Tuesday, 22 January 2013

American Mary: An Interview with the Soska Sisters & Katharine Isabelle

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse 

Sylvia and Jen Soska, identical twins with a passion for offbeat horror, burst into the filmmaking world in 2009 with their exploitation flick Dead Hooker in a Trunk, a rough, cheap ride every bit as subtle and sweet as its title suggests. Despite a truly minuscule budget, the film is an insanely likeable and funny piece, and quickly became a festival favourite. In 2012 the Twisted Sisters, as their production company is known, returned with American Mary, which saw them teaming up with cult film icon Katharine Isabelle. Isabelle, who plays the titular Mary, is most recognisably the star of Ginger Snaps, John Fawcett’s punky, lyrical 2000 werewolf film, but also has an enviable list of genre and mainstream credits to her name. Sadly, despite festival successes, American Mary has gone straight to DVD in the UK, but the Twisted Sisters and Katharine Isabelle travelled here to tour with the film through a select few cinemas. We had the pleasure of sitting down with them for a quick chat at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema.   

SS: We’ll speak fast!

JS: And try not to digress too much…

How did the Soska sisters get into filmmaking in the first place?
SS: Stupidity! We didn’t know any better. Our budget for film school got pulled and we were in the theatres every day watching Grindhouse and one day Jen walks up and she goes ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk!’ and I was like ‘what’s that?’ and she said ‘like Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun, we should just make a faux trailer for our final project!’. And the school had a list of everything that was too inappropriate like bestiality…

JS: Necrophilia, we added that one in!

SS: We put everything humanly offensive in there and it was actually a lot of fun and it was a fake trailer so it could be the most exciting things. We presented it at graduation and half the audience walked out and the other half was cheering so loud that you could barely hear the very intentionally disgusting dialogue.

JS: They thought we made it as a faux trailer for something we were making so, like many things in our career, we lied and said ‘yeah, absolutely!’.

SS: We actually had no idea what it took to make a movie so we just maxed out our credit cards and it became a film. And you watched it!

Katharine Isabelle, for us you are Ginger and you will always be Ginger. How do you feel about that association?
KI: No, that’s great. I mean, Ginger was a really interesting strong female character that was not available to girls like us when we were growing up. I’m still thrilled - there are thirteen-year-old girls who weren’t even alive when we made that! That’s amazing! I love it; I think it gave us quirky strange kids a voice, and at least someone to relate to. I’m fine with it! [We pointed out that our guest photographer Sarah Henderson wrote her dissertation partly on Ginger Snaps] Yeah, they show it in Women’s Film Studies in universities. It’s awesome!

On to American Mary – how did you find each other to make this film? Katharine, what drew you to it?
KI: They…

JS: I wrote it for her!  That’s a big rule as a director: never write for an actor because you don’t know if you’ll end up being disappointed… Maybe they’re not available, or when you meet them maybe they’re not the people that you were hoping they were… but Katie was WAY worse than what we’d imagined.

KI: Huge letdown!

JS: No, she’s like the Fassbender to our Steve McQueen. Katie’s our special one.

SS: We were such big fans from Ginger and we watched everything and when you see the movie this is going to sound cruel, but this is something I’ve always wanted to see Katie do. I was so lucky that not only was she what I hoped she would be from watching all her movies, but she was even better. She only had three takes to do anything – we had 15 days, a lesser actress would have fucked this movie up so bad but she was just brilliant in it! I can’t say enough good things about her.

KI: I like those answers.

Who are your filmmaking heroes? As actresses, as filmmakers, who is it that really inspires you?
SS: On this one Clive Barker, Takashi Miike, Dario Argento had huge influences on us.

JS: We also joke that her favourite director is Lars Von Trier and mine is Joss Whedon. We joke that I put the heart in and she rips it out, takes a shit on it and rapes it…

SS: The European approach to filmmaking is my favourite!

JS: I’m like Charles Xavier and she’s Magneto. I’m Optimus saying ‘maybe there’s hope for the world’ and she’s like ‘ah, fuck it all!’. But oddly we take very different paths but we always get to the same goal. Robert Rodriguez is a huge, huge hero of ours but not as much in this. In Dead Hooker it was half Rodriguez and half Ed Wood, half do-it-yourself and half fuck it, that’s the best we can get, just keep going.

SS: Oh, there’s snow on the ground today, oh well!

What was the difference this time working with a budget?
SS: It was really different. We were very lucky that on Dead Hooker in a Trunk we did every department so we understood how a film set moved. Here, I think we over-wrote the script because we still didn’t have money… We had people coming out and volunteering to do it. What was the same in both experiences was that it was people who cared about the project and they came along and they did awesome jobs. The professionals in the departments like Tony Devenyi, our production designer, our costume designer, Brad Jubenville that was our First AD… I didn’t even know what a First AD was – they’re REALLY useful! Brian Pearson, our director of photography. It was just a huge blessing to have them on board.

JS: I remember the first day we got to set I saw all the trucks and I was like ‘oh, is something else filming here?’ and they were like ‘no, those are yours!’. I still, when our first AD says ‘quiet on set!’, I stop talking and they’re like ‘no! quiet so we can hear the two of you!’ And if we needed something I’d get out of my chair and start running and they’d be like ‘sit the fuck down!’.

SS: And Katie kept telling us that’s not our department and we were like ‘fuck, that’s right!’.

How do you divvy up the workload? And Katie, as an actress, is working with them different to having one director calling the shots?
KI: No, they’re so on the same page with what they want. They both know exactly what the end result they’re trying to achieve is. It’s helpful having two of them… A director has so many jobs and so many things they have to do on set. Sylvia’s Mary [apparently she subconsciously wrote the character with many of her traits], and she’s more ridiculously emotional about it. She would have emotional breakdowns and Jen would be like ‘oh okay, she’s just going to have a little cry, and I’m going to get things done here’. I could go to either one of them and either one knew exactly what they wanted or needed. They had little twin fights very rarely, but they’d come back unanimously, standing strong together united as one.

JS: We’re born collaborators. I feel sorry for you guys that are singles, we call you normies. I don’t know how you get by in the world because when I say I want to be alone, it means also with her!

Having spoken about sticking in everything that was on the banned list… What are the chances that your next film will be a family musical comedy?
JS: If Disney shows up with a truckload of money, then we’ll absolutely be, you know, whatever the fuck, the musical… with the theme park ride!

KI: Whatever the fuck, the musical! The next film by the Soska sisters!

JS: The next thing we’re working on, or hopefully because you don’t know what the fuck's going to show up… you don’t know if Disney will show up!

SS: It’s an original take on the forgotten monster genre. It’s called Bob and the tagline is ‘there’s a monster inside of all of us and sometimes it gets out’. It’s probably our most comedic piece because it’s probably our most disgusting and offensive piece. We just like to balance that shit out!

JS: It’s right in between Dead Hooker and American Mary. It’s got the spontaneous gore and the hilarity and the what the fuck moments of Dead Hooker, but we are also tricking people into seeing a clever movie, because you’ll leave and be like ‘oh no, I’ve learnt something again, fuck those Soskas!’.

Do you have an ethos as actresses and directors and everything else?
SS: I always like there to be a commentary on something. If you’re not making some sort of a statement or a thought about the world I don’t really know why you’re making a film. I mean, there’s stuff that you can enjoy, there’s pretty lights and pretty ladies wearing nothing, but at the same time there’s something deeper going on. I think that’s really important. Especially in horror which is almost being shot like porn now, there’re no characters…

JS: Especially in North America. Here and in Asia you have it a little bit more sordid!

KI: As an actor I think all you’re really trying to do is reflect humanity back to itself, the quirks of human nature. Regardless of whether it’s on paper or not, and I’ve done movies where it was fully fleshed out and movies where there’s absolutely nothing, that’s all we’re trying to do… just try not to suck!

Is this a case of ‘the Canadians are coming!’? What do you think the state of the Canadian film industry is like at the moment?
JS: There are a couple of rebels…

SS: There isn’t really a national cinematic identity. I mean, you look at Jason Eisener and you’re like ‘oh my gosh, exciting stuff’s happening!’, and then Telefilm’s like ‘no, we’re not going to pay for that unless you’re a family drama and that’s fine, we’ll throw tons of money into it’. They actually told us that we should go up for some grants because we’re women, and I was like ‘I don’t feel that’s a disability at all’. I’d rather get funding on my own, like a dude would, and just make a good film. And then, hopefully, around the world they’ll be a success and then our government will be like ‘oh, maybe we should throw money at this!’.

KI: I hope it does inspire them. Canada is an odd country in that respect, we’re not quite sure who we are or what we’re doing. And I hope it inspires other kids to go ‘you know what, fuck it, I’m going off on my own to make what I want and see who likes it… Fuck the people that don’t!’.

JS: Yeah!

American Mary is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Universal Pictures. 


Friday, 11 January 2013

Holy Motors (2012)

Image: Artificial Eye

Leos Carax returned to filmmaking after a thirteen year absence, and the film was subsequently voted by Cahiers du Cinema, France’s sacred cinema magazine, as film of the year for 2012. This sort of context suggests something rather special, and Holy Motors is definitely that. The mad yet simple plot sees Monsieur Oscar, played by Carax’s muse Denis Lavant, travelling around Paris in a limousine driven by Céline (French screen legend Edith Scob) and stopping throughout the day to take on different roles, each of which he invests himself into completely. While this description might sound bland, Oscar’s missions are anything but.

An audaciously bizarre opening makes Carax’s intention clear as a cinema full of sleeping patrons is magically breached: Holy Motors is an electric shock to complacent filmmaking and film watching. Oscar becomes an ancient gypsy woman, a ginger subterranean-dwelling goblin (in a sequence which is actually a sequel to Carax’s segment of the anthology film Tokyo!), a dying man, an enthusiastic accordionist and many others during his day, and every scene is suffused with the glow of pure cinematic magic. The film is by turns confusing and hilarious, daring and depressing, scary and sad, and sometimes all of these in one scene. A gorgeously photographed Paris becomes a bizarre wonderland which Carax explores with a masterful eye.

Even with this strength of direction, the strange premise would fall apart if the lead actor were not up to the requirements of the task. Lucky, then, that we have Denis Lavant ruling the film with a stunning chameleonic performance which deserves award recognition, though may very well not receive it. Impressing both in his physicality and emotional range, Lavant manages to embody an entire tradition of French acting while at the same time creating something excitingly new.

The eclectic supporting cast is also a treat: Edith Scob is wonderful as Céline, and the debt the film owes to the cinematic surrealism of Georges Franju is repaid both in her casting and in a direct visual reference to her starring role in Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage. Eva Mendes does little more than look pretty, which in this case is exactly what is required of her. Kylie Minogue, a highly underrated actress, gives a touching performance and provides one of the film’s most resonant moments in singing the original song ‘Who Were We’ whilst walking through the vast empty interior of Paris’s long-closed Samaritaine shopping centre. The faded glory of this space reminds that, while jubilant and mad, Carax’s film is equally about decay - with the titular company representing his perception of the passing of the desire for flashy motors - and Minogue’s haunting live vocals catch this theme beautifully. Other actors are but cameos, with one in particular a special treat for French cinema buffs, but never fail to impress.

Beguiling, trashy, complex, inscrutable yet open: Holy Motors might leave you confused and angry or it might leave you beaming but it will almost certainly not leave you cold. This is cinema at its most riotous and joyful, a full sensory feast which will stay with you for days. Cahiers were completely right, and this was my film of the year too.



Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An Interview with Michael Apted (Part II)

MIchael Apted/Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

56Up, the eighth instalment in the Up series, hit cinemas in the US last week. Offering a snapshot of the life of fourteen people every seven years, the series is widely regarded as the first of its kind, paving the way for shows like Child of Our Time. Invited to Sheffield Doc/Fest this summer to give a talk about his career, most importantly his work on the Up series, director and series co-founder Michael Apted took some time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his career with us. Part I of our interview can be read here.

You have a kind of double life as documentary filmmaker and movie maker. A film some of us at Fohnhouse really love is your 90s medical thriller Extreme Measures

Oh! Good for you!

What are your memories of making it, and how do you feel about it?

Well, it didn’t do very well! It’s very odd, sometimes you really warm to the films that don’t do very well, and the ones that do very well you kind of toss them off. I always have a soft spot for films that I think got poorly treated or didn’t come out at the right time… it wasn’t in the air. I remember Gorky Park came out and no-one was interested, but then a year, two years later we had the Berlin Wall down and Gorbachev and all that. On the other hand I did Coal Miner’s Daughter and at that very moment some country music entered the mainstream and we had Willy Nelson, Dolly Parton… With one I was lucky, the other I was unlucky. With a film like Extreme Measures, people were pretty harsh on it. I think people had a lot against Hugh [Grant, who played the lead] and Elizabeth [Hurley, who produced, and was in a high-profile relationship with Grant]. I think we got caught up in that media spiral.

We like Hugh Grant in the film. Did you particularly try and work against the kind of performance he was known for?

Well, we both did. We knew it had to be real – it still always benefitted from his unique form of wit, but we could never turn it into a kind of Four Weddings turn. I did a film with John Belushi, and asked the audience to treat him as a straight actor and a romantic actor, in Continental Divide. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – sometimes an audience is disappointed that the actor doesn’t present the usual ‘menu’, sometimes audiences are surprised and delighted by it. It’s a real risk for actors who change course.

Did you spend time making sure things made medical sense?

Sure. That was easy. What was difficult was spending time underground! We shot quite a bit of the film underground. The tunnel stuff was real. We built the emergency room, but the tunnel was real stuff. No fun, I can tell you! Underground with all these rats, oh my God, wondering what you were going to trip over. I don’t find many people who bring that film up, so I’m thrilled!

You also directed Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond film, The World is Not Enough. How was it stepping into something as huge as the Bond franchise?

Well, it was scary at first. Not just stepping into a well-oiled machine, but stepping into a group of people who’d worked together a lot… and also for me it was the biggest physical film I had ever done by a long way. Early on when we were preparing the film, I thought 'I'm never going to do this!' but a little voice in my head said 'pay attention!'. If someone’s here in front of you to do a set that you won’t shoot for six months, pay attention. That was the key – six months later they showed up and I knew what we were doing. The whole scale of it was so intimidating before you started shooting. At the beginning I was petrified by it, but they were very, very nice people. They were gracious and welcoming. They allowed me to bring in some of my own people, and some of their people I very much wanted. It was a very happy marriage.

The World is Not Enough was one of the last 'trad' Bond films. How do you feel about the reinvention of the series from Casino Royale onwards?

Well, the jury is out… The films make more and more money but they also cost more money. It’s interesting to see the range that they can bring to Daniel’s [Craig] Bond. I thought the great thing about Pierce was the range of his acting because he was a genuine matinee idol as well as a good action actor… Connery had those varied abilities and I think that’s the key to it, to make sure that Bond never becomes one-note, that he has to have a variety of skills.

More recently you made The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in 3D. How do you feel about 3D? Was it your choice?

Well, it was the studio – we shot it in 2D. It was the same studio that did Avatar and I had actually almost delivered my cut, in February 2010, before they decided to do it in 3D. It was a tremendous pressure on us because we had 1400, 1500 visual effects shots all planned out and suddenly the whole post-production was compressed because you have to finish the visual effects shots before you can deal with the 3D on them. I thought it was… It was a good business decision, I think the film made more money because of it – the 3D paid for itself – but it wasn’t much fun doing it that way.

Are you still tied to the series? Will they be doing The Magician’s Nephew?

I don’t think so… it’s hard to say. There had historically been a bad atmosphere between the CS Lewis estate and Walden and between Disney and Fox [Disney produced the first two and Fox the third]. I don’t think they can even decide, frankly, which book to do next. They should have been writing the next script when I was doing Dawn Treader, but when you think that I started in 2008 and they still can’t decide which book to do, that doesn’t speak to a very fertile partnership there, but who knows?

Would you have advice for people wanting to get into documentary or movie-making now, and is there any advice you ever received in your life that stuck with you?

I think it’s the same piece of advice, really, which is to do it! It was harder in my time because the technology wasn’t so flexible and so available. I remember meeting a great hero of mine when I was at university, Peter Brook, the stage director [of Mahabharata fame], and asked that question and he said 'just do it, do it on a street corner, direct things, do it'.  In this day and age you do have the technology, you can, at no great expense, write a script and go out and do it with your friends, and a number of people have already come through that door. It’s difficult because the business is contracting, but you can, as a young person, create your own calling card. I think if you have the will and the energy to do it, that’s the thing to do.


Monday, 7 January 2013

An Interview with Michael Apted (Part I)

Michael Apted/Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

56Up, the eighth instalment in the Up series, hit cinemas in the US last week. Offering a snapshot of the life of fourteen people every seven years, the series is widely regarded as the first of its kind, paving the way for shows like Child of Our Time. Invited to Sheffield Doc/Fest this summer to give a talk about his career, most importantly his work on the Up series, director and series co-founder Michael Apted took some time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his career with us.

You work both in documentary and fiction film. What is it about documentary that particularly appeals to you?

Well I think in some ways that’s where I started. I think that’s what my soul is – I’ve got a documentary soul. Even when I do movies I try and approach it slightly as a documentary – if it’s about something that’s real, or something that pretends to be real, I try to find out what the truth is. I think my instincts are documentarian, so that’s why I like coming back and doing them and exercising those muscles.

How were you involved with the Up series in the first place, and how has that involvement changed since it began?

Well, I’d just started at Granada [the television company]. Me and another trainee, Gordon MacDougall, were sent off with a Canadian director to find a group of seven-year-old kids to make a film about whether the English class system was changing or whether it was just cosmetic, The Beatles and all that sort of stuff. It was only ever going to be one film, a World in Action special. Then, when it came out it was very successful, because it had a kind of innocence to it and it was funny, but it did also seem to have some frightening truths about the class system. Still, the penny didn’t drop for some time. It wasn’t until four or five years after it came out that we got the idea of ‘why don’t we go back and see what’s happened to them?’. Once we did that then we could see that we had a big idea going, and then it wasn’t really such a tough thing. I went to live and work in America after I’d done 21, but I vowed that I would come back and do this. No-one believed it, but I did! It’s such a valuable thing, such a valuable part of my working life.

I imagine the Sixties as a time when people thought there would be really big changes coming about. Is the world today anything like how you think people might have envisaged it back then?

I can’t imagine it… I can’t even put myself back that far! All I know – and it’s a slightly damaging thing for us – is that we chose ten boys and four girls. We were a fairly forward-thinking group, but it was considered inconceivable that women could have such a major role in society. It’s a sorry thing, because I like to say that the biggest revolution in my lifetime has been the changing role of women, and we missed that. But I can’t beat myself – we didn’t deliberately set out to miss it, it just wasn’t there on the landscape. So that’s one way in which people would find it difficult, if you put yourself back fifty years, to imagine England now. In other ways, I really don’t know!

Is it hard not to pick favourites amongst the participants, to be objective?

It may be, but I don’t think so. I mean, it’s a strange relationship – it’s like a family. I see some of them between films, some of them I don’t. Some of them I get on with well, some I don’t. Well, not that I don’t get on with them but I don’t see them… It’s more than a professional relationship; it’s kind of a blood relationship. I don’t think I have favourites. I have people I get on with easier – I find it easier to talk to some than to others. The key thing I’ve learnt doing it is that you’ve got to – if it’s humanly possible – every time you start a new one, have a blank slate. Not to go in with a lot of preconceptions, not remembering what they said at the last one so they’ll say something about it this time. To really make it a genuine snapshot of their lives now. That’s quite difficult to do, to really clear your mind out. That’s definitely part of my agenda, if I have favourites, not to show my hand. I feel the films are stronger the less I impose my will on it, the less I try and direct it. The more I let them run it, the better it is. I don’t want it to be, in a subtle way, about me.

How do you feel about the things which have followed on from Up? Now we have Child of Our Time, The Simpsons have parodied it…

The greatest honour! I think it’s wonderful. We, I suppose, invented it. We didn’t sit down and invent it, it just happened organically and sort of by accident, but film is so great for marking the passage of time, it’s so much richer than reading a book to see images of a period. I’m thrilled that people have picked it up and it’s become a genre – longitudinal documentaries have become part of the documentary landscape. It’s quite frightening to think that one was in at the beginning of that!

A little morbid this one – how do you feel you’re related to the series? Could it continue after your death?

I would hope so… whether it would or not I don’t know. I also hope – and this is also a bit morbid! – that I go first. The thought of one of them going, and how one deals with all that, is a pretty chilling thought… I hope it would go on after me, I hope it would survive.

In the second part of our exclusive interview we discuss Michael's fiction film work.