Rants and Raves: Twisted Twins Productions
The Soska Twins Shatter Female Stereotypes
As the Women in Horror Recognition Month draws to a close I'd like to highlight a set of filmmaking twins -- Jen and Sylvia Soska -- from Canada who represent the next generation of female horror filmmakers. WARNING: Contains adult language and material that might be offensive.
I love women who can kick some ass. It's a rare quality on screen and even rarer in real life. Jen and Sylvia Soska are starting their careers kicking a little ass and for that they deserve some praise. Rather than bemoan the lack of opportunities for a pair of sexy, horror-loving, twin sisters they went out and did something about it. They made "Dead Hooker in a Trunk."
"Dead Hooker" played in San Diego last November thanks to Miguel Rodriguez and his Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. The film played to a near full house and had the audience hooting and hollering at its confident female protagonists -- women that shattered Hollywood stereotypes. The Soskas made the film in part out of frustration because there weren't better female roles available to them as actresses. So rather than complain, they just wrote their own script – showcasing themselves as a pair of badass women – and then brought it to the screen through their own company Twisted Twins Productions. So not only were the women they played unconventional but they also challenged stereotypes about women directors.
"Dead Hooker in a Trunk" was a total do-it-yourself project that turned its low-budgetness to its advantage for an action road picture packed with violence. The film allowed them to strut their stuff as actresses and as filmmakers. The film may have been wildly uneven but it also displayed a raw and exciting talent that demanded attention. Plus these ladies were bloody fun.
But their new project, "American Mary," tackles horror from a different and subtler angle. The teaser suggest something more elegant and chilling with perhaps a touch of Hitchcock or psychological horror.
The sisters were busy at work on "American Mary" when I contacted them for an interview. Here's what they had to say about their work and about my favorite genre of horror. I have to say that many of their answers delighted me.
Can you remember the first film that scared you?
SYLVIA SOSKA: "Poltergeist." I was about nine years old and I watched it on TV with my mom and sister. I remember the mother slipping back into this pit of reanimated corpses and it scared the shit out of me. This could have been a bad memory, but it was actually the first time I learned what was actually going on behind the scenes in horror filmmaking because my mom decided to explain it very logically to me - everything on the screen was a result of very talented artists working to make it terrifying.
JEN SOSKA: Same film. I couldn't pass by a television for weeks, I was so afraid of being trapped inside one. I had this clown doll that I had to lock in my closet. It's hard to imagine now, looking back.
Why or how did you get into the horror genre?
SYLVIA: I really feel like we stepped ass-backwards into it. We were disenchanted with acting due to the limited and stereotypical roles that were available for identical twins, so we went to film school to get into another field. At the time, we wanted to focus on stunt work because of our martial arts background but when the stunt portion of the course ended so did anything that even resembled a 'school'. Our last project's funding was cut by the school and we were told to merge with another group. It annoyed us so much that we decided we would work outside of the school, make a fake trailer (a la "Grindhouse"), and put anything and everything that would be cool in it. Being horror nerds from early childhood, we had to get a good share of horrific elements in the film.
The trailer was received with a huge reaction - half the audience walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could hardly hear the offensive dialogue that we wrote. This gave life to the full feature film – "Dead Hooker in a Trunk." It also gave us the life change that we were so desperately seeking. Now we wouldn't be at the mercy of other writers and directors, we would be telling the stories that interested us and we would be at the helm of the projects - making them come to life.
JEN: We've always loved horror. Growing up, our mom had this huge collection of Stephen King novels that she let us read. We would spend forever in the horror sections of video stores, turning over VHS tapes and reading the backs of the boxes and looking at the scary stills.
What do you want to do within the horror genre? What stereotypes or conventions do you want to challenge?
SYLVIA: One of our biggest ambitions is to make projects that are unique, thought provoking, and memorable. I would like little girls to grow up knowing that they can be directors, writers, and producers. There is a common misconception that women don't like horror and that horror is below other forms of story telling. The horror genre deals with the visceral, the inevitable - our sense of mortality and it's something that crosses everyone's mind at one time or another.
JEN: I want horror to lose its "sub genre" stereotype. Horror films can be done incredibly well or not. That's the same with every other genre. I think we need to put the focus on making good films with horrific elements. Look at "Silence of the Lambs." That was an incredible film. I'd like to see a "horror" movie nominated for an Oscar again. I'm not saying that there isn't also a place for insane blood baths of films, but even those can be done thoughtfully and stylistically. It's the public perception that has to change. There is some great work coming out, particularly out of Europe and Asia. I hate when people refuse to see a horror movie because it's "too scary". Life is scary. Film is controlled and allows the audience to experience some terrifying events at a safe and secure distance. A good horror film should be much more than just the "scary parts".
What are the challenges for women filmmakers who want to make genre films?
SYLVIA: There is a dialogue from one of my favorite graphic novels – "Preacher" – in which the antagonist is being introduced and his first line is, "Kill the women first." Which is pointedly shocking, but there is brilliant reasoning behind it. The character, Herr Starr, is being asked about what to do in a terrorist situation. He goes on to explain that if there are any women terrorists they are there because they are so good that no man could even possibly replace them. I take that as a mantra for what every woman's work ethic should be.
JEN: Storytelling is our true passion and as much as it pains us, we've decided to take a step back from acting to put focus on our directing, writing, and producing. It is a challenge to be seen in those roles as a woman still. Some people won't want to work with you just because of your gender and some people will want to work with you because of it. There are pros and cons for men and women. Try not to take it personally every time someone asks to see your tits.
What is the current project you are working on and what about it excites you?
SYLVIA: We are currently in pre-production on our second feature film, "American Mary." The film follows medical student and surgeon-hopeful, Mary Mason (played the intoxicating Katharine Isabelle of "Ginger Snaps"), as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted with the medical school and established doctors she once idolized. The lure of easy money and recognition for her work draws her into the world of underground surgeries where more marks are left on her than her so-called 'freakish' clientele.
Everything about this project excites me. We have been working hard to get it made even while still working on "Dead Hooker in a Trunk," and because of the horror community getting behind the project, we have been given this incredible opportunity to work on another film - this time with a budget. We are working with the incredible, Mark Shostrom of Hello Boss FX, who is heading our makeup and prosthetics department. The guy is a genius and we'll need it for all the insane, unique, beautiful, and grotesque effects that will be a pivotal part of the story telling.
JEN: I wish we could reveal more. The prosthetics will be taking a starring role in this film and people are going to be blown away by the creations of Mark and his team. It's a dream come true to have a budget behind us and we really can't wait to show the world what we can do with a little money behind us. I'd like to say more, but Sylvia would kill me.
Could any of your films have been made within the Hollywood system? Why or why not?
SYLVIA: We would have to answer to a lot more people before we get mutilated penises and the word "skull fuck" so generously sprinkled through our films if it was a big studio production. The use of "skull fuck" actually came from a friend who had the term in his film and ended up in a board room filled with businessmen suggesting less awful things for his characters to say – "maybe ass rape?" one ivy-leaguer suggested. Anytime you do something edgy and off-center, especially if you are dealing with other people's money to fund your film, you have to answer for things that will potentially turn off certain audiences. The term "skull fuck" maybe be pee-inducingly hilarious to twenty percent of your audience and offend the other eighty, whereas "ass rape" might only offend fifty percent.
We are working with a company called Industry Works and they are hugely creative partners. There is some downright vile, cringe worthy, WTF moments in "Mary" and I had no meeting trying to replace this or that with something safer. They are still an independent company, but they are artists that work brilliantly with other artists.
JEN: I think it was really important for us to start independently. You learn so much. "Dead Hooker" could have been done easily within the Hollywood system, but we would have had to sacrifice some creative control and have had to eliminate some content. I imagine someone at some point would've tried to push us to change the content for a "softer" rating. The film may have lost a lot of heart in Hollywood, too. I'm not saying that everything to come out of Hollywood is a heartless piece of shit. Part of the beauty of "Dead Hooker" is how it was made with nothing more than some incredible people who love film and an unconventional idea. You watch the film and you can feel it. There's a lot of heart in there. One of my favorite reviews about the film by Theron Neel proclaimed, "It's the most disturbing feel-good movie I've ever seen."
People who don't like horror often ask, why should they put themselves through the grinder and see something that's dark and upsetting… what do you say to that?
SYLVIA: This is exactly the reason I feel so drawn to horror filmmaking. Movies that lack any horrific aspect just are not true to life. Life is filled with horror that usually turns up when you least expect it. Having that explored through film makes it more relate-able so people who have not gone through that can have a further sense of empathy. When I was a little girl, I watched a boy get hit in the back of his head with a baseball bat, which sent his eye out of its socket. It stayed with me for years and actually inspired a sequence in "Dead Hooker."
We also have a very hardcore beat down fight sequence where you see how the hooker was killed. A lot of the violence throughout the film is playful and cheeky whereas that part is very dark and difficult to watch. A person dying is horrible. I always think about the significance of a human life when hypothetically killing them in a script, then film. A woman who is beaten to death would be a terrible death. It would be long and it would be hell. In real life, that victim can't pan away to a window or cut to another scene - that's why I prefer the audience to experience that death, that pain, that end with the character. When it's an element of story telling - dark and upsetting is crucial in horror.
JEN: The world is a fucked up place. Look at the news. Awful things happen every day, all over the world. Among so many other things, horror examines the awful and helps us come to terms with it. Understand it. And be able to overcome our fear. We try to put things that terrify us in our work. That will become more and more evident in our upcoming works. As I was saying earlier, there is so much more to horror than just the horrific elements. We cannot let ourselves be controlled by fear. We live in a world where we're fed fear everyday. As far back as I can remember, the world has always been ending whether it be by war, terrorism, natural disaster, pollution, aliens, prophecy... We need to come to terms with our fear, understand it, and ultimately overcome it. I try to do something that scares me everyday. Something that puts me outside my comfort zone. It's important in our personal growth. I feel sorry for people who are so paralyzed by their own fear that they won't even dare watch a horror movie. It's like, "but you don't even know what happens? Are you that afraid to be afraid?" I say embrace it and let it make you stronger.
Who if anyone would you cite as an influence? Could be filmmakers, artists, writers, anyone.
SYLVIA: My mom introduced me to horror - she broke every stereotype by telling her little girls the art behind horror films. My dad is an artist and always encouraged us to pursue what we are passionate about. Some of my favorite people on the planet are Mary Harron, Lars Von Trier, Robert Rodriguez, Carlos Gallardo, Wes Craven, Eli Roth, Takeshi Miike, Quentin Tarantino, Alice Guy, -- these people are incredible filmmakers.
JEN: Oh, so many. Obviously, everyone Sylvie mentioned. Stephen King has been a huge influence. Growing up and reading his novels had a profound effect on who we have become and how we handle and see horror. It would be an honor to adapt one of his stories for the big screen. We're big gamers and comic nerds. There are a lot of influences there. Hideo Kojima is a hero of mine. He's the genius behind the Metal Gear Solid series. We grew up reading Marvel and would love to one day write for them. I also love Joss Whedon.
What do you think is the appeal of horror?
SYLVIA: It has a lot of human emotion attached to it. The same physical reaction happens when someone is scared as when they are aroused. Pupils dilating, increased heat rate, every sense is heightened. Horror means something exciting will happen, usually someone will die - it's got the morbid appeal of staring at a crash accident without the moral weight of reality.
JEN: I agree. It's a thrill, but it's a safe thrill. You can come face to face with terrifying creatures, situations, and people all from the safety of your seats. Some things we can't experience outside of horror films. There has always been a fascination with the unknown and the dark side. People want to explore that and so do we.
You can check out the Soskas' celebration of Women in Horror at their blog, Penny Dreadful. Kudos to these twisted twins for their devotion to horror and their determination not to be trapped by stereotypes.