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

I read an interview where one of you said you'd love for Mary to become an iconic character that young girls can dress up as for Halloween. She really is a fascinating character: She's strong, empowering, and unafraid to embrace her sexuality.
Jen: I think it's really insulting when a woman has to shy away from her sexuality, and right after what happens to Mary happens, the last thing we wanted to do was the cliche scene where she cries in the shower. There are women who don't run to a guy right away. Mary had to be so much stronger than any of female characters. Too often, women are portrayed as weak and vulnerable in so many films. One of the complaints we got about the Mary character was that she doesn't have that vulnerability, she doesn't seem sensitive, she's not forgiving, her actions aren't redeemable.

And the truth is that some of us women are just batshit. Like Elizabeth Bathory, people say that she couldn't have possibly done what she did because she's a woman, but that doesn't make it any different. Growing up, we wished that there was a Pinhead or a Jason Voorhees for women to dress up as for Halloween, but there never was. There was Ripley [in Alien], but she was just the hero, not both the antagonist and the hero. Mary is an evolution of the "final girl."

Sylvia: One of my favorite characters is Asami in Takashi Miike's Audition, played by Eihi Shiina. In so many films, if a woman becomes the villain, she's either possessed by a demon or takes on very masculine qualities. People say that women don't have the same capacity for evil that men do, but I'm a girl and I know all of the crazy shit that goes through my head sometimes. A big driving force behind American Mary was, wouldn't it be cool to show that crazy rage that women can have?

We met someone who said that her little girl had an American Mary-themed birthday party. That's fucking incredible. We're girls who grew up dressing like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez characters, so to hear that girls are dressing up as our characters? It blows my mind. There's nothing that could make me happier, except maybe having one of our characters become an action figure.

For young, aspiring women directors, there aren't many role models out there. There are a few, like Mary Lambert, Mary Harron, and Jennifer Lynch, but not nearly as many as young men have. All of undisputed genre icons, like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero, are men. Has that ever crossed your minds?
Jen: The funny thing is, not only did we see that, we realized that all of our own huge horror role models were men. Stephen King is a big role model for us, and he's the reason why we have such a sick sense of humor. Both Mary Lambert and Mary Harron are wonderful directors, but they you don't see them out there as much. "Horror" is this dirty word, where if you're dubbed as a "horror director," you're somehow below being a regular filmmaker.

Sylvia: I didn't know what American Psycho was, and they were in Toronto. The city was trying to ban the film from being filmed there, and one day I turned on the news and saw a piece about what was happening. I saw Mary Harron, this woman who who was speaking so eloquently and defending the artistry of her film while everyone was going completely nuts on her. I thought, wow, you would expect somebody who's making what people are calling this horrible, misogynistic film to not speak so eloquently and so intelligently, and have such thoughtful responses. I said to myself, "What is this movie? I have to see it." And then it turned out to be one of my favorite films.

It's always been difficult to find those role models, but I find the ones who are there to be a really big deal. We live in Canada; Rue Morgue is fucking awesome. Jovanka Vuckovic, to me, is the first lady of Canadian horror, and the fact that she is actually a friend of mine now, and that her short film, The Captured Bird, is playing with American Mary is a huge thrill for me. I'm so honored. But I would love it if, one day, when we're making a film that the novelty of us being twin sisters who make horror movies not to be such a big talking point. Some people say, "It's just a shtick," and other people say, "They're girls, and girls can't direct horror movies." It's just so backwards and primitive.

Have you encountered any misogyny in the industry firsthand?
Jen: It's always a touchy subject when you bring up the misogyny in this business, and I wonder if that has t do with the fact that you don't see a lot of women who continue working in horror as directors. They make one film and then disappear. American Mary itself is very much an analogy of what we've been through in the film industry, as actresses and also as director-writers. The scene where Mary gets invited to the party with doctors and surgeons—I've been to lots of parties with directors and producers where it became very evident that I wasn't there on the same level as them.

Unfortunately, in this business, people look at your gender and youth as negatives. If you're an attractive young woman, or even a young woman who tries to present herself as being on the same level as a man, with business suits and heels and trying to present ourselves nicely, people look at you as party favors. I hate to say it, but there are people who have come onto us and made our lives very difficult because we didn't reciprocate. We'll make it very clear that we're not going to be seen as party favors or sexual objects.

Sylvia: There have been some interviews where they'll ask us, "What have been some negative experiences you two have had?" We'll talk about this, and then that will be the one answer that doesn't make the cut in the final article, and it's like, fuck, we need to talk about this stuff. As long as we don't talk about it, it's going to keep existing. It happens, it really sucks, and we need a change. That said, we have gotten some amazing support from many men. Eli Roth has been so sweet to us. James Wan, Darren Lynn Bousman—these guys are so sweet. Clive Barker watched American Mary and he's the body horror god, and he was so kind and supportive. A lot of these guys are really excited to have women making horror movies. They're excited to have fresh perspectives.

Jen: It is really hard to get your film made, especially today, with the recession that's going on and the revolution of the digital age. Absolutely anybody can pick up a camera and become a filmmaker, so the emphasis has really become about the content, and that's where the emphasis should always be. It shouldn't be on your gender.

Whenever a young girl tells us that she wants to grow up and be like us, first we say to ourselves, "Oh my god, that's so fucking cool," but then it's also really sad. We'll tell her, "Make sure this is absolutely what you want to do," because it has the highest highs and the lowest lows. This is an industry that does attract a lot of monsters. There are people who prey on people who are young, inexperienced, and really hopeful about making it that they don't know any better.

In your photo shoots and in-person appearances at events, you two never shy away from your sexuality. There's a confidence in the way you present yourselves, from the outfits you wear to your attitudes. How important is it for the two of you to not shy away from your sexuality?
Sylvia: You shouldn't lose your feminine qualities just because you're afraid that some idiot is going to say something stupid. When I worked at Starbucks, and I had a T-shirt, khakis, and no makeup, I had a man who was 30 years my senior stalking me for two-and-a-half years until I got a peace order against him. There are going to be creeps and horrible people no matter what you do, and you shouldn't change who you are because you're afraid you'll attract monsters. Monsters will be attracted to you no matter what you do.

The biggest theme in American Mary is that appearances are everything. What does someone who looks like Jennifer or me have in common with people in the body modification community? Before anyone gets to know us, they make judgments about us based on our appearance. It's very important that we live that theme. Yes, we look this way, but get to know us. Talk to us. You might hate everything we represent, but at least we're not bullshitting you.

Jen: The way we dress at festivals and conventions is also the way we dress when we're walking to the corner store. When I go to Safeway, I look like a young Morticia Addams. I would never change the way that Syl and I present ourselves, and the way we feel comfortable and confident, just because some asshole is just going to categorize us as "fuckable" or "not fuckable" anyways. We're not doing this to impress people like that—we're doing it to spite people like that.

There are women who look at us and say, "If you wore a turtleneck and didn't try to attract as much attention, you would be much more respected," and that's absolutely insane. Those women are just as much a part of the problem as the men are. I've had women tell me, "You're a woman, so you shouldn't speak up against men so much because guys are always going to treat you like this. It's a male-dominated world." That's bullshit.

Any time I have to work a little harder to stand up against some chauvinistic, misogynistic pig, I think about how it will be just a little bit easier for a young girl who wants to be a director after me. I never, ever had one of my female role models in my life tell me about how sexist this industry is. I wish that somebody would have told me, "Just so you know, and it's not everybody, but there are people who are going to look at you as a young woman and just want to fuck you, or treat you like crap, or make you feel like you're lesser than them."

 
There's this quote that pisses me off: 'You have to be Jenna Jameson in the bedroom, Barbara Walters in the office, and Martha Stewart in the kitchen.' That's a lot of pressure. - Jen Soska
 

Sylvia: Actually, we did get some of that advice, but it wasn't a woman who told us. It was our feminist friend Eli Roth. He's such a great mentor for us. If something was going wrong on set, we would text him and he'd text us back with great advice. One of the things he told us is when we were dealing with some pigs was, "Be really careful, because people in this industry take rejection very poorly—if they don't get to fuck you in one way, they're going to fuck you in another way." That rings through my head when I'm dealing with a difficult asshole. There are some days when I ask myself why I picked this career, honestly, but it's rewarding when you see the chicks wearing aprons and saying, "I feel strong just like Mary."

Jen: It's such a bizarre double-standard. A man can be attractive, successful, intelligent, and capable, and he's a man in full. Look at Eli Roth—he's a very attractive man, but nobody looks at him in that way, or at least not the point where it's hurt his career in any ways. But if a woman is taking care of herself and is attractive, it's somehow not possible that she can be all of those things at once. There's this quote I heard once that pisses me off: "You have to be Jenna Jameson in the bedroom, Barbara Walters in the office, and Martha Stewart in the kitchen." Fuck, man! That's a lot of pressure.

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