The Canadian filmmaking team Jen and Sylvia Soska are a pair of identical twins who have made one of the most talked about independent movies of the year. The tale of four people with a cool car and truly terrible luck, Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a bloody, brutal and often funny flick that takes more twists and turns than a snake on hot pavement. With little more than a provocative title and a handful of friends, these two scrappy young ladies went on to write, direct and star in one of the most impressive feature film debuts in recent memory. Recently, during a rare break, the Soskas sat down with Slammed & Damned for a talk about lighthearted violence, creating things you might not expect and, of course, the movie they lovingly refer to as “our Hooker.”
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way up front. In Dead Hooker in a Trunk, Jen, you play a geek, and Sylv, you play a badass. What, if any, similarity do each of you bear to these characters? Are you playing yourselves, or Jen, are you really the badass? Sylv, a geek in disguise?
Jen: I’d have to say that we’ve both got a little “evil twin” in us. I get pegged as the “evil twin” more often than not, though. We both have some Badass and some Geek in us. I was absolutely a little geek in my youth, but I just know how to cover it better. As Geek, it was pretty hard to just get smacked around all the time. My instinct would be to fight back. Sylv definitely does have a lot in common with Badass. It might not seem that way when you meet her in person, but just watch out if you piss her off. She’d probably scare Badass actually.
Sylvia: We’d be lying if we didn’t admit we’re geeks from the get go. Since we were little girls, we loved comic books, video games and horror movies—still do to total geek levels. Admittedly, a lot of the qualities of Geek and Badass are exaggerated things that the both of us do. In my early twenties, I had an issue with a man stalking me from my job at the time for nearly two years before we could secure a peace order [the Canadian version of a restraining order]. It was a terrifying and weird situation. I felt really uncomfortable, so Jen did what any loving sister would do: She enrolled us both in mixed martial arts with a private instructor. Before I knew it, she had me fighting in tournaments and winning. That led to a strong passion for stunts, which led to some of the crazy exploits you see in Dead Hooker in a Trunk.
[Laughs] Noted. Next, are y’all a pair of those creepy/cool psychic twins?
Sylvia: It’s really creepy. Jen and I think the same thoughts, so we sometimes communicate in fractions of sentences and mumbles yet can still be expressing full ideas. If Jen talks to you separately from me and I come over to talk to you, I will ask the exact same questions and say the exact same things that she did. The weirdest thing was once when Jen went to do a cardio class and I felt too lazy to join her, I started to breathing all hard and getting sweaty. I gave her shit when she got back—damn twin powers.
Jen: It’s not as easy to describe like a mutant power or direct telepathy, where Sylv can think a word and I know what it is. We can communicate with a look or a simple gesture or expression. It’s subtle and something most people don’t pick up on. We do think similarly, which makes working together work well. Also, we had dreams where our dreams took place in the same fictional place. We once were going on randomly about some weird nightmares we had and realized that the place we had dreamed of was the same in each dream. Very odd.
That’s creepy/cool all right. It seems like sisters working closely together could be both good and bad. Does your close relationship have any positive or negative effects? Do you have a shorthand that aids your work?
Sylvia: We’re European and very passionate about our work, so when we work there is laughing and screaming between us. The insanity of it all brings us together. We have tricks to make sure we are hearing each other out. For example, we have a foam ball that we throw back and forth when pitching a script and scenes to each other. When writing, we make an outline with all the big points so we each have the freedom to be as creative as we want but still stick to a story we have both agreed on. We choose which scenes we want to write, then we tag the other in when we hit writer’s block. It has made writing scripts and rewrites go very quickly.
Jen: We’re both very passionate, like Sylvie said, and can be very stubborn with our ideas. Although we can easily agree on the same vision, we differ on the details. I think it’s a matter of choosing your battles. Some things are worth trying to agree on, but I trust Sylv 100%. Sometimes I’ve just got to have faith in her vision and step back. And vice versa. Thankfully, we work very well together and it rarely comes to that.
Jen: I think anyone you ask will say they’ve always loved movies. I’ve always been a junkie for a good story. Even with video games, I’d get so bored playing something that was not character- or story-driven. Character-driven games were great, too, as they usually went into backstories. At a young age, we knew we wanted to be a part of it. Films, that is. I find that young girls are often encouraged to be actors, singers, dancers, models, etc. However, they rarely are encouraged to be producers, directors or the people that really bring it all together. And I’m not talking about my parents, who have always been amazingly supportive of us. Society kind of puts women in the roles we’re used to seeing them in. So, we wanted to act before we could even comprehend that being the “storytellers” was even an option. I don’t believe in fate in the way that our lives are predetermined for us, but I do believe that life offers each of us a few doorways of destiny. In my life, I’ve wanted to be in the military, a lawyer, a psychiatrist for the criminally insane, a martial arts instructor and other such typical little girl dreams, but life just kept bringing me back to film. I had always felt like I had a bunch of interests and skills that never really went together, but from the first day I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, everything just fell into place. It felt like coming home.
Sylvia: We started acting when we were very young, I think 7 or so. There was a big push for it since we were twins and it’s beneficial to have a stand-in for child labor reasons. I remember it was the most thrilling and exciting thing in the world to know we were creating make-believe for other people. But with acting, there is not much control of the final product. We wanted to start getting roles that were exciting to play, and creating our own seemed like a good way to do that. Plus, it has always been a dream to be the ones creating the make-believe stories for people to watch.
I know you attended film school. How important was that experience in your development as filmmakers?
Sylvia: It was a hugely positive and negative experience. We met a lot of very talented people—actors, makeup artists, and stunt performers—while going to school. But it was a very new, very disorganized school and if you didn’t have the drive to make what [the school] had available to you, it was somewhat of a waste of time. Our final project was supposed to have a budget of two hundred dollars, but they decided not to give it to us and told us just to join another group. Well, that simply wouldn’t do. [Robert] Rodriguez’s and [Quentin] Tarantino’s Grindhouse was in the theaters at the time and we had been watching it a lot. We went to see it after the no-budget bad news and Jen said we should make a fake trailer as our final project that we should pay for ourselves. She even had the perfect title: Dead Hooker in a Trunk.
So that is where it came from.
Sylvia: It was awesome. There was a list of things “too inappropriate” to be in any of the school’s projects and since this was our own project that we were presenting, we decided to put everything on that list including some things that they might have missed. When we showed the trailer, half the audience walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could barely hear it. Everyone got so stoked, they wanted to know when we were starting the actual feature. Two weeks later we had the script and were ready to go.
Jen: Admittedly, film school is good for making connections and learning the technical side of film, but no school can teach you how to overcome your obstacles and keep going no matter what. That’s either in you from the get go or not. I know it’s been said before by many other filmmakers, but nothing is a better film school than the experience of actually working on a real-life set—preferably your own. If you want to make a film, I highly recommend saving your film school money and putting it into your own independent film. It may be wonderful, it may be awful, but it’ll be yours and the experience of making your own film is something no film school can equal.
Sylvia: We finished shooting in February 2008. The rest of the spring and summer were spent cutting the first cut of the film together, sound mixing, color correction, getting music rights and shooting Carlos Gallardo’s cameo as God [Gallardo is the star of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi]. We had Rebel Without a Crew, Rodriguez’s book on making El Mariachi, on set at all times; we nicknamed it the Bible. It was a dream come true to have the El Mariachi in our film.
The post production was almost entirely done by the stupidly talented CJ Wallis, who plays Goody Two-Shoes in the film. I have seen scenes go from “how the fuck are we going to piece this together” to being some of the most polished, funnest sequences in the film. It was a huge advantage to have him working on the film. After we shot Junkie’s monologue on the beach, CJ told me he could cut the shit out of that scene. He did. He cut the shit out of the entire film. We spent many long days and long nights—Jen, CJ and I moved in together during the film—piecing the film together and polishing it to be as awesome as possible. There was a lot to learn about how a movie gets made. I now know that it is created three times: once in the script, once in the shooting, and lastly through the final edit.
Jen: A film is really made in the editing room. It was one hell of an experience. It was a bit frustrating because while you’re cutting, you just want to be able to share it all with the world. But you can’t. Patience must be had. When we finally got to share our work with the world, it was well worth the wait.
Sylvia: Ignorance is bliss. When we started working on Hooker, I thought I knew a lot about filmmaking. To actually go through the process, see things go to hell, see the huge successes and max out every credit card we could get our paws on is like years of the best film school imaginable. The shorts were a good starting point of how the process goes, but most of our shorts were made after we had done the feature. We just love making films and telling stories. The best thing about making shorts, especially in timed contests, is that it teaches you to think on your feet. Being quick and creative to solve problems is one of the strongest assets you can bring to a film set.
Jen: Like Sylv said, oddly enough, we did Hooker before any of our shorts. We just don’t do anything normally [laughs]. Shorts are obviously much less work, and the turnaround time is much less. It’s nice to be able to get our shorts finished and put them out there so we can get our audience reactions without having to wait too long.
Your flick covers a lot of stylistic territory: thriller, action, comedy, drama, horror. Was this film a conscious attempt to reflect all you love?
Jen: Definitely. I guess every filmmaker does it that way. Whether they do it consciously or subconsciously, they are all inspired by the things they’ve seen and loved. Combining horror with comedy always came naturally for us and we’d have to thank mister Stephen King for that. We began reading his novels in elementary school and were hooked. The comedy lessens the violence, in a way, and makes it easier to stomach.
Sylvia: Absolutely. Jen and I love watching films that are just fun to watch. I can’t even remember how many times we watched Desperado growing up. When Antonio Banderas pulls a hand cannon out of his hair and shoots a dude that goes flying across the room, it’s such a well-coordinated, fun spectacle that we wanted to emulate. Since we were little girls, we loved horror movies. Our parents never let us feel weird about it; they spoke to us very matter-of-factly about horror movie violence and monsters. Of course, when I did get scared—damn Poltergeist—my mom used humor to snap me out of it. So mixing action, horror and comedy only seems natural to us. And I think it makes a good combination in film. If you want to eviscerate someone in a film, it’s only good fun to have the audience laughing about something ridiculous right after.
During the interlude in the woods, where the flick slows down and becomes rather sweet, it feels almost like a mumblecore film for a few minutes. Are you familiar with those films and directors like Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers?
Sylvia: I wish I were more familiar. I’m looking forward to checking out the Duplass brothers’ new film, Cyrus. It looks funny and heartwarming. I love that you feel like that sequence becomes like Bujalski’s mumblecore. It was important to us to make sure that you were entertained by the craziness of the film—the action and gore—but we felt the core of the story is about this group of fuck-up misfits and what they mean to one another. By the time they are at the campfire talking and listening to each other, things are so far gone that they seem doomed, but there is a closeness there, so they aren’t entirely fucked.
Jen: We wanted the film to be pure enjoyment for our audiences. However, we also wanted to include a few genuine, real moments in our epic, over the top adventure. The campfire scene is one of my favorite.
Sylvia: My mom showed me humor in horror from a young age. She didn’t want us to see something scary and feel threatened. When I saw all the dead bodies coming out of the ground in Poltergeist, I got scared and my mom made a big joke of it, and before I knew it, I was laughing at how the mom kept sliding back into the pit of bodies. Most horror movies, Jen and I giggle through. We love to add a sense of humor because the audience should have a good time when watching a film. Besides, if you have that humor there, the higher horror sequences are just a
little more bearable for those that might be squeamish and the film plays more fun for the die-hard horror fans.
Jen: We have a very dark sense of humor. Actually, when we made Dead Hooker, I thought it was more of a very dark comedy as opposed to a straightforward horror movie. When my mom first covered her eyes when watching one of the earlier cuts of the film, I realized that our sense of humor is just a tad bit darker than most. I am very happy that the humor comes through. We aimed at the film being like an epic tale, where everything is just larger than life. For that, we needed humor to make the violence more lighthearted and to get our audiences behind our heroes. That being said, we also made sure to show humorless violence in our film so people wouldn’t just assume that we think violence is just a big laugh. The scene that shows how the hooker died has always felt sad to me, and I hope that others feel the same way. Yes, violence can be very cool and stylish in films and fiction, but the reality of it is that it is pretty awful.
I have to mention that not everything you do is warped. The short film The Hornet is a very funny piece, with no blood at all. How did that happen?
Jen: Oh, God, I love the Hornet. I don’t know where she came from, but she’s like an old friend now. Both of us have trained in martial arts, have played countless video games and read countless comics with the coolest, slickest, most badass heroes and heroines imaginable, so it was incredibly fun to just forget all that and be a very realistic superhero. I miss playing her and can say with great certainty that you haven’t seen the last of the Hornet.
Sylvia: The Hornet was part of a 24-hour film competition we took part in. They gave us some loose credentials for the film and, being geeks, the Hornet was born. Jen is an übergeek. She had all of the things for the costume already in her room. Instead of making her an all-power, super-slick heroine, we thought it would be more interesting to make her a very human, more realistic version of a costumed crime fighter. Like someone who actually just slapped on the tights and decided to do good.
Sylvia: CJ was a teacher at the college we went to film school for. I remember another instructor telling me that I have to check out this talented new teacher’s short film Circumference. So, they popped it up on the computer with him and a small crowd. It was awesome. We got to talking about how we were afraid it would be bad and that we’d have to try to say something nice, and he laughed. We became friends after that since we would run into each other at the school.
A few days before we started shooting Hooker, our Goody Two-Shoes dropped out. We tried to find a replacement, but with some of the content seeming too insane and the fact that we were paying for it out of our pockets, no replacement was found. At this time, all the lead characters were female. With two days till our first shooting day and no hope for a replacement, I went to a screening of some shorts CJ had done. In one, he played a character that embodied what I wanted Goody to be and he was damn funny. We drank a lot of box wine and he walked me to go pick up Jen from work. While chatting, I asked him if he would be Goody Two-Shoes. He said yes. I went home with Jen and we rewrote the entire script, turning Goody into a boy and merging Geek’s love interest character with him. I’m glad that it went that way. Having him not only as a male to react to all these crazy females, but his humor and heart make some of my favorite sequences in the film. During filming, he looked over the footage and started saying how he would cut things and he cut them fucking brilliantly, then he picked up the camera for the scenes that didn’t have Goody and then all the post production. He gave such a life to the film. He even wrote and performs much of the music in the film.
Jen: CJ is an incredibly gifted filmmaker and composer. Having him come into our lives when we needed him the most was a godsend. He’s great to bounce ideas off and will never sugarcoat his opinion. He tells it like it is. He’s amazingly driven, and we’re very lucky to be able to work with him. And we work together on pretty much anything we do now. Life doesn’t give you many happy endings like that.
Sylvia: It isn’t a coincidence. What drew us to our film school was that they had hired the incredibly talented Lauro Chartrand to teach a two week “action for actors” course. Being very involved in martial arts, we wanted to merge our love of that and film together. It was important to us to have a gritty sense of realism through all the stunts, so everyone did their own stunts, with the exception of some of the Cowboy Pimp scene. I had lost a few chunks of skin during our fake trailer, [and] our stunt coordinator and cameraman and producer—everyone had multiple jobs on set—Loyd Bateman didn’t want to risk my getting hurt, so we had Maja Stace-Smith do the horse drag and some of the bigger falls in that sequence. Also, I had a double for driving as I learned how to drive while working on the film. When we made the film, we wanted the stunts to be really impressive. Our teacher, Lauro, came in to help us kill our hooker in the very long and raunchy “hooker beatdown sequence.” Loyd coordinated almost all of the other stunts with us. My favorite was when we got to fight. It looks awful, but those scenes were the most fun to do. Especially playing Badass, I had the privilege of kicking ass and getting my ass kicked by some of the most talented stunt performers in the city.
Jen: Loyd brought all the stunt performers to the production. It was incredible. They were a group of people who truly loved making movies. They volunteered their time and their incredible skills to the film, and I’m eternally grateful for to them for that.
Sylvia: It’s funny, we didn’t even realize that Hooker had so many sequences that were “horror movie-esque.” I like to have the violence and guts there on the screen for the audience to see. When we kill our hooker in the film, it’s long and terrible, but it bothers me when scenes cut away from true horror because victims in that situation don’t get to cut away to something less upsetting. We have a lot of tongue-in-cheek violence throughout the film, but it was crucial to us that when the hooker dies, the audience is made to feel upset by this travesty. When I see something that upsets or haunts me, I have to put it into a movie. When I was in grade school, a kid got hit in the back of the head by a baseball bat and his eye popped out of the socket. That scenario is in this film. I think things like that will always make it in my films, so there will always be an aspect of horror in everything I do. I do consider myself a horror filmmaker; it’s where my passion really lies, but I know Jen has a lot of ideas that aren’t necessarily traditional horror and I’m excited to explore and build on those stories too.
Jen: I love horror movies and I’m more than fine with being dubbed a horror filmmaker for life. Sadly, some people do cast aside horror as a subclass genre and being called a horror filmmaker by some is intended as an insult. I think there are definitely some really shitty horror movies out there, but there are also some great ones. Let’s face it, there are some pretty awful dramas out there, too. In the future, I’d love to see more films that are on par with Silence of the Lambs. Horror can be just as good as any other genre. Somewhere along the way, some people seem to have forgotten that. Films are meant to show a range of emotions and fear is a very valid emotion. That being said, I do have several films that we’re working on that aren’t horrors at all. We could never limit ourselves by saying, “That’s it. We’re just gonna make horror movies until the day we die.” You never know. I don’t imagine you’ll see us write anything for kids or with a “G” rating anytime in the near future, but that’s not to say that we won’t someday.
You guys seem to have a love of gore. Do y’all have a super-top-secret blood recipe?
Sylvia: We put cleaning products in our blood so it would clean up easier. Maryann Van Graven was our key makeup artist extraordinaire. For realism, we decided that we wanted to use real body parts. So, the intestine and eyeballs came fresh from the slaughterhouse. Can’t beat God-made prosthetics.
Jen: I highly recommend befriending your local butcher. The parts no one wants, pig eyes for example, make “gore-geous” biological props. There’s no replacing the real deal. As for making blood, I do have a recipe: corn syrup, red food coloring, water and chocolate syrup. Corn syrup for thickness, food coloring for color, water to thin it out—in case you need your blood to travel through tubing—and chocolate syrup for both color and thickness. I’m far from being a mathematical person, so I usually just mix, stir and test. You’ll be able to see what works best for you. I also highly recommend using banana for brain tissue and nachos for skull fragments in your mixes. Always remember, low-budget doesn’t have to mean cheap. With a little heart, an eye for detail and some thought, your effects never have to look cheap. A low budget is no excuse for crappy-looking blood. It should never look bright red. Real blood is dark.
Jen: I feel we are trailblazers, in a way. Not that being women really holds us back, but sadly when you think Cronenberg or Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s hard to think of a female equivalent. I want us to encourage more women to take a turn behind the scenes. I want some female names up there with the big boys. I also hope we show the world that Canadians can do more than awkward comedy and nice little films.
Sylvia: I read an article about up-and-coming horror directors dubbed “The Splat Pack” and really wanted to join. Canada has had some incredible talents come forward. Jen and I are going to continue to work very hard to make some very memorable, fun and unique films in our career and, hopefully, people will be able to relate and be entertained by them. Right now, it all feels like this huge honor that we were able to get all these talented people together that wanted to make this film. The film is being very well received and it is being screened around the world—that’s more than any filmmaker could ask for. If our work does anything, I hope it shows people that Canadian, female filmmakers are creating things that you might not expect.
Sylvia: I think a lot of new filmmakers think that you make a film, it goes to Sundance or Cannes or both, then you sell it and then you make the next one and so on. Well, both of those festivals passed on Dead Hooker in a Trunk. The title itself attracts and repels audiences. Even though independent films may not be what the bigger film festivals focus on showcasing, there are hundreds of film festivals around the world that truly support, promote and recognize independent film. The amount of emails and messages we have gotten from people who have seen the film at these venues and the tremendous life they have given to this film as it makes its way through the festival circuit is amazing. We are so happy that people are digging the film and telling their friends. It’s why we made the film in the first place: for people to have a great time watching it.
Jen: It makes me sad that Sundance has become something so entirely different from what it started as. It’s hard as an indie filmmaker with an indie film to get our film out there and seen. Part of the reason we called it Dead Hooker in a Trunk was to attract attention and stick in peoples’ minds. Whether you love it or are repulsed by it, chances are you’ll remember it. One thing that makes me a little sad is that we can’t afford to make it out to all the festivals that we’re accepted into. There is no greater feeling than sitting in a darkened theater as your film plays. It’s exciting and terrifying and wonderful. I wish we were able to be there every time it played. We’re just so grateful to the festivals that have accepted us and the audiences that have come out to see it.
Sylvia: There’s a huge business portion that goes with the filmmaking. We did everything independently, so it has been up to us to get the film in front of the people we want it in front of. I sent Eli Roth the trailer for the film, hoping he would get a kick out of it. I didn’t expect to get a response a few days later asking to see the entire film. Eli has been a huge supporter of the film. He gave us advice on the final cut and getting it to be as strong a piece as it could. It’s cool to have someone who is as talented and established as he is to still be so supportive of independent film. His support definitely opened a lot of doors for us.
Jen: It was a lot harder than I had originally imagined. Sure, I didn’t think it would be easy by any means, but there were a lot of huge obstacles that I never saw coming. The important thing is to stick to your guns and never give up. There are so many people out there with dreams that they’ve just abandoned. At the end of the whole thing, you end up with a film that’s all yours. You may have literally put blood, sweat and tears into it, but when you’re sitting there watching the completed film, none of that matters.
I was also surprised by the incredible horror community. They’ve stood by us and helped us and supported more than we could have ever asked for. And it really is a community. Some people might think horror fans are themselves as scary as the films they love, but they are some of the sweetest, most supportive and cool people in the world. We’re very grateful and thankful.
I think we all know talent when we see it—and things being the way they are, you have to encourage talent when you see it or it might disappear. Oh, your website mentions American Mary, your upcoming flick. How does a pair of optimistic young Canadian ladies with stars in their eyes and a dream in their heart follow up Dead Hooker in a Trunk?
Sylvia: I want to make American Mary so badly. When Eli saw Hooker, he asked if we had any other scripts that were more of a “straightforward” horror. We said of course, and quickly got American Mary written, rewritten and done. As with many of the things that inspire us, it revolves around something that has seriously haunted my mind, even to this day. I can’t get into too many details, but I can say it’s very unique in its subject matter and uses prosthetics in a way to tell a story that is both incredibly horrific yet quite relatable in its broader storyline.
We just pitched a new script last week, entitled Bob. It is also very much a horror film, but follows a story of friendship, revenge, and the heavy mental scarring of boyhood. There’s a twist to the title character and the main character, but we can’t say much more than that until we hear back from our potential producers.
Also, Jen and I have been working on a television series since we were fifteen years old. It’s not a horror, but it’s twisted and delicious in its dark content. I don’t think we’re at the point where someone is going to throw us a budget for a five-year series as of yet, but it’s been a dream of ours and a lot of our best ideas have gone into making it memorable.
Jen: I wish Mary was already done. People are going to be blown away by it. I can’t wait to be able to share it with the world. Additionally we have a completed script for a film called The Man Who Kicked Ass. That’s gonna be a good one. And that’s all I’m saying.