American Mary is “horrible graphic torture and jokes”

Directors Jen and Sylvia Soska on rape in horror, the influence of Alien, and new movie American Mary.

American Mary stars Ginger Snaps' Katherine Isabelle
American Mary stars Ginger Snaps' Katherine Isabelle
American Mary stars Ginger Snaps‘ Katharine Isabelle

The Soska Sisters have already made an impression on the horror community with their debut feature, Dead Hooker In A Trunk: a fun and frantic homage to grindhouse cinema, packed with plenty of gore. Their second feature, American Mary, is a dark psychological thriller about a medical student whose mistreatment at the hands of her teachers leads her into an underground world of extreme cosmetic surgery. We caught up with the twins after the film made its European debut at FrightFest

Where did the idea for American Mary come from?

Sylvia: I’d seen a weird story about body modification online that scared me, and I became obsessed with it.

Jen: Yeah, it was an April Fool’s joke that we didn’t know was an April Fool’s joke at the time. There were two identical twins: one got his arm chopped off and connected to the other one’s chest and the other one had a finger cut off and put onto the one armed guy’s finger. And underneath there was a love letter saying ‘you’d have to be an identical twin to understand why we did this’, and that disturbed us. I was like ‘you don’t want to do that to me, do you?’

Sylvia: I do! Absolutely! This movie was just warming you up for it!

You’ve obviously researched body modification, and there are some characters in the film who’ve really had some extreme things done to them. How did you come up with the character designs for those characters?

Sylvia: Well, a lot of it was about American culture and what the perceived ideal of beauty is. And one of the most popular images is a Barbie doll. You see these women getting plastic surgery, they get their big lips, their tiny nose, their pumped up chipmunk cheeks, their blonde hair, their giant tits and their tiny waist. And I was thought that was interesting, and we should have a character like that – but let’s take that doll angle to another level where she does all that, and it’s commonly seen as an overtly sexualised image, but she doesn’t want to be sexualised, so she has her parts removed. It’s almost like a radical act of feminism, like burning your bra, but a little more severe: ‘I don’t want these nipples any more.’

And who else is an iconic beauty? Betty Boop was always huge, even in the original cartoons she was so racy and the animators would have her dress pop down or her dress pop up, and we thought that would be interesting to have a character like that, who works as a gentleman’s club. When we were writing the script, we were like, ‘what characters do we want to see, and what locations do we want to see? Where do they hang out?’ And we thought, ‘well, where would we want to be – let’s go to a strip club!’

Antonio Cupo as Billy Barker in American Mary
Antonio Cupo as Billy Barker in American Mary

The film is kind of an analogy for your careers, and your experiences in the film industry, right?

Sylvia: Well, Jennifer and I have been acting since we were about seven years old because the Olsen twins were very popular so a lot of agencies thought it was a very good idea to have twins so they could swap the kids out. At first we did really stupid, non-substantive, kind of silly roles, but as soon as we got older it was always super overtly sexualised things. And every time we tried to work in a normal, mainstream film we’d meet all these people who were supposed to be nice producers or nice directors, but they would be disgusting, vile people, acting like kids in a candy store, doing whatever the fuck they wanted. But when we went into independent horror, which most people assume is full of crazy people who get off on blood and murder and whatnot, they were the nicest, kindest people we’ve ever met. And we thought it’d be interesting if we made an analogy like that for the film.

It was kind of cool because we were going through what Mary was going through in the movie. We didn’t have money, our fridge was always empty, we wouldn’t even pick up our phone – if it wasn’t cut off – because it was bill collectors. We had no control over our lives or the situations we were finding ourselves in, so almost therapeutically we put it all into this script so it was in a tangible form, so we could work through it – I guess that’s what therapy is, you have a bad situation and you work through it.

Jen: Also, I wouldn’t say that filmmaking is a boys’ club but there’s definitely some guys who are misogynistic douchebags and it can be a struggle with some people to be seen on the same level. We’ve been invited together to parties with other directors, and we’re like, ‘Oh, a party with directors, that’s awesome!’ Then you arrive and it becomes abundantly clear that you are not invited at the same level as the other directors, you’ve been invited as a party favour. Luckily enough, I have backup wherever I go, so it’s like, ‘No, I’m fucking leaving, I don’t care if you don’t want to work with me, I sure as shit don’t need you.’

There have been an awful lot of movies recently that feature rape scenes, but they’re all made by men. It’s interesting to see a film made by women that deals with that from a woman’s perspective.

Jen: There was a study done, I believe, in NYU, that says most rape in film is done to be sexually gratifying to men. In our film, you don’t see her breasts – you see her face. If you’re in a situation where you’re raped – and if you’re a woman and you exist in life, either it’s happened to you, it’s come close to happening to you, or it’s happened to someone you love and care about – it doesn’t just cut to the next scene. You’re stuck there, and it seems like it goes on forever. That’s why, in the film, you’re just locked on Mary’s defeated, horrified eyes. I’d say that scene is the most horrifying scene in the film.

Sylvia: I hate it when rape is used as a shtick. It’s like it’s an emotional trigger – hurting women, hurting children, hurting animals, it’s like saying ‘I don’t have an idea, but here’s what I know upsets you!’ And I hate it when it happens and you don’t get the revenge that you want to see. If someone did that to me I would do exactly what Mary did. If not worse. Women are terrifying. If someone hurts us, that’s the kind of rage you would have.

Soska Sisters
Jen and Sylvia Soska, directors of American Mary at San Diego Comic Con

You guys are clearly horror fans. What movies would you say influenced this one?

Jen: Oh, so many, we wanted to include little tidbits from films that we loved. So there’s Suicide Club, in the ‘do you feel connected to yourself?’ stuff with the Berlin twins, and Dead Ringers, when we had Mary in the red scrubs…

Sylvia: There’s also a reference to Audition. We love horror movies but you never see the antagonist be a girl and I’m a woman so I know chicks are way scarier than guys, especially when you don’t know what’s going on under the surface. A lot of it is based on Asian and European cinema, which we really like, like I Saw The Devil, and Let The Right One In; films that are really horrific but beautiful at the same time. Because with Western films it seems like a lot of it is the same paint-by-numbers shit; it’s a remake or a reimagining or a found footage shitty ghost movie. I want to make movies like the movies I grew up watching.

Jen: I would also have to say films like Alien influenced us, in that that was the evolution of the final girl. Originally she was very pure, very sweet, and she almost just defensively fought against the villain and somehow won through her pious attitude or whatever. Then with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, she fought back and wasn’t afraid, and I think Mary is the new evolution, where the final girl and the villain are one and the same.

Sylvia: She brings everything on herself. We’re huge Clive Barker fans and when he was talking about Pinhead he says, ‘I never had him do a single likeable thing and people loved him for it.’ If you watch Mary, she never does anything that’s not selfish, it’s so mean and all driven by her own ambition. Whenever you see a female in a movie it’s always the girlfriend or the victim; we wanted to make an interesting, flawed character.

American Mary
Katharine Isabelle plays medical student Mary Mason

You both write and direct: how do you split the work between you?

Jen: If there’s something that we might disagree on, we extensively discuss it before we get on set. With the writing process, I feel so blessed to have been born with a heterosexual life mate as well as a writing partner. We get to the same goal, always, but the way we get there can be very different. I’d say she’s the Lars von Trier and I’m the Joss Whedon: she’ll write a horrible graphic torture scene and I’ll put some jokes in so people can actually watch it. In the writing process, we argue back until we stop because we’ve found something we both agree on.

On set, it’s divided, really. With American Mary, because this story was a bit more personal, and Sylv was really emotionally connected to it, and with two people who are always right even when they’re saying different things…

Sylvia: If I may interject, we also look the exact fucking same and we didn’t want anyone to be too confused, so one of us will play the mouthpiece and we’ll make sure we do different things. Jen was always talking to our first AD and I was always talking to the cinematographer. I would maybe scream at the actors from my monitor and if they did something really good I’d go over but Jen was the one who was an actual human being, going, ‘How was your day? How is your dog? How is your family?’

Jen: I also had the job we called ‘putting out fires’. We had 15 days to shoot, and on every film set there’s shit that goes wrong. Anyone who tells you different is just blowing smoke up your ass. So when shit hit the fan, I would let Sylvia stay on set with our cinematographer and our actors and continue to work and I would take care of whatever the shit was, so that not only was it taken care of but no-one even knew anything was going wrong.

What’s next for you guys?

Sylvia: The next film we’re very interested in working on is called Bob. It’s a monster movie and it’s an original monster – so often you see vampires, and werewolves, and oh my God, so many zombies but you haven’t seen an original monster is so long, and that’s something we really want to do. We’re also huge graphic novel nerds and we have an opportunity right now to do a big screen adaptation of one of our favourite comic-books, so we’re really, really excited to do that.

American Mary is due in cinemas 2013. Jen and Sylvia Soska’s first movie, Dead Hooker In A Truck, is available on DVD from Amazon.co.uk for £7.87.