Soska sisters scare up a vengeful ‘American Mary’
May 29, 2013
Identical twin filmmakers delve into body modification for their latest horror tale.
Jen and Sylvia Soska are arguably the best identical twins to happen to horror since those creepy girls from The Shining.
The 30-year-old Canadian sisters have spent nearly a decade making influential friends and plying their bloody trade on screen as indie filmmakers, and their latest, American Mary (on video on demand now and in theaters Friday), showcases a scare-fest full of modern sensibilities but also one that’s personal for the sibling writer-directors.
It’s already gained a bit of a cult status as an overseas release, and “now my local paper wants to talk to me, so that’s really weird. They seem to strenuously avoid trying to talk to me,” says Jen Soska.
“I always told my mom that being identical twins who did horror movies would one day pay off. And seven years later, it’s finally getting somewhere,” Sylvia Soska adds with a laugh.
American Mary stars Katharine Isabelle as Mary Mason, a young woman who’s quickly figuring out that neither medical school nor her teachers are what they’re cracked up to be. In need of quick cash, Mary becomes immersed in the underground world of body modification (such as those wanting horn implants, a split tongue or filed teeth), finds she has a knack for it and at the same time seeks retribution against professors who’ve found a way to her bad side.
Body modification has been an interest for the Soskas ever since they stumbled on a story of twin brothers who swapped limbs, with one brother ending up with three arms and the other having a single limb with an elongated ring finger. And because they were genetically identical, the limbs didn’t reject their new host.
“It was just really scary, and my mom taught me that if you’re ever scared of anything, you should learn about it,” Sylvia Soska says. “That fear turns to fascination turns to admiration, and I became such a junkie for the theme.”
Horror guru Eli Roth became a mentor of sorts, and he recommended that they write another movie — of the few they had, he most liked their idea about a medical student — while trying to distribute Dead Hooker in a Trunk.
The Soskas whipped out a script in a couple of weeks, and because of the time constraints, “all these experiences that meant so much to us at the time went in there,” Sylvia Soska explains.
“I didn’t even realize it was such a personal piece until people started pointing out similarities. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really naked for a person who doesn’t really like to talk about themselves.’ “
To each other, the Soskas are an open book simply because they’ve been collaborators from the womb and shared an entire life of experiences. They’d always make sure they were in the same classes in school and get jobs at the same place. As directors, if one of them has to run off to a meeting, the other can run the production with nary a blip.
They even sound exactly the same. “When I listen to our radio interviews,” Sylvia Soska says, “I don’t even know who’s talking. And I was there!”
There are some differences, though — Sylvia Soska jokes that, in filmmaker terms, she’s Joss Whedon to her sister’s Lars von Trier.
“Jen is a much better human being than me,” the filmmaker explains. “She puts the heart into the films and I rip it out, and that’s also in the workplace. She knows everybody’s name, their kids’ names, every little nuance. I’m more of a suffering-artist type — I’ll refer to the actors only by their character names.
“If you want to talk about the recession and radical feminism and the state of the world’s history, you come over to Sylvia. But if you want to do anything else that’s normal, you go to Jen immediately.”
Because Sylvia Soska is a “true artist,” her sister remarks that she has a really profound vision for American Mary as well as their other works. “Anything that you see in one of our films that makes you say, ‘WTF?,’ you can attribute that to Sylvia. And afterwards if there’s a funny joke to nice it over, that would be my influence.”
The film will be many people’s introduction to the world of body modification, according to Jen Soska, so they wanted to make sure they had a fair representation of the assorted procedures, the majority of which are actually possible.
They brought in “flesh artist” Russ Foxx as a body-mod consultant — he also has a role in American Mary — but the sisters made use of their doctor friends’ medical knowledge, too, for accuracy’s sake.
“I want to keep some sort of reality,” Sylvia Soska says, “and I’m like, ‘How big of a snake do you think could crawl out of a person without hurting them?’ I guess they’re getting used to these kinds of calls.”
Watching Poltergeist when they were 10 was a major factor for why the Soskas ended up in horror rather than, say, doing meet-cute romantic comedies, but Jen Soska puts a lot of blame on their mother and her massive collection of Stephen King and Anne Rice books.
A fan of horror herself, their mom wouldn’t let the sisters near her novels when they were really little, but she did let them view Poltergeist, a movie that “is designed specifically to scare the crap out of kids,” Jen Soska says. “And when it came to bedtime we were just so terrified.”
To quell her daughters’ fears, she sat the twins down and explained that everything in the film was make-believe and created by a writer, a director, actors and other artists.
They then caught horror fever.
“I don’t know if it was the taboo of underage kids watching horror movies or the fact we were these cute little twin girls in our little flowy Sunday dresses, but we were always at our local video store in the horror section,” Sylvia Soska explains. “We’d look at the boxes and were always like, ‘Please, mom! Please, mom!’ “
“Sylvia and I ourselves don’t have any phobias — we’re afraid of commitment, but that’s different,” Jen Soska quips. “So when people admit their fears to us, we just find it so fascinating, especially if it’s an irrational fear.
“Sylvia collects tarantulas so when someone’s afraid of a spider, we’re like, ‘Really? Why?’ “
What they do find weird is the distinct lack of female horror filmmakers like themselves.
“Some people know a lot about the horror industry and they’re really stoked about women being a part of it, but other people will come over to us and be like, ‘You girls are so talented. Why would you want to do horror?’ There’s just such a misconception about the horror genre and women’s enjoyment of it,” Sylvia Soska says.
“The majority of the people — like 60% of the audience for horror films — are women. What a positive place to have women tell their stories.”
Even though there have been names like Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark), Mary Harron (American Psycho) and Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary) involved in the genre, Sylvia Soska has seen a “boys’ club” aspect at times, she says. The director has had “some horrible meetings where my age and gender stepped before any of my work.”
But in recent years, Bigelow’s best-director Oscar for The Hurt Locker has helped all female filmmakers, and the Soskas have found fans in a lot of horror guys such as Roth, James Wan, James Gunn and Clive Barker.
“It’s not even an issue of gender — they’re just fascinated to have stories told from a different perspective, which is really lacking in the horror industry today,” says Sylvia Soska, who founded Twisted Twins Productions with her sister in 2008.
Her sibling agrees. “Being a female and doing a horror is still seen as a gimmick, as if we had some kind of choice whether we’re male or female.”
Everyone is starting to know the Soskas, though. They’ve got another script ready for an original monster movie called Bob, are among the 26 filmmakers creating segments for the upcoming anthology ABCs of Death 2, and will be announcing a new big-screen adaptation of a favorite graphic novelist’s work around San Diego Comic-Con in July.
It won’t be just like any run-of-the-mill comic-book film, though, in their continuing efforts to tell original stories, according to Jen Soska. “I’m so tired of Spider-Man origin movies. People know how Spider-Man got his powers better than the story of Jesus Christ,” the filmmaker says.
They’ll also dole out more than just scares at their Comic-Con panel, she promises.
“We hug like Oprah. We’re like, ‘You get a hug and you get a hug!’ We’re zany and very friendly.”