The Unfair Business of Being a Woman Director in the Boys Club of Horror Filmmaking

The New Hope

American Mary is, safe to say, unlike any other movie that'll hit theaters this year. Part satire, part dark comedy, and part mutilation-centric horror flick, it's a strange, vibrant hybrid about a financially strapped medical student, Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle), who, in an effort to pay off student loans, reluctantly uses her education to excel in the world of underground body modification. Her biggest job, paying her $10,000: turning a stripper's friend, named Ruby Realgirl, into a full-blown "living doll." But then a traumatic run-in with one of her professors turns the previously well-meaning Mary into a college dropout with increased sexual confidence, a penchant for administering cruel and unusual punishment, and both the film's hero and villain.

It's an assured, audacious piece of work—and a drastic improvement over their scrappy, handmade 2009 debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk—from a pair of filmmaking siblings who've still yet to reach their full potential. And that potential, on a much bigger scale, could be to put a newfound spotlight on women directors in horror.

Jen and Sylvia Soska, 30, are certainly making every effort to reach that kind of notoriety. The Vancouver natives are, as previously mentioned, genre convention/festival regulars, signing autographs, joining panels, doing Q&As, and attending screenings all while wearing matching outfits, often taken from their films (e.g., Mary's wardrobe in American Mary) and always provocatively designed. Fully utilizing social media, they retweet every single thing that's said and written about them by their devoted fan based, the "Twisted Twins Army," with whom they constantly interact. Anytime a blogger or journalist writes about them, the sisters reach out directly with a "thank you" note of some kind and promote the article on their Twitter account (@twisted_twins).

The Soskas are marketing and branding machines—and the horror community has taken notice. Jen and Sylvia recently signed on to participate in The ABCs of Death 2, a sequel to this year's ambitious, who's who of independent horror, 27-director anthology that, depending on who you ask, should have included Jen and Sylvia in the first place. Or, at the very least, more than two female directors in total. Their involvement in The ABCs of Death 2—along with the presence of Vanishing Waves director Kristina Buozyte—is an important step in a long journey towards remedying what many perceive to be inequality in the genre.

More so than most other women in horror, the Soskas have a strong chance of becoming horror's next, say, Eli Roth, the man behind Hostel and Netflix's Hemlock Grove (and one of the sisters' industry mentors). Yet, despite their burgeoning success, the twins are also familiar with the difficulties and prejudices that derive from being ladies working in a "boys club." Here, Jen and Sylvia get candid about those challenges and how they're able to persevere in spite of them.

The complete package the two of you bring is something that's been missing from not only the horror genre, but the movie industry in general. The movie is great, but you've also backed it up with intense marketing, strong branding, and tireless interaction with your fans.
Sylvia Soska: And it hasn't come easily. You wouldn't believe it, but we never fit in and were always teased constantly while growing up. Jen and I were outcasts. We loved horror, we loved gaming, and we loved superheroes. We had the weirdest interests, and we'd want to dress like the characters. Our mother just said, "Don't worry about what people say. If you want to dress like that, then do it." Finally we started writing and directing with the Twisted Twins Productions, and it all kind of fell into place. Even though we're really weird, it seems like that weirdness makes sense now.

Jen Soska: It's really a dream come true. If we weren't guests at festivals and conventions, we'd be attending them. The hardness thing about being at a convention is having a place where we're designated to stay, so people can find us and meet us, but we're such nerds that we want to run around, hug everyone in costumes, sexually harass them, and buy stuff.

Sylvia: We're the construction workers at any kind of convention. We holler and scream at everybody to come over. It's crazy when somebody comes over and says, "Oh, I'm CrazyAxeMurderer35 on Twitter," and I'm like, "Oh my god, dude! This is how you look in real life!"

Jen: It's so weird to be celebrated for liking the things we were bullied for growing up. I grew up loving comic books, and now nerds have inherited the earth. It's a very good time to be weird and nerdy.

Was there a nervousness at first to realize you were going to be celebrating the things you were bulled for?
Sylvia: I'm always so nervous and so socially uncomfortable. Jen is the opposite; she says I hide it very well, but I always feel like I'm drowning. I'm just always so uncomfortable with things, especially with American Mary because it's so personal. I've been so nervous that people would realize how personal it is, how there are so many elements of Jen's and my life in there. Seeing people and having people come over and make comments is a very different kind of experience, but if you don't do something that scares you, you're not going to be able to get outside of your comfort zone. I really did that with this film.

Jen: Also, in high school we realized at a certain point that we were never going to be a part of the popular, accepted people. That was fine with us. Not being the person you are is no way to live. When we went to the conventions and dressed up in our comic book costumes, I was actually shocked how behind it everyone was, how people reacted to us knowing intimate details about Spider-Man, and comic books, and horror movies. Growing up, we always stood up for people who were bullied and outcasted, and now that we're bigger and have some notoriety, we continue to do that on a much larger scale. Especially with our work with the LGBT and body-mod communities. Anyone who's an outcast, for an insane reason, we always protect them.

 
When I talk to people and they say they can't watch horror movies because they get scared, I say, 'God, didn't your mom tell you that it's all pretend?' - Sylvia Soska
 

Sylvia: We're really lucky that American Mary has resonated with people in the body-mod community, because there aren't many movies about this subject. There aren't many movies that tell them it's OK to be comfortable in their own skin, despite what society says is considered beautiful. It's really cool. If you think about it, the largest group of people out there are the people who feel like outcasts and feel like they don't fit in. I find that a lot of those people are in the horror and genre communities, and it's really nice to see that they're so nice and so supportive. The only reason that Jen and I were able to transition from Dead Hooker to this point is because people got behind all of the things we do, and they're really nice to us. I feel like the luckiest nerd on the planet.

Jen: As a horror fan, I wake up and feel like my life is a dream. If you told little me that all of the things I was made fun of for would be things that people love about Syl and I, and that I'd get to work in horror and people would actually watch our films and like them, little me would be like, "Nah, man…I just have to make it through the next day of high school."

It's interesting to note that your love for horror comes directly from a woman: your mother.
Sylvia: Yeah, we would watch horror movies together. When you're under the age of 18 by a decade, you can't really get to see them, but my mom never put a limit on us. When we were nine, she showed us Poltergeist, and at bedtime we freaked out, and then she did something that would forever change the way we look at horror movies: She told us how everything was made on a set, and that there was a script, a director, prosthetics, and she explained how all of these talented artists worked together with the intention of scaring people.

Once we found out it was all pretend, we went nuts, especially with the prosthetics. We then wanted to see the goriest stuff possible, because we knew it was all fake. we grew up watching those movies, always. My mom then made a new rule: If you read the book first, you can watch any movie you want. So we had all of these Stephen King books, and if we had any questions we would go to her and ask her. She always taught us to have a sense of what makes these stories relevant and what the themes are. That was just really normal to us; when I talk to people and they say they can't watch horror movies because they get scared, I say, "God, didn't your mom tell you that it's all pretend?"

Jen and I are also proudly failed actresses. We started when were seven, not because of any talent but because there were two of us. My dad always drove us to every audition and every set. Bless their hearts, our parents always supported whatever we did, no matter how crazy or wild it was. As a matter of fact, with American Mary, they remortgaged their house so they could be the first investors. They knew what the story meant to us. I feel so lucky that they gave us that faith and support, and even more lucky that my parents aren't going to lose their house because like the movie.

Did your experiences as struggling actresses directly influence your decision to become filmmakers?
Jen: Little girls are always encouraged to models, singers, and actresses, and there isn't enough encouragement to be writers, directors, or owners of your own production companies. From a very young age, we both loved being storytellers, but it never really occurred to us that if we wanted to really have control over the stories we told, we could be directors. It was really us writing roles for ourselves that were opposite from the roles we were being cast as. Being identical twins, we were always offered the slutty, poorly written roles. I have nothing against sex and violence, which you could have probably guessed, but if it's poorly written, then I have a huge problem with it, especially if the director is also the star and he basically writes about wanting to sleep with me and Syl in the script.

Sylvia: Some people aren't attracted to film for the arts. Some people look at it as a way to get laid by stupid people… With American Mary, that's our last on-camera role for awhile. We're just going to focus on behind-the-scenes now, especially with the next film.

Jen: A lot of times, for actors, you're so anxious to keep working that you start taking whatever roles are offered to you. In the future, if you're Robert Downey Jr., you can have full control over how you play your character, but not all of us are going to be Robert Downey Jr.

With its edgy subject matter and unconventional approach, was American Mary a tough film to get made?
Jen: It was. We actually went around to quite a few people to try to make it, and the hard thing was that everyone wanted to see it once it was finished, but no one wanted to be involved. Everyone wanted the first look once it was finished. They said the film was very Cronenbergian, which is a wonderful compliment unless you're trying to make the film. [Laughs.] David Cronenberg's films are always so unique, but I imagine that when he was trying to make Dead Ringers or The Fly, it was a little bit of a hard sell.

Sylvia: Almost everybody in Vancouver passed on it, and even the company that we did end up going through, IndustryWorks, they weren't 100% sure if we would be able to make it and get the support behind it. We wrote something that would have really benefited from $5 to $10 million, but we didn't have that. We had 15 days to shoot it, and no more than 12 hours a day. We had three weeks to cut it, and one week for sound. The whole process was with a gun to our heads.

Jen: It was difficult to find people who would invest in this film because our previous film was Dead Hooker in a Trunk, a balls-to-the-wall grindhouse homage that only cost $2,500. Many people looked at it and said, "Look at these first-time directors who have never been on a real set. How the hell can they go from that to American Mary?" There are people we met who said they'd make the film but they didn't want us involved as directors.

Sylvia: Especially with the content. It would be very easy to have it be a girl in her underwear, this very slutty thing, and lose all of the script's empowering aspects. We had so many people from mod community take part in the movie and look over the script. We owed it to them to make sure that the film became what we said it was.

What makes the film really unique is its heart. In a different filmmaker's hands, American Mary could have been something more exploitative toward both women and the body-mod community.
Jen: Syl's opening pitch was always, "Have you heard of body modification?" And the knee-jerk reaction was always that they've seen the genital mutilations, they've seen the 3D implants in faces, and they'd say, "Those people are disgusting, and you're going to be making a Saw or a Hostelfilm." We never wanted our film's intention to be pointing the freak-finger at the body modification community. because so often they're victims of modern-day witch hunts. People approach them from the news to do what they say are human interest stories, but then when they cut the stories together, they make them out to look like freaks.

Cosmetic surgery versus body modification, the only difference I see is that one, cosmetic surgery, is meant to make you fit into what the American ideal of what is beautiful, whereas body modification is meant to help people further their connections with themselves, or what their own idea of what is beautiful. You can't say that somebody filed down their teeth to fit in or to land a good, steady job at Starbucks. They made a pretty large life choice to feel the way they feel on the inside on the outside.

Sylvia: When I first read about body modification on the Internet, I got scared by it and thought what everyone else thinks about it. But my mom said, "If you're ever scared by something, educate yourself about it and you'll find that you aren't as scared by it anymore." Then, my fascination turned into admiration.

Stay Connected with
Complex Pop Culture
blog comments powered by Disqus