Exclusive Interview: The Soska Sisters of Dead Hooker in a Trunk

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Canadian identical twin sisters Sylvia and Jen Soska are on one hell of a roll.  In their 2009 indie directorial debut, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, four friends find a dead prostitute in the trunk of their car and set out on a crazy road trip to dispose of the body before the shit truly hits the fan.  The Soska’s wrote, directed and star in the film. 

It’s been just over two years now since the film’s initial release and it is still whipping up a considerable storm of impressed horror critics and an adoringly gleeful fanbase thanks to the considerable energy the sisters have poured into promoting themselves through their self-founded production company, Twisted Twins Productions.

Not bad for a shoestring budget shoot, don’t you think?

They’re already wrapping up production on their second feature – starring Ginger Snaps‘ Katharine Isabelle – American Mary. Sounding like a totally different kind of beast compared to their debut effort, American Mary is a sordid tale of underground surgery, murder and mayhem currently slated for a 2013 release.  If one thing is for certain, it’s this: The Soska sisters have the attention of the horror going community – one that is often accused of being sexist as hell. When you get the chance, grab yourself some Dead Hooker and then ask yourself this – could the Soskas be the long overdue shot of adrenaline to the heart female-driven horror cinema needs? 

With Dead Hooker in a Trunk‘s January 31 DVD release looming, Shock sits down with the duo while they catch a brief respite from a damn hectic post -production schedule that would make most of us quiver at the knees.

So, what were your influences for the screenplay?

Sylvia: Robert Rodriguez and Carlos Gallardo were the influences for this film. There’s a lot of shout outs to the flicks that we grew up loving – those crazy, anything can happen, fun flicks like The Blues Brothers, Weekend At Bernie’s, Very Bad Things, Police Academy, Faster Pussy Cat Kill,Kill! – but it was El Mariachi that made this possible for us. Not only was it a cool flick, but the way they made that flick was cool. There aren’t too many film-makers are ingenious as Robert and Carlos. They made it for seven thousand dollars that was raised from Robert selling his body for scientific drug testing while Carlos did prep for the film. Then, they told you how they did it in Rebel Without A Crew. We carried that book with us every day on set, it was nicknamed our Bible.

In the book, Robert says that something the independents will always have over the bigger studio films is that they don’t have the option of throwing money at a problem, so you have to use your creativity to solve it. We went into making the film knowing that we had extremely limited funds. There was no projected budget, we tried to do as much as we could for nothing. So we wrote in things that were high production value that we knew we could get for the film for free. We knew we could get a horse, we knew we could get a church, we knew we could do stunts, there were a lot of things we could put in there and everything else we asked if we could use for the film – a lot of people thought it was a crazy idea and were into helping us out. In Rebel Without A Crew, Robert said that we wrote each scene on cards, then moved them around in the time line to fit. It gave the story a very helter skelter feeling which was important because we wanted it to be unique and unpredictable.  

Jen: We love cinema, but we also have this passion for comic books and video games that we’ve never let go of. I don’t really understand why people say they’re “too old” for them or feel that at some point in their lives they have to give up the things they grew up loving. I mean, shit, now I can finally afford whatever game or system I want or to blow a gratuitous amount of money on catching up on Daredevil’s latest exploits. As a result, you’ll see influences from comics and games as well as films in there.   Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse was a huge influence. It was playing in theaters at the time that we found ourselves in a not so great film school. No lesson plans, jack shit as far as learning was concerned, so we found ourselves excusing ourselves more often than not from class to go learn where everyone learns about film. The movies. You watch what you love and you start to pick up on the subtle things that make a film great. the characters, the way the story progresses, the dialogue, the colour choices in the production design, edit, and wardrobe, the framing, the pacing, the cuts, the sound choices… I knew I loved Robert Rodriguez before I understood why. I saw Desperado and fell in love with his style. It’s just cool incarnate. You can’t help but feel a little more awesome after watching a Rodriguez film. I walk with a bit more swagger after I leave the theatre seeing one of his masterpieces. His book, Rebel Without A Crew, is absolutely priceless, not only for aspiring film-makers, but for anyone. It tells you to get off your ass and make your dreams happen. 

Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear Solid influenced us (gamers can notice which eye Geek loses as a tribute to Big Boss). Stan Lee for everything he has ever done. We made a point to never change our characters’ outfits to make them like superhero costumes. Joss Whedon for his amazing characters and witty as hell dialogue.

How easy was it getting the funding? Did you get anything near what you aimed for?

Sylvia:  We filmed at the end of 2007, when there was a writer’s strike, so there were all these incredibly talented local people who suddenly had some time free. There was no projected budget, if there was a cost, then we’d put it on our credit cards. We maxed out our credit cards for the film. The film itself only cost $2500. The biggest hit was leaving our jobs to work for free on the film and living expenses add up. After a while, every credit card we had was maxed out. Our phones, when they weren’t cut off, had collectors constantly calling. Our parents, Agnes and Marius Soska, and our Key Make-Up Artist and her husband, MaryAnn Van Graven and Donald Charge, really saved us by going us some money when we wrapped so we could stay home and cut the film. After that, we went back to working and it was strange. We never caught up. We would work at least eight hours, but we did a lot of overtime sometimes working sixteen hours a day, because we were so hurting for money. Making shirts, posters, merchandise, screeners, marketing – it was our focus to get the film out there, so all money went to that, then rent, occasionally bills, lastly food. 

We were doing what we loved, so it didn’t matter. But at Christmas time, even as Robert described in his book, that’s when it was really hard. There is no such thing as an overnight success and the people who love you understand that you’re struggling and why you’re struggling. There a quite a few filmmakers that are successful today because they followed that same path and they gave us a lot of inspiration to stick with it and not get deterred. The film has been screened at film festivals around the world, was released on May 23rd by Bounty Films in the UK and through Monster Pictures in Australia, premiered on The Horror Channel, got picked up by IFC Midnight, got limited theatrical release, is available on VOD, and their DVD release is January 31 – we got everything we aimed for.

Jen: [laughs] I wish we were funded. Dead Hooker in a Trunk was brought to you by an outstanding, selfless cast and crew that donated their time and equipment. It was made by depleting our modest savings and maxing out our credit cards. The film itself was made for a mere $2,500. Robert Rodriguez teaches you how to overcome your obstacles with creativity. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can always come up with some creative solution for a problem that you have. In the rare cases where you can’t, exclude it from the film. I hate it when a independent artist gives me their film and opens with, “well, we only had such and such for a budget so the acting’s not all there and the locations are rough and blah blah blah…”. You do that and you already make your potential viewer feel that they’re about to watch a shitty movie. People have more resources than they realize. We shot at our church, at our friends’ places and businesses, there’s always something. I like to recommend that aspiring filmmakers sit down and write out their resources before they even start writing. When we interviewed Carlos Gallardo about indie filmmaking and about El Mariachi – the interview will be on our Dead Hooker DVD – we asked if it’s easier to get away with stuff in Mexico, where they shot. He gets that question a lot. It’s not because Mexico is some lawless, everything goes country, it’s because they shot where Carlos grew up and people knew him and helped him out.

We didn’t even think about the budget. So many people quite literally laughed in our faces when we said we had no budget, we were just going to go out and do it. They said it’s impossible and simply not the way things get done. I respectfully disagree. Things don’t get done by sitting around and waiting for some big studio to pick up your script. We live in the digital age where it’s easier than ever to make a film of your own. Every day you’re waiting someone else isn’t.

Could you describe Dead Hooker in a Trunk for the horror savvy audience?

Sylvia:  Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a mumblecore love letter to the absurd. It is a tongue-in-cheek, canuxploitation – ’cause we’re Canadian, eh – adventure horror about a group of clashing personality, selfish 20-somethings that discover the body of a hooker in their trunk after a night of partying and end up on road trip that brings all forces of insanity, murder, and mayhem into their lives – ultimately leaving them better for the experience. Sure, someone loses an eye, a semi truck rips off an arm, a man is set on fire, a goat is molested, a dead body gets nailed, a penis mutilation leads a man to homicide, and even God shows up, but it’s actually almost endearing to see the level of compassion this group gives a dead hooker while leaving a trail of bodies behind them. Complete insanity, in the best of ways.

Jen:  Dead Hooker in a Trunk is a throwback to the horror films that we grew up watching that make you just say, “Fuck, that’s cool.” You ever watch a film and say, “I wish ________ would happen, that would be cool.” Well, when you watch  Dead Hooker in a Trunk , it actually does happen. I hate films where you guess the ending in the first five minutes. The film follows no rhyme or reason or sense. It just goes. It’s very self aware of how utterly ridiculous it is. It’s horror comedy for those who hear the title and have themselves a chuckle. If you don’t get a giggly school girl feeling from the title, don’t be surprised if the film in its entirety puts you off. It’s chalk full of “what the fuck” moments. When we first began pitching the concept we said picture Weekend At Bernie‘s made by Robert Rodriguez. The phrase “grindhouse” has been tossed around a lot to describe the film and I can definitely see why, especially taking into consideration how much the film Grindhouse influenced the making of this film. I’d say more than Grindhouse we were simply aware of our limitations and made jest of them.  

You seem to have promoted yourselves quite thoroughly, much like Eli Roth and Adam Green – could this be part of the Dead Hooker appeal?

Sylvia:  The horror community consists of the best people on the fucking planet. People who truly love the genre and stand behind what they love. Like Eli Roth and Adam Green, Jen and I are huge horror nerds and it’s unbelievable that we actually get to work in the genre that we love. The reason why Dead Hooker in a Trunk became so popular and got the notoriety that it did was because people really got behind this film, wrote about it, screened it, put it in festivals, blogged about it, shared it with their friends, and demanded to see it be successful. I am so humbled and grateful for the support hat we have gotten. I get to talk to these phenomenal people and it’s an honour for me and Jen. I’m the luckiest girl in the planet that I get to do this, I’ll never stop appreciating the people that got me here, and I’m fucking stoked that people are enjoying our work.

Jen:  I feel that our Dead Hooker is everyone’s Dead Hooker. First and foremost, we’re horror fans ourselves and we wanted to make a film that we wanted to see and felt that people like us would thoroughly enjoy. What we wanted from DHIAT was to make a film that was pure enjoyment for our audiences and then to share that film with as many people as possible. We truly care about horror and love the people that love it. We answer emails personally and will continue to do so as much a sour schedules allow. I know people that think they’re too good to talk to the people that support their work or seem to think it’s somehow beneath them. They’re fucking idiots. The only reason we are where we are is because people have seen our film – and given it’s only getting it’s worldwide release January 31st, they’ve gone well out of their way to – and told their friends about it. When we went to market with the film, everyone had already heard about it. That’s exceptional. I don’t think there are enough people out there making horror who are true fans of the genre. Too many folks just looking to make a quick buck by pumping out some piece of shit that insults the intelligence of horror fans. I want to shake that up and make work that make people excited to go out and see films again.

Are you completely happy with the finished film?

Sylvia:  There’s this great part in Rebel Without A Crew where Robert so desperately wants to put an explosion in El Mariachi. It never happened. I wanted an explosion in Hooker for the same reasons, but it didn’t happen. We got so close to getting a bear for Badass to punch out but we couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t maul our actress whose prosthetic arm it would have been pulling off. Would those things have made the film better? Maybe, but every time that I watch the film, I expect to hate it, for the love affair to be over, for it to be overplayed – yet, it still gets me every time. I see the people who worked for nothing, just for the love of film-making. I will never make a film like Dead Hooker in a Trunk again which is bittersweet. It was a true independent, rebel experience that taught me so much about film, so I’m pretty stoked. The explosion would have been cool, but we created the feeling we were going for with it.

Jen:  I don’t think anyone ever really is. As you grow and change, you learn and see things you may have missed before. Don’t get me wrong, I love  Dead Hooker in a Trunk. I am extremely proud of the film, the way it turned out, and the way that it has been received. It’s blown away our expectations entirely. But of course there are things I would change now. Any filmmaker could sit there and given unlimited time with a project just tweak and tinker away forever. Rodriguez says something similar in Rebel Without A Crew. There has to be a point where you walk away. It’s like making a clay pot. If you dick around with it too much, you ruin it. I love the film for its everything. Flaws and successes and all. When we made that film, that is where we were in our lives. It summed up our passion, love, and blind, unshakeable ambition perfectly. 

American Mary is going to surprise a lot of people. It shows just how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve learned between projects. I used to think I knew everything and then I realized I knew less than nothing. I make it a point to learn everyday. I watch everything I can get my paws on, good and bad. I tear films apart to see what works, what does, why it was great, or why it was crap. I think there will be people surprised that the creators of Dead Hooker made American Mary. And there’ll be a few smug faces that’ll say, “yup, I knew it all along.”

Did production go smoothly?  More importantly, did you enjoy production?

Sylvia:  Eli Roth passed on some great advice to me – focus on the doughnut, not the hole. Basically, focus on what makes it onto the screen, and leave the other bullshit that happens where it belongs. The drama should be in front of the camera and not anywhere else. There were problems for sure, but it isn’t what happens that counts but how you creatively problem solve in those situations to move forward.   I love making movies. I keep feeling like the fun police is going to shut us down. There are days where it just hits you, I would feel like someone is going to walk in there and see what we’re trying to do and take it all away. It’s irrational, but it’s a crazy feeling to be living your biggest nerd ambition with your best friend. People ask me a lot what is it like to be a twin. I have no idea what it must be like to not have a twin. I don’t think I could exist without Jen.

Jen:  I’m never happier than I am on set. My worst day on set is infinitely better than my best day waitressing or working retail or any other job. It feels so right. It feels like I’m doing what I’m meant to do. I walk around with this ear to ear grin that I try to tone down, but it’s incurable. Even when things totally go to hell, I’m happy. For whatever reason, Sylvia and I thrive in conflict and challenges. Give us a problem or problems and watch us go. Before we start anything, we go back and forth and trouble shoot every possible potential problem and come up with a list of solutions. More often than not those problems don’t arise, but we’re ready when they do.  Problems naturally arise on every set, in every project. If someone says they don’t, some shit so bad went down that nobody has healed from the emotional scarring enough to talk about it. Yet. Things went wrong on Hooker from losing props to being locked out of locations and everything in between. But it makes you think on your feet. I used to say our directorial style in the face of problems on DHIAT was somewhere between Robert Rodriguez and Ed Wood. [laughs]  I feel like a superhero when I work with Sylvia. There’s nothing we can’t face. I’m very lucky to have her. She’s incredible.

Why choose such a genre as your directorial debut?

Sylvia:  We were drawn to horror for as long as I can remember. I have these weird childhood memories of my fascination with it. I remember playing with spiders at a family BBQ and I would hold the little buggers up to the guests and they would scream and that seemed strange and fun to me. We begged our mom to let us watch horror movies and finally she watched Poltergeist with us. W kept our cool through the flick, but come bedtime, we were terrified. She did something that would forever change my life and told me what I saw – what I actually saw. Everything we saw was the collaborative efforts of talented artists from the costumes, to the locations, to the script, to the actors, to the blood and monsters with the intention of scaring the audience. The fact that people made the blood and monsters blew my mind, and the new coolest job on the planet was revealed to me. Humorously enough, we didn’t make Dead Hooker in a Trunk with the intention of making a horror movie. We joked that it was the anti Crossroads flick that was a cool road trip chick flick with not so sickeningly sweet situations that would be stupidly entertaining. All the blood, gore, and stunts had to not ‘puss out’, so we pushed it as hard as we could. Maybe even into horror movie territory which was pretty fucking rad.

Jen:  It had to be horror. I don’t think anything we do will ever not have at least some aspect of horror to it. Sometimes when we tell people we make horror movies they make these sad faces and say things like, “oh, it probably won’t be forever.” I want it to be forever. As a little girl I hated how Christmas pretty much gets two full months of celebration – in Canada we don’t mercifully have Thanksgiving in there to break it up – and that Halloween gets only a night. Now, I get to have Halloween every day. It’s what I always wanted. Instead of playing princess, we were reading Stephen King novels with a trusty thesaurus at hand. Life doesn’t give you enough happily ever afters like that.  When you do what you love, it shows. And I love horror. Actually, originally I thought we were making a dark comedy. Turns out our comedy is just a tad darker than most.

Are there any independent horror films out there that have impressed you recently:

Sylvia:  I fucking adored I Saw The Devil. It’s a beautifully presented, incredibly dark, unique, powerful film directed by Jee-woon Kim who is a fantastic Korean film-maker. It got this bullshit ban in Korea for content and it’s such a shame. A film like this does push the boundaries with it’s explicit nature, but it is artistically handled. It’s sad how horror seems to be the scapegoat of ridiculous censorship, even today when you think we could have moved past that.

Jen:  Maude Michaud is a fantastic film-maker. She’s French-Canadian and we met her through Women In Horror month. Her work is erotic and empowering. I don’t like when female film-makers shy away from sexuality because they’re afraid of being labelled something derogatory. Purposefully shying away from those topics and that content, that is so a part of human nature, is a display of a film-maker not being courageous enough to defend and speak intelligently about their own work. Maude is fearless.  I’m afraid I haven’t seen too many indie horror flicks recently. American Mary is one demanding girl and she’s been eating up all of our free time.

Any advice for budding first time film-makers out there trying to get productions off the ground?

Sylvia:  Some of the best advice I got was from Carlos Gallardo – don’t just talk about making a movie, go out and make one. There’s this weird notion that you need to have this or do that to be able to make a movie and that’s bullshit. Jen and I literally walked ass backwards into film-making. It started with our film school – it was a film school by self proclamation only, biggest crock of shit in the planet – that was a continuous disappointment. The final straw was cutting the budget to our final project. That was it. Hugely inspired by Grindhouse, which was in theatres at the time and had become our foster actual film school, we decided we would make our own fawn trailer like the ones we loved in the flick. We would write, direct, produce, act, and do the stunt work for it – and as an additional ‘fuck you’, we would put everything in the school’s ‘too inappropriate for school projects’ list and throw in bestiality and necrophilia – oddly forgotten – for good measure. We screened it as the final project at graduation and the reaction was perfect, half of the audience walked out and the other half was laughing and cheering so loud that you could barely hear the offensive dialogue. We started getting asked about the feature length, so we wrote it and got it made.  We learned as much as we could before going into it. We prepared for everything to go to hell and back. We wrote a story that was unique and meant something to us – you’re with this film for years, so make sure it’s something that is important to you.  We live in an age were technology is easily accessible to us. Getting an HD camera is more accessible, you can learn from your favourite filmmakers from director commentary and online videos and even their own personal sites. Be smart, be focused, and go out and fucking do it. If you do what you love and put your everything into it, then you will be successful.

Jen:  Think outside the box. Don’t just sit there and wait. And don’t write a million dollar movie. You’re setting up yourself for failure. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but we’re living in some hard economic times. There’s a big time recession going on right now and the film industry has taken a heavy hit. Big time directors that have been proven at the box office are getting their budgets slashed and films cut. Blockbuster has closed down and with it I imagine we’ll sadly see the end of video stores. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were sneaking into the horror section of my local video stores and peeking behind the covers at all the gruesome details. Now, children of the future will never know what that was like. So, do yourself a favour and write something you can creatively do low budget. I’d say go out and make a Dead Hooker in a Trunk or El Mariachi of your own. All you need is something you’re very passionate about. For Robert, it was man with a guitar case filled with guns. For us it was a Dead Hooker in a Trunk.  If you have big ideas, make a trailer. Show people the best things that you want to do and your style and feel and make them want to make your film. But don’t write a multi-million dollar epic and then bitch that no one wants to make it for you. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that it’s a big risk right now and people are holding onto their pocket books. Make them have to make your movie.  

What’s next for you guys now?  How much can you tell us about American Mary?

Sylvia:  The film follows the story of medical student, Mary Mason played by Katharine Isabelle, as she grows increasingly broke and disenchanted by medical school and the surgeons she once admired. The allure of easy money and notoriety brings her into the messy world of underground surgeries which leaves more marks on Mary than her so-called ‘freakish’ clientele. We’re in post production right now, as a matter of fact, we just watched the film pieced together for the first time today and it was a fucking cool experience. We’ve still got a ways to go before we’ve got a finished cut, but seeing it play out like that was brilliant.  I am so in love with my cast who brought the characters to life and none of them would have been attached with our kick ass casting director, Ann Forry, who fought to get us everyone we wanted in the film. Katharine Isabelle is intoxicatingly talented and I love what she did in this film so much. We had such a talented cast – Antonio Cupo (Billy Barker), Tristan Risk (Beatress Johnson), David Lovgren (Dr.Grant), Paula Lindberg (Ruby RealGirl), Twan Holliday (Lance Delgreggo), and John Emmett Tracy (Detective Dolor) – who were just amazing to collaborate with and I think people are going to be blown away by what they do in this film.   We’re aiming to start screening at festivals relatively early in the year and I cannot wait to see the reaction to the film.

Jen:  Very little about the film itself. I can tell you that we have an absolutely astounding cast and crew attached. People so inherently brilliant and talented that it still blows my mind that we had the opportunity to work together. We have long loved and respected prosthetics and practical effects and the artists that create them. We’ve loved MastersFX for ages. You’d know them as the bad-asses behind True Blood and Six Feet Under and Slither. To actually work with Todd Masters and his outstanding Vancouver team is truly a humbling experience. I cannot sing their praises enough. They are the most talented and professional collection of human beings that I’ve ever met. They are so disgustingly gifted and caring about their work and the film as a whole. I will never look anywhere else for our effects. If you want to work with us, you have to go work for MastersFX and you should. 

Brian Pearson was our amazing DP. He’s so humble for someone who is so damn talented. He made every shot look sexy as hell. It was a real pleasure to work with Cliff Hokanson, our camera operator, again. We met years ago when we were extras and he was shooting a TV series here in Vancouver. Our 1st AD, Brad Jubenvill, is the most professional gentleman you could ever ask for. He’s cool as hell and I don’t know what we’d ever do without him. I can’t forget Industry Works, who have are responsible for getting Dead Hooker out and have believed in us when so many others thought we were insane. Well, we are, but there’s a bit more to us than just that. And talking about having faith in us, 430 Productions were a huge part of making American Mary possible. They are wonderful and were so creatively supportive. I can’t even begin to say how much that means. Our production designer, Tony Devenyi, a fellow Hungarian, is a master of his craft. What he was able to do with our budget is like what Jesus did when he fed an entire crowd with a couple fish and two loaves of bread. We had high hopes for the look of the film and he would blow us away every single day. Jayne Mabbott of Engima Arcana was the head of our wardrobe department and she was phenomenal. After you see Mary develop throughout the film, you’ll be a big fan, like we are. If you don’t know these names yet, you’ll be googling the holy hell out of them after the film is release.


Visit TwistedTwinsProductions.com for more about the Soskas’ films and future productions!