Jen & Sylvia Soska [Interview]

This Saturday, the Horror Channel is premiering Rabid, the re-imagining of David Cronenberg’s film of the same name. This new and updated version is directed by Canadian film-making siblings Jen and Sylvia Soska. The two have been making waves in the genre pool since they launched their first movie, Dead Hooker in the Trunk, in 2009, however it was the brilliant American Mary that really made people sit up and take notice of the pair. American Mary was especially well received by London’s FrightFest audience and so years later in 2019, they returned with Rabid. Whilst they were in the UK for the launch, I had the chance to sit down and speak with Jen and Sylvia in addition to catching them moments before unleashing their latest cinematic baby to the masses, both can be found below.

How did you get involved with the project?

SYLVIA SOSKA: We got a random email one day in December that said ‘would you like to remake Rabid?’ Of course I reacted with, ‘yes I would!’ Then my sister sent it to our agents and they were like, ‘that’s not a real offer, please don’t respond to it.’ The next day we took our meeting and the gentleman explained the process of their movies. They usually make religious movies, they did a religious horror movie and it was very successful. They bought Rabid thinking it was about rabid dogs and they wrote a script like that and then sent it to Mr. Cronenberg who let them know they missed the mark. So they went and Googled Cronenberg, and our names popped up. So that’s what they told us when the meeting started, and they asked if we could explain David Cronenberg to which we spoke at length about him. You know, when you explain Cronenberg to someone who does not know Cronenberg, it’s a lot. It’s a huge amount. They looked at us and they said, ‘how about you ladies handle the creative, and we’ll handle the money.’ I’ve never been offered so good, I can’t not do it, right?

JEN SOSKA: We’re so lucky because out of all of his work… I mean Videodrome, The Fly, there are so many sacred ones that there would be so much fan rage against a remake. I’ve already experienced a lot of fan rage about remaking Rabid. I’d loved to tell people David likes us. He’s okay with it, so everyone else can be fine with it. Rabid is a good foundation to build upon. A lot of the ideas that he discussed have become much more prevalent now. I mean plastic surgery is a joke; how many people have plastic surgery? Back then he was making a joke about ‘daddy didn’t like my last nose, so he bought me a new one’. That was ridiculous then. Now how many girls for their sweet sixteen, their bodies haven’t even finished settling, are like, ‘we got breast augmentation’.

The film does modernise the story. How did you decide that you want to shift into the fashion world?

JS: I feel that the fashion industry is sometimes, by outsiders, misunderstood as very feminine, very delicate, very not cut-throat. But a lot of things that are female are actually very aggressive. The fashion industry, while some people would look at it very dismissively, it’s very reflective of the same kind of social structure as the film industry. You have your elitists, you have your top people, and then you have everyone below that’s just struggling trying to become one of the greats, or emulate one of the greats. We really used the fashion industry as a metaphor for being a filmmaker, much like in American Mary, it was the medical profession. In this one, Rose so badly wants to be making her own designs, where I so badly want to be making my own movies again. She’s gifted this opportunity to work with the great master, the most incredible mentor.

SS: Yes, it’s very self-aware. Even in the beginning he’s talking about remaking trends – why do they keep going, and do you make something commercial? Or do you make something only a few will appreciate? That’s the question you’re asking when you’re doing Cronenberg. I’m going to do something only a few people will appreciate because we have this ability to get weird, to do stuff you wouldn’t normally see in a movie.

We’re not a giant big studio movie, we can’t own Twitter, we can’t go and do a giant marketing campaign where you see everything. But what we have is a story you won’t see anywhere else. There are moments in that – I mean it goes to fantastical places – but it talks a lot about health and relationships, and this rabid society in which we live in where people are so mean and so aggressive.

What I liked about putting it in the fashion world is, on the surface, everyone thinks it’s so pretty, so beautiful. In the beginning you think you know everybody. You’re like, ‘that guys pretty’, ‘she’s mean and pretty’ and ‘that guys just mean’. Then you get to know them and they kind of shift and transform. Even Rose, she’s so obsessed with her physical appearance at the beginning she doesn’t appreciate that her mentor also has a scar on his face, and he’s doing a whole display just for her, telling everyone else to shut up. She’s like (makes angry grunt) and then when she’s beautiful she’s still (makes another angry grunt). But nobody cares about it anymore because, ‘oh, she’s hot’, you can be mean and hot because you’re hot. Even Doctor Burrows is saying there will be some side effects and you’re transforming, but she doesn’t even ask him. She’s just touching her nose thinking, ‘well this is nice now, who cares?’

JS: There’s such a conversation when you fix only the surface, that you don’t fix anything. It’s like Poltergeist; you move the gravestones, but you didn’t move the bodies.

Your films always seem to heavily feature strong female characters. How important is it to you to get these strong empowered female characters out into the world?

SS: I started watching horror movies with my mum so horror movies was always such girl time between the three of us. It wasn’t until I went out into the world that I started hearing negativity towards women. In my house, women were the strongest, toughest thing. We were equal to men. It was always like that. Then you go out into the world and you see this push back. You see people who aren’t women, tell how women are and what our struggles are like.

I think it’s a giant disservice to not reflect the modern woman, not only as a human but as a flawed character. Rose is insanely selfish. Mary was insanely selfish, and thank God we don’t all have to be perfect. It’s nice to see some flaws. Chelsea is one of my favourite characters in the movie because you don’t follow her story-line, but she’s going through horrible stuff. She picks up Rose in one outfit, the next morning Rose is in her pyjamas, Chelsea’s in the same outfit and you’re like, ‘what?’ She gets told, ‘don’t drink too much’, and she slamming drinks. At the very end, you can tell she’s dealing with her own struggle. She doesn’t even tell Rose about it because a lot of us internalise it, especially when we take the helper role. We’re like, ‘I’m just gonna help my friend, and I’m just the giver’. When you’re the giver you don’t know how to ask for help and I loved having it there.

I remember one of the earlier notes was, ‘I don’t understand this relationship between Rose and Chelsea, because one’s pretty and one’s not. They shouldn’t get along,’ I was like, ‘ I don’t think you understand women. If that’s the only way we’re supposed to interact… this movie is very important to exist!’

JS: Originally I was resistant to the idea of being a ‘female’ director and telling ‘female’ stories because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. Already being a Canadian identical twin, I mean we come with a long laundry list of labels, so I just want to be called a director. A lot of influences growing up were male, David Cronenberg, Stephen King, all the usual suspects. Now I realise how important it is to have representation of females. We connected really closely with Mary Harron, she’s a friend of ours, she actually even gave us editing and script notes on Rabid. To be able to tell those stories, especially when I’ve become so aware of male-gaze versus female-gaze.

It’s just really difficult for me to watch anything and enjoy it, because it’s just right in your face. The women aren’t developed, they’re just there to be pieces of ass. They’re accessories to the men. If they’re not a family relation, which is usually an irritant, it’s usually the bitchy wife or the shitty sister, the awful daughter, then you’re just the sexual conquest. Then you have no characterisation. Then you look at the actors and say, ‘oh they’re not very good actors’. I was surprised when people were saying, ‘oh I didn’t think Laura [Vandervoort] was a very good as an actor until I saw her in Rabid,’ and I was like, ‘she hasn’t worked with very good directors before.’ She’s worked with a lot of male directors who look at her and pigeon-hole her in, ‘wow, oh she’s a beautiful blonde girl. Okay beautiful blonde girl just go there and be beautiful’. Women are so much more than beautiful. As an identical twin, my entire life has just been judged on surface value. The amount of times I’ve been told I only have a career because I’m pretty…

SS: It’s the same for men right? ‘I’m a man, they give me millions of dollars because I’m so pretty!’ (they laugh) I’m sure that happens…

JS: They do that to Eli. Eli Roth is just so pretty, they just give him money.

SS: Another thing, the relationship between Brad and Rose is super important. In the original movie, Rose didn’t really have an identity. She was an appendage to Brad. But here I wanted to make a conversation about modern dating. A lot of the time we look at surface value, we don’t look at red flags around us. In the movie, if you see red that means something bad is going to happen until there is so much red that Rose won’t be able to figure out how to solve that problem. It’s a warning. Every time Rose does something of her own confidence, she’s fine. Whenever she is led by somebody else and she doesn’t believe in herself, she ends up in a tragedy.

JS: That’s also one of the main differences between our Rabid and David’s original. It’s very male-gaze versus female-gaze. I think that would be a great study, if you just watched them back-to-back and then you can see how one is a heterosexual male fantasy, and how this one is a pansexual woman fantasy.

You were saying in the past that Laura [Vandervoort] has seemingly been hired just to be pretty, but here she’s attacked with grisly make-up and stuff. Was that something that she was keen to do, to get away from the usual image of herself?

JS: Oh yeah, she wanted to be “ugly” for lack of a better word. There’s such a freedom when you don’t have to be labelled as pretty. In the fashion and film industry, even people who are beautiful aren’t beautiful enough. You see all these actors coming in, gorgeous lovely human beings, and then you see them shoot their faces full of shit to the point that they can’t even make an expression. It’s terrible.

One of our favourite images, the image we got dinged for sharing on Twitter is what we call like a half Chatterer – the female half-Chatterer. That was done by Masters FX. That was something we also discussed with Laura. We said, ‘you’re gonna not be able to speak, we’re going to make you very hideous, but in a really beautiful way’. Those kinds of accidents happen and I actually think she’s more beautiful with the aftermath than she was before. At least its real, it’s genuine, it’s raw.

I think that there’s a lot of frustration when you’re a beautiful woman about age as well. She told me she’s not going to act anymore, she’s only going to produce because she’s “too old”. She’s younger then me! I think that’s disgusting.

SS: I actually offered her Chelsea originally and she was like, ‘no, I wanna play Rose’, and I was like, ‘oh man I thought I was gonna have to beg someone’. She said, ‘no, I wanna play Rose.’ It’s funny because a lot of people didn’t even recognise her. In Bitten I thought she was just so over-processed, and if you’ve read the book, it’s an athletic girl with short brown hair. Laura through the whole movie was, ‘I’m gonna cut my hair short and dye it black!’. I was, ‘I love that for you, but if you could just still be Rose-esque, just a tiny bit’ I mean we’re doing a Marilyn Chambers thing.

David originally wanted Sissy Spacek and then he ended up with Marilyn Chambers. Both are fantastic, but Laura’s kind of like a mix between the two of them, which I thought was perfect. Plus, she would watch Marilyn’s performance and she would emulate it so strongly. I think it’s such a disservice [to what Marilyn did] because she was such a feminist, but because she worked in adult film, people just threw away what she did, who she was. It’s so nice to honour her, and what she did in this film. People kept saying, ‘it’s the first legitimate film she’s done’, and David always said, ‘that’s the first time anyone’s ever called one of my movies legitimate (They laugh).’

So when did you guys know that she was the one for Rose? Had you seen her work?

SS: Not at all. We actually heard about her from Greyston [Holt] once when we were working on See No Evil 2 because they were on Bitten together. She was approaching us for another project that didn’t work out, but she was there and she was pitching us this perfect professional Laura Vandervoort, ‘I’m a producer’… and you know flying ants when they come out of their hive? She got attacked! We were at this fancy restaurant, but these ants just kept coming out and attacking her, but she didn’t want to stop her pitch. She was beating the ants out in the air. I was watching her, I couldn’t stop watching her. I thought she was amazing. I thought she was so fucking funny and interesting. She was not going to let anything stop her, she was so determined.

I told her ‘I have this Cronenberg script, would you like to be in it?’ That’s me being stupid, but I thought because she’s so drop dead gorgeous, ‘you should play as Chelsea’, but she doesn’t actually feel that way about herself. That’s so common with women, we never feel good about ourselves even though we’re all goddesses and we’re all gorgeous. She didn’t have that confidence. I love that she put so much of herself into it. She told us that this is probably the most of her she’s put into a project, and you really see it.

JS: I hate the auditioning process. I think it’s so disingenuous – and being a former actor – it’s such a stressful experience. If you can audition well, it doesn’t mean you can act well. She of course has this huge body of work so I’d have never made her audition. I think it’s insulting, instead of sitting there and watching everything that they’ve done…there was another actress that we watched against her, and it was very, very close, I loved the emotional range that Laura had. Laura was willing to go to ugly places as a beautiful person. For whatever reason, sometimes women become imprisoned in beauty and are, ‘Oh, I can’t do anything that’s not beautiful’, and she’s just, ‘I wanna be raw, I wanna be real and I want to suffer.’ She had her own personal stuff that she was going through and she really brought her pain. I think it was very cathartic experience for all of us.

These interviews were first published on THN (the video interview was edited by Paul Heath). Rabid debuts on The Horror Channel on Saturday 12th June at 9pm.