Boy do I have a treat for all of you. I was able to score an interview with the two twisted minds behind the fun exploitation flick, DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (see my review here). Since writing my review I’ve chatted a few times with Jen and Sylvia Soska (who both wrote, produced, directed and starred in DEAD HOOKER) and found them to be so damn down to earth, sweet, and nice with a dark side that I wanted to know more about. So I asked them for an interview and was lucky that they had a few free moments. So sit back and enjoy getting to know these two up and coming horror filmmakers who I’m positive we’ll be seeing a lot more of.
Let me get the gushing out of the way and thank you both for taking the time to answer some question for me. As you can guess from my review, I absolutely love DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK (DHiaT). I’m a huge fan of exploitation/grindhouse flicks and you two knocked it outta the park. Onto the questions:
QUESTION: I know that DHiaT isn’t 100% in the horror genre, but there’s enough there to assume that you both really love the genre. What were some of your favorite horror films and directors growing up that influenced you? Is there any one horror film that you can both point to as THE movie that made you wanna become filmmakers?
Jen Soska: Our love of horror started not just with films, but with the infamous master of horror author, mister Stephen King. Our mom had pretty much everything he’s ever written and let us read his novels while we were still in early elementary school. This was, naturally, much to the dislike of our very “vanilla” teachers, but she just told them, “if they’re reading at this level at this age, why stop them?” Stephen King always had this cute kind of humor to his horror that would lighten his stories just enough that they would still be fun even in the most harsh and violent of situations. I think that really started our love for the genre and influenced our now fully deranged senses of humor.
My first horror movie was POLTERGEIST. Scared the living shit outta me. I had a clown doll that I started to swear was moving on its own and was after me. It even started to haunt my dreams. I ended up locking it in my closet (which I had a lock on) which was kind of stupid because I was afraid of my closet, too, but I thought I don’t want anything to do with that clown and I have no business going into my closet. The two of them can be very happy together. I also became afraid of being alone in a room with a TV. Do you know how hard it is to get around when you can’t cross in front of a TV? Thankfully, I’m well over it now. I love clowns. A real hate turned love story.
I think GRINDHOUSE really inspired us to go and make ourselves a movie. One that is pure enjoyment for our audiences.
Sylvia: For whatever reason, we were always really drawn to horror. Maybe because there is such a taboo in regards to younger people seeing scary films or reading scary books. As little girls, Jen and I would hang out in the horror section of our local video store looking at the backs of movie cases for something scary. If we found something really awful, we’d share it with the other, then beg my mom to rent it. Our mom was really smart about the whole thing. She said that if we read the book (she was an avid fan of Stephen King) then we could watch the film. First one was CUJO. The book was way scarier and fucked up than the film, but it gave me more of an insight to what is terrifying and what is suspenseful. I think I’ve read all of his books several times throughout my life – and that talented man writes a lot!
My favorite director has to be Robert Rodriguez. What he did to create his first feature, EL MARIACHI was nothing short of amazing. His book on the process, Rebel Without A Crew, got nicknamed ‘The Bible’ on set because it was such an inspiration to making DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK. Hell, we even got the EL MARIACHI himself, Carlos Gallardo, to do a cameo as God in the film. It’s incredible how far you can go when someone inspires you so much. We were interested in film and television since we were little girls, but we didn’t come to the realization that if we want to make a movie we should just go out and make it till we were in our early twenties.
Where did the idea for DHiaT come from? Was it your first choice for your debut film? Will you be staying in the horror/exploitation genres with your follow up? Can you give us any information about your next project?
Jen: The title came before the film. As unknown filmmakers, we needed something that would stick in people’s minds and inspire a strong emotional reaction. Whether people love or hate it, and believe me we’ve had plenty of both, they remember it. It was our first choice. With your first film, you get so much control. Like Batman, I’m very much a control freak. We wanted to do as much as we could and whatever we wanted because we knew, in the future, who knows how much control we’ll have. We might not even get final cut *shudder*.
No one really knows what their next film will be. We have several scripts ready to go, many waiting on a go ahead from someone. If we had our wish, it would be AMERICAN MARY. But, I’ll let Sylvie tell you more about that one. It is more of a straight forward horror. It was written by request of Eli Roth who was been very supportive of the film and our work.
Horror will always be important to us. We just love it so much. We have a few ideas and a few scripts for things not so horrific. We have a re-imagining of Westerns as you know them called THE MAN WHO KICKED ASS. I’m pretty proud of that one.
Secretly, and no one knows this yet, we’re starting work on something a bit more Grind House. It’s going to be great.
Sylvia: The film came as a fuck you to our film school actually. They were horribly disorganized and cut the funding for our last project. Well, that simply wouldn’t do. We got a team together, wrote a script, cast it, got it shot, cut and put in everything (and then some) from the school’s ‘inappropriate material’ list. We presented it as a fake trailer (a la GRINDHOUSE) with the other projects paid for by the school. The reaction was huge – half the audience walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could barely be offended by the smutty dialogue. Everyone was so excited that we decided to make a feature film version of it. We went into it with just indie film enthusiasm and came out with a film that we’re all quite proud of.
I think there will always be an element of horror in everything I write. I have a dark sense of humor, but I also like to put things that disturb me in real life into my scripts. For example, when we were in grade school some kids were playing baseball with an aluminum bat. Something went wrong and a kid got smacked hard in the back of the head with it and his eye popped out (it more just hung there). That stayed with me for years, so naturally, I had to put it in the [DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK] script. I suppose as long as I keep seeing or hearing about twisted shit, I’ll keep the horror element in the stories I tell.
The next one that I want to start on is called AMERICAN MARY. We’re shooting a teaser trailer for it which will be the first look at the project. We’ll be showing it before our screening in Vancouver, then putting it up on the site to share with everybody. It has some pretty far out elements to it and the prosthetics will be unique to most things out there, but it also has a very relatable story about ambition and what a person is willing to do to be successful.
How is it working with your identical twin sister? How do you approach the creative process being there’s two of you? For example, do you both write a script and then get together and merge the best elements of both scripts into one “super script”? How did you two divide up the duties during filming?
Jen: We totally tag team. It’s nice to be able to work with someone like Sylv. We think very similarly so it makes the creative process a snap. Additionally, she’s incredibly creative, passionate about her work, and fearless. There’s nothing I can say that she’ll dismiss as impossible. She’s just wonderful, I’m very lucky to have such an amazing doppelganger.
With scenes, both writing and directing (and other duties), we tag each other in. With certain scenes, we’ll ask to direct them or have final word on them. There are ones we get really excited about. We’re pretty good at reaching a consensus.
Sylvia: The first thing we do is write an outline and fill it with all the scenes that we want. Then we pick which scenes we would like to write. We sit down at the lappy and write until ‘our part’ is over or we hit some kind of creative block. Jen has a lot of humor and weirdness to her writing. We think very similarly, but there are things she comes up with that I would never think of. I like being creative in a shock-value kind of, ‘I’ve-never-seen-that-in-a-film’ way. Sometimes the other comes up with a completely out of left field idea and has to convince the other that it will work. We don’t pussyfoot around each other’s feelings when we’re working. If I feel like an idea is shit, I tell her and vice versa. It’s important to be brutally honest with one another. Same with directing. We storyboard and plan the scenes out together, but choose one of us to be the ‘main’ director for the day. That said, we still give our thoughts throughout shooting to get what we want for the scene.
I realize that all indie filmmakers have the hurdles of low budgets and limited acting talent available to them. How did you two manage to make what looks to be a “big movie” up on the screen? How did you deal with your “budget issues”? Did you also find it more difficult being two females making a genre film? Did you come up against any other hurdles being women?
Jen: EL MARIACHI was made with a mere $7,000. That is incredible. I won’t disclose our actual budget, but it was modest. I firmly believe that a shoe string budget doesn’t mean your film has to look cheap. To be perfectly honest, if you can’t pull off something well, cut it. There are movies out there with fairly decent budgets, budgets I’d kill for, that end up with a shitty a final product with crappy effects. We did what Robert did when he made EL MARIACHI. We got creative. It makes me sad when filmmakers just throw money into something. Michel Gondry is incredible for the reason, among many, that he tries to do all his effects practically. And when you watch his work, you’ll see how good it looks.
With a minimal budget, we really had to rely on practical problem solving and people volunteering their time and services. We had a some absolutely amazing people backing us and our film up. With a little ingenuity, some good people, and a hell of a lot of ambition, you can do anything.
Being first time filmmakers, we did take a bit of shit. Maybe not because we were female. No one thought we could do it. We tried to get so many people to help us initially and they said we’d need a big budget, better script, and more people involved. We should wait and hope for some studio to pick us up. They thought we were crazy. Of course, we ARE crazy, but that’s besides the point. We stuck to our guns and ended up with something we’re really proud of. All we ever wanted was to make a film that is pure enjoyment and I think that’s what we have here. Maybe it’s not everyone’s taste, but what is?
I guess being identical twins got people to check out the film, too.
Sylvia: We had to sacrifice a scene where Badass punches out a bear and says ‘Fuck you, bear!’ That was tough. I wanted an explosion, but couldn’t get it together. Everything else worked out beautifully. Almost every actor in the film was either both an actor and a stunt performer or just did their own stunts. They were fearless and hardworking. We had some of the best stunt people in the city to help out thanks to our producing partner and stunt coordinator, Loyd Bateman. Jen and I knew some great FX and makeup people that we got on board to make our gore and insanity. We maxed out our credit cards, had a great team to help out financially including Maryann Van Graven and her husband, Donald Charge, and our parents, Agnes and Marius Soska. It got pretty bad with us having a ton of debt, no money for food or bills, but they helped us out so we could finish the movie and eat. I’ll forever be grateful to them.
I think we are very lucky having not had to deal with any remarkable sexist issues. I was undermined by people I later asked not to return to set anymore at the beginning, but that kind of stupidity sadly exists everywhere. We’ve had a lot of people get behind the film because they dig it and the fact that we’re girls making these movies that are stereotypically known as ‘guy movies’.
Continuing the last question; where did you find such a talented cast of actors and actresses? I understand that Goody Two-Shoes (C.J. Wallis) wore a few different hats for the production. How did this cross-utilization of talent help with the production?
Jen: The cast and crew were all friends and contacts of one another. Loyd Bateman brought not only his wicked awesome stunt skills to the project, but also a crew of very talented stunt performers. We wanted to do as much as we could with this project. We wore a lot of hats, so to speak. It was not only to showcase our skills, but it may be the only chance we’ll ever get to do all those jobs at once. I also think it is something that sets our film apart from others and really is what Grind House and independent film making are about. We have a very talented and capable cast and crew who were able to do multiple jobs. We’re so grateful to all of them. Our deep involvement made us all care that much more about the project, too.
CJ Wallis was and is a God Send. Like God himself sent us the perfect Goody Two Shoes. He’s an extremely gifted filmmaker himself and a composer. His work is much more art house than ours and we feel our styles blended together beautifully giving DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK an Art House meets Grind House feel to it.
Sylvia: There were a lot of people that were interested, but then lost interest when they read some of the material or realized that we were just going to pay for it out of our own pockets. Luckily we got some amazingly talented folks on board as cast and crew. Most often cast would crew the days that they were on set. It was this real indie family feeling. We started with Jen, Maryann, Loyd, and me on the team then started looking for more talent to fill the other roles. We had made friends with the very talented, John Tench, and asked him to be our Cowboy Pimp and he agreed. He is a wonderful actor and the classiest guy. Loyd knew this knockout fiesty stunt woman named Tasha Moth and she loved the idea of being the Hooker. She brought her fighting experience to create an epic performance in the Hooker’s death scene. She also brought her daughter to the project to portray Geek and Badass as little girls in the flashback sequences.
We went through a couple of Junkies for scheduling reasons and ended up being recommended Rikki Gagne. We had worked on set together before and we really liked her. She killed it as Junkie. She’s a very creative and energetic actor – she was amazing to have on the set. Jen and I have been interested in acting for years, so we knew many talented actors that would be perfect to cast in certain roles and, bless ‘em, they came out and worked their collective asses off. We also had a couple situations where crew became actors – our motel manger, David Barkes, and our lighting guy, Ed Brando, had rad cameos in the film. They were so great, no one knew that they did anything other than acting work.
I wanna thank you on behalf of all my readers and on my behalf for doing all the special f/x practically, using no CGI. The f/x looked great and were really effective. How did you find it working with special f/x? Did it make the production more difficult? Would you ever consider using CGI in the future?
Jen: Oh, no. Thank YOU! I feel that filmmakers owe a service to their audience. Without an audience and fans, we’d be nowhere. We really hate CGI. Even when it’s well done and there’s a big budget set aside for it, it really takes you out of the film. I hated the CGI in the HULK movies. Why oh why didn’t they try something practical for the remake/sequel. It’s insulting to the audience.
Aside from Gondry, the film that really blew us away for effects was THE THING (remake). The way they used an amputee for the stomach eating arms bit was breath taking! There is no substitute for the real deal. JACOB’S LADDER was also great for that. I have great respect and admiration for Prosthetic Artists. The things they make, it’s unbelievable. Just to think they could dream up some nightmare of a creature and then make it the next day is incredible. I want to do effects practically as much as possible. CGI would be a last resort. I’d consider cutting the effect from the film before doing it CGI.
Sylvia: CG can look so dated as well. It’s expensive to do properly and will only look good until the new styles of CG come out. I think it’s a lot more freeing to actually have your effects as a physical thing (pun intended) there on set for people to interact with. I have to thank our FX team – key makeup and producing partner, Maryann Van Graven, and AlyKat FX, Katie and Alyssa Satow, who make the blood, guts, and goriness real and lovely. A friend in prosthetics once gave me some great advice, if it’s comparable to human bits use slaughterhouse parts from the butcher. God makes ‘em best. Pig eyes come in human varieties – brown, blue, green, and hazel, their intestines (when cleverly filled with cream corn and fake blood) look just like the real thing. I would prefer not to use CG in future projects. I just have too much respect for the FX artists’ work. With a good team, there isn’t anything you can’t replicate practically.
I ask this question to all my interviewees: If budget and time were of no concern and a big studio approached you and said you can make the horror remake of your choice (anything you wanted at all), what would it be and why?
Jen: Wow. That’s a great question. And a hard one. I love AMERICAN PSYCHO, but I’d never touch it. Like a clay pot, if you mess with something that’s already good and done too much, you can destroy it. I hear they’re remaking PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. I love musical horrors (and not-so-secretly dream of making a new epic horror musical cult classic). I’d love to be able to remake it and treat it with the respect the fans want and deserve. It’s not really all that well known either and people are really missing out.
Sylvia: I am not a fan of remakes. I like some director’s spin on classic stories (like Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN’s), but I like original ideas so much more. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS were rad because they were terrifying and original. I think we need more new stories from filmmakers and not more rehashes of things that are already great. I hear that they are remaking MARTYRS and I just know that they’re going to tune it down and fuck it up. I’m a huge video game nerd and not totally in love with the film-versions of my most loved games. SILENT HILL was pretty good, but I think I’d like a crack at it. I want share what was scary and fun about the game to me.
Thanks so much for all your time. If you ever come down to Austin, TX, which is a huge horror/exploitation town, look me up!! I’d love to buy my two new favorite filmmakers a drink or 10.
Jen: Thank YOU! And ten is certainly more like it, ha ha. Maybe we can get hammered and go Rodriguez hunting, ha ha
Sylvia: Thank you kindly. You know, we actually might be in your neighborhood in the next little while. I’ll take you up on that. I’ll match you with the drinks – because it’s ok to get completely smashed with good friends. I think it’s a must.
There you have it; a little insight into what went on behind-the-scenes of DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK; a little taste of what the Soska sisters are working on next; and a lot of insight on what makes these two kick ass filmmakers tick. I absolutely love these two filmmakers and can’t wait to see what they give us next (I’m kinda hoping for that Western, THE MAN WHO KICKED ASS)!!
And don’t forget that for my Canadian readers there’s gonna be a special screening of DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK on August, Friday the 13th at 9pm at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver. You lucky bastards!! I better get a report “from the scene” on the screening.
A huge thanks again to the Jen and Sylvia Soska for taking time out of there busy schedules to answer my questions. I’ll definitely keep everyone updated as soon as I hear anything about DEAD HOOKER getting a wide distribution.