FF2012: How Fantastic Fest Got Twisted Up By 'American Mary'
Jen and Sylvia Soska are the new twins of evil
By Richard Whittaker, 9:30AM, Wed. Oct. 3, 2012
There's a trick to telling Jen and Sylvia Soska apart. One has fangs, and the other doesn't.
Even though the latest film from the Canadian film making duo, American Mary, deals with body modification, their dentine difference is all natural.
Let's cut to the chase: There may have been bigger names at Fantastic Fest, but the interview everyone ended up wanting was the Twisted Twins, the endlessly cheerful, endlessly nerdy joint force of nature. No other film maker would have booked a third day of interviews, not would many have had to.
Heading up to the Rapper's Delight karaoke room for the interview, I got my first real taste of the Soska experience. Jen sprinting down the corridor, handling the arrangements for the day herself, grinning broadly: Sylvia inside, prepping the room, while their actors, Ginger Snaps star Katherine Isabelle and Vancouver-based burlesque performer Tristan Risk are AWOL somewhere. When they finally arrive, Jen calls down the hall. "Is that the movie star?"
"Nah," yells Risk. "It's just the stripper."
"Well, look what the werewolf dragged in," laughed Jen.
It took about 15 seconds for me to get enveloped by the madness. Dragging up one of her straight-to-SyFy low budget performances, with a straight face Sylvia turned to Isabelle and said, "Richard's a big fan of Ogre. Nah, he's a fan of Ginger Snaps. Nobody's seen fucking Ogre."
Isabelle sighed. "Well, he's going to go see it now."
Too late. Already seen it. Cue whoops and hollers from the American Mary ensemble.
Aside from writing and directing in American Mary, the pair also briefly appear as the German body mod twins, who come to disgraced surgeon Mary (Isabelle) for a perverse bit of voluntary transplant surgery. Jen (pretty sure it was Jen. Apologies, ladies, for reversed comments) said, "The funny thing is, when I used to be actor, I had tunnel vision. I was all, my art, my craft, my character, my meaning. Then I became a director, and you don't realize how much the director is looking for in place of your acting and your beautiful inside-your-own-head shit. The things I'm looking for are, did you gets your lines right, did you get the right inflection on them, is the lighting right on you, is the framing right on you, did the focus come in and out on you at the right time? SO much of it has nothing to do with acting whatsofucking ever."
Take the famous Christian Bayle Batman meltdown. Sylvia said, "I'm on his side."
Jen: "You don't change a light during a shot in any fucking movie."
Sylvie: "Not during a shot. That was the director's job to do that."
Jen. "It was the director that should have gone all Uwe Bohl, like, 'Vot are you doing, you're fahking me."
Turns out that the duo share a lot of the same crew with the notorious German bruiser, but definitely not the same temperament. Jen said, "I would go round and be like, 'Oh, could you guys move this and and hurry up,' and they'd say, 'That's so different from how Uwe does it. You want to know how he says on set? He goes around and say, 'Every minute you're not shooting, you're fahking me!' So that would be the thing. We would go around and everyone would go around and say, 'Oh, Uwe, it's not lit,' and he would say, 'Looks like shit? Good! Shoot!'"
That's the antithesis of how the Soskas work. Sylvia said, "When we write the script, we write the camera shots."
Jen: "We didn't have the legality to shoot anything, so it was fucking guerrilla. We knew that we'd have to shoot things really fast. There would be cop cars coming and we'd be like, 'Everyone in the car!'"
Sylvia: "We said it was a combination between Robert Rodriguez and Ed Wood. Robert because of the do-it-yourself attitude, and Ed Wood because of the, 'Well, that's the best we've got.'"
But there's little fast and loose about the end result. Even though the central themes of the movie veer deep into fetish territory, the duo aren't interested in low-brow sexploitation. Jen said, "I feel a lot of the time, especially with what you get in mainstream horror, that they shoot horror almost like it's porn. They're like, 'Oh, we have the blood and we have the tits, so who gives a shit?' and those aren't the films I grew up loving.'"
Sylvia: "It's insulting to the horror fans."
But the topic of body modification: From implants to piercing to the extreme ends like limb removal, and it seems there's a particular fascination among young, smart women. Sylvia agreed: She said, "I think it's judgment on appearance, something that we have in common with someone who has 3D implants or tongue splitting. As soon as people meet you, they already have an assumption about you. A lot of the time when people meet Jennifer and I, we are freaky, but it's also like, 'Oh, it's a party favor. I'll look at these cute little girls that dress this way.'"
Risk saw some of the influence of the comics she grew up reading, and the female characters there. OK, first, there was a long diversion as Risk and the twins discussed the relative merits of Marvel Comic's two card-throwing characters, Gambit and Bullseye, then a quick diversion to discuss Daken, Wolverine's bisexual sociopathic son. "Oh god," said Jen, "So hot." (Risk's response was a simpler "Sploosh!") Jen pulls a miniature Daken figure out of her purse. "Here's my Daken. My traveling Daken." It's not that it's just his muscles or his rakish mohawk that charms her, but his perpetual and one-sided flirtation with Bullseye, the MU's other unstoppable killer. Jen said, "I love how happy it makes him to make Bullseye miserable, because Bullseye must be such a fucking bigot."
Further down the rabbit hole with Risk, as she described her own Daken fantasu. "It's called an Eiffel Tower when two guys fuck the same girl at the same time because you high-five over here. So I came up with this thing, when there's two chicks fucking the same guy, we're the Champs Elysees because we're not quite as tall as the Eiffel Tower. I would happily Champs Elysees Daken with any of these bitches."
"I would volunteer," said Jen.
"And I would film it," said Sylvia.
Risk replied, "Sylv's behind the camera giving instructions. 'Just move your thigh a little bit, because I can't see his face."
"This is an eminently quotable interview," said Sylvia.
Back to body mod and the impact of comics: Risk said, "Women who had muscle definition, you could see their abdominals, you could see the muscles in their thighs, but oftentimes it wasn't just that. They had these revealing outfits or they'd be half cat. We can't shape-shift as human. We can do it to a certain extent with weight training, or we can be faster, but there's a ceiling to this."
There's a certain hypocrisy in the way society spurns body mod – unless it's socially acceptable. Like, as Risk pointed out, women who get breast implants to please other people. For her, there's more inspiration in Dolly Parton. Risk said, "She did have breast implants, but she also had this tiny corseted waist. She didn't come looking like that but she found a way to make herself look like this. For the body mods, it's like, OK, I'm not actually an elf or a cat person, but I can tip my ears, I can file my teeth, I can take steps to achieve an ideal that I would find aesthetically pleasing for myself."
Neither of the sisters has had any modification work, and so they and their cast had to rely on effects work to create the convincing and unnerving changes. That's no mean feat on a 15 day shoot with dozens of set-ups every day. Jen said, "The worst thing me and Sylv do is that we never stop and think, 'What can we afford to do?' We like to aim for the stars, because then if we reach the moon, it's still, fuck, we got really, really good."
She credited Todd Masters and the team at MastersFX for designing the film's many subtle – and sometimes graphic – prosthetic effects. "People don't really understand what effects artists really do, because they need time, and they need money, and if they don't have money, then they need time."
So they spent months working with the team to create a look that was "perfect, but not perfect," as Sylvia explained. They had to look how a real body mod would look, and that was Masters' self-appointed challenge. "As much as he liked the film of Dick Tracey, he said that you looked at every piece there and you knew it was a prosthetic. He said the real thing he wanted to do here is he wanted to make sure that Beatress Johnson and Ruby Realgirl and all the other mods, you wouldn't know if they were actually modified or it was going to be a prosthetic. At one point, he actually said, 'Don't mention me ever, because I don't want anyone to think there are prosthetics.'"
The twins may still be working in microbudget horror, but the pair aim high, wear their inspirations and their aspirations on their sleeves. Five minutes with them is a grab bag of indie film making wisdom. For example, you only learn by doing. Sylvia: "You know most girls who are like the girlfriend of a rock band, they always take a lot of photos? I say take so many fucking photos, because it teaches you how to set up a shot, like head space, angles, cool lighting, how you can set up your foreground, how to set up your background."
How about video game design and animation? Jen said, "They have complete control over their shots, and what do they chose to do? They choose to have these beautiful symmetrical shots, they choose to have these lovely following shots, they choose these interesting ways to show the material and you think, 'Oh, man, I want to grab that shot.'"
Eli Roth? Hero.
Robert Rodriguez? Fantastic.
The running order in Grindhouse? Should be reversed, according to Sylvia. "I always felt the pacing was slower in Death Proof than Planet Terror."
And what about Fantastic Fest itself? "The people that organize, the fans, the press people, the film makers, we're of the same mentality. We're so excited by the genre and the films and the material that it becomes this nerd fest, where you're like, 'Hey, you know this movie from the 1960s? Yeah, me too, I love it.'"
The pair were sure that they wanted American Mary to debut at Fantastic Fest, and had been taking to festival booker Todd Brown ever since their first feature, the super-sleazy Dead Hooker in a Trunk. The pair had not only managed their US premiere there, but received the profound honor of being entered into the Fantastic Debates, dressed as Kitana and Mileena from the Mortal Combat games. Sylvia said, "To be here for the first time, not only with a film, but I didn't realize how much of a family it is. Everyone says their festival is like a family, but you come here and you're a part of it. I wanted to see the Fantastic Debates. I didn't think I'd be with this motherfucker, fighting in the Fantastic Debates, punching each other in the face."
The one disappointment was that their first year was the first time that fest icon Nacho Vigalondo was absent. Never mind. They're already Twitter buddies. "We're the Nachettes," said Jen.