In the last decade twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska have doggedly pursued film ventures in the horror genre. Armed with ingenuity, a DYI ethos and a pledge to frighten honest, hard-working people, the Soskas have acted in, directed, screenwritten and produced movies that would give Lloyd Kaufman and Eli Roth a run for their money.
The Soskas have directed such films as “Dead Hooker in a Trunk,” “American Mary,” (a film that’s regularly cited in discussions on Reddit as the best in the Soska opus), and 2019’s “Rabid,” which comes out on Blu-Ray on February 2nd. The diet of the Soska twins include giallo, slasher films and grindhouse culture and films by Robert Rodriguez, Dario Argento and and fellow Canuck filmmaker, David Cronenberg.
Anthony Francis recently spoke with Jen Soska and Sylvia Soska (please note, this story includes spoilers that are flagged where appropriate):
Kudos on “Rabid”! I liked it very very much. I feel it’s your best work yet and for me that’s saying a lot, because I think “American Mary” is one of the most aesthetically-pleasing Horror films of the last twenty years. It is refreshing to see a film of this type from a woman’s point of view. The genre needs more female-driven films. While we are seeing more genre films with women behind the camera these days, there is still a way to go. I feel like there’s a more personal slant to this film over your other works. Is this true?
Jen Soska: Yes, this is definitely our most personal film since “American Mary.” All our films are personal to us but “Mary” and “Rabid” are the two with the most of ourselves in it. It’s a very self-aware remake. Rose’s challenges and struggles with herself and her self-worth are something we all struggle with. It was quite the challenge to be the first directors tasked with remaking or reimagining a Cronenberg film. They’re sacred, so it’s not something you take on lightly. We often make big sacrifices for our careers but in the end it’s our personal relationships and the way we connect with people that mean the most to us. “Rabid” was a challenging production and part of the takeaway message is not to kill yourself for your career. Don’t lose yourself.
I’m very proud of the film. It’s very honest. I don’t want to say too much as I want people to take their own interpretations away from the film and read into things differently. That’s a big part of the experience.
Sylvia Soska: I would definitely say so. Having a relationship between Rose and Chelsea that was reflective of a real sister relationship was important. It’s been almost ten years since our last original film “American Mary” came out. Rose (played by Laura Vandervoort) is an ambitious artist working for a master, Gunter (played by Mackenzie Gray) which is very self-aware of the position we found ourselves in with being the ones to remake one of Cronenberg’s early masterpieces.
Was it exciting to come at this story seeing it through your eyes?
Jen: It was a huge honor to reimagine “Rabid” through a female gaze and in modern times. Mister Cronenberg touched on so many subjects, like transhumanism, that were so well ahead of their time. I feel our film is very much a conversational accompaniment piece to Cronenberg’s original.
Sylvia: I loved the creative freedom. When we spoke with the producers they said that we can handle the creative and they’ll handle the money, which was a very freeing way to tackle material that needed freedom to be strange and transgressive.
Did “Rabid” come to you or is this something the two of you sought out?
Jen: It actually came to us. Obviously we would have sought out and are currently seeking “Dead Ringers.”
Sylvia: It was so wild that it came from an email. There were years where we lost work because our work had such a distinct voice, but being niche auteurs we managed to come up for a Google search when the producers were researching Cronenberg.
I like to joke that it was part of a black magic ritual that happened in the ABCs of Death, W is for Wish segment by Steve [Steven] Kostanski. We met Brandon Cronenberg and in the scene – SPOILERS – Jen rips out his heart and I put a magical crystal in it. A few years later, we’re the first to remake a Cronenberg film with Steve being the head creature designer. Him and the whole MastersFX team did terrific work throughout.
Rarely is a reimagining (and I use the term “reimagining,” as I believe that is what you have done here rather than simply “remake”) of an already good film so fresh and original but you two and your cast and crew really made this something special while staying true to Cronenberg’s original. I appreciated how the characters are more fleshed out in your version and how even the smallest character reflected the themes you were exploring. Can you speak to the themes of your version of this take?
Jen: Gladly. Cronenberg was discussing the outbreak of STDs and the AIDS epidemic in his 1977 “Rabid,” whereas we see today’s outbreak to be a war on our minds and one that many of us are losing. Our media is overstimulating us with partial truths and carefully-crafted headlines to make us afraid and fighting amongst ourselves. We are so angry and hateful and judgmental these days. You see it in every interaction, every relationship in the film, that casual cruelty that we’ve all grown to just accept as the norm. We are quickly descending into a rabid culture where we scream our opinions at one another rather than speak. Men and women are so pitted against one another with so much rage and hurt there that those relationships have really degraded from the way they were intended to be.
The film also examines the concept of The Dark Night of the Soul. It’s often described as an existential crisis during which you feel completely abandoned in the darkness. The film examines that darkness as it exists in each of us. There is a part of ourselves that indeed takes pleasure from the suffering of others. Shadenfreude is a theme of the film as well. Whereas Mr. Cronenberg is quite intrigued by transhumanism in his original “Rabid,” we are quite disturbed by it in ours, as well as [by] the applications it has on our real world. The class system is examined in the film as well as we put our story framed against the cutthroat fashion world and medical system showing the vast differences in what is readily available for the elite versus the rest of us.
Sylvia: Thank you for such kind words. Our greatest ambition was that people would see this film and remember how much they love Mr. Cronenberg’s work. We hired cast and crew who worked with DC on his films, so we could get insight to how he made his masterpiece films. From Bryan Day who was our sound recordist to Heidi Von Palleske making a cameo in our “Dead Ringers” homage, we wanted to stay true to what was the message in the original but updated for today.
We live in such an increasingly rabid world that we wouldn’t even notice someone has a mutated strand of rabies until they are ripping out your throat. We don’t know what is going on with medicine the world over and the darker implications of transhumanism are truly terrifying. Lastly, we judge so much on surface value: you meet these characters in “Rabid” and you think you have them figured out, then you meet them again and your opinion of them shifts. You need to be so careful in this world where you lay your trust, even if it’s someone you think you can. So basically, a perfect date movie.
As film critic I more than appreciate your fresh spin on the material. The fashion world setting was a smart path to take. It represents obsession with perfection and a world where women can have power but sometimes it’s never enough to be talented or beautiful… or both. It’s truly a vicious world and the perfect canvas for your interpretation of “Rabid.” We live in a time when people are so self-obsessed that no one communicates on a deep level anymore. Are these the main reasons that made you take that route?
Jen: In many ways I felt [that] we were revisiting the themes of “American Mary.” What appears to be on the surface is rarely what lies beneath. You can’t judge a book by its cover no more than you can get to know someone purely by their appearances, however most people only know who we appear to be, not who we are. Whatever you look like, you know you will be judged on, so the appearances we keep up are very much as well a form of self expression or creating a safer avatar. In “Mary” that connection with one’s true self and identity was looked at through body modification. Here, we wanted to discuss those themes through fashion. While many but not all of us will get body modification in our lifetimes, all of us have to wear something and clothes are a very important form of communicating who you are.
There is also such a common misconception that a beautiful thing is always alright. If you are beautiful, so much can be forgiven. So much can be overlooked. Beauty is a commodity. No one feels they have enough. In the film, Rose uses her fashion sense to be more than what she feels she is. I think many women can relate to second-guessing what they’re going to wear before they go out. Will it be taken the wrong way? Will you get harassed? Do you look too sexy? Too plain? The fashion industry can also been misunderstood as feminine so, therefore, [it might be misconstrued as] very precious and delicate but it’s a ruthless business where even the most beautiful feel ugly chasing an unobtainable beauty standard. Spoiler alert, but, after Rose has her transformation, everyone treats her like she’s all fine now because she’s beautiful. She’s still carrying major mental and emotional scars but because those are now under the surface she’s not given the real healing she needs.
Sylvia: There was an early script that needed to be made into something that would be a fair representation of Mr. Cronenberg’s work and that’s where we were brought in. We took the fashion element and created Rose’s world around it. The original Rose didn’t have a last name, the film was almost entirely from the perspective of her boyfriend, Brad Hart. We wanted to flesh her out, give her a career, a real drive. She had survived her family in this horrific accident and then she ends up in this world that just highlights everything that she’s insecure about in her appearance. Then, her adopted family sister, Chelsea (played by Hanneke Talbot), is a super model, so that affects her personal worth.
We wanted to play with preconceived notions of people in that world and play with expectation. We love what Ben Hollingsworth did with Brad Hart. To keep the fashion authentic, not only did we have Morganne Tree Newson, our costumer, create original couture designs [but] we also had Roger Gingerich curate Canada’s top designers to highlight throughout the film.
I loved how Rose (and the double meaning of her name!) fits into this current society where abusers of power (both professionally and personally and especially towards women) are finally being taken to task. It was interesting to see Rose evolve on those levels, becoming internally stronger as she pushes back against the male characters. They have a misguided sense of believing they know what is best for Rose. And that is a fantastic commentary on the male way of thinking today. Did this use of the story give the studios pause of any kind?
Jen: Everyone was very supportive of the themes we wanted to discuss in the film. Given the state of the world [today] it would have felt off not to comment on it. One of my favorite scenes (spoiler alert) would be on the TV soap set, we call it our “Me Too” scene because for those unfamiliar with the lunatic behavior that just causally happens on sets every day, it’s pretty honest-to-life. You can have an actor yelling abuse at his co-star and everyone will just stand there like they’ve all gone blind, deaf, and dumb. There’s been a long time abuse of power in film, but also in all leaders. All businesses meant to serve the people, like the justice and medical systems, just serve the rich and drain the poor. We talk about some big issues in this film, it was nice to be supported. You don’t really hire us if you don’t want outspoken directors, ha ha!
Rose’s evolution is really liberating to watch. In the original she was a victim of her circumstances, she wasn’t even the cause of her accident, but in ours she really drives her own story. She has quite the journey, starting out so demure and slight, but evolving and taking ownership of herself.
Sylvia: The thorn at the end of the tentacle is the namesake of Rose if I remember correctly from the Cronenberg commentary track! We’re an independent film from Canada, but the financiers were super supportive of the story that we wrote. In the original, Rose has several hunting scenes as a biological vampire and we recreated those, if not took inspiration from them for our version. I don’t think the first couple of guys deserve it as much as they were in the wrong place with the wrong girl. When CM Punk shows up as Billy – and bless his heart because he is such a great guy and we’re making him play this horrible character –it’s one of those “fuck yeah!” moments because everyone in the audience knows this guy and wishes Rose would show up to shut him up. In the film there are times [when]Rose goes against her instincts because she thinks it’s what she should do and that’s when the film takes its darkest turns.
One of the best ideas you gave to this story is how Rose is now in control of her own fate. She’s no longer passive, as she was in Cronenberg’s version. It is her decisions that lead to everything. She’s the one who allows the medical procedure. She’s the one who eventually embraces her change. Laura Vandervoort brings off Rose’s duality quite beautifully. You allow us to see into Rose’s (new?) soul through her fashion work and her actions towards the men who surround her. Especially her performance while she was in the prosthetics, it’s really wonderful work. In a perfect world she is nomination worthy. Was Vandervoort an immediate choice or was there a lengthy casting process?
Jen: Oh, thank you! There were a lot of actresses that were discussed. We had wanted to work with Sarah Gadon originally but meeting Laura really made us want her for the role.
Sylvia: All I wanted to do was appease Mr Cronenberg so I thought, boom, Sarah Gadon is who he’d pick. Then we met Laura for another project she was producing during which she was attacked by these flying ants as they left their nest. We were on the patio. She was so composed, but determined, I kept thinking she’d be great in “Rabid” and asked her to read the script. We originally offered her Chelsea, but she wanted to play Rose. She brought a lot of herself to the role. She was so dedicated to the role, I think she’s brilliant in the role.
Can you speak to your relationship with the actors?
Jen: I love working with actors. I like to work together to create a character with them. As the writers of the material, we often have a deeper understanding of the character’s place in that world but always work with actors to make the character their own and someone just as real to them as they are to us. My characters are very real to me. I love them. When we work with actors we are unlimitedly available to them. When they get the job, we like to call and let them know they can talk to us anytime for any reason. And we mean it. If you wake up at 3am and had a dream than made you think about the movie I’d actually be quite put off if you didn’t at least text me.
I’m all in with actors. It’s often a bittersweet relationship because it’s often so real and so honest only for a short amount of time. Actors rarely stay in touch outside of our casting notices, but the ones that do are the real deal. We act ourselves so we have a tremendous amount of respect for the work put into the craft when it’s put in. We like to provide a really safe and supportive working environment so actors are comfortable enough to really push themselves.
Sylvia: What we ask them to do in film is pretty scary and often uncomfortable, so we make the sets very fun and the environment very creative. Because of the nature of this film, everyone was able to make their characters their own. Ted Atherton embodied Dr Burroughs so wholly that he added the line about 56 billion farm animals being consumed. I love that. People feel free to play on our sets. We’re there from casting, we choose every cast member, we’re in the room for auditions. We want everyone to feel appreciated as part of the team.
Some directors are constantly in their actors’ ears while others sit back for the most part after giving notes and allowing their cast to get there organically. What are your styles, and do they vary from film to film?
Jen: I always ask an actor, especially someone new, how do you like to work? I make sure I give them what they need and I tell them my expectations of them, as well. Always be off-book. It’s the minimum.
Sylvia: Depends a lot on the actors. Some like a lot of back and forth, some prefer just one-word directions. There’s a lot of black on the screen for our scripts, once we have our cast, we talk a lot about the character. We do a few blockings and let people play, while that happens, we move around with the DP [director of photography -ed], Kim Derko, and see where our camera is going to go now that we have this movement, these performances. We hug a lot on set, we cheer after great takes, it’s a really positive environment.
No spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film, but I loved your use of CM Punk. I see assholes like that all the time in all walks of life and it’s great to see how that sequence comes to pass.
Kim Derko’s camerawork is fantastic. The film looks great and keeps that Canadian horror feel that Cronenberg does so well while staying true to the look you gave most of your works. I once spoke with the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler and he told me how frustrating it can be when a filmmaker hires a cinematographer and neither see eye-to-eye on the film’s look.
Can you talk about how the two of you communicated with Derko to come up with the proper look?
Jen: The D.P. and director really need to have a shared vision for the film. We shot “Rabid” in only nineteen days. We had no time to disagree. Kim really understood not just our vision for the film but our sensibilities as filmmakers, right away.
Sylvia: We were going to work with the legendary Mark Irwin, but it didn’t work out and we started interviewing. Kim comes in and gets everything we’re doing with the film. We start talking Magritte and surrealism, color palettes, Cronenberg and we see the same movie. Kim Derko is a genius, Mark loved her work on the film. The life and creativity Kim brings to each shot is gorgeous, haunting, visually haunting. We had a female camera team, Tammy Jones was our steadi/A cam and Paula Tymchuk was our B cam; they brought so much to each sequence. We love hiring talented people and letting them do their jobs. I think we ended up with a very seventies, dreamy, artful film.
Claude Foisy! I loved the blending of the score with sound effects/design. Did you two discuss with Foisy the style of score you were after?
Jen: Oh, it was such a dream-come-true to work with Claude. He’s just such a magnificent artist. We love classical music but in the vein of doing a reimagining of a great masters work, we wanted Claude to reimagine compositions by great masters. The music is so haunting and beautiful in the film. We talked about the feel for the film and how we wanted to give it a seventies-but-modern feel. Vintage, but revamped.
He did such magnificent work. The piece chosen over the (spoiler alert) “Dead ringers” homage scene is one of my very favorite in the film and Ava Maria returns as our own nod to “American Mary.”
Sylvia: We’ve been fans of Claude’s since “Pontypool.” We couldn’t believe our luck that we were able to collaborate on this film. When we met, we realized that our collective favorite musical was “Jesus Christ Superstar,” so we knew everything would be blessed. His remakes of classical music played so wonderfully into the self-aware remakes themes throughout the film.
Was the sound/music design something you had pre-planned?
Jen: Some we had, some had to be discussed much more deeply when we had picture to show as some of the images were, um, unique? We had the wonderful Paula Fairfield (GoT) come on for our sound design and her work really needs to be experienced in the theatre with surround sound to appreciate. She used all organic sounds for the creatures and the infected.
Sylvia: Claude came on in pre-production and we discussed the style of music. He’s such a genius, he just kept sending us these masterpieces. I think there was one track that we wanted something different on, but his work was so inspired. We reteamed with Kevvy from Fake Shark who have been on all of our soundtracks, it was important to have them here. Kevvy wrote original music for the film, including the end credits track, “Hunger.”
And long live practical FX! MastersFX does fantastic work here. The “rose coming out of Rose” is a great touch.
How involved were you in the design of the makeup and gore?
Jen: Terribly. I’m so in love with practical FX. We wanted to do absolutely as much practically as we could as a further nod to the 1977 classic. VFX would look silly in a tribute to Cronenberg. Steve Kostanski was our lead creature designer and we worked for the first time with the incredible team at the MastersFX Toronto Shop (we’re usually shooting in Vancouver). We special-designed the creature dubbed “The Smoking Man” for actor “Twisty” Troy Jones who is a masterful creature and suit performer. It was such a thrill to work with him.
Sylvia: That particular effect was so important to us. In the original, Rose’s method of feeding is so vaguely-referenced, we wanted to get a good look. Even Hart has a battle with it, I mean, if you’re going to go there, you might as well go there. We are following the master of body horror after all. A lot of puppeting, a lot of blood, a lot of heart went into bringing those nightmarish moments to life.
Jen: Oh, yes! I certainly hope so. This film was heavily inspired by “Invisible Monsters.” We really wanted to pay tribute to all of Mr. Cronenberg’s work so we wanted, like he did with Williams Burroughs and Naked Lunch, to pay tribute to our favorite author, Chuck Palahniuk. The theme of being broken and desperately wanting some to acknowledge your pain resonates in both Mr. Palahniuk’s novel and our film. Our Rose starts broken and becomes more wounded but no one comes to comfort her. No one even sees her in pain, coming apart, losing herself, and then embracing her new identity.
Sylvia: So much so. Chelsea even has the last name Cottrell which is Evie Cottrel in “Invisible Monsters.” We gave Laura and Hanneke copies after we wrapped. I love complicated, layered, flawed, broken characters and no one writes them like Palahniuk.
Again, no spoilers for our audience but it was a treat to experience what you did with the film’s finale. Truly bizarre and quite effective moments that we don’t get in many modern horror films.
Without giving too much away, can you speak to the design of that ending sequence in the final room?
Jen: I really feel “Rabid” needs to be watched twice to be fully enjoyed. It’s set up like a tragedy but when you know what to expect in the second viewing, you watch the set up and wonder how you couldn’t see the noose tightening the whole time. In the film, every one is introduced in a light not true to who they truly are. Throughout the film, characters reveal themselves to be better or much worse than maybe you’d been initially lead to believe. It’s also a comment on who we trust and give our power away to and why. The ending is truly my favorite. While Mr. Cronenberg is very scientifically-minded, we are quite spiritual and the absence of “God” and what some put in place of that God can be truly horrifying.
Sylvia: Peter Mihaichuk was our Production Designer and his & his teams work was unreal. They are magicians. The last room in the film we called it The Strange Room. The film is about so much that is bubbling under the surface that by the time it’s there, it’s too late. It’s a tragedy. If you look at the walls at this particular location with this particular character, you feel uneasy but you can’t put your finger on it until the actual horror is revealed.
In Transhumanism, the most dangerous followers are the Immortalists. The people who plan to use science manipulation to become godlike. That final room is how detached from humanity someone like that can become.
You peppered this one with tributes to Cronenberg, my favorite being the “Dead Ringers” red surgery outfits. The design of that scene fits perfectly with the fact that Dr. Burroughs definitely has a god complex and is completely manipulating Rose from their first meeting. The reds are so bold and almost overwhelming. That was a fantastic touch. What film of his is each of your favorite?
Jen: Oh, thank you so kindly! “Dead Ringers” is my absolute favorite. It was one of the last films of his that I watched because I had never before seen a non-fetishized, degrading, or flat out insulting depiction of twins. “Dead Ringers” is so completely layered. It’s a magnificent film. Jeremy Irons’s performance as both Mantle brothers is genius and probably one of the greatest performances of all time.
Sylvia: “Dead Ringers” because of how it connects to Jen and me. It’s all so very personal. I love his novel “Consumed.” I think he’s just a master storyteller.
I believe artistic merit should be more important than it is in situations of censorship.
Can you briefly speak about censorship and how because of the skittish film world the Horror genre is seeing too many of its films delegated to smaller releases before hitting the On Demand or streaming services?
Jen: About half a dozen companies control all our media. I find [that] anything with anything real to say doesn’t get a big release. Sometimes horror movies do get a big release but they’re either a brand being pushed out to bring up the worth of said brand (horror franchises) or some company pushing an agenda. All horror that gets a major release is very safe. They call for diverse casting, but are we really seeing diverse stories? I think censorship has never been about saying anything offensive. It’s about shutting down some voice while pushing others. It’s always been about controlling people.
It was unfortunate that we were kicked off Twitter the day we released our world premiere date and trailer for “Rabid” by simply posting the film festival banner. It was one thing to be taken down but quite another to not be quickly restored. The very next day after we were banned (at the time we were told we’d never be back) Twitter had a top trending story hailing the gruesome new trailer for “IT 2.” We are not a big studio movie. We don’t even get a voice. You’re seeing independent artists with strong voices and real followings being shut down more and more.
Sylvia: I think the real conversation is how the major studios have bought up a certain amount of theatres for their films that the market for independent films or rather anything other than the studio supplied arts is smaller than ever. We’re fighting for a smaller piece of pie than ever before. There will be a lot of topics claiming to be the culprit, but it’s all about money and power – that’s who controls what you see.
I have heard you speak about remaking “Dead Ringers.” I want this!
Any headway on this remake?
Jen: Hunting it down and continuing to flesh it out. It’s something we’ve dreamed of doing for years. We really want to make it as a series because we want to really spend time in that world. Twins also so rarely get to be in control of how they are portrayed in media. It would be lovely to finally be able to do that.
Sylvia: Checking to see who has the rights. The dream is of course to have the Olsen twins grace the public with a performance where they are finally in control of the dialogue regarding them and their relationship. Those two women were a part of so many people’s lives growing up but not of their choice, I’d love to be a part of the work they choose to do now.
I’ll close with saying that I love your advice to upcoming filmmakers, “Follow your stupid fucking dreams!”
Anything to add for the next generation of filmmakers?
Jen: Oh, thank you. I always say “follow your stupid fucking dreams, they’re the only ones worth having.” I stand by it. If you want to be a filmmaker, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s a very hard career. If you stick with it you will find success but be careful how you choose to define success. Do not define your own success by the path another walks. Be authentic. Believe in something. Have something to say. Don’t listen to hateful people. A lot of people will try to discourage you especially if they have given up on themselves and their own dreams along the way. A lot of the people who you love like family will reveal themselves to be jealous and no friends of yours when you get a little success. A lot of success only make it worse. Be careful who you let into your world. The people you surround yourself with say a lot about you. Get everything in writing. Do not give up your intellectual property. Create your own content. If you don’t know how to do something and you’re not the kind of person who will look it up and figure it out, don’t do it. Filmmaking is always changing and you must, too. If you’re a story teller, this is your platform. Love what you do but never kill yourself for your career.
Sylvia: I remember when I first started in film, I would ask my successful friends about the horrid behavior I was seeing and they would tell me that it was all very common. For two long there have been environments that are unsafe and unprofessional, that’s not the place to create meaningful art. Every person is made up of stories, stories that will make you laugh, stories that will break your heart. Don’t believe that it is an elitist activity. We need people who love to tell stories to get together with their friends to self distribute their movies. Think of the most high production items you can get for free, think of a story that means something to you, you can film it on your cell phone, don’t let anything stop you. Your dreams don’t come with expiration dates.
Thank you both once again for the opportunity to speak with you and I look forward to speaking again on your next film!
“Rabid” comes out in Blu-Ray in the U.S. on February 4th.