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Whistler Film Festival 2012 Interview – The Team Behind “American Mary”

"American Mary" at Whistler Film Festival
by Jason Whyte

“American Mary follows the story of a medical student, Mary Mason played by the intoxicatingly talented Katharine Isabelle, as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted with medical school and the surgeons she once admired. A chance encounter gives Mary an opportunity to make some fast cash through underground surgery but it is the beginning of a downward spiral as Mary slips farther with each of her decisions and becomes notorious on the body modification scene leaving more marks on Mary than her so-called freakish clientele. An analogy of mainstream medicine and body modification surgeries based on our own experiences in mainstream filmmaker versus our experience in the horror community. Despite the seemingly harsh content, the film is a love letter to Asian and European cinema as a horror film that you do not have to look away from.” Directors Jen & Sylvia Soska on American Mary which screens at Whistler Film Festival. Also included in this interview is lead actress Katherine Isabelle.

Is this your first film in the Whistler Film Festival? Where else has this movie played?

Jen Soska: Yes, it is, and we're so excited to have AMERICAN MARY playing on home turf. We've been fortunate enough to get to tour the world with the film, Cannes, Fright Fest in London, Fantastic Fest in Austin, Scream Fest in LA, Toronto After Dark, and all across Australia. It's very special to be ending up our tour this year at home with the film screening here at the Whistler Film Festival. We have been at every screening at the aforementioned festivals and will definitely be attending this one; we love to sit in with an audience and hear when and how they react. It's like seeing the film again for the first time, but through their eyes. I'd like to see some films while we're up there aside from ours, but you never know. When you have a film at a festival you more often than not only get to see your own.

Katherine Isabelle: I’ve been to WIFF before. In 2003, I was in Nathaniel Geary’s ON THE CORNER and it won Best Canadian Feature. It was so much fun to be here for that. WFF is always exciting because it’s so close to home. I love the idea of a festival in our backyard, especially one of this caliber. Unfortunately, I’m working hard to spread the word about “American Mary” this week so I am not sure I will get a chance to take in other screenings. The film has already been featured at a number of film festivals around the world, including LA’s Screamfest where it won Best Picture and Best Directors for Jen and Sylvia.

What do you love the most about Whistler?

Jen: I know it's totally un~Canadian but we don't know how to ski or snowboard. I'd love to learn. I've oddly enough been up to Whistler to swim at Lost Lake. It's really gorgeous up there.

Katherine: I love Whistler. I spend a lot of time up here – especially in the summer. I’m a huge fan of the lakes and, this past summer, I almost died on the River of Golden Dreams in a dinghy from Canadian Tire as I attempted to brave the rapids – and the train bridge – in record-high waters. Turns out…that was a super bad idea. It was so fun.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to wanting to make films?

Sylvia Soska: Jen and I have loved horror since before we even remember when. We would beg our parents to let us watch the films we would check out when we would haunt our local video store's decorated horror movie section. One day, at the age of nine, our rented POLTERGEIST for us to see. It was so exciting. We made it through the whole film, but got terrified come bedtime. My mom did something that would forever change the way that I look at film, she explained to us what we had actually seen - the collaborative efforts of the director, the writer, the cast, the crew, the sets, the prosthetic artists - everyone working together with the intention of scaring the audience. That was their job. We were helplessly hooked.

Jen: We first fell in love with acting. We've always been story tellers and girls are more commonly encouraged to be actors or models or singers rather than directors or producers or writers, so that's what brought us into the business. But with many actors struggling to work we found the parts we were chasing after rarely ones we even remotely wanted to play. We just wanted to work. We started when we were little and as we got older the roles offered to identical twins went from lame to idiotic. We got tired of the endless stereotypical roles and took our careers into our own hands ultimately making DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK after a negative experience with a poor film school resulted in us making a project on our own time, our own way. It was a trailer for DEAD HOOKER and after we left we turned it into both a feature and our calling card. We'd always had these weird skill that never seemed to fit together until we found directing and writing. It just felt so right, like coming home.

Katherine: I grew up on sets. My godfather was a teamster. My godmother was a costume designer. I fell into it like any other family business. I was a good worker, even at seven years old. That got me respect and more work. It’s my job. I love it. Filmies, those are my people. We work hard, we create, and we take care of each other. At the end of the day, we hope other people enjoy our work too.

How did this movie come together?

Sylvia: It took years to get the film made. We wrote the script while still trying to get our first film, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, distributed. We put everything we were going through at the time into the film and it became a very special project to us. When it came to pitching the film, no wanted to get behind it because of the content. They said no one would want to see a film like this. So we went ahead and shot a teaser trailer for the film, we cast Paula Lindberg as Ruby RealGirl, a mod enthusiast obsessed with a doll-like form unable to be sexualized because of her new extreme surgery - shot in a veterinary clinic as the script plays out and I stood in as Mary with a voice over explaining where she is in life as she's come to extra-curricular surgeries. We shot it beautifully, Paula was magnificent, we got a look close to what we wanted prosthetically for her in the film, and people started to get what we were going for. Even with new interest, it was difficult to find our first investor. My parents, seeing our struggles and believing in the film, mortgaged their house to be those first investors which got things rolling. After that, we had Riaz Tyab and 430 Productions common board - all of our financiers not only got behind the film in cash flow, but also wholly behind the subject matter. We all set out to create something unique and tell this story about this woman in this dark modern tragedy.

Jen: The film is the result of a lot of people who love what they do and loved the script coming together. We had a modest budget for our ambitious story and a tight schedule. Without our phenomenal crew and cast this film would not have been possible. Brad Jubenvil, our 1st AD, is a seasoned professional and his endless experience, advice, and support made us not miss a beat or sacrifice a necessary frame. Brian Pearson, our disgustingly gifted DOP, Todd Masters and the entire outstanding team at MastersFX, Tony Devenyi, our brilliant production designer, Jayne Mabbott of Enigma Arcana, our stylish as hell wardrober, Bruce MacKinnon, our tasteful and sophisticated editor, Brad Shemko, our amazing props master, literally our entire crew, went well above and beyond the call of duty to make AMERICAN MARY what it is. Some of them even volunteered their time and services. I am so humbled to have such an amazing team. And the pitch perfect cast who were brave enough to believe in a film that so many felt was just too different, too unconventional. When some many others didn't and couldn't "get it", they did.

Katherine: .I was sent the script but I was shooting at that time and had no computer near me so I read the entire thing on my phone. After I finished the first read, I instantly thought, “I could be crazy…but this is amazing!” Now, having seen what Jen and Sylvia brought to life, I know I’m not crazy. It’s a fantastically dark, beautiful story of a wayward soul with genuine heart. I love it and I’m so honored to have been their ‘Mary.’

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Sylvia: Our cinematographer was Brian Pearson. We were looking for someone who not only had an artistic eye to create a truly gorgeous horror landscape for Mary's story, but also someone who could handle an extremely tight shooting schedule with a hugely ambitious project that still had a very m/odest budget. Brian's passion for the film and ability to make no cinematic request impossible made the look possible. We set out to make every frame beautiful; each one could be a still painting. It was different because so many horror films are shot like porn - as long as the 'money shots' make it in, the taste of the horror audience isn't given that much weight. All of us being avid horror fans, we needed to change that misconstrued approach. The film starts very static and as Mary's world changes, so does the camera movement with long intentional sequence and dolly shots.

Because of the somewhat bizarre nature of the story, we needed to make everything flow, to be perfectly presented so the audience was in for the whole operatic ride.

Jen: Cliff Hokanson, our operator, was spectacular. Funnily enough, we had worked together ages ago in very different settings where he was operating and Sylv and I were acting. He had back then done a following shot of the two of us and brought it up when he shot another following shot of us in MARY. We asked, "How did you remember?" And he said, "how could I forget?" Cliff and Brian didn't only make a perfect pairing, but Cliff also provided much of our camera equipment. We shot on two Red Epic cameras.

Katherine: Brian is so talented. He has, thank god, been honored accordingly at a number of festivals for his incredible vision on this film.

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this movie? Also, what was the most pleasurable moment?

Sylvia: There were a few people that didn't 'get' the film. Jen and I fought them hard on a continual basis. It's hard when you know what you want to create and someone else will never see that. That being said, we won our battles and made the film we set out to make. I was hoping people would like it, but the reaction that we've been receiving is very generous and overwhelmingly supportive. When I see the film perform in front of an audience, when I see the reviews, when we get the honour of an accolade for the film, when a person comes over to me that the film really struck home with - it means the world to me. It makes every one of those battles totally worth it.

Jen: Definitely the scheduling and budget restrictions. Between the two, time was our greatest challenge, throughout the entire process. It was never on our side and made absolutely every moment vital. It was a great benefit to have Sylvia, my partner through life and an astoundingly gifted artist at my side so we had the freedom to divide and conquer without ever slowing our pace or missing a beat. We rolled with the punches, foresaw challenges before they arose, and when they did we had a list of potential solutions to overcome them. The best moment making this movie was coming to set every day and seeing the team of professionals that became like family to us.

Katherine: Nothing from a logistics perspective was difficult on this film. The hardest part was the fear of letting down the character of Mary. I wanted to do her real justice.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Sylvia: Eihi Shiina's Asami in Miike's AUDITION was a huge influence on the character of Mary. Clive Barker's HELLRAISER and his thoughts on horror were also a huge influence, especially with his words on giving all your characters flaws and the art of horror filmmaking. This had such an influence on us that the male lead is called Billy Barker and our Detective Dolor uses the same English accent that Barker has. Argento's SUSPIRIA affected our choice of colour schemes in our lighting and his pacing influenced ours. Polanski's character's descent in REPULSION showed us how a character can change drastically without expository dialogue to show that transformation. And, of course, Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS is plastered all over our own twin surgery scene as a full out homage.

Jen: Sylvia and I often joke that she's the Lars Von Trier and I'm the Joss Whedon. I put the heart in and she rips it out. They are both massive inspirations to both of our unique writing styles. They may be as different as they come as filmmakers and would seem to not have any place working together, but I have never found someone who can pick out a scene that Sylv wrote from one of mine. We compliment each other very well. For AMERICAN MARY, we looked to David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike and Dario Argento for inspiration. Cronenberg's work is incredibly inspirational for us along with making us very proud to be Canadian. His films are provocative, haunting, terrifying, and always original, free from any fear of being different. Takashi Miike is so unique and his films are unforgettable and unconventional. Dario Argento is a master of horror and his use of music and lighting are iconic and incredibly effective. We used bold colors in our lighting, always favoring reds, whites and blues to demonstrate the appropriate tone in the same vein as his work.

Katherine: I love classics, legends, like Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. But modern heroes include David Fincher and Charlize Theron. I admire people in the film industry that go about their work honestly and with an obvious passion.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Sylvia: I would say that you should just do it. You have all the resources in the world, accessible technology, you can shoot on digital inexpensively, and you can learn from your favourite filmmakers through DVD commentary, books, interviews, and even speak to some directly online to learn how to pull it off. Rodriguez's first hand account of EL MARIACHI, 'Rebel Without A Crew', was our Bible on DEAD HOOKER. Lloyd Kaufman's 'Make Your Own Damn Movie' series is awesome. Learn as much as you can, make a project that means something to you, that is different, and that you don't mind dedicating the next few years of your life to, and make it. Too many people wait for an opportunity to live their dream, we wasted years waiting for ours, so we got a killer group together with the same passion for filmmaking and made ours. As long as you stay focused and work your ass off, you will be successful.

Go make a movie, don't just talk about it. It is the best kind of film school there is. Is it scary? Absolutely, but that's part of the fun of it. And at the end of it, you'll have a movie that's yours. I'd recommend watching a lot of movies. Sylv and I watch something new every day. Start with your heroes that inspire you and then try to see why their work is so good. Is it the way they use music? Is it the editing choices? Is it the framing? Is it the dialogue? The characters? And do the same thing with anything and everything you watch. You can learn more from a bad movie than a good movie. Try to see where it became a bad movie and why so you can avoid doing that in the future.

And never use the excuse that "we didn't have enough time" or "we didn't have enough money". If something sucks, don't use it. No one cares why it sucks, they just see that it sucks. Pool your resources. Make a list of things you have available to you from locations (a business, an apartment, a church, a community hall) to props to cool things that will make your film stand out from the rest (an exotic animal, a classic car, anything unique). You'll be surprised by how much you have available to you. Think of an idea for your film that gets you excited every time you think about it because you'll be talking about it for the rest of your life. For Robert Rodriguez, it was a man with a guitar case filled with guns in EL MARIACHI. For us it was a dead hooker in a trunk.

Katherine: I’m not sure I’m in any position to provide advice. Do what you love. Stick to your guns. Don’t listen to anyone else. And that includes me!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or making noise at a screening of your movie?

Sylvia: Depends on the situation. During many screenings that I've been to of MARY, the audience gets a few shocks here and there, so there is nervous or excited hushed chatter throughout. If someone is being blatantly rude in any screening and ruining the experience for others, I will take it upon myself to put an end to that. Interpret that any way that you like.

Jen: "Shut up or get out."

Katherine: Beat it, punk.

What is the single, greatest movie that you've ever seen at a film festival?

Sylvia: Isabel Peppard's BUTTERFLIES was masterfully created and really touched me. All the crying people who fell under the spell of the beautiful stop motion piece will attest to that. I saw her in the bathroom afterwards and started to cry like a bitch, it was so emotionally accurate and honest, I found it hard to even tell her what it meant to me. One of my favourite new directors that I have discovered at a film festival.

Jen: That's a tough one. MANBORG introduced me to Canadian treasures, filmmakers "Astron-6". I laughed, I "aww~ed", I cheered. It came out of nowhere and we both fell madly in love with the filmmakers, who also appear in the film and the love they have for what they do that just drips off the screen. It was, in all ways, superb. If you don't know Astron-6, check them out and you're welcome.

Katherine: AMERICAN MARY. Seriously. I’m not just saying that. AMERICAN MARY.

The Whistler Film Fest screening is tonight at the Whistler Conference Centre at 11:00pm.

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For show information, tickets and for other general information on films and events, point your browser to the official website HERE.

Be sure to follow instant happenings of Whistler Film Festival on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a photo or two.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 11/29/12 12:12:05
last updated: 11/29/12 12:16:42
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