It’s well known that Austin’s Fantastic Fest is as much a nerd party as it is a film festival. And that’s why American’s best genre fest was the perfect place for the U.S. premiere of American Mary, Jen and Sylvia Soska’s extraordinary new film starring Katharine Isabelle.
The Twisted Twins and Mary costar Tristan Risk flew into town and stayed the duration of the festival, during which this trio was seemingly everywhere at once — attending multiple screenings, singing karaoke at the bar next door, posing for photos while surrounded by a swarm of fawning fanboys — and, without fail, each time I saw them they were clad in a different attention-getting ensemble, kind of like the Cher of scare.
While these ladies definitely know how to work a room, their recent success hasn’t jaded them. They are still horror geeks at heart. As I was rushing to a screening one afternoon, I noticed Jen Soska deep in conversation with Barbara Crampton, legendary star of Re-Animator and From Beyond. When they parted, I asked Jen what they’d talked about. “Holy shit,” she exclaimed, “I can’t believe Barbara Crampton saw our movie. And liked it!”
When I arrive for my interview with Jen and Sylvia at the Highball, Fantastic Fest’s designated watering hole, their production company’s vice-president of marketing, Caterina, immediately sets the tone by asking if I’d like a drink. Being the professional that I am, I thank her but insist I should stay sober for our chat. At that, she nods and smiles slightly, saying, “Okay, but they’ve been drinking, so…”
The Soskas have been ensconced all day in one of the Highball’s private karaoke rooms, holding court and doing press. And, truth be told, they are going a little stir crazy. When Caterina ushers me in, I’m met by a state of low-key chaos, somehow intensified by the room’s kitschy tiki lounge theme — bamboo covers the walls; leis and grass skirts are scattered about the couches; women are wandering about, checking cell phones and talking over each other noisily. When I spy the small coffee table littered with empty bottles and glasses, I’m glad I opted for a beer at the last minute. It helps brace me for the madness that follows.
As I’m greeted raucously by the Soskas and Tristan, I notice a willowy blonde sitting in the corner observing us. “Dammit,” I think, “that’s Katharine Isabelle. I didn’t know she was going to be here.” Sensing my surprise, Jen laughs and says, “This is Katie. She flew in last night.”
Katharine stands and we shake hands. “Sorry,” I say shyly, “but I didn’t prepare for you.” She smiles, then drops her head and makes an exaggerated sad face. Jen says, “It’s okay. No one’s prepared for Katie.”
The Soskas are road warriors, relentlessly grinding it out on the film fest circuit the world over. I’m extremely curious about how they manage such an arduous schedule. I mention that I’m still recovering from the boozy karaoke party a few nights earlier, during which the Soskas commandeered the stage to the delight of the crowd and performed a passionate version of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” If this is typical festival life, how do they manage it on a nonstop basis?
Sylvia smiles, saying, “If we had the choice, we wouldn’t do anything but this. It’s kinda what we live for.” Tristan concurs. As a burlesque dancer by trade, she’s done her share of traveling as well.
“I’m used to that whole life, where you drive eight hours to a new location,” Tristan says. “I drive across North America, South America, to 12 different countries, so people can see my tits and ass. But this will be Sober October and that will last until L.A. Oh, I won’t be sober on Halloween.” With this, Sylvia concurs. “I’m never sober on Halloween.” It’s clear why these women get along so well.
Although they’re all from Vancouver, Katie Isabelle had never met the Soskas, and she initially had some doubts. “I just got emailed the script, and I was in bed going, ‘Oh, yay, first-time directors. I’ll totally read it.’” At this, the room erupts in derisive laughter.
Katie ignores them and continues. “And I ended up reading the whole 180 pages on my BlackBerry. And then I read it three more times and I sent it to my dad and said, ‘I really like this script, but I think I might be fucking sick or crazy. So, can you tell me what to do?’ And he said, ‘It’s fucking awesome and you need to do it.’”
Again, the room explodes, with hoots and hollers of “wooo!” and “way to go, dad!”
Laughing, Katie nods and says, “And when I met [the Soskas], their level of enthusiasm — they were crazy like a fox — was incredible. And as long they were surrounded by the right people, [I knew] we could get it done in 35 days. And we ended up doing it 15 days, and that’s crazy!”
But the way she sees it, she didn’t really have a choice. “You very rarely get a script that lands in your lap, as a female in films, that you go, ‘Holy fuck! I need to do this character,’” she says. “It’s like, this fucking character is the coolest, greatest human I have ever read and had the chance to try to be. And she’s so complicated and so weird, and super-unlikable.”
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By now, as the others talk and drink, Tristan is drawing on my arm with a Sharpie, adding to my tattoo of a skeleton playing an electric guitar. Jen stops and asks, “Is that a raccoon playing a cello?”
“No,” Tristan explains, “it’s an upright bass! Because [the skeleton] is playing a Gretsch.” Little Miss Risk definitely knows her rockabilly, though I point out the skeleton is actually playing a Stratocaster. “That’s okay,” she shrugs, “it still works.” Indeed.
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Taking a sip of her drink, Katie continues. “That’s the thing, to see a woman in a film— it’s usually ‘the bitch, ‘the slut’ or ‘the girl next door.’ And there is no room for these complicated, dark women.” Motioning to Tristan and the Soskas, she says, “All of us, we’re a little bit dark. You know? We’re smart or we’re dark, we’re funny, we’re eccentric, we’re weird. And we don’t see that reflected back to us all that often in films.”
The room agrees loudly. “[Or if so], it’s not genuine,” Katie says. “It’s a caricature, mostly. And to see something like Mary was— I mean, it’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever read and that I wanted to do. There’ve been a few other scripts that I thought were really, really great. But this one was like, ‘I fucking love this!’”
“There are points that people would be like, ‘Oh, we need a monologue or we need a voiceover for her,’” Sylvia says, “but when women are going through things, they internalize so much. I know I internalize a lot. So she couldn’t have that dialogue.”
Katie’s portrayal of good-surgeon-gone-bad Mary Mason is a wonderfully subtle, funny performance. It would’ve been easy to chew the scenery with such a character, but Katie plays it very still and quiet. This is something Sylvia sought. “There were points where I’d be like, ‘Okay, no movement on your face at all. You have to play it with your eyes.’ And Katie can do that and it’s heartbreaking to see. The emphasis of the film— I mean, the entire film is about people who are saying things without saying things.”
But, of course, that’s the way of real way life, though reel life is rarely that nuanced. Sylvia agrees, saying, “We hate it when we watch a film and they have their agenda.”
“I get so angry,” Jen asserts suddenly. “Don’t shove shit down my throat. If I want something down my throat, it’s because I fucking personally put it there myself.”
And the room breaks up again.
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Bringing the conversation out of the gutter and back to American Mary, Sylvia continues. “A lot of it was an analogy for what we went through in the film industry. Because when we were writing this script, we didn’t know if the film was going to be successful, we didn’t know if anything was going to actually come of all the sacrifices we made for the film. We had no money, we were very poor. We were literally starving. We had bill collectors. And when we did get into mainstream Hollywood, we were treated like party favors. We were treated horribly. We actually went to parties like Mary finds herself in [in the film, Mary attends what turns out to be a sex party and is brutalized by a mentor]. They thought we were basically whores.”
“Thank god there’s two of us,” Jen says, “because that was another thing with Mary. There’s only one of her. And Syl and I have been in those situations, but we have each other.”
Luckily, they did find some sincere support along the way. Director Eli Roth became a fan of the Soskas’ debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk. When he asked the twins what else they had ready, Sylvia bragged of a wonderful script about a young female medical student who goes on a murderous revenge spree — which, truthfully, had not even been conceived, let alone written.
“Thank god for Eli Roth asking for a script,” Sylvia says, “and us being pretty much put under the gun for my own stupidity, saying the script already existed. To write it, we found we could take all these situations and now we were in control of it. Now we could reexamine it from a safer place. [Roth] was probably one of the two big, well-known supports that we had that wasn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that was genuinely very kind and very supportive—”
“And so honest,” Jen says.
Sylvia nods. “So honest. And so when the film was done, it turned out to be this very, very personal piece. I think that’s why when I’m reading reviews and I’m hearing people’s interpretation of it, it gets very emotional for me. Because it’s like they are making a commentary on who Jennifer and I are, and on the situations we’ve been in, so it’s very interesting to see that on the screen. It’s also very nerve-wracking. It’s almost like you feel you’re naked in front of the theater. I’d rather be completely naked. I would feel much more comfortable with that than having everyone see my psyche and my weird quirks on the screen. But I’m really lucky that people get it. It is something we made for people who are horror nerds and horror fans like us.”
Katie has been around the Tinseltown block a time or two since she broke through in Ginger Snaps back in 2000, so she relates to the Soskas’ story. “It’s at the point now where you have two options to get your movie made, she says. “You do what these highly intelligent ladies do and you acknowledge and appreciate the people who talk about your movie, that review it and get the hype going for you. Or you can go sit in the Hollywood producer’s hot tub. If those are my options, I’d choose the people that are going to support us in the end, rather than jump in that hot tub.”
Katie takes a sip of her drink, raises her glass high and whoops, “The hot tub of shame!” And once again, the room erupts in laughter.
Sylvia high-fives Katie and says, “I won’t suck dick to get ahead in my career. People are like, ‘Oh, well, you could fuck somebody and you could get ahead.’ That opportunity never came early on, and thank god it didn’t. And I wouldn’t want to. I’ve had people offer me all sorts of money and promises for doing things like that.”
I point out that even if she did suck dick, it wouldn’t guarantee success. Producers are a notoriously sleazy bunch. Sylvia takes a sip and leans forward impatiently. “That’s the thing,” she says. “There are women working in the industry right now that are there because they’ve blown this producer or fucked this producer. I’m not going to name any names, but look at films where they have ‘strong male actor, strong male actor, strong male actor, why is she cast?, strong male actor.’ Those girls get around in a certain way, and it’s really sad and pathetic that it even exists in this culture. But it does — it really does! And when you get behind the scenes, you see a lot of it. And especially if you have an aesthetic like Jennifer and I do; people make assumptions. I have no problems with sexuality, and I think sex is fucking awesome.”
For the final time, the room explodes.
Sylvia shrugs and smiles. “But my vagina isn’t my resume!”