there is still very much a massive recession going on. People are scared. There isn't certainty in the future or in future earnings. In Canada, you take a company like Sears and Eaton's and if you worked there you would have expected to have a job for life. Now both titans have gone bankrupt and it's really sad. And scary. People with money tend to hang onto it these days and they don't take on high risk ventures. There's nothing more high risk than the film industry, especially taking a chance on a completely new and unique vision. Because of that, I am eternally grateful to the team who came together to make American Mary possible and believed in the film and in us.
HC: How did you create the incredibly realistic effects for American Mary?
SS: We love prosthetics and prosthetic artists. They create these characters and images that really burn into your memory. It was these artists work that added so much to our love of the horror genre. When it came time to get a team to bring Mary's world to life, our good friend Amelia Smart and team member of Masters FX, gave us the information to get in touch with this brilliant team. We love their work to have them collaborate with us on this project was just brilliant. Todd Masters and his team just killed it on the film. When you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about. We mixed prosthetics with genuine members of the body mod community, so you're never really sure what you're seeing on screen.
JS: I cannot even begin to say enough good things about Todd Masters and the outstanding team at MastersFX. they are truly the best of the best, painfully brilliant, absolute masters of their craft. Their work stands apart from the rest. You see work from MastersFX and you're just in awe. I first fell in love with them while watching Six Feet Under. The episode intros with the deaths and bodies were so flawless. And even in dealing with death and gore, there was so much beauty there. I am honored to have worked with them on American Mary. With so much flesh art and manipulation prevalent in the film, we needed someone who could effortless blend fantasy with reality. When people watch the film, they have no clue what's real and what's not and I love that. The overall design of the film was very important to us. The style was a vital part of telling our story. It had to be perfect and we overshot with MastersFX. They are simply astounding artists.
HC: It has a unique charm to it, slightly dreamlike yet retaining a gritty element, how did you approach its cinematic style?
SS: Whereas DHIAT was a love letter to grindhouse filmmaking, American Mary is a love letter to European and Asian cinema. I love their artistic and beautiful approach to horror story telling. With the content of underground surgeries and body modification giving many people an idea as to what to expect - a shock jock gore fest - we wanted to show a world that was beautiful. A horror that you don't have to look away from. Our director of photography, Brian Pearson, worked very hard to bring that world to life and did a phenomenal job at it. The camera work and the images you see on the screen are extremely and, to many, surprisingly, beautiful in the film.
JS: We find beauty in unconventional things. Body modification to us is no different than plastic surgery. I actually prefer body mod over cosmetic surgery because body mod seems to enhance one's on ideal of self and beauty whereas cosmetic surgery seems to be more focused on making others fit into what society tells us is beautiful. How boring to think that just one ideal of beauty is correct. When we said we wanted to make a film that focuses on body mod and flesh art, people were turned right off. They said it couldn't be done beautifully or with any art to it and it could only be "torture porn" (which is a phrase I feel is very over used and so cliché) or like a Saw. We said we weren't making Saw. We were making something totally new and original. It's what people want. I'm a horror fan and I'm so tired of the same old sh*t. I expect there are many others like me. Asian and European cinema hugely inspired us. I Saw The Devil is a masterpiece.
HC: Do you prefer acting, directing or writing?
SS: Definitely writing and directing. We are taking a step back from acting with a final cameo in American Mary to allow us to focus on our storytelling behind the camera. I like to have full control over what is being brought to life and you can do that when you are behind the scenes, working towards a final story.
JS: Certainly writing and directing. Acting was my first love, but I love characters and storytelling to an extreme that I really prefer to be the one that creates them. I'm a control freak. I want to be involved in every aspect of filmmaking and acting is very personal. I love the intimacy of the writing/directing process. You create these characters, you give them life. You give them desires, hopes, dream, flaws... it's incredible. And then that first moment when the actor steps onto set as "them". It always floors me. Like the first time I saw any of our American Mary characters. It's incredible to think you can bring them to life like this. I love it.
In the second part Jen and Sylv chat about how they feel about American Mary premiering at FrightFest and their plans for the future.
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