The Round Table Interview was held at 2019 Arrow Video FrightFest
Frightfest ‘The heart of horror’ celebrated its 20th anniversary as one of the best genre festivals in Europe. A festival that both supports and nurtures the emerging horror talent but also shows a fierce loyalty to past filmmakers at the festival.
Ahead of their world premiere, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jen and Sylvia Soska to discuss all things ‘Rabid’, how Frightfest as a festival has supported them as filmmakers and how they are changing the face of the horror industry one film at a time.
No strangers to Frightfest (American Mary premiered 7 years ago) Jen and Sylvia discussed their excitement at having Rabid its first ever showing at Frightfest.
Sylvia told us “Seven years ago we had our world premiere of American Mary here. It was a 1,400-person theatre, I’d never been to a screening like that and I still have never had a screening like that again ever since. If you know our stuff, we haven’t made a movie for a long time. I mean we made American Mary and that was the last time they let us make an original movie”. She continued “I remember even going to 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” and I was like what shame, but becoming that niche director meant we could make Rabid. When we found out that Frightfest was gonna give us the world premiere and they were like “it’s gonna be on closing night and we are gonna bring you out for the whole time’
“We don’t get this in Canada, we don’t get this in the United States, it’s always in the UK people are like “oh my god the Soska’s did something” and I’m like you’re not shutting us out the country, you like us thank you”
Jen added “Yeah like it’s all James Gunn and James Wan and all those fellas over there and there really isn’t a lot of love and celebration. It’s not just with us it’s 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”.
Jen 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. I had worked in film up to a certain point where every experience was incredibly abusive and it was the people on top, I’m talking the untouchable people that were making everyone feel like crap. It wasn’t like an electrical grip over here, no one is like what are we gonna do about Randy he’s out of control”.
“It was somebody that was irreplaceable, and it was someone who couldn’t be discussed 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 id 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 a bizarre world, where everybody loves me, and everybody hugs me and they’re happy for me and have nice things to say about the film. Nobody has a shitty, sexist, identical twin comment its just so incredibly refreshing”.
Jen continued “I don’t think people realise how hard it’s been with like constant death and rape and murder threats to us, our family we have both suffererd with depression, anxiety and PTSD from experiences we’ve had in the film industry. I’m very grateful that I now have a psychiatric service dog named Princess Diana. She’s the love of my life, the dog at the at the beginning of Rabid, Jackson. That’s her daddy”.
Sylvia– “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 we took this experience, we went to someone. I said this happened in this movie and this movie and they went “Wow, we can’t do anything about these 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 sensitive training, training right away so you don’t have to wait for somebody to act out”.
‘it’s like a team building exercise, everybody knows our language on set. Were truckers, were sailors, we have to be aware that language is no longer acceptable and even we change it. It’s not like we cat have fun anymore, but no one needs to lose their respect”.
“And 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 alley 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, its 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 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 Soskas were then asked about the term ‘female film directors’, how in the future it would be great for female filmmakers to be referred to as just filmmakers and what the future holds for women in the industry?
Jen began the conversation talking of the MeToo movement in Hollywood and its effects on the film industry, “I don’t know why it’s become such an elitist thing but that’s why we included the MeToo scene in Rabid”.
“There was an epidemic of STD’s and the aids crisis back when David (Cronenberg) was doing the film. Right now, there is an epidemic of our minds, there’s a war being fought on our minds. Thankfully Europe it seems, people are a little 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 plastic straws. I don’t print plastic straws, I don’t make the rules. So it is 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 that means so much to me”.
Sylvia added “When I first started a fight against the female filmmaker thing, I was like I’m not a chick, I’m just a Sylvia”
Jen further added “I remember my mom after she saw Dead Hooker (in a trunk) before our first screening, she said, “Please don’t show this to anybody” and I said, “Mom the screenings tomorrow, it’s a bit too late”.
“She’s like “We understand you guys and I am afraid what people will 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 goin Syl, keep your mouth open don’t let them shut you up”. But I like being loud as Jennifer and I are so if there’s another artist who isn’t as loud as us, we already burned that road for you. You can make your little quiet, arthouse movie because here we are cutting off vaginas and nipples being like “Were the Soska sisters and were making Cronenberg”.
“I think it really has to be us, the actual horror fans. Some of us are filmmakers, some of us are critics and all of us are fans. I think this is a turning point, not just in our careers but on
the word in general, we have a decision to make. Either were going to go through another path of the hell reality because we can all see it could possibly get and just drop the shit. We can all just get the abusers out of the industry and we can support artists that aren’t commercially made. The big thing is that were 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 am so proud to be an unhirable director”.
Jen– “Anytime someone 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 and I don’t want to work for the company”
Conversation changed to filming of Rabid and the importance of a diverse crew, including Cinematographer Kim Derko and editor Erin Deck and how they were challenging the stereotypical term a ‘female gaze’.
Jen stated- “You know when you talk about female gaze, usually they just put a female director and say, “Yeah s female director”, all those different, diverse opinions, the ways that even the camera moves over Laura (Actress in Rabid) 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 started having this dialogue, and iris just so amazing”
“Sally Menke is one of the greatest editors to have lived, and most people don’t even know who she is. She’s the reason everybody loves Tarantino. She is the one who is like “Pulp Fiction isn’t working, let’s put it out of sequence”. You know it was really important for us to make a female gaze film I think if you bring David’s next to ours, its such a beautiful example of male gaze and female gaze”.
“And not to take anything from David, he’s heterosexual male and that’s his fantasy. I’m a pansexual woman and his is my fantasy. As much as I love women, I love to see them empowered.
Sylvia further added “And you know women editors are notoriously so good, Verna Fields with Jaws was like “Maybe don’t show the shark so much”.
“So when we got Erin Deck to do this, 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 weird way to communicate to someone, a peer of yours that has done something that you would like to do. Perhaps you could talk to her about her experiences having done that”
“Erin was even 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 want to fight that battle, I don’t want to 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 annoyance. Much to our joy but well 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 and combined, probably like hundreds of years, all of them and they never get opportunities and everyone’s like “Sweetie, is this your first one?” people are talking to Kim who’s been doing this for thirty years “Are you excited you’re a DP now?” Yes, all of us are excited. We are super excited but when you finally let people be empowered. I hired the best and tell them to play”.
Jen continued, “it totally changes the tone on set. So often just a male or female crew member would say it’s good to that no one’s yelling, like there’s no bravado, no one is trying to pump up their chest or anything there’s just always very calming energy no matter what’s going on”.
“I’ve worked with males, male editors and DPs ad 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 though wasn’t good enough just so we wouldn’t be wasted in small details”.
“I’ve never had that kind of dedication, Erin, Kim, Paula and Tammy are the most qualified women working in the industry that just don’t work enough and I really hope that Rabid is gonna catapult them”.
The Soska’s at this point were asked “How do they productively work together, how have they made films all these years effectively”?
Jen explained “We like to call it diving 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 the set. Sylvia will go down with the ship she’s always there I have a job called putting out fires”.
Sylvia “its co -producing a movie. There’s even times a movie of ours nearly shut down because we can’t cut a thousand dollars off the budget. We almost walked away from the project and this young woman kept us there. There was so much insanity. I was goin to walk away and Jen kept me from going on this. She’s a very humble person. He says she’s putting out fires, but I’ve never had a movie where she didn’t produce the whole thing for me”.
Jen further added, “This film is the film that was never meant to be made. I thought it was gifted and cursed”
Jen gave us an insight into 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 putting this piece on Katie (Isabelle), where she had her head split open and it was meant to take two-and-a-half-hour application. We managed it in an hour and a half and the amount of bitching I had to endure. I usually when a prosthetic is being applied, 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 got to shoot in, so most locations we were showed for the first time and we’d have to pull it out of our assess 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, it’s great. Otherwise you feel alienated’
The Soskas at this point went it to more detail how the filming of Rabid was cathartic for them, personal tragedies, bereavements and past experiences in the film industry were all put into the film.
Sylvia explained, “I didn’t realise how much of that we put into it. Were 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, 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 and I’m like “oh Jesus it’s like I may as well go into porrn at this point and you can see everything”.
Jen further explained why after all this they carried on, “It was for David, always for David, but I knew that I needed to make a film like this talking about the MeToo movement, about
the disease 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 in 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 would be able to tell this kind of story again. I was really pushing things like with the prosthetics and the boundaries and I knew I had to stick through and see it through. Because I think a lot of 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 the happy ever after gloss bullshit, when we feel our lives aren’t reflective of that”.
“We feel somehow we’ve fucked up our lives, so I think it is very cathartic. Its not just for us it’s for other people, its 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 they’re an activist, that’s nothing it’s ridiculous”.
The conversation changed to the effects used In Rabid and how the sound design was created by Game of thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield.
Sylvia explained “She’s responsible for all the dragons, she 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”
“But then the 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 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 way were ready to go, Steve Kostanski (The Void) was our lead creature designer he’s one of the greats”.
“And we had Twisty Troy (Troy James) as one of our first outbreak creatures because “what happens if we get super rabid? Well, he will show you.Theres a little bit of embellishments for VFX like the blood at the end, there’s a lot of VFX blood in there but it was important for us to be practical because when you get 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 want to go in there” and “I think I’m going insane” and I’m like “Use it, it’s perfect”.
“I mean when people saw the Brood reference towards the third act people were blown away, people were scared, and they were going over to Tristan (Risk) who plays the character and asking if she was ok and if she was comfortable. God bless Tristan, there’s
only one Tristan Risk she’s like “Yeah I’m fine” and walking around with her puppy being like “Are you scared of how I look? This is actually hot”.
Jen added “The screams, every rabid creature has a scream that comes from somewhere. Those screams are actually our screams. Mine, Sylvia’s, Tristan’s and Danielle our sound designer. 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 Game of Thrones fans and their screams beautifully put together and she works in a way 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 visual effects are like cosmetic surgery, if its good you don’t know it’s there”.
And of course, the question we all wanted to know has David Cronenberg seen the film yet?
Sylvia excitingly stated – “So we tried to get David in the movie. They’re remaking The Fly, and so they offered him a cameo in that 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 that our movie remake was the only one he was looking forward to because he was a fan of American Mary”.
“After the movie was finished, we finally had a meeting which is like the scariest thing possible, and we 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 its more “the actress was difficult that day, I didn’t get my own way” I was like oh my god he’s me David, 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 a meeting 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 movie”.
“He’s not the kind of person who would send you email or 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 its either a restraining order or that he think it was flattering”
Jen added “Then we made a joke that it was 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 or he might be waiting for a theatre”