Biff Bam Pop Exclusive Interview: The Soska Sisters Talk American Mary

Jen and Sylvia Soska are two of the hottest names and brightest lights in cinema today, thanks to their brand new film, American Mary. I’ve made no bones about my love for this picture this week – you can read my review here. The Soska’s know their stuff – from horror to comic books and all things in between. As you can tell from our exclusive email below, they’re simply damn cool, and horror and pop culture geeks are lucky that these creative people are making a big name for themselves.

soska_sistersAndy Burns: Jen and Sylvia, you know from our tweets this weekend that I thought America Mary was a fantastic film. So, first of all, congrats! Could you tell me how the story came together?

Sylvia Soska: I’m so happy that you enjoyed it. When we wrote the script we were still trying to sell the first film, we were incredibly poor to the extent that we couldn’t afford food let alone bills, we were in the hospital for days on end with a loved one just watching the world that goes on there, venturing into the film industry with a naivety that was stripped away by meeting monsters, and we didn’t know if all our sacrifices would ever amount to anything. I was talking to a friend who said that I should focus on my other scripts, which at the time I had none, so I lied. I said that I had so many scripts that he should pick which one he wanted to read and listed off every idea that I knew Jen and I could write in two weeks. He picked the ‘one about the medical student’. With a self-imposed gun to our head we wrote the script which became a very therapeutic experience because all these uncontrollable instances in our life, now we had control and a distance to really examine them.

Jen Soska: Thank you so much! You’ve been so good to us and we want to sincerely thank you for spreading the word on the film. You’re just wonderful. The film itself is very much an analogy for our own ventures in the film industry. Growing up on the quest to be actresses and models, we’ve run into our fair share of sleaze, but the worst of it was what we experienced as filmmakers. The people that view women as sexual objects and somehow below men based on our age and gender are a sad actuality of this business and it’s often people who misrepresent as normal and respectable on the outside that are hiding their true intentions. It’s disgusting, but it is the reason there are stories about the sleazy Hollywood producers and young, naive film hopefuls, both men and women, should be very aware that this business is filled with people who want to take advantage of you.

Andy Burns:  What sort of research did you do into body modification culture? How aware of it were you before you began working on American Mary?

Sylvia Soska: I came across body modification through an April Fool’s prank that I foolishly fell for. It was a story that featured a photo essay from two identical twin brothers who swap limbs and digits, leaving one with three arms and the other with an elongated finger – parts donated to the other from the other. It scared me. My mother always taught us that fear comes from a lack of education on something so learn about what scares you and you won’t be scared anymore. Jen and I became obsessed with the culture, our fear turned to fascination to admiration. I loved what I learned about the body mod community and I wanted to dispel the misconceptions about it like I did for myself. We are not in the culture so we brought Russ Foxx onto the project as our flesh artist consultant to keep us in reality despite the fantastical places the story goes.

Jen Soska: We never intended to make a film about body modification. It had for a long time been a fascination of ours. Fear comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding. True fear is a natural defensive reaction to a threatening situation that can save your life, but irrational fear is, well, irrational. When we first came across body modification, I’ll admit it was shocking. The more I learned about the culture and the people in the body mod community, the more I discovered who down to Earth they are and how honest they are about who they are. And accepting. Too many people, especially in the film industry, like to front who they are. Appearances are everything and that plays into keeping up appearances so that no one will guess your true nature or intentions. But the body mod community is filled with people who are comfortable in their own skin and honest about who they are and that is a beautiful and rare quality to find in anyone.

Andy Burns: Could you give a little insight into your creative process – once you came up with the concept for American Mary, how long did it take to write the script?

Sylvia Soska: We wrote the script in two weeks. If we have a solid two weeks without any other commitments, we can write anything. We love the creative aspects of writing, there are no limitations or concessions, you can just tell your story. Jen and I have been story tellers our whole lives. When we were done with our favorite films, comic books, and video games, we would be antsy for the next story, so we would make up what happens next or what the back story is just to extent our experience with those characters. When we come up with a concept, it’s random, we throw out ideas, characters, sequences, locations that we think are fun and interesting. We make a three act structure on a piece of paper and fill it out non-linearly. Then we take turns writing while the other one plays video games, we write to surprise and amuse one another which makes for a fun process.

Jen Soska: We write very quickly. We don’t experience writers block. The world we’re writing just opens up to us and we try to capture this small little piece of it. Everyone has a back story, we know where they were before the film started and where they will go after. Like with every duty, we divide and conquer. We shoot ideas back and forth until we get something we’re both equally excited about and then we flesh it out from there. The reason our film has for existing, the characters, their identities, our “stand out” scenes, all the juicy details and then we map it out on a timeline to keep it in sequence and fill in the in between bits. We tag team write. One of us plays video games while the other one writes and then we switch. We write largely to amuse one another so when we trade off we just sit there and wait for the other to react to what we just wrote. We make our own fun. We push each other to be better and I’m a better everything because of Sylvie.

Andy Burns:  I’ll be honest with you both – I definitely covered or averted my eyes more than a few times while watching American Mary, but I never felt I missed anything because of the fantastic use of sound in the film. On that note, when you’re writing your script and planning a film, how much thought beforehand goes into how you’ll utilize sound?

Sylvia Soska: I listen to a particular soundtrack when writing to get me in the tone of what I’m writing. From seeing MARY, you can imagine what kind of various artists would have been on my iTunes for this script. I’ll listen to the same track over and over again. Soundtrack is incredibly important and we are so lucky to have Kevvy of Fake Shark-Real Zombie! be a friend and such a vital part of brining the film to life. The right music with the right imagery brings the entire production to a higher level. I wouldn’t want to make a film without his music – he’s a genius. We write a lot of the soundtrack into the script, we write everything from micro-mannerisms, to camera movement, to lighting – we want you to be able to visualize the film when you read the script.

Jen Soska: Soundtrack and sound is vital. Someone once told me you should be able to watch a film on mute and get the same feeling as you do with sound. That’s so utterly ignorant, particularly with a horror film. You can hold on an actor tied up HOSTEL style and have a killer off camera prepping his tools and the sounds just make you sick to your stomach. It has to be juicy. It has to hit a visceral chord inside of the viewer. We put a lot of black on our pages when we write. We put every little camera movement, sound effect, lighting change, and nuance in there so that when you read one of our scripts, you get a full feel for it. Scripts can be very interpretive and that can work for or against you. We want people to be able to pick up one of our scripts and see the film the way we see it.

Andy Burns: I also thought the film found a very smart balance between storytelling and violent imagery. Unlike a lot of “horror” films, I thought the use of violence was an integral part of the story and not just there for shock value. How easy or hard is for you as directors to strike that balance?

Sylvia Soska: We fell in love with horror filmmaking because of the extreme talent of prosthetic artists. The horror films I grew up loving were made by people who were passionate about the genre and used prosthetics and FX as a vessel for telling the story. Nowadays, horror is very popular, so many people are getting into the business of making these genre films, but they don’t have the same passion and they use excessive prosthetics and gore as a bandaid to cover up what poor films they are constructing. We wanted to keep the medical horror in a realistic realm so the film could keep one foot in reality even though we do go to places that you need your disbelief suspended. We only used prosthetics in the film and real members of the body mod community so you didn’t know whether you are looking at a person whose made a certain aesthetic life choice or if it’s the movie magic of Masters FX. With our subject matter, a lot of people kept using the word ugly to describe our film which really displays the level of ignorance in society about the body mod culture, so making a film that was beautiful to look at, like a painting, became very important to us and the team.

Jen Soska: I hate horror that relies on shock value. The medicine cabinet scares or the sound ramps or gratuitous gore just for gore sake. It’s the mark of a lazy or poor filmmaker. You see a lot of it in North American mainstream horror, sadly. The indies are still creative and internationally they use horrific elements to tell a story rather than to just cover for having no story. North American horror seems to follow this very basic formula and it’s so boring and repetitive. American Mary was really inspired by Asian and European horror. Films like Audition and I Saw The Devil and Let The Right One In. They use horror to tell a story. A good film is art and art is interpretive but North America is so obsessed with labels. Our films can be categorized as horror, but they’re also a lot of other things. With American Mary in particular, we didn’t want to rely on over the top violence and gore. We didn’t want to use that crutch. We wanted to make a horror movie you don’t have to look away from. I find the most horrific aspects of the film are the real life horrors, like the party scene.

Katharine-Isabelle-in-American-MaryAndy Burns:  How did Katherine Isabelle wind up playing Mary? She was absolutely spectacular – perfect casting.

Sylvia Soska: Jen and I have been fans of her work since Ginger Snaps. We have seen every one of her films and she is brilliant in everything, but I kept getting frustrated as a fan because here is an exceptional gifted actress and I’m not seeing her being given the challenging and complicated roles I know she can do. It’s a downfall in a lot of today’s entertainment where the female roles are not reflective of today’s modern woman, we are still getting caricatures or types of women rather than real women. To us, Katie is the thinking person’s scream queen. She’s not just there as eye candy, which being so beautiful she could easily do, but it’s the work with something to say that she gravitates towards. It might sound cruel given the nature of the film, but everything that happens in American Mary was something that I wanted to see Katie do and knew she would kill at. In a way she plays three versions of the same person in the film: sweet Mary, severe Mary, and fantasy Mary. I’m an even bigger fan now that I’ve worked with her and that’s saying something given my ridiculously high expectations of her – all of which she completely surpassed.

Jen Soska: We never write for an actor, but we broke that rule for Katie. It was always going to be Katie. We’d long admired her as an actress and hoped to see her take the lead in a mature, grown up role. We never saw that happen for her. She’s so damn good at playing the indifferent, angry teen and she’s so stunning that she often gets type cast as just a beautiful girl. Katie is so many wonderful things that I’d put beautiful at the end of the list. She’s a very capable and accomplished actor. She has this incredible capacity for emotional depth. She can convey so much with the greatest of subtlety. And she makes it all look easy. There are so few films that have a female lead that isn’t the girl friend or love interest or mom or insert other stereotypical female role. We wanted a Mary that could carry the film and go through some many psychological transitions. We wanted someone who could be a completely selfishly motivated and remorseless anti hero and that was always Katie. We never even considered what we’d do if she declined. We had a feeling she wouldn’t. And even with the highest of expectations, she still blew us away every single day.

Andy Burns:  What was the shoot for American Mary like? How long was it? Was it an easy one for you?

Sylvia Soska: It was fifteen days. At the time I didn’t know what that meant, we wanted to do 21, but we couldn’t. I didn’t know what it meant until a director friend of mine responded to my schedule by saying he wouldn’t wish fifteen days on his worst enemy. We were also restricted to twelve hour shoots with no option for re-shoots. With a lesser cast and crew the film would have no been possible, but the fact that it is what it is is a testament to how much talent we have here in Vancouver. The actors knew going in that they got three takes maximum for a scene, the crew moved incredibly fast, our DP, Brian Pearson, and us would conjoin and modify our shot list throughout to make sure we were getting everything we needed for the film, our first AD, Brad Jubenvil, was like an army general and strategized how to make everything work with our limitations. But the team out everything they had into the film. People would work for free, they would bring things from home, they were there because they genuinely cared about the film, and I believe you can see that in every frame of the film. I love and respect my crew, I know what they did for us, and I am bringing them back for the next ones and we sure as fuck won’t be doing it in fifteen days. I can only imagine what we’ll all produce with more time to create considering what we did on this film.

Jen Soska: You never have enough time or money, but we were really pressed for this one. We had an ambitious script with a modest budget for an undertaking of this magnitude and furthermore we had a 15 day shoot without any allowance for reshoots or going over 12 hours a day which included an hour meal break. It was an incredible challenge and I must attest to the profound talent of my crew for making it all possible. They gave everything they had and went above and beyond to make it possible, many of them volunteering their time or donating items to the production. They were the saviors of the film and I cannot sing their praises enough. I cannot wait to bring them all back again under different circumstances for the next ones.

Soska AmericanAndy Burns: I really think that you nailed a perfect, unique film. But there’s the old adage that art is never finished, only abandoned. Is there anything about American Mary that either of you would have changed at all for whatever reason, or is it the film you both envisioned it to be?

Sylvia Soska: There’s a director’s cut that was in my contract, so I’m going to be thrilled if and when that gets released. That said, in every film you have to make a certain amount of concessions while still keeping the soul of the story intact. We did that in this film. There are a few scenes, characters, and locations I wish we could have kept in. There were things we shot that I wanted to have in there. To add to that, we didn’t just create this story, but we envisioned their whole world – we have so many stories to still tell and more of the world we’d like to reveal. If you look at our storyboards and the frames of the film, we nailed it right on with a grand majority of the film. It’s a deeply personal film to me, so I’ll never be done with it. We only make films that mean something to us and that was very much the case with AMERICAN MARY.

Jen Soska: There was this pressure to make the film an hour and a half which is unrealistic. You’re there to tell a story. It takes however long the story takes to tell. We had a very limited editing allowance and the fact that the film was so beautifully put together even under the time constraints is because of our phenomenal editor, Bruce MacKinnon. I would have liked to put air into certain scenes. Things had to be cut out purely for this time demand and I think it hurt the story and certain characters in places. Every minute over the 90 minute mark was passionately fought for. There are some little moments that would have extended the story that I’m sad to have lost. There’s a longer scene outside with Mary and the Blond during which Mary says, “do you know how hard it is for girls like me in a world where girls like you exist?” It was something very vital to the film and though implied throughout, I wanted to have that in there.

Andy Burns: What’s next for the Soska Sisters?

Sylvia Soska: We were just announced at Cannes as part of the multi-collaborative ABCS OF DEATH 2, so we’re ecstatic about that. We are also in early prep for our next feature, an original monster movie that we are teaming with Masters FX to create, called BOB. The tagline is: There’s a monster inside all of us, sometimes it gets out. Really looking forward to going to camera with that one and getting the band back together.

Jen Soska: We’re big comic book fans. We’ll be partnering with FIRST COMICS to bring our films to graphic novel life and they’ll be the uncut versions. I’m very excited for that and FIRST COMICS really cares about the artists, the work, and delivering the highest quality work to the fans. They’re amazing. We’ve also through them met one of our favorite graphic novelists/artists and we’re going to be bringing his work to the big screen. It’s a huge dream of ours to make a comic book movie and we ca promise it’ll be 100% true to the comics and fans will just love it because we’re fans ourselves and know how vital that is. I wish we could say what it is, but we will be hitting San Diego Comic Con again this year, so stay tuned for a big announcement.

Andy Burns: Finally, is there anything you’ve watched or been reading or been listening to that Biff Bam Pop readers should check out?

Sylvia Soska: Everything by Astron-6 is brilliant. Start with BIO-COP, go to MANBORG, then FATHER’S DAY. They are making a new one this year called THE EDITOR and I cannot wait to see it. They are great filmmakers. DREDD is one of my favorite films of all time, if you didn’t see it based on the previous one, treat yourself – it’s the best thing ever.

Jen Soska: Oh, check out the indies! PONTYPOOL, SPLINTER, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, DONKEY PUNCH… I love finding hidden treasures and sharing them with the world. I love comic books. If you haven’t read DARK AVENGERS, go hit it up. It’s so well written. Anything by Daniel Way I drool over.

Thanks to Sylvia and Jen Soska for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop, and thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay and Amberlight for making it happen. American Mary screens tonight across Canada and hits DVD/Blu-Ray June 18th.

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