FrightFest Interview: Roundtable Discussion with the ‘Twisted Twins’
Frightfest has a two decade long history of bringing some of the best directors the genre has to offer to London (and Glasgow) every year to introduce their latest creations to the audience, field questions long past their allotted time and go drinking and karaoke-ing into the small hours with festival-goers.
This year, Leicester Square sees the return of the “Twisted Twins” Jen and Sylvia Soska. Veterans of the horror genre, and Frightfest, the pair sat down to field questions from a handful of interviewers mere days before the world premiere of their latest movie, Rabid.
Asked about their return to the world renowned genre festival and them opening up the weekend and introducing the men they dubbed “The four horsemen of the Apocalypse”, Sylvia told us about her nerves on the night.
‘I was more nervous over that than Rabid. These guys have been doing this for twenty years and they’re like “you guys are going to introduce us” and we were like “couldn’t you get someone better?”
”Greg (Day – One of the festival directors) wanted to ask us but he never did.” Jen continued, “He made Paul (McEvoy) call us up saying “Greg wants you to do this he doesn’t want you to say no but doesn’t wanna pressure you” “Absolutely wed love to” only thing that made me nervous was that they wanted us to make it like a roast. We are Canadian and we passionately love these men, we can’t take the piss out of them. I can say terrible things but don’t want to insult them.”
On the night though, you couldn’t tell the ladies were nervous. “The lights were totally blinding meant we couldn’t see anyone and it felt like an empty stadium. Except everyone laughed and applauded at the right times – there must have been signs going.”
Seven years after their last appearance at the festival, the directors were asked how they felt about Rabid getting it’s first ever showing at FrightFest.
Sylvia jumped “Seven years ago we had our world premiere of American Mary here. It was a 1,400 person theatre. I’d never had a screening like that. I still have never had a screening like that again ever since and if you know our stuff we haven’t made a movie for a long time. I mean we made am and that was the last time they let us make an original movie” She continued “I remember even going to the CW and going for so many jobs and them going “I can’t hire the American Mary people no matter how much I like what your bringing in” but becoming that niche director meant that we could make Rabid. When we found out FrightFest was gonna give us the world premiere and they were like “it’s on closing night… and were gonna bring you out for the whole time”
“We don’t get this in Canada, we don’t get this in the United States is always in the UK people are like “oh my god the Soskas did something” I’m like you’re, not shutting us out of the country you like us thank you”
Jen expanded on those thoughts “yeah its all like James Gunn and James Wan and all those fellas over there and there isn’t really a lot of love and celebration. It’s not just with us its like with Mary Harron she’s one of the great Canadian directors, and what did she get after American Psycho? Punished. By not making something for decades and when she does make something she’s just so scandalously reviewed for no good reason.”
She continued, “It’s such an honour to come back to FrightFest. After making Rabid it will be four years this Christmas, that we started working on it and at times the film has completely fallen apart and it was like carrying a stillborn child for a lot of it and the process of making the film itself is not an easy one.”
“In fact, I wasn’t going to make films after this had worked in film up to a certain point where every experience was incredibly abusive and it was the people I’m talking with the untouchable people that were making everyone feel like crap. It wasn’t like electrical grip over here No one is like what are we gonna do about Randy he’s out of control?”
“And it was somebody that was irreplaceable who could be just got, have a discussion so a lot of that frustration and rage ended up in the film, because in my position, I’ve been working so hard to just keep working. If I could I’d make three back to back films a year, but that opportunity has not been coming up for me. To return to FrightFest, where it’s like Bizarro world, where everyone loves me and everyone hugs me and they’re happy for me, and they have nice things to say about the film. Nobody has had a shitty, sexist, identical twin, comment it’s just so incredibly refreshing.”
Sylvia spoke briefly about how comfortable the FrightFest crowd make the pair when they feel the need to be careful everywhere else. “We’re laughing and we’re talking about horror movies and I was like, “thank god. It’s FrightFest!”
Expanding a little on what Sylvia brought up, Jen continued, “I don’t think people realise how hard it’s been with, like the constant death and the rape and murder threats to us our family, we both suffered with depression, anxiety and PTSD from experiences we’ve in the film industry. I’m very grateful that I now have a psychiatric service dog named Princes Diana. She’s the love of my life the dog at the beginning of rabid, Jackson. That’s her Daddy.”
Sylvia jumped back in to tell us how things had started to make a turn for the better in the industry, “You know a lot of time, you look at negative experiences and be like this is horrible. Woe is me, but the nice thing is that we took this experience. We went to tell someone. I said this happened in this movie. This movie, this movie, this movie and they went “Wow. we can’t do anything about this past experiences. But what can we do now to help you ladies” and so they decided to change how they protect people from now on. When they fund movies, there’s gonna, be mandatory sensitivity, training right away, so you don’t wait for somebody to act out.”
“It’s like a team building exercise, everybody knows our language on set. We’re truckers, we’re sailors. We have to be aware that that language is no longer acceptable and even we change it. It’s not like we can’t have fun anymore right, but no one needs to lose their respect.“
“And then another thing is an intimacy coordinator is going to be on set from now on, because there’s such difficulty with closed sets and people respecting things and even actresses directors, pressuring you to do something. The other actors are pressuring to do something. You don’t have an ally to say “when I signed up for this you weren’t poking anything into my butt”
“Now you have somebody who’s actually literally saying we don’t do that and also closing the set and also it’s somebody who’s trained for mental health. So when they see an issue happening, you have somebody you can talk to. So it’s not like, “oh wait until it goes insane” and be like “hey I can see that you’re having a lot of problems you seem really stressed out let’s, let’s have a conversation about that” So you know it’s just about being aware of mental health, how important it is on set because sets are notoriously stressful, if someone’s going to misbehave and already has bad habits you can find out”
The conversation naturally turned to female film directors and what the future holds for them.
Jen started off, talking about the MeToo movement and its effect on Hollywood and the film industry in general. “I don’t know why its become such an elitist thing but that’s why we also included the MeToo scene in Rabid”
“There was an epidemic of STDs and the aids crisis back when David (Cronenberg – director of the original Rabid) was doing the film. Right now there’s an epidemic of our minds, there’s a war being fought on our minds. Thankfully Europe it seems, people are a little bit more critical thinking, but in America and North America you see people very easily being led in different directions and they are being taught to fight amongst each other. I mean the bottom is just fighting over scraps. When I can’t believe how many times I’m told that I destroyed the planet, for using a plastic straw. I don’t print plastic straws, I don’t make the rules. So it’s absolutely insane. I think that the conversation is going to continue to stick and you’ll see the fact that I’m not the first female director to remake Cronenberg I just got to be the first director means so much to me”
We continued to talk on that point. Wondering if one day we wouldn’t need to describe someone as a “female” film director. Sylvia retorted brilliantly; “when I first started a fight against the female filmmaker thing so much as like I’m not a chick and just a Sylvia.”
“And then I was like “No that conversation’s important.”
“I remember my mom after she saw Dead Hooker (… In A Trunk, the pair’s first feature) before our first screening. She said “please don’t show this to anybody” and I said “but mom the screening’s tomorrow it’s a bit too late.”
“She’s like “We understand you guys and I am afraid what people say when they see your work” My mom’s always afraid we’re gonna be shunned. My dad’s a political refugee so he’s like “keep going Syl keep your mouth open don’t let them shut you up.” but I like being as loud as Jennifer and I are so if there’s another artist who isn’t as loud as us? We already burned that whole road for you. So you can make a little quiet, arthouse movie because here we are cutting off vaginas and nipples being like “We’re the Soska sisters we’re making Cronenberg”
“I think it really has to be us, the actual horror fans.” Jen added, “Some of us are filmmakers, some of us are critics… all of us are fans and I think this is a turning point, not just in our careers, but on the world in general, we have a decision to make either we’re going to go through another path of the hell reality, because we can all see how bad it could possibly get or we can just drop all the shit. We can just get the abusers out of the industry and we can support artists that aren’t just commercially made. The big thing is that we’re trying and they’re trying to silence artists that have opinions that are against the main, like the dominant narrative of the planet and I’m so proud to be an unhirable director.”
Jen Continued “Anytime some one says “You can’t say that because Disney won’t hire you” I say well then the values of Disney don’t reflect my values. I, don’t want to work for the company”
The directors have hired a diverse crew for Rabid, including Cinematographer Kim Derko and editor Erin Deck. While it is never in question that they hired the best people for the job, how did they think it affected the quality of the film and the unique finger print they brought to the production.
The pair were passionate about answering, fighting the stereotypes throughout their whole careers, Jen started things off. “You know when you talk about female gaze, usually they just put on a female director and say “yeah, a female director.” all those different, diverse opinions, the ways that even the camera moves over Laura is so different. I’ve only worked with male DPs (Director of Photography) and we almost worked with the great (Scream DP) Mark Irwin on this, but they wouldn’t let us, it just didn’t work out which was unfortunate, but Kim Derko, one of her idols is Mark Irwin.”
“So we sat down there and you know Syl started talking in a way that, I’m like “oh Syl you’re gonna alienate this poor DP” but I’m gonna make the nightmare a sequence like the surrealist painter, Rene Magritte and Kim’s like “I love Rene Magritte” and we start having this dialogue, and it’s just so amazing”
“Sally Menke is one of the greatest editors to have ever lived, and most people don’t even know who she is. She’s the reason everyone loves Tarantino. She was the one who is that Pulp Fiction, isn’t working, let’s put it out of sequence. She was the only woman in the world, to edit Tarantino. You know it was really important for us to make a female gaze film I think if you bring David’s next to ours. Is such a beautiful example of male gaze and female gaze.”
And not to take anything away from David, He’s a heterosexual male and that’s his fantasy. I’m a pansexual woman and this is my fantasy. As much as I love, women I also love to see them empowered.”
Sylvia Jumped in, “And You know women editors are notoriously so good, Verna Fields with Jaws was like “maybe don’t show the shark so much” and she was like “they were so nice I got to be vice president of the studio” yeah you made a pretty good cut there Verna it was a great idea.”
“So when we got Erin Deck to do this – and it was amazing because – the bullying in the industry there’s a lot of guys who didn’t even interview like “that was supposed to be my movie” and I say “Wow, That’s a that’s a weird way to communicate to someone, a peer of yours, that has done something that you would like to do, and perhaps you could talk to her about her experiences having done that.”
“We even had her attacked because of her gender at one point, but by somebody who was miseducated and we had to call them accountable… It’s nice to be in the position – Jennifer and I are in – normally the directors, don’t be allies to people. They’re like “oh well, I, don’t wanna fight that battle. I! Don’t wanna just defend that actress. I mean to let that slide. She can’t take a joke.” We didn’t let a single thing slide much to people’s annoyment. Much to our joy but we’ll never be hired again, but we made it. We made sure everybody is super protected.”
“Erin saved the movie. So many times. It is unbelievable the things that we had to go through and also our camera team was all women our first camera, camera A and steady cam was Tammy Jones. She worked with us on Vendetta. She only came out for a couple days and I look at my DP was like “You had a female steady cam this whole time”
“We had Paula Tymchuk, who was our B camera and the thing is these women work constantly. They’ve worked for, combined, probably like hundreds of years, all of them and they never get opportunities and everyone’s like “sweetie was this your first one” people are talking to Kim who’s been doing this for thirty years “are you excited your a DP now?” Yes, all of us are excited. We were super excited, but when you finally let people be empowered”
“…I hired the best and I tell them to go play”
Happy to continue taking, Jen carried on the conversation; “It is totally changes the tone on set… So often just a male or female crew member would say its good that no ones yelling, like there’s no bravado, no one is trying to pump up there chest or anything they’re, just always very calming energy no matter what’s going on.”
“I’ve worked with males, male editors and DPs and they’re almost confrontational to the point of arrogance. I had an editor, fight me making an edit saying all that choice won’t work, or you can’t do it and I would say “just show me how wrong I am. Show me to be a fool.” Completely opposite with Erin. Erin would come in hours before us and polish up all the things she thought wasn’t good enough just so we wouldn’t be wasted in minute details.”
“I’ve never had that kind of dedication, Erin and Kim and Paula and Tammy are the most over qualified women working in the industry that just don’t work enough and I really hope that Rabid is gonna catapult them.”
So how do the twisted twins work together? How have they made films all these years without getting under each other’s feet? Jen explains, “We like to call it dividing and conquering. We’ve never had enough time or enough money [for it to be an issue] and I don’t think anyone does we like to say once the train has left the station. There’s no going back. Sylvia will never leave set. Sylvia will go down with the ship she’s always there I have a job called putting out fires”
Sylvia remind us; “It’s also co producing a movie.”
“There’s even times a movie of ours nearly shut down because we can’t cut a hundred thousand dollars off the budget… We we almost all walked away the project, and this young woman kept us there. There was so much insanity. I was going to walk away and Jen kept me from going on this. Is she’s a very humble person. She says she’s putting out fires, but I’ve never had a movie where she didn’t produce the whole thing for me.”
But the issues that come with directing aren’t exclusive to directing teams like the Soskas, Jen went into a little more detail for us. “There were so many issues with personality conflicts and you know it’s funny when a director shows up how things just people put on their best face in front of me. So I like to rule like Machiavelli.”
“Machiavelli Is a very brilliant man. He’s nasty but he’s very right in a lot of ways and one of the things he says it was; “If you want people to come to you with information, never react in anger they’re always make it so everyone can come to you.” So I knew every problem that was on set.”
“This film is the film that was never meant to be made. I thought it was gifted and cursed.” She continued to explain her process; “Usually I’m at base camp only for prosthetic application, because producers have no idea how long a prosthetic takes to put on or explode. I remember in See No Evil 2 to have to put this piece on Katie (Katherine Isabelle), where her head split open and it gushed that it was a two and a half hour application. We managed it in an hour and a half and the amount of bitching that I had to endure. I usually when a prosthetics being applicated I just sit down and I’m like “I’m here, they’re doing it as fast as possible.” Sylvia is such a brilliant artist, I like to say that I’m a how and she’s the why.”
“This production was such a nightmare. Syl had done a shot list months in advance. Every location that we had tech scouted, we never actually got to shoot in so most locations we were showed for the first time and we’d have to just pull it out of our asses and make it work”
“I mean my god you’ve seen the film we suffered, but the film certainly didn’t… I like to say that our actors have their career best performances with us Because we are always communicating. It makes such a difference just to even have someone say I love what you’re doing Its great. I’m, so happy otherwise you just feel alienated.”
The directors poured their heart and soul into the making of Rabid, Personal tragedies and a lifetime of fighting found its way into the film in one way or another, from Industry nightmares to the loss of pets during and after production had ended.
Knowing how much this affected the film, the directors explained how not only was it cathartic to do it, but it is the language they use to tell the world how they feel when words aren’t enough.
“And that I didn’t even realize how much of that we put into it” Sylvia explained, “we’re just going through so much… it’s hard for me to articulate in language, I do it so much better in film.”
“I put all those thoughts out there and then I look at the movie and I look at the movie and look at the movie, like “oh my god” after American Mary, it’s like I’m, never going to do anything as vulnerable again its too much and I look at this is like oh Jesus it’s like I might a well go into porn at this point and you can see everything.”
Jen was excited to tell us why though, in the face of all of this, the directors stayed around.
“It was David, it was always for David, but I knew that I needed to make a film like this talking about #MeToo, talking about the disease and the attack and infection on our minds right now. We have been turned into such angry people and we don’t even realise there’s a war being fought on our minds, that’s the new outbreak.”
“A lot of us losing, less here than in North America, it’s become a really ugly situation and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell this kind of story again. I was really pushing things like with the prosthetics and the boundaries, and I knew that I had to stick through and see it through. Because I think a lot of other people are suffering right now. I think that if you ask a group of people do you have depression, do you have anxiety do you have PTSD? Everybody has that. to be intelligent is to be depressed in the world right now and I’m so upset that most films are just made with this happy ever after gloss bullshit, when we feel our lives aren’t reflective of that.”
“We feel we’ve somehow we’ve fucked up our lives so I think it’s very cathartic.” Jen continued “It’s not just for us, it’s for other people, it’s intentionally a frustrating film because I want the takeaway at the end for people to be angry and go out and change stuff. My god, back in the day there’s people standing in front of tanks to stop a war. Now they just do a thing on Facebook and think that they’re an activist, that’s nothing it’s ridiculous.”
We got to talking about the gross and gory effects and how they mixed so well with the beautiful sound design, Sylvia excitedly told us about their work with Game of Thrones and Feral sound designer Paula Fairfield.
“…she’s responsible for all the dragons She also has like a cacophony of screams… She also went through a lot of personal stuff losing people to cancer. So she actually had to put the script down twice before she finished it.”
“And then that last scene happens she said “Wow. You know that sound is very important. That sound is probably going to be in the first piece that we see that goes on to Rose because that’s the mother and it will go through everything” There’s different rabid creations that have their own personalities. Certain creations (One named Pierre behind the scenes) don’t appear until the last act because I mean it was such an important part of the original, but I wanted people to experience something unnatural and body horror and we have masters effects in the they were ready to go… Steve Kostanski (Director of The Void) Steve was our lead creature designer he’s one of the greats”
“And we had Twisty Troy (Contortionist Troy James) as one of our first outbreak creature, because “what happens If you get super rabid” well, he will show you. There’s there’s a little bit of embellishments for VFX like the blood at the end, there’s a lot of VFX blood in there but the it was so important for us be practical, because when you have that thing physically in front of you, I’ve seen people freak out and seen people get uneasy I mean Katherine was scared of the storage locker (In American Mary) she’s like “I don’t wanna go in there” and she was like “I think I’m going insane” and I’m like “Use it, it’s perfect.”
“I mean when people saw the Brood reference side towards the third act people were blown away, people were scared of people are going over to Tristan, who plays that character and asking if she was okay and if she was comfortable.”
“God bless Tristan, there’s only one Tristan Risk she’s like “Yeah I’m fine” and she’s walking round with her puppy like “Are you scared of the way I look? This is actually hot”
Jen continues tasing about the creatures, hers and Sylvia’s creations in Rabid. “The screams. Every rabid Creature has a scream that comes from somewhere… Those screams are actually our screams. Mine, Sylvia’s Tristan’s, Danielle our sound designer, Paula and she has someone she called a scream professional. Paula exclusively only uses organic sounds. It has to be real. That’s why it’s so precious! She did that amazing thing where the first flight of the dragon, was all the fans of Game of Thrones and their screams beautifully put together and she works in a way that I like to work. I’ll never be a technical director I’m always very organic and very pen and paper”
“It’s just so cathartic to go into that room and just scream and cry and lose your mind. That’s why, at the very end scene, there are things that are guttural because they’re there, Just the pain of women just coming out, I love how that ended up playing and I love practical effects I mean that’s a real art of making things I always say the visual effects like cosmetic surgery. If it’s good, you don’t know it’s there.”
The ultimate question though, for the directors that seem to be very much against remakes but are fans of David Cronenberg, has he seen the film yet?
Sylvia explained, “so we try to get David in the movie. They’re remaking The Fly, and so they offered him a cameo he was super offended by that. But Mary Harron was working with him on Alias Grace playing telephone, and passing on our messages, and he said he said our movie remake is only one just looking forward to because he was a fan of American Mary.”
“We almost met for the Canadian premiere, but we’re so green when he invited us to his house. We didn’t tell our handler “were going to davids house forget this”.
Sylvia continued, telling us about how Cronenberg’s and their directing styles were much closer than they thought. “After the movie was finished, we finally had a meeting which is like the scariest thing possible . And hit it off so well he’s such a brilliant, wonderful, incredibly gracious man, I told him what his work meant to me he said it was very nice and then he said “well, I don’t see my movies like that, in fact, it’s more “that actress was difficult that day: I didn’t get my way” I was like oh my god he’s me David no I have the curse I have the same curse.”
“He’s like “But you should know, I’m going to be completely honest with you when I do see it” But after that happened and I didn’t know he did this. He set us up with Martin Katz his producer and we are now in an exclusive deal with Martin Katz and Karen Wookey. So he liked us enough to bring them over, I didn’t even know they’re considering putting us in a contract where they would produce our next original film”
“He’s not the kind of person who would send me email or a text so I won’t get to know what he thinks until I see him. Next, just like I mean I’m dying, he’s the only person, I really want to know what he has to say I think it’s either like a restraining order or “that was quite flattering””
Jen tells us “Then we made a joke that it for an audience of one – David Cronenberg. But if you Even remotely like him you’re going to love it.”
“He has a link to the film we have no idea if he’s watched it. He may or may not have. He might be waiting for a theatre.”
Sylvia carried on “But to truly enjoy the film you do. You have to be David Cronenberg.”
From here, the conversation meandered away from the film before we were ushered out of the room and Jen and Sylvia Soska went on to present their world premiere to a very appreciative audience just a couple of days later.
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