Interview: Katharine Isabelle, Jen & Sylvia Soska On American Mary

‘There’s nothing Katie can’t do. She’s like your Michael Fassbender.’

One of the best films from last year’s FrightFest was American Mary, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray 21st January.

Jen and Sylvia Soska follow-up their kitsch, exploitative calling card Dead Hooker in a Trunk with this striking, elegant horror. Ginger Snaps star Katharine Isabelle is both victim and villain in this fascinating revenge drama that has its roots in fetishism and body modification.

Isabelle plays Mary, a promising student surgeon struggling financially whose skills with a scalpel lead her to become popular in the world of extreme body modification. After a horrific betrayal of trust, Mary puts her talents to further use in this gory, compelling drama. Unnerving, disconcerting, touching and sympathetic, the Soskas (who pop up as customers) have created one of the freshest horrors in recent years. Read our review here.

The good folks at FrightFest are currently taking American Mary and the gang on a theatrical tour of the UK (dates here) before the home release. We met up with the very warm and funny Jen, Sylvia and Katharine in a London hotel before their whistlestop tour of the country. Find out why the Soskas wrote Mary for Katharine, their views on the rape culture in horror, and their upcoming monster movie Bob.

Welcome back to the UK! It appears you’re going on a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll tour of the country.
Katharine: It seems like it! They said, ‘You’re going to get on a bus, and we’re gonna tour you around.’ Oh my god, are we like Led Zeppelin?
Sylvia: Seven cities in seven days - it’s cool that we all get along so well.
Katharine: Could you imagine if we all hated each other?
Sylvia: Yeah, that would be exciting too, in a killing each other kind of way!

Where are you looking forward to?
Katharine: Edinburgh. I’m mostly Scottish, and I’ve never been to Scotland before. My brother is with us, Josh, who acts as our handler. We’re super excited to see Scotland.
Jen: We get to take a train in, which is amazing. I took a train once when I was a kid, from Alberta to BC, and it was lacklustre. But here, it’s going to be gorgeous. It’s going to remind me of Hostel. We’re going to watch Hostel before we go tonight!

American Mary is a very different beast to your debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Were you getting exploitation out of your system?
Sylvia: We knew didn’t have any money, and we knew with grindhouse filmmaking it’s very forgiving if you don’t have any money. If there’s snow on the ground, and in the next shot there isn’t snow, people can be like, whatever, that’s tongue in cheek! We got a lot of reviews saying, oh how hard is that, that’s all they can do. Jen and I love European and Asian cinema, and we’re like, for the next one one we’re going to be really artsy, and do a movie like we want to see, and God willing we’ll get a little bit of money, which we did.
Jen: With Dead Hooker, we really wanted to announce our arrival on the scene. The thought that owed everything to that film, was what was the title going to be? We had the title before anything else, because a lot of independent filmmakers do a real disservice to themselves when they say, this film is called The Fence, or The Wind That Blows. No one’s going to fucking see that! Dead Hooker in a Trunk? You might think it’s crap or whatever, but you’ll see it and remember it. It instills a strong emotional reaction. With American Mary we really wanted to show people what we can do. Dead Hooker - look at us, American Mary - check this out.

What did you learn from Dead Hooker that you carried over to American Mary?
Sylvia: Well there was no real crew on Dead Hooker so we knew how everything worked, and we knew every department. I think we were a little blindsighted when we hired these amazing professionals - we still wanted to move lights, and still wanted to grab snacks. People were like, ‘No! Why don’t you just direct the film?’
Katharine: You should have seen them - they were hauling cables, and asking PAs if they could get them anything.
Jen: Up until the last day on set, if our AD said something, we’d be like, sorry!
Sylvia: It was nice having that experience on Hooker as you knew what everyone did. People like our production designer Tony Devenyi; oh god, I don’t even know how I existed without a first AD - Brad Jubenville made everything happen. There’s no time, no money, and meanwhile Jen and I are talking about radical feminism and the recession from the depths of our soul. He was like, ‘Okay, we have an hour to get this! Let’s put it into a five-minute chat, shall we?’

What was it about Katharine you liked so much?
Sylvia: In high school I was being relentlessly mocked, and one of the things they called us was the Fitzgerald sisters. I had not seen Ginger Snaps, so I rented that film and I loved it; I thought, oh my god, I don’t mind being called that! I met this chick when I was an extra on Josie and the Pussycats - she doesn’t remember this - but she was nice to me. When you’re an extra, no one is nice to you.
Katharine: I find that hard to believe! [laughs]
Jen: This is a testament to how determined you are, because years ago as an extra, you were like, I’m going to work with her one day, I’m going to make something of myself. Case in point - follow your dreams boys and girls, one day you too could work with Katharine Isabelle!
Sylvia: She’s my favourite actress, but because she’s Canadian, I feel like people forget she exists. They say you need an LA actress. I kept watching her, and she did these phenomenal parts in films, but I was selfish, and wanted to see her do more. When we were writing Mary, we thought what if we write this character we want to see in a movie, but we write it for our favourite actress so we can put her through the wringer and see everything she can do?
Jen: It was one of the things that was non-negotiable. They said, you want an LA actor, and I said, no I want a good actor. I want Katie - it was always Katie. She [Sylvia] was horrified when we were going to meet her. She was such a loser, she wouldn’t even sit next to her. She thought she might not even like her!
Sylvia: I didn’t know if I would like Katie, but I loved her. She was so smart and she blew my high expectations away. We were out til five in the morning passionately talking about body modification. It was such a tight shooting schedule, and she got three takes for everything. Everything was so perfectly done. I’m sitting there like a complete fucking nerd. I wrote this and she’s actually doing it and it’s even better than I imagined!
Jen: There’s nothing Katie can’t do. She’s like your Michael Fassbender. I wish I could say I discovered her.
Katharine: I don’t have a giant cock though.

Katharine, did you know what you were getting yourself into by watching Dead Hooker?
Katharine: And I still did it! I was sent the script, and it was this horror movie where there might be an offer. It’s written and directed by two identical twin sisters? Oh yeah, great, sure this going to be really good… I ended up reading the whole 190 pages on my Blackberry. So I’m going blind ten years before my time because of these tits. My father had been a filmie for thirty years, and I really loved it instinctually. I sent it to my dad, and he said, ‘No, you should do this. This is an amazing role, in an amazing film, and it’s really well-written.’ That’s what I thought, but I needed a little back-up on it! When I met them, we hung out all day and instantly became best friends. I do a lot of independent films, and sometimes my hopes and dreams for it are very high. I try to be a realist, and sometimes it exceeds my expectations, but sometimes my little heart is crushed because of the extenuating circumstances… it just ends up being a complete piece of shit. I was terrified that this character, this script and these girls would somehow get fucked over, either by myself or by people with hands in the pot, and they managed to really pull it off, and not let down the character of Mary, who we all love very much. So we’re glad it’s not horrible!

Did you have a lot of input into Mary? Was it quite collaborative?
Katharine: I got the script about nine months before we shot, and it was very valuable time for me. We were both busy, so it wasn’t like we were hanging out brainstorming, but it sat with me, and I was allowed to absorb her. Knowing Sylvia - Mary is pretty much Sylv - and they were so supporting on set. To be that character, who isn’t very likeable on paper, doesn’t have redeemable qualities, does some terrible things, never really smiles - it’s scary to go into that and not know if anyone’s going like this character, or even give a shit what happens to her. I would pop my head around, and Sylv would be shaking and crying and squealing. It was supportive and encouraging enough to me, and it only gave me more confidence to let down any guard, any fear. Especially working with directors who wrote the character and were so close to it. I’ve had directors go, ‘You’re doing it wrong, can you not do that? Just do it again, but not like that.’ You’re like, what the fuck man, I can’t see into your brain! All you’re doing is making me want to go kill myself! They so generous in giving me the character and allowing me do that, I was able to not feel horrible.
Sylvia: It’s nice to work with an actor that cares though, as most ask you everything, and they’ve got nothing else to bring; literally a talking prop. I’m very stubborn, and Katie would have ideas that I was like, mmm, no. We fought about hair, as I hate bangs.
Katharine: I sent her a picture of my friend who’s blonde, and I said I want hair like this, but black. She said, ‘Absolutely fucking not’. I said, well I’m on the other side of the country, so I’m just going to cut my hair like this and dye it and you’re going to like it. She said, ‘If you fucking dare’. So I turn up: ‘Oh my god it’s amazing, I love it’.
Sylvia: The aesthetic was so important, as appearance is everything.
Jen: I think your concern was that you didn’t want it to look like little girl bangs.
Sylvia: She ended up being a Vargas Bettie Paige. Stunning.

Were you comfortable with the outfits you were wearing?
Katharine: This is about as girly as I get [smart casual in jeans, jacket and scarf]. These girls walk on to a set at 5am looking like this. Fucking bitches, seriously? It takes me so much effort to look like this! The sex appeal of the character wasn’t that important. It all felt very organic. The hair and make-up, the shift that and the wardrobe go through feels very well thought out, but also very organic. Being that these are two gorgeous girls that are very supportive and very feminist and very encouraging - ‘Do whatever the fuck you want, look how you want’ - I didn’t feel weird or exploited ever. I’ve done movies being the young attractive female on set, and I’ve been in uncomfortable situations, and I’ve been in situations where I’ve been made to feel I couldn’t voice my opinions on set. There was never that. I would come out on set, and it would be ‘Oh yeah, you look nice!’ There was a whole tone on set, everyone loved and respected this girls so much, that when I came in dressed in whatever, there was no lewd tone or energy. Nothing that made me feel uncomfortable at any point, and it’s because of these girls. It goes back to how you should be able to dress and wear whatever you want and not be made to feel inferior or objectified. They do such a fantastic job at just being that. It’s not necessarily pre-conceived, it’s just what they are. It affects the energy of everyone around them, and everyone responds to them in a manner that is totally respectful. People adore these girls, and they wouldn’t dare think of them without respect. I got to be lumped in with that!
Jen: Shut up, you’re going to make me cry now!
Katharine: The energy is incredible when they walk into a room. It’s like the Dog Whisperer. [laughs] I have a little fucked-up rescue mutt who’s got all kinds of issues, and I watch Dog Whisperer all the time, and it’s like ‘It’s your energy, your dog will respond’. These guys walk into a room and have such presence, and the energy they put out is what they get back. It’s huge. More young attractive girls and everyone in the universe should fucking be like that. Especially young attractive girls who want to dress however they want.

Talking of energy, you brought it to last year’s FrightFest. What do you think about the current state of horror, as last year’s event was nicknamed Rapefest?
Jen: I remember that! You could literally hear when that scene started in Mary, everyone groaned. I thought, uh oh, we lost them! We had them up until this point! Afterwards, people were like, ‘Yours was the best rape. I was angry, and then I thought it was a ‘good’ rape.’
Sylvia: I think it’s a huge issue in our society: women are taught how to not be raped, and one in two women will be sexually assaulted, and men are not taught to not be that guy. Then there’s slut-shaming, and when rape is done on film, it’s almost sexually-gratifying to the male audience. Oh here’s the scene to fastforward to. It’s horrible, considering the women in those situations, the powerless feeling you have. I thought, let’s do something different, and let’s have that horrific experience in there. It’s not just a physical rape, but a rape of everything she holds dear. This was a rape by a surgeon she admired. If he had done it a different way and asked her out for dinner, he would’ve gotten the exact same thing, but it was a horrible experience. I thought, let’s make it horrible, let’s make it long, let’s make it unforgiving. The scene when she wakes up, people say is horrible, but that’s the transformation scene. That’s the last time you see sweet Mary, and there’s just severe Mary for the rest of the film. Let’s show this in a respectful way. I can’t blame everybody for what they did. I did see a few films, one film at FrightFest I was really upset by. Not because of the content, but because of the way the content was handled. I think people forget you’re talking about a real life issue. I have so many girlfriends who have been through that. Thank God I have Jen to get me out of horrible situations I’ve almost been in. You have to be respectful of a person’s real life situation you’re commenting on.
Jen: It’s insulting when it’s gratuitously done. So many people say, oh well, so many women are raped. Oh my god, that’s a huge fucking issue. It’s not just, oh well, most of us will have to go through it so it’s just something you have to deal with. I think people throw in a rape just for the whole shock value of it. I know a lot of people like Cannibal Holocaust - I hate that film, because to actually kill an animal is disgusting.
Katharine: What?
Sylvia: You don’t want to know about this film.
Jen: There are a couple of films like that, like Men Behind the Sun, where they have actual murders of animals, and they’re like, oh it’s the integrity and tone of the film.
Katharine: WHAT?
Jen: Oh, I won’t even tell you what that one is. It’s bullshit, you’re just doing it for shock value, and just like so many rape scenes are just thrown in there for shock value.
Katharine: They’re also sexually gratuitous to a male audience, which is just encouraging of rape society in general.
Sylvia: I had some really stupid comments when I went to do that scene, like ‘When do her tits come out?’ I don’t even understand how that would be in anything, it’s not in the script. ‘Well we need to see that shot.’ No, you don’t need to - if you’re going to jerk off to anything, it’s not going to be that scene.
Katharine: There’s the rape scene in Boys Don’t Cry, where her tits come out. I fucking love that scene, it’s horrifying, completely real, and totally not sexy. The way these guys shot the rape scene in this film where it’s just on her eyes, where you can see how upsetting this is to her. If you cut to a half-assed, side tit shot, it would take away from that and how traumatising it is for the character and the audience.
Sylvia: I was showing off that we had an actress that was only using her eyes, and after that you don’t have an expression. You saw her as a real girl with everything on her sleeves, and now it’s gone.
Jen: I have to say there are so many ignorant people who want to see Katie take her clothes off. There is a huge group of people who are like, ‘I want to see Katie naked’.
Katharine: What haven’t you seen of me apart from my actual nipples? Like who fucking cares?
Jen: I know sweetie, it’s insane.

What’s next for you?
Sylvia: The next film is something that almost went before Mary, but I wouldn’t let that happen because I’m obsessed with her. It’s an original monster movie called Bob, and the tagline is: There’s a monster in all of us, and sometimes it gets out. It’s a practical monster, a guy in a suit, which we haven’t seen in a while. I’m actually concerned about that, because I’ve put a little bit of content I know it’s illegal to shoot. So we’re just thinking of ways.
Jen: Comparitively, my God, people say American Mary is dark and controversial…
Sylvia: I think it’s sweet and funny.
Jen: And sad and tragic. But to me, I was just like, wait ‘til Bob if you want to get your knickers in a knot.
Sylvia: It’s really funny, but also gets subversive at certain points. Because this film has done so well, we’ve gotten opportunities for big screen adaptations of some of our favourite artists’ work. That’s cool, because I always wanted to kill them and take their work, but now I get to work with them.

What’s the status of Bob?
Sylvia: Early pre-production. The monster design is done, the budget is done, the shooting schedule is done and we have a lot of follow-up meetings. We shoot this summer.

Katharine, what’s next for you?
Katharine: I’ve told them they’re never allowed to do anything without me ever again. I’m doing promotion for low budget stuff that’s coming out soon, and pre-production on a bunch of stuff. But they’re never allowed to do anything without me.
Sylvia: We’re working on a new script all together.
Katharine: It’s an excuse to never leave each other.

American Mary will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21st January 2013 and will open at UK cinemas on 11th January 2013 (Frightfest).

Watch the Soskas talk about body modification and more at last year’s FrightFest premiere.