Interview with the Soska Sisters
May 31, 2011
Here at WhatDVD.Net, we caught up with Jen and Sylvia Soska, the Soska Sisters, to chat about the DVD release of their debut movie ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk‘. These sisters know what it means to be your own boss and make a movie for themselves. Here is what the sisters had to say about making their debut film, what projects they’re working on next and what advice they have for budding filmmakers hoping to break into the industry.
1. How did you go about raising finance for the film?
Sylvia: We didn’t. We have been huge Robert Rodriguez fans for years – not only do we love his films, we love his ten minute film schools where he explains how to independently and modestly make some very cool looking tricks. He accounted his first feature filmmaking experience in REBEL WITHOUT A CREW which followed him from donating his body to science to raise seven grand to make EL MARIACHI. It really hit home with us that you can make a good film with a humble budget and that’s what we did.
A lot of that was possible because of our team. There was a writer’s strike at the time that freed up everyone’s schedules. We were able to get the best in the business coming out, donating their time to make a great project. We were very lucky.
Jen: What we did have to pay for ended up maxing out our credit cards. We had about a few between the two of us and every time we ended up with an expense that needed to be paid for, we charged it. That was for costumes, prosthetics, equipment rentals, and food for the actors. Almost everything, including the cast and crew’s time was donated to the production. We got a team together of people who love filmmaking and are passionate about it. It was amazing to have so many talented local artists coming together to bring DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK to life.
At the end of it, the real expenses came from taking so much time off and not having an income to pay for basic necessities. Our parents, Agnes and Marius Soska, and our producers, MaryAnn Van Graven and Donald Charge, knew the situation we put ourselves in and gave us the money we needed to be able to finish the film in post and get it out there. It was so kind and generous of them. We’ll never forget that kindness.
2. Making a film of this genre is very ambitious; did you encounter any obstacles with making the film, such as people who said you couldn’t do it, people who said it wouldn’t work and people who didn’t want you to do it?
Sylvia: Yes. There were quite a few people who heard the concept – the story and how we were self-financing the project – that were instant nay-sayers. Most of the original cast and crew from the fake trailer that started the project did not come onto the feature project. It was very difficult to cast the film because you wanted a strong team but at the same time you are looking for people who are the best but will work for next to nothing. So many people said it would never happen, that we were crazy for even attempting it, and that the material in the script was too offensive.
We had the actress that was supposed to play on of the lead roles, Goody Two-Shoes, drop out of the film two days before we went to camera. There were a lot of actors that were approached to be in the film that just didn’t like the material and with our timeline, we couldn’t find a single actress willing to play the role. That’s when our good friend, CJ Wallis, stepped up and agreed to play the role. We rewrote the role as a male and it was the start of our incredibly close personal and professional relationship. The people who did end up on the team are some of the most hard working and wonderful folks in the business.
Jen: Many of the people who started out saying making DHIAT independently/DIY style was a mistake, ended up coming around in the end and offering their help. However, we didn’t need their help really at that point. So many extremely talented professionals came out for the film because they truly love making movies and believed in the project.
It was quite the challenge at first as so many people are convinced that there’s only one way to make a film. The “right” way. You need a script on Movie Magic or Final Draft. DHIAT was written on Word. You should’ve seen the looks on some faces when I smilingly presented our original script, ha ha. You also need to be funded. And we very much weren’t that either. I think the whole concept of indie filmmaking can be mind boggling to someone who is so used to working on studio projects. There are so many indies that are giving the big boys a run for their money these days.
We couldn’t just throw money at our problems so we were forced to creatively tackle them. That made us better filmmakers. When you need to shoot something with failing natural light and only minutes to come up with a solution, it really forces you to either sink or swim. It’s what indie filmmaking is all about.
3. The title of the film is instantly intriguing, conjuring up a very visual image. How did you come up with the title and was this always going to be the title of the film?
Jen: It came out of nowhere. I was tossing around ideas in my head when I came up with Dead Hooker In A Trunk. Being indie, I knew the title was going to be really special. You need so desperately to have a title that’ll be instantly exciting, unforgettable, and set you apart from the rest. It’s like a first impression. You hear a title for a film and from that moment on you have an opinion based on it. Or, worse yet, no opinion at all. I wanted our title to invoke a strong emotional reaction from our audiences. I expected some bad in there with all the good, but another plus to having a title like that is that if you don’t like the title, you probably won’t like the film. It doesn’t ever present itself as something it’s not. It’s fucked up, bizarre, and utterly ridiculous.
Sylvia: Jen was brilliant by coming up with it. We were living in the movie theaters, watching GRINDHOUSE constantly while being completely disappointed by film school. Those fake trailers were so well made and fun – like the movies we grew up watching. When Jen turned to me while we were walking out of the theater and said ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’, it was perfection. I asked what the film would be about and she said that she didn’t know, but that’s one hell of a title, eh?
4. Some of the stunts in the film look like they could have been quite dangerous on a low budget – were there any injuries occurred, or stunts that went wrong?
Sylvia: Jen and I have both trained extensively in martial arts. The phenomenal stunt program segment that the film school we ended up going to was what drew us in. It was outsourced, it’s professionalism was sadly missing in the rest of the school’s set up, but we learned about taking the skill set that we had and applying it to action for the camera. There are several steps taken in stunt work to prevent certain missteps and minimize the potential for danger to the performers involved. Most of the final cast were stunt performers as well as actors because we wanted to keep that knowledge and safety always present.
During the filming of the teaser trailer, we had my character Badass dragged by a lasso around the wrist down a dirt road. At that time, we had one of the school’s instructors and a local celebrity in the role of the Cowboy Pimp that I would be doing the stunt with. The actor had a huge argument with my crew which ended with him making forcing us to choose between him and the crew – all the camera men and everything we needed to actually film the teaser. We chose the crew and he decided he would leave, unfortunately we still had the stunt to film before he could go. For whatever reason, he decided to take it out on me and when it was time to start, he had the horse running down the road with me being torn up behind it. I lost a few inches of skin which led to my not doing the stunt in the final feature.
The team that came together to work on the feature length are the best and very safety conscious. Loyd Bateman, was our stunt coordinator as well as one of our producer and camera operators, was always on set when any stunt was performed and minimizing the potential for injury was huge. We hired a stunt actress, Tasha Moth, to play the role of the Hooker because we wanted to have that sense of realism with the actors performing their own stunts.
Jen: The stunts were dangerous. I do not recommend anyone try them on their own. We had an outstanding team of stunt professionals brought onto Dead Hooker In A Trunk. Our producer, Loyd Bateman, an incredible stunt professional himself, was often looking over the stunts and action bits on set. We also brought in coordinators Jacob Rupp, Lauro Chartrand, and Kim Chiang to coordinate our stunt sequences. Lauro Chartrand did our Hooker’s death scene. It was absolutely amazing. We literally had the best of the best on the production.
Sylv and I like to do our own stunts. It’s a lot of fun, especially with such gifted professionals watching over you. I’ve been bugging Lauro to set me on fire since I’ve known him, ha ha. It’s totally on my bucket list.
5. Usually when making a film that involves guns, knives and chainsaws on such a low budget, a member of the public is going to get spooked; were there any incidents where onlookers thought the action was real, or were the police ever called?
Jen: When you’re holding a camera in Vancouver you can get away with murder, ha ha. No, not literally. There were quite a few bizarre incidents where I was so sure we were going to get it from the police. I can’t believe they weren’t ever called! During the scene where Badass is kidnapped and Sylv’s screaming at the top of her lungs I thought, “oh shit, the footage is SO good, but someone’s gotta be calling the cops.” Nope. Not even a neighbor complaint, which sort of made me worry about the building we were filming in. However, the “free” price couldn’t be beat.
We were burying our Hooker in broad daylight in a popular local park. A sweet old lady came over while we were burying her and watched us do it. On the “behind the scenes” making of Dead Hooker featurette on our DVD you can hear her saying, “oh! They’re burying her!” in an excited tone.
Our little Badass, played by Dahlia Moth, our Hooker’s real life daughter who actually also played Little Geek, was a pro with a gun. Her mother, in addition to being a wonderful actress and stunt performer, is also an armorer so she knows how to handle a gun. Of course, we used replicas for the gun play. The machete in the Triad scene was real and damn sharp, but the stunt team had no problems playing it safe.
I’m still shocked that we never got a visit from Vancouver’s finest. The production was very blessed in a lot of ways. We would quote the Blues Brothers and say we were on a mission from God.
Sylvia: I think most people were just curious about what was happening and that is natural when you have a camera out and are filming. So many times, because we couldn’t really block off streets, we had random people walk into the scene, look into the camera lens, and ask if we are filming a movie. You can’t get mad because it is a very normal reaction and it ruined a lot of takes but was also pretty funny in most cases.
We usually got quite the crowd of onlookers and that was cool. It was problematic when younger people came by and we had to have a huge, vile monologue spewed out by a cast member. We would warn people that the language was pretty bad, but they watched anyway and the parents were more interested in their kids watching a film than the material of said film. We had a part before the Badass and Cowboy Pimp showdown where my character (Badass) was peeing on the side of the road and there had to be like twenty young kids there trying to get a look at me with my pants down. Aw, independent filmmaking.
6. What are your filmic influences with regards to this picture?
Sylvia: If it hadn’t been for Robert Rodriguez and Carlos Gallardo’s EL MARIACHI, this film wouldn’t exist. They were huge in low budget/no budget independent filmmaking and they always taught that out while making consistently making great films. It makes so much sense to me to use what you have at your disposal and make a film yourself.
Growing up, Jen and I watched a lot of movies. We still do – we’re total film junkies. My favorite were the ones with the badass anti-heroes that could take it all, save the day, and be totally hip while doing it. Like El in the MARIACHI TRILOGY. I loved Tarantino’s films because his female characters were always so cool, it was cool to be a Tarantino lady. I hate seeing weepy, weak, uninteresting female characters and that was the main inspiration for DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK. We wanted to make a film that shows female characters as interesting as any male character with actual crazy scenarios and not just some lame wedding or date dilemma.
In addition to watching a lot of films, namely horror, we also play video games and read comic books – which are fantastic mediums of entertainment that usually don’t get enough artistic merit. There are such all-encompassing worlds existing there and it’s impossible not to draw on those things. As long as we’ve been watching horror, we’ve been gaming, and reading comics. I think you can see those influences in our work.
Jen: We are influenced by so many filmmakers and films, but by video games and comic books, too. It’s strange, though it all makes perfect sense in our heads. As we’ve said before, we are huge fans of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s work. Those two men are geniuses. We were very much inspired by their Grindhouse double feature and the faux trailers in them. DHIAT originated as a trailer itself. We heard about the story of Jason Eisener and his HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. We had hoped that our DEAD HOOKER trailer may make it to a Grindhouse sequel. However, our Hooker took on a life of its own.
It’s hard to name all of our influences. There’s Joss Whedon and Buffy, there’s Silent Hill and some RPG format thrown in there, too. There’s influence from Takashi Miike, who is a brilliant filmmaker. We have Goody Two Shoes in the same jacket as the serial killer in MAN BITES DOG. Our Hooker death scene was influenced by TRUE ROMANCE. It was so brutal when James Gandolfini beat the living shit out of Patricia Arquette. I love that scene. We wanted ours to have that same, “oh-god-how-long-is-this-going-to-go-on-for” feeling.
Sylvia: When we lost our original lady Goody Two-Shoes and gained CJ Wallis in the role, we also got the very talented man who had ten years experience in the business from camera operation to editing to directing to soundtracking. I knew a little bit about his previous work, but when we hired him onto the team we had no idea what we were getting. He was great and respectful, he could have used his experience to take over the production but he used it to help us out with the various situations that came up. When we shot the Junkie’s monologue at sunset, we were looking over the footage and he quietly offered that he could ‘cut the shit out of that scene.’
He did. That’s what it was like on the set. Everyone helping each other out for the better good of the film. We had an incredible team that came together to support us. We call them our film family and that’s truly what they are. We would come to Loyd with some insane stunt and he would put together something fucking brilliant. We wanted characters that had a distinct look and MaryAnn made character looks for everyone to give them that grindhouse chic appearances. Myself and my stunt double got soaked in horse poo – that’s what’s in the ground in a horse riding area – and MaryAnn would happily clean them out of our cuts and make us sexy, camera ready. Everyone went above and beyond the call of duty and did so happily which was the most amazing experience of all.
After the first cut was finished, we sent the trailer to each director involved with the GRINDHOUSE project to show them what they inspired. We didn’t know if we would get a response and were stoked when Eli Roth responded. That guy gets a lot of crap for no reason. He is remarkably supportive of independents. We had a great back and forth which had some great advice that we applied to the film. His support got the movie to places where it couldn’t have before and we will always be grateful for his advice and friendship. It’s an invaluable resource to be able to talk to someone whose been there before and will be frank with the ins and outs of the business.
Jen: Much of it came from REBEL WITHOUT A CREW. I’ve said this many a time before and I’ll just keep on saying it, go and grab a copy of Rodriguez’s book and EL MARIACHI. It’s incredibly inspiring. That book was our “bible” on set. Your film never has to look like you only had however much money. Saying, “we only had ____” is like making an excuse for your film and makes people not all that excited to check it out. Inexpensive doesn’t have to look cheap. There’s always a way around it. And when there isn’t? Try something else.
Some of the best advice was from Carlos Gallardo. He told us too many people just sit around and talk about making a movie. It won’t happen if you don’t make it happen for yourself. “Don’t just talk about it, do it.”
I would tell anyone who wants to make a film to find something they love. For Robert Rodriguez it was a man with a guitar case full of guns. For us, it was a Dead Hooker In A Trunk. You have to be excited about your film because you will be talking about it for the rest of your life. It has to drive you. Surround yourself with good people, people who are in the film business for the right reasons. People who love making movies. A bad attitude on set, when you are working up 16 hours some days, can be poison. You need people who work at their best even at their worst.
8. What about the film, such as scenes, are you most proud of?
Jen: Dead Hooker In A Trunk is very much like our first born baby. We are so utterly proud of her. I’m proud to have had the privilege of working with such a wonderful and dedicated cast and crew. It was a real passion project in a lot of ways.
Stand out scenes? I love the triad scene. From where Geek wakes up in the back seat of the ’69 Firebird to when Badass re-enters with Junkie is just awesome. That’s the scene where I know that the audience is either on board or sitting in the wrong theatre, ha ha. I love my twin and I just giggle my ass off watching her as Badass. I love the Hooker death scene. It’s such a different tone from the rest of the violence in the film and intentionally so. Loyd and Tasha were simply incredible in that scene. I hate how actors do so little of their own work these days. They don’t sing, dance, or do their own stunts. Gene Kelly did all of that stuff. I have so much respect for actors that still do as much of their own stuff as possible these days.
I also am very proud of the violence and gore. The scene with the semi truck and the torture scene, too. We didn’t have much money, so we were very creatively constructive when figuring out how we were going to pull off our bloody bits. I hate seeing an independent film and seeing blood the wrong color or little details that were over looked and then covered with a “we didn’t have any money” excuse. There’s always a way. You’ve just to to look for it.
Sylvia: I really like the violence and gore. We had big ambitions to make the film action packed with good effects and I’m very proud of how those scenes turned out. Rodriguez’s ten minute film school segment in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO showed us how to do the eye gag you see in the film. Every time I show the film to someone new and hear them gasp – I get this stupid happy grin because that means we did our jobs right.
I like the more tender moments as well. I wasn’t sure how the mash up of the old ultra violence and twenty-something mumblecore would work in the film and it worked quite seamlessly. You don’t often get sweet moments followed by a semi truck dismemberment. It was a fun mix.
Sylvia: We are working on our second feature right now, it is called AMERICAN MARY. It follows the story of a young woman, Mary Mason played by the lovely Katharine Isabelle, as she becomes increasingly broke and disenchanted by medical school and the surgeons she once admired. The allure of easy money brings her into the world of underground surgeries where there are more marks left on her than her so-called freakish clientele. It’s more of a straightforward to the horror genre than HOOKER was, but it’s still reflects Jen and my taste and dark humor.
Whenever we make a film, we never say it’s going to be a horror movie – it just turns out that way. DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK was a road trip comedy to us that just happened to have some incredibly violent and gory moments throughout. We wrote a buddy comedy called BOB and it has some of the most horrific situations that have ever been put into one of our scripts. I feel like there is horror in real life and to shy away from it in film would be dishonest. A lot of the things that end up in our scripts come from our own experiences. In grade school, I saw a child get hit in the back of the head with an aluminum baseball bat and it knocked his eye out of the socket – that is in HOOKER. Then again, I never saw a person get dismembered by a semi truck, but it felt like a good idea at the time.
Jen: I think regardless of what genre we make films in there will always be horrific elements to them. We love horror. We love the terrifying bits and we love the awkward moments of levity. We have so many stories to tell. We have several scripts completed and ready to go. We’re really excited about them. BOB was actually what we had begun production on when American Mary came calling. That will likely be our next one, but we like to listen to what the people want to see next from us and take it from there. After DHIAT, people wanted to see us do horror outside of grindhouse with a bit more of a budget behind us. That’s where Mary came in.
We have this very special script called THE MAN WHO KICKED ASS. That’s going to be one hell of a little flick. I have some insane plans for it. It’s going to be epic. I can’t wait.
10. Given your experiences with film school, what advice would you give to the next generation of filmmakers wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Jen: Much like Tarantino and so many others, I would highly recommend that you don’t waste your time and money on film school. Some of the most talented professionals I met in this business are self taught. I’d say you save the money you’d have to spend on film school and put it into making your own film. Make even a short film. There’s nothing that compares to how much you learn actually on set doing what you want to do. Film school can teach you techniques, but so can the internet and it costs a heck of a lot less.
Find something you are really passionate about and get started. The only thing stopping you is you. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s impossible. If we could do it, so can you. It’s never been easier to get your hands on a camera and make something than it is today. That does mean there’s much more competition out there now than there was in the past, but a good film will stand out. I always like to say, “reach for the stars, that way if you end up reaching the moon, that’s not bad at all.”
Sylvia: Now more than ever, technology is in a place where it is accessible to everyone. You can buy a camera for a few thousand dollars and start filming. You can rent equipment for sound, a couple lights, and a lot of imagination and do incredible things. There is a common misconception that there is a ‘right way’ to get a film made. That is untrue and most likely encouraged by people too afraid to think outside the box. It’s easy to say something won’t work. You can sit around for years listing all the reasons something won’t work.
If you want to make a film, make one. You can learn everything about filmmaking from your favorite directors. There are hundreds of interviews online where you can learn from them how they did it. You can listen to DVD commentaries and learn. You can read their books – REBEL WITHOUT A CREW is a must read for DIY indie filmmakers. The most important thing you can do is make a story that actually means something to you and is original. Put everything you have into the film and be prepared to work hard. We have been working on DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK for over three years now and we still have a lot of work to do before we are done with the project.
Your film will be something you will be working on for years, so make sure it is something you want to be committed to for that time. It can be an extremely difficult process because you have to put the work before everything else and put everything you have into it. It’s the first time people are going to see what you can do and it will be a learning process, so make sure you script a story that gives you creative leeway in case things go to hell. Be smart and prepare yourself as much as possible before you go to camera and make something brilliant. Rodriguez ends REBEL WITHOUT A CREW by saying you make the movie and I’ll bring the popcorn – that always inspired me and I hope it does for you too. Like Carlos Gallardo says,’If you’re going to do a movie, don’t talk about it. Go shoot it.’