After their successful Canadian Premiere at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, we were able to sit down with the Canadian Born directors the Soska Sisters, aka the Twisted Twins, to discuss their latest offering, the dark and twisted American Mary. So here’s what the ladies had to say:
First off I should congratulate you ladies on a fantastic Canadian Debut of a American Mary which I am proud to support. I was wondering if you could talk about the genesis of the project, and the involvement of a certain high profile director/producer.
Sylvia Soska: Thank you so kindly for saying so, I am so proud of the film that we have. Jen and I had researched the body modification culture years ago as a personal interest in erasing the knee-jerk first impression of fear and misunderstanding that often comes initially. It never came into play until a conversation with Eli Roth, who has become a mentor and dear friend to us since we sent him our first film, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, asked us about other scripts we had. At the time we had nothing, but I knew we could write something in two weeks. I pitched all the ideas I knew I could produce, pretending they were pre-existing scripts, and he said ‘I want to read the one about the medical student.’
And so AMERICAN MARY was born. We put in all of the personal struggles and experiences of trying to break into the industry, using the medical profession and body modification as a vessel for that story telling. Feeling like outcasts, never really fitting in anywhere, it was a very therapeutic experience creating Mary’s multidimensional, character-driven world.
Jen: Yes, thank you so much for your kind words. We are both incredibly proud of the film and the amazing crew that came together to make it possible. And Eli Roth is absolutely amazing. Throughout the process he gave us advice on making MARY and working on a project that was on a much bigger scale than DEAD HOOKER. He has always been there for us, but he’s let us do it on our own. It’s vital for a filmmaker to face their own struggles and learn from their mistakes. You have to be able to do it on your own. It’s like a butterfly in a cocoon. It needs that struggle to be strong enough to survive in the wild. Eli will never bullshit you. For that, he’s especially a rarity because you need to hear what sucks or what needs to be improved a hell of a lot more than what’s already wonderful and people are so afraid to just say it like it is. I love Eli for that. Not surprisingly, the film is dedicated to him.
Katharine Isabelle is breathtaking in this film, a stellar performance, was she always your first choice? And how was she as a collaborator on set?
S: The character was written for Katie. We have been big fans of her work for years, but hadn’t seen her in roles that reflected the caliber of actress that she is. By the time we sent the script to her and she was coming to meet us for the first time, I loved Mary so much, I was terrified that we wouldn’t mesh or that she wouldn’t live up to my exceedingly high expectations of her.
She actually surpassed my expectations. Katie is just brilliant. She gave everything to the role, she had a definitive idea of Mary and wasn’t afraid to take strong choices with her. I loved collaborating with her – I tell her she looks most stunning when she is crying and covered in blood, yet somehow she and I remain very close friends.
J: We rarely write a character for a particular actor. We usually prefer to write a character and then compile a list of possible actors who could fit that role. Katie was the exception. We knew we wanted her from the beginning. She has this immense depth to her and she can pull off so much with such subtlety that so few actors can. She’s brilliant and she is such a professional to work with. You write a character that you love and of course your ultimate hope is that you find an actor that can not only bring that character to life, but bring even more to the character than you expected. Katie was very into Mary and she really thoughtfully developed and brought her to life that truly exceeded our already sky high expectations.
Sometimes a really talented actor will hit the Canadian glass ceiling and people don’t realize how truly amazing they are. It can be like if you’re not in LA, you don’t exist. Katie is just phenomenal and I think this role beautifully displays her maturity, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and charisma.
Your script is very smart; everything feels meticulously researched and planned. How much time of the script writing process was devoted to research?
S: Jen and I are very focused when it comes to a project. In fact, it becomes our life from initial concept and I suppose forever after that because it’s now your film. We had researched body modification so much, even posing as people interested in procedures on the body mod sites; it was a great opportunity to put all that information into a script. But we wanted it to be completely authentic and real, so not only did we use things we knew from doctors and surgeons we knew, but also hired a ‘flesh artistic consultant’, Russ Foxx, and had a member of the Church of Body Modification, Elwood Reid, on board to keep what you saw on the screen as true to life as possible.
We wrote the initial draft in two weeks, and the story never really altered two much from that first script. When we write, we try to stay as honest to ourselves and from our own experiences as much as possible. I think as long as you retain that realistic, human element, you can be as outlandish in story as you want and still have something intelligent and relateable.
J: The first thing we do is research, and that goes for any topic we handle. If we’re writing about body mod, get our asses online and devour anything we can find, read up on the community, watch and get acquainted with the procedures, and talk to people who both do these procedures or have had them done. If we’re writing about monsters, we research monster mythology and legends and any accounts of them and where the idea of monsters originated and the different stories and beliefs from different cultures. It’s something we both really enjoy. I’d say the research and writing portion is our favorite.
With MARY we also had both people from the medical profession and those in the mod community read the script for accuracy. We wanted to show our mods in a truthful and respectful way. They are often the wrongful victims of modern day witch hunts where people like to exploit them and point the “freak” finger. I find that the community is filled with the most open, self aware, and kind individuals that I ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. I think people are afraid of things they aren’t educated properly on and body mod is definitely one of the things that fall into that category.
I also love the character of Lance. Where did this character come from and can you also talk about the actor Twan Holliday.
S: I’m so glad that you said that. The scene with him and Mary, the milkshake scene, is really the heart of the film. One of the main themes in AMERICAN MARY is ‘appearances are everything’ and we wanted to work against surface appearance, showing the real heart of different individuals. Twan is great because he is that guy. He’s like seven feet tall, muscular, covered in tattoos and you look at him and feel like you should be terrified, and what you get is one of the most honest, kind, gracious human beings on the planet. His whole life, people treat him a certain way and make up their mind about him before getting to know him. Same is true for a girl that looks like Katie and people who have gotten body modifications or other cosmetic surgery – we wanted to disillusion that way of perceiving people.
J: I cannot say enough good things about Twan Holliday. He is our real life Lance. He was so professional and is so giving as an actor. Not too mention that anytime he wasn’t performing he was helping pull cables or pretty much helping out in any other department. He’s one in a billion.
The effects work here is top notch, the make-up/prosthesis pieces feel real and authentic, so how much of the work exhibited is real as opposed to effect? And how was it working with those strings in your back?
S: That’s a testament to the level of talent you see in the work from Masters FX and Celine Godeau. The montage with the mods, post twin scene is mostly authentic mods (excluding the nipples) and Penis Guy is authetic (and is actually played by Russ Foxx). We were so lucky to have such a top notch prosthetics team to create Beatress, Ruby, the Twins, and Grant’s looks. Everyone thought Beatress and Ruby had actually had those surgeries to have that appearance.
Everything is a practical effect that you see in the film, which today is a forgotten art. It makes your film timeless whereas heavy CG tends to date it immediately and it makes stronger scenes when your actors actually have those pieces to play off of. I loved the flesh corsets that Masters FX made for the Demon Twins of Berlin characters. You might expect it to be uncomfortable but the application, wear, and removal experience is very comparable to a spa experience – very relaxing and you don’t really notice the piece is there afterwards. We wore them all day.
J: We grew up in the 80s where you saw these really outstanding and brilliant practical effects that have easily stood up against the test of time. Films like John Carpenter’s THE THING. It was really important for us to go back to that. We have so much love and admiration for FX artists and the work that they do. Working with MastersFX and Todd Masters was a dream come true. I had loved watching the deaths and bodies in SIX FEET UNDER. They had such a dark beauty to them. Making a medical horror, MastersFX was at the very top of our list to work with. We got to design the looks together. Todd had talked about the looks in DICK TRACY and each of those make-ups clearly looked like make-ups. It was our intention to design the effects so that no one would ever know if they were looking at a piece or if they were looking at a real mod. That’s also why we brought the mods on. We wanted the look and film to have that authenticity.
I loved that flesh corset. It’s just so sexy and beautiful a look. It’s the mod I’d love to get. I hope people cosplay as the Berlin Twins. And Mary, of course. That would make my life complete. Well, that and action figures, ha ha
Where did you guys come up with an idea as perverse as a Body Mod Betty Boop?
S: Ha ha, that’s an awesome question. We were taking looks at iconic beauties through the ages. We had our blonde bombshell doll, Ruby RealGirl, but we also wanted to look at another iconic beauty with unrealistic proportions. Preferably a brunette and Betty Boop was perfect with her face, tiny waist, and curveous bum and hips. Plus, I loved what the animators did with her sexuality in a time people weren’t really talking about sexuality with the frames of bare breasts and exposed lady parts. What better inspiration for a totally unique stripper to have as her muse?
J: Betty Boop is a huge part of American culture. We really wanted something to be on the same line but at the other end of the spectrum to compliment our Ruby RealGirl. I loved having them as friends and suggesting at a relationship between the two of them. Both are seen as American ideals of beauty and we intentionally wanted a little something off about them. Both are as beautiful as they are off putting. Also, given their extreme surgeries, it’s hard to really read their emotions or true intentions. I love that about them. Mary is a fall or a winter. We wanted her friend to be a spring and summer. Beatrice is like a cat around someone that’s allergic. She just won’t leave Mary alone despite how little Mary reciprocates.
Thanks again for sitting down with me today ladies, it was a pleasure. What can we expect next from the Twisted Twins?
S: Thank you for this opportunity too! These were rad questions. What to expect? The unexpected. We have no intention of repeating ourselves, although you’ll always see our dark sense of humor and enjoyment of top notch prosthetics in our work. The next film we are planning to do is BOB – the darkest, most fucked up buddy comedy that you’re bound to see. It takes a spin on the forgotten original monster movie subgenre and we’re really excited to get to work on it. We’re also collaborating with First Comics on directors’ cut versions of our scripts – they put out some amazing titles and truly get behind their artists, so it’s going to be fun to see what we come up with.
J: We love horror and really want to flesh out the genre with new and original films. Horror has wrongly been seen as a sub-genre for far too long. We want to show that horror can be intelligent and creative and all the things we grew up loving about horror.