Last October at Toronto After Dark, the festival’s evening headliner American Mary was a hit among Horror buffs.
The gruesome squirmer was about a medical student named Mary, played by Ginger Snaps’ Katherine Isabelle, who soon discovers that she has a knack for executing extreme body modifications after an underground gory situation at a club causing Mary to put her surgical skills to use to earns some quick cash.
Before she knows it, she develops her own business and attracts all kinds of customers. However, slowly but surely, the other shoe eventually drops.
I was a big fan of the film (read my review here) and it immediately made me a fan of the minds behind the nastiness. I was fortunate to get the chance to chat with Jen and Sylvia Soska, the Twisted Twins themselves who wrote the screenplay and directed the film.
We talked about Toronto horror fans, working with your sister, practical effects, final stabs at acting, as well as the making of American Mary and other future projects.
Addison Wylie: First off, this year’s Toronto After Dark couldn’t have had a better opening night. It was a great foot to start on by showing American Mary and great for Film Army to be co-presenting such a neat film. How do you guys find Toronto horror buffs and how has your experience been with this year’s After Dark?
Sylvia Soska: There is something very special about bringing your film home to have it’s Canadian premiere, especially with a cast and crew consisting entirely of Canadian talent. A lot of people in the festival circuit talked up Toronto After Dark, it is notoriously known as a festival put on by a team that truly loves the genre they promote and that couldn’t be more true. From the festival organizers to the festival goers – there was such a sense of commradity because everyone is passionate about genre films there. It was one of the best festival experiences we have ever had.
Jen Soska: Adam Lopez and the entire Toronto After Dark team blew away our already sky high expectations. It’s true, everyone on the festival circuit tells legends of how awesome TADFF is. So many festivals boast that they take films and their guests in like family and make you feel not just like a participant at the festival, but like part of the festival itself. And that is seldom the case except for a precious few fests. Toronto After Dark made us feel like we were old friends returning to a favorite haunt. I haven’t felt that level of patriotic pride since Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics and the Canadian mens and womens hockey both took gold. It was really a privilege to have TADFF host our Canadian premiere.
And there’s something to be said for the outstanding Canadian fans. On the night of the screening, it was just pouring rain and the fans, ticket holders and ticket hopefuls alike, were standing in the downpour wrapped around the street in both directions. We just had to run out and greet them. They were too amazing. And, they were all smiling. I love Canadian horror fans. Toronto After Dark just attracts the best people.
AW: I commend you two for creating such a fantastic film. I want to pat you guys on the back even moreso for figuring out how to successfully work with each other. When did you both figure out you wanted to be filmmakers and was it hard making the decision to work with each other?
SS: Thank you so kindly for saying that. Jen and I are born collaborators, we have always had one another and worked together as a team, so the team comes very natural to us. Jen is, in many if not all ways, my better half. She’s got this beautiful outlook on the world, a wonderful quirky sense of humor, and she is brilliant with people. We both have our strengths and on set, we divide and conquer many aspects even though we share a goal and vision.
We never set out to become filmmakers – our first film came out of frustration with the roles and material being created at the time. Jen and I have always been very creative people, making up stories to entertain one another since early childhood. It wasn’t until the multi-collaborative Grindhouse was in the theaters that we were inspired to follow in our heroes’, like Robert Rodriguez, footsteps and generate our own unique material.
JS: Being identical twins, we have this natural way of working together. We’ve always been close. It makes me sad to hear about twins that don’t get along. They’re so lucky to have a twin, but I guess some of them just take that for granted. I’m so blessed to have Sylv. She’s just this brilliant, creative genius. We might be twins, but we are as different as we are similar. We get to the same destination, but the ways we get there are very different. We joke that she’s the Lars Von Trier and I’m the Joss Whedon. I put the heart in there and she tears it out. It’s not really a joke. She comes up with these haunting dark storylines and bizarre characters. Sylv is a real artist by every definition. She doesn’t have an off switch. She’s always seeking to learn and see and creative more. We really do compliment one another.
We could work apart, but I don’t see why we’d want to. We were born with a best friend, a collaborator, a business partner, an ally, and a friendly rival that challenges the other to keep getting better and better. We knew we wanted to work together. In school they tried to separate us saying that in the real world we wouldn’t be able to be together all the time. I guess we showed them, ha ha
AW: I assume you guys are fans of practical effects and make-up. There are brutally effective scenes in American Mary that impress movie goers while making us wince because of those practical effects. Do you feel horror is relying too much on CGI as of late? Are we drifting away from what made horrors so visceral?
SS: I feel with a lot of horror, especially main stream, studio generated films that these aren’t necessarily projects made by fans and those are the projects that fail because they miss the mark of what horror film lovers want to see. If you ask any fan, they will enthuse about practical effects. The type of make up and prosthetics that the team from Masters FX created for the film is timeless, they give the actors something real to play off of, and because it’s a real thing – it keeps you locked in the fantasy of the project. That mixed with the real members of the body modification community making appearances in the film – a type of real and practical mix as seen in films like Freaks, Jacob’s Ladder, and The Thing – further extends the audiences’ sense of disbelief.
JS: Nothing dates a film faster than CGI. I just don’t think we’re quite at the point with the technology where CGI can pass for something real. It takes me out of a film. Even a crappy practical effect looks better than CGI because it’s something real. We will lean towards practical effects until something computer generated can seamlessly blend in with reality. Just like 3D. I don’t feel it’s quite there yet. In the future, who knows, but for now something real, something you can touch, and something that your cast can interact with is just so much stronger. Many studio execs seem to think that more expensive must mean better and that’s not necessarily the case. That way of thinking is what ruined The Thing prequel/remake. You can Youtube the practical effects that ADI made and you’ll be blown away by how authentic it is to the original. It’s so upsetting to see how it was destroyed in favor of CGI being layered over it.
We are so honored to collaborate with Todd Masters and the outstanding team at MastersFX. Twisted Twins and MastersFX are married. You’ll see them bringing all sorts of creatures and features to life with us.
AW: How did the concept of American Mary come about? What manifested this wild story?
SS Jen and I had stumbled upon body modification online years ago – and it was presented in a terrifying tale of identical twin brothers that swamped limbs and, being genetically identical, the transferred parts were not rejected. It scared us and anytime something does that, we become obsessed with the material because fear is really just a lack of knowledge. The more we learned about the body mod community, the more fascinated and drawn to it we became. Years later, when we were incredibly poor, struggling constantly, trying to get the first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, out, meeting monsters in the film industry, and having family members in the hospital; we took all of our life experiences and applied them to creating a vast and rich world for American Mary. All these uncontrollable elements were now under our control and mainstream medicine with underground body modification was a great vessel for the analogy for our experiences in mainstream filmmaking versus the acceptance and home we found in independent horror.
JS: Dead Hooker in a Trunk was very Grindhouse inspired. With that film we wanted to be known. We wanted to stand out and announce our arrival on the horror scene. With American Mary, we show audiences what we can do. It’s a love letter to Asian and European filmmaking where the pace is deliberate and thoughtful, the characters are like real people in the way that they are flawed and not distinctly “good guys” or “bad guys”, the cinematography is beautifully executed where even the most crude content is displayed with breath taking beauty, and much of the film is open to individual interpretation. Too much of North American film and television is a product of the “laugh track generation” where audiences are told exactly when and how to react and what to think. It’s a very unintelligent way of making art. We were very inspired by Asian and European horror films such as I Saw The Devil and Let The Right One In. That’s where so many exciting and original films are coming from these days.
AW: I understand people have their own interests that not everyone will agree with, but I could never get on board with body modifications. In order to flesh out (no pun intended) these pro-modification characters, did it take lots of time understanding what would motivate someone to do that to themselves? Even though the world of body modification is all kinds of foreign to me, you two do a terrific job at building that passion these people have for wanting these new changes done to them.
SS: Body modification is very taboo, it is illegal around the world, they are forced to be very cloak and dagger as opposed to accepted cosmetic surgery that is easily accessible. Even though we ourselves do not have any modifications, we can relate to being judged on appearance and feeling outcast. It was important to us to not further demonize this misunderstood group, but to show people that you cannot judge people based on physical appearance. Once you get to know the individual, you will be surprised.
JS: I don’t see a difference between body modification and cosmetic surgery aside from one being the pursuit of one’s own ideal of beauty and the other being an attempt to fulfill the majority’s idea of what is beautiful. I don’t see wanting to have one’s their tongue split is considered to be the desire of someone mentally unsound whereas placing saline filled implants into one’s breasts is totally acceptable. The body mod community is made up of very sound minded, confident, happy, open, self aware, secure, and honest individuals. Our set had no tolerance for anyone that would regard anyone without the utmost respect. It was a privilege for flesh artists and body mod specialists Russ Foxx and Elwood Reid to support our film and let us into their worlds after having had so many experiences where their openness has been exploited and people have pointed the “freak” finger at them. We’ve been bullied and outcasts for most of our lives and have always found acceptance and kindness from our fellow apparent underdogs. As a result, we’ve always stood up for them. We understand why someone would want to participate in body modification either for personal or spiritual reasons and we commend them for it. Some forms are just more accepted for whatever reason than others. Circumcision is one of the most common and accepted forms.
AW: The talented Katherine Isabelle plays the lead role in the American Mary. What attracted you two to her? What made you think, “this girl’s got the goods”?
SS: We were relentlessly teased and pick on growing up. One thing we were called were the Fitzgerald sisters which caused us to rent Ginger Snaps and first become introduced to Katharine Isabelle. She fast became my favorite actress and, followed her career, I kept seeing a intoxicatingly talented young woman but I didn’t see her in the roles I wanted to; ones that showcased the level of performer that she is. After a chance meeting on Josie and the Pussycats where Katie was very kind to me, I decided that I wanted to work with her one day. When the script for Mary came around, we wrote the role for Katie. When we met again, after she read the script, she surpassed my exceedingly high expectations. Which is a trait she continued to have every day on set, I can’t say enough good things about her – she’s phenomenal.
JS: Katharine Isabelle has that star quality. It’s undeniable. You just watch her and you can feel it. This girl is special. She’s got a charisma and a depth and a maturity that is very rare. And to combine that with her severe intelligence and comedic brilliance? It makes it almost unnecessary to mention that she has all that going for her and she also happens to be so stunning. It’s why people love her so much and why her massive fan following fell for her in the first place. Mary Mason is the role we wanted to see her play for ages. And she pulled it off effortlessly. Katie’s very much like a classic Hollywood star. They don’t come like that anymore. She has so much range and she does it so naturally. She’s a wonderful collaborator, too. We loved bringing Mary to life with her. You’ll see us working together again and again and again in the future. We love Katie.
AW: You two also act as supporting roles in the film. How’d you guys pull this off while directing the feature? Was it a tough juggle?
SS: I honestly have no idea how a singular director manages to get everything done. Even with two of us – which is like having the same person in two bodies – we were running around like crazy, working as a unit in different departments to get everything done. Our first AD, Brad Jubenvil took over directing duties while we couldn’t be by the monitor – and he made much of this film possible with his excellent time management and years of experience. When you have someone like Brad to collaborate with, then you can take a moment away from your usual directorial duties to step in front of the camera without losing the vision of the film. Also, everything was so meticulously pre-planned and storyboarded that we all had the same vision for every sequence in the film.
JS: As much as we love acting, it’s the need and desire to put our focus on writing and directing that’s made us decide to step back from acting. This cameo signifies our retiring from acting. If something truly spectacular comes along, we’ll reassess that decision, but for the time being American Mary will be the last time you see us acting. No cameo has been planned in any of our upcoming projects.
AW: American Mary shouldn’t be missed. Can movie goers still catch American Mary at film festivals or is it at a point where eager horror fans will have to wait until Anchor Bay’s distribution deal pans out more? By the way, congrats on Anchor Bay picking up your film!
SS: Thank you so kindly – Anchor Bay has a reputation amongst horror fans of delivering unique and edgy material, so it’s an honor to have American Mary in the Anchor Bay family. People can still catch the film at festivals – it has its West Coast Premiere at the Whistler Film Festival, which marks her coming home to the province the film was created in.
JS: Please keep an eye online as we’re constantly giving updates for newly announced screenings. Mary recently toured in and we were so excited to be touring with it there. We’re so grateful to Monster Pictures who’ve supported and believed in us since Dead Hooker in a Trunk. It was incredible to be in Australia for the film’s Australian premiere and to have the opportunity to connect with the fans. The Whistler screening will be wild. It’ll be cool to return home and have the film premiere for the first time on our home turf!
AW: Any future films in the works? Or, any ideas for upcoming films you have bouncing around in those twisted brains of yours?
SS: Ha ha, yes! The next film that we are focused on is an original take on the forgotten monster movie subgenre. New monster and a dark comedy that really delves into some interesting, unlikely places. It’s called BOB, which is the monster’s name.
JS: We have no shortage of scripts, ideas, and opportunities at the moment. We’re so excited to get started on the next one and next ones.
Visit the official Toronto After Dark website!
Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:
Cover photo and first photo are from Toronto After Dark’s Facebook page.