Determinedly working outside of your established and esteemed comfort zone, in an effort to fulfill your personal goals, and prove to the world how versatile and committed to your ambition you are, can be an equally daunting and liberating task. But the main characters in the action drama ‘Vendetta,’ as well as its twin directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska, grippingly pushed themselves to move past people’s preconceived notions of them, and fulfill their respective objectives. The film, which will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD by Lionsgate Home Entertainment and WWE Studios on Tuesday, proves that the helmers can powerfully incorporate other genres into their signature horror filmography. For their latest unique directorial effort, the sisters created distinctly dark characters who won’t let anyone stop them from obtaining their intentions, even if that means committing acts no one expects from them.
‘Vendetta’ follows esteemed Chicago detective Mason Danvers (Dean Cain) as he finally catches and apprehends one of the city’s most dangerous criminals, Victor Abbot (Paul “The Big Show” Wight), who he has been determinately investigating in recent months. Mason and his partner and friend, Joel (Ben Hollingsworth), relish in their latest arrest, particularly since they were finally able to outwit the ruthless culprit. But their initial joy soon turns to dread and resentment when Victor is released from prison for lack of evidence. Mason’s intentions to start a family with his wife, Jocelyn (Kyra Zagorsky), are also dishearteningly defeated when Victor kills her in his quest for revenge against the detective for sending him to jail.
Against Joel’s advice, Mason decides to forgo his career and freedom in order to avenge Jocelyn’s murder. He takes justice upon himself and kills Victor’s brother, so that he can be sent to Stonewall Prison and serve his punishment alongside his nemesis. As he begins serving his time, and focuses on killing the man who murdered his wife, the former detective also learns that the prison’s warden, Snyder (Michael Eklund), is involved with Victor’s criminal endeavors. While the warden invites Mason into his operation, after deciding his skills would be beneficial to the prison’s illegal activities, the still respected former officer also becomes intent on finally bringing a complete end to the justice system’s imbalance of power.
The Soska sisters generously took the time to talk about co-directing ‘Vendetta’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the twin filmmakers discussed how they were drawn to collaborate on the action thriller because they naturally understand each other’s filmmaking styles, which includes Jen focusing on the prosthetics and stunts, and Sylvia developing the movie’s overall story and world; how they cast Cain and Wight as the lead characters in the thriller, as they’re fans of the actors’ work, and want to show audiences that both actors can realistically embrace playing darker characters; and how they appreciate that WWE Studios and Lionsgate believe in their ability to create captivating action and stunt-driven, and other diverse, films outside of the horror genre, which they’re always going to continue to embrace as filmmakers and fans.
SY: You co-directed the action film, ‘Vendetta,’ together. Why do you enjoy continuing to collaborate on your projects?
Jen Soska (JS): Sylv(ia) and I are blessed to be natural born collaborators. I’ve always lived, and taken the same classes, with her. I think as an identical twin, you grow up in this weird little social society where you’re completely honest to the other person, which is totally unlike reality. We have this really strong bond, and I know Sylv so well.
We have 32 years of in-jokes, so I don’t even have to say a full sentence. I could also say, “Sylv, did you talk to Dean yet about this scene? Okay, I’ll go and you finish here.” So we just divide and conquer.
Sylvia Soska (SS): I usually leave Jen to the prosthetics, and she’s also really into the stunts. She’s interested in the practical ways the film is made. But I’ll only live in the film’s world, and will only call the actors by their characters’ names. I want to make that reality as real to me as possible. Then I have Jen backing me up, to make sure the real world doesn’t crumble around the fantasy world we’re creating.
JS: Yes, Sylv’s a total tortured artist. (laughs)
SS: Don’t call me a tortured artist-I’m eccentric! (laughs)
SY: The film stars Dean Cain as celebrated detective Mason Danvers, who purposely gets arrested so that he can take revenge on Paul Wight’s character, Victor Abbott, the criminal who killed his wife. Since the drama thrives on the tense hate the two men have for each other, what was the casting process like for the two characters like overall?
SS: Jen and I have watched Dean Cain for many years. I loved him in ‘Lois & Clark,’ and really enjoyed him in ‘The Broken Hearts Club.’ Something that I have noticed every time I watch him is that he’s a very versatile, talented actor. But since he has the Michael Caine-ethic of working, and he wants to constantly work, people always see him in the Hallmark movies, and think that’s the only thing he can do. People don’t realize that he can do almost anything.
It’s the same thing with Paul ‘Big Show’ Wight. You see him on the WWE shows, and he does so many types of characters on them, and people start to think those are the only roles he can do. When an actor’s really good at something, people tend to think that’s the only thing they have to offer.
So when we were working with both Dean and Paul, we wanted to reintroduce them to audiences. We wanted to show that audiences know them for these lighter roles, but they do also have a dark side. There is a dark side to explore when you lose everything, and you question how far you go to avenge that.
SY: The drama also features a diverse range of supporting characters, including Michael Eklund, who you frequently collaborate with, including on last year’s horror sequel, ‘See No Evil 2.’ With the supporting characters being so influential on Mason and Victor’s struggles with each other, how did you decide which actors to cast for those roles, as well?
SS: Michael Eklund is one of my favorite actors.
JS: I literally pick up scripts and say, “Who is Michael Eklund going to be this time?” To us, he’s the Canadian Daniel Day-Lewis. There’s never just one role that Michael can play; he can play four or five different roles in every project. We just have to find the one that’s going to be the most exciting to him.
We’re so privileged to be friends with Michael, and to have briefly worked with him on ‘See No Evil 2.’ We actually wrote the role of Holden for him for that film, and shot his scenes around his schedule on ‘Bates Motel.’ So we only had him for three days for the film. I told him, “Michael, you’re so talented, so next time, you’re going to stay longer. I selfishly want to work with you much longer.”
SS: The energy of Dean’s character of Mason and Paul’s character of Victor is so dark and hard-core that it feels like a comic book. So with Michael, we needed to mix that up a little bit, and include someone who’s a bit more of a character actor who can push these guys in the direction they’re going. It was amazing to watch him do that, and they’re all so phenomenal. In the movie, they’re all at each other’s throats, but in reality, the guys got along awesomely. That made it even more fun when the cameras were rolling.
SY: Were you able to have any rehearsal time with the actors, in an effort to develop their characters’ backstories and relationships, before you began shooting the movie?
JS: Unfortunately, we didn’t have too much time for rehearsals before we began shooting, but we did take a lot of time for set rehearsals. We also spoke with each of the actors about their roles. Dean wanted to play Mason, and came in with a vision for the character that was on par with how we saw him. To us, Mason Danvers is our Frank Castle, and this was our ‘Punisher’ movie.
When you go over to The Big Show, Paul Wight, he really wanted this opportunity to show off what a talented actor he is. He really is talented, but he rarely gets to play these serious roles and intimidating parts. He’s a great comedic actor, so he gets typecast in that role. So it was great for both Paul and Dean to be able to play these characters, who are a bit different from the ones they’re usually cast in.
SS: Paul, Dean and Michael were awesome to work with on this film, because they’re all insanely busy and working on other projects. As soon as we got them on board for this project, they were completely accessible, and we were able to talk back and forth.
A lot of the interesting lines you see in the film, like “Wrong f*cking answer,” came from the actors themselves. They got so into the skin of the characters, they’d ask, “What if I say this or that?” I think that’s one of the coolest things that could happen, because they’re organically putting on the skin of their characters, and they’re making them real.
JS: There is a lot that The Big Show brought in for the film, like the scorpion tattoo on his neck. He has a scorpion on his WWE trailer, so we brought that in, so that we could make it a little bit more personal. Also, the “Not to be f*cked with, not to be fooled with” tattoo that he has across his chest is his motto, and we thought it would look cool.
Also, before Dean’s character makes the decision to take out Victor’s brother, he says the address he’s going to is 3611. Dean’s most important number is 11; everything important in his life has happened on the 11th, and it’s also his old football number. Also, 36 is also another football number he got stuck with. So there are so many personal things for each character throughout the film.
SY: ‘Vendetta’ is the first entry in WWE Studios and Lionsgate Action Six-Pack series. What was the process of reuniting with WWE Studios and its president, Michael Luisi, again after working with the production company on ‘See No Evil 2?’
SS: We have had such a blast working with WWE and Lionsgate, and they have absolutely spoiled us. It’s not very often that you go from making your own grindhouse film (‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’) to shooting this really crazy, niche medical horror film (‘American Mary‘) to getting a nice studio job (‘See No Evil 2’) right after. They’re so supportive of our creative vision, and make it so that we can really have fun and make this movies special.
I think that’s a huge testament to WWE Studios and Michael Luisi, who approached us about this movie after we made ‘See No Evil 2.’ He said, “It’s not a horror movie,” which was the only thing we had done before. But he added, “I think you would be perfect for it. This guy, Justin Shady, who does graphic novels, wrote it. It’s really your style.” Jen and I were so excited to diversify what people would see from us, and have the support from both studios to do it.
JS: I absolutely agree, and I’m so grateful to Michael. Not only are we the first female directors who were hired by the WWE, we were also the first directors that the studio rehired to make another film for them. So I’m so happy that he gave us the opportunity to play around in this genre that we love.
A lot of people won’t give us the opportunity to pitch for a film outside of the horror genre, because they have seen our previous work. Even though half the time I think we’re making either a drama or a comedy, people still like to label them as horror films. With ‘Vendetta,’ we really had the chance to spread our wings and show off another side of what we can do.
SY: Like you both just mentioned, all of the previous movies you directed are in the horror genre. Why is it important to both of you to make movies in different genres, like an action thriller with ‘Vendetta,’ especially as female filmmakers?
SS: It’s like the John Carpenter portion of our careers, as we go from horror movies to action films. There are a lot of cool directors who started in horror, and then went on into action before they diversified even more so.
In every film we’ve ever made, we’ve included stunts, which is one of my favorite things in movies. Jen and I are both trained in mixed martial arts, and that kind of physicality has always been very interesting to us.
In horror movies, you only get so much of an opportunity for a body count, because you want to feel for the characters, and have an emotional connection with them. But with action films, you can have a higher body count. You can feature fight sequences with a bunch of dudes. A dude you don’t even know can come in looking scary, and then you have the opportunity to kill him immediately.
So our stunt coordinator, Kimani Smith, and fight choreographer, Dan Rizzuto, really worked to not only create interesting fights, but also things that were realistic for a prison fight. We wanted to show that this real cop goes to jail and has this mental break.
JS: Also, since the action genre is one that we haven’t already tackled, there was a lot of pressure on us, and we love to thrive in a challenge. I feel like we’ve definitely already proven ourselves in the horror genre. We’ve proven that we can make horror movies and tell different stories and really violent stuff, but we can also do really tasteful stuff.
So when we came into this film, I knew there were going to be a lot of people who were looking to see if we could actually pull off an action film. So it was important to us to do everything that we love in action movies. We were very influenced by ’80s action films, like ‘Death Wish.’
You can see that not only in the violence, which is very realistic, but also the action one-liners. I love action films with one-liners. If action films don’t have those catch phrases, you miss the mark on what you’re trying to do.
SY: Once inside the prison after he’s convicted, Mason both physically defends himself against, and purposefully sets out to attack, Victor and the other prisoners who have wronged him. With ‘Vendetta’ being an action thriller that’s driven by stunts, what was the process of creating those action sequences for the film?
SS: The first time we worked with Kimani Smith was on ‘See No Evil 2,’ and he came up with some of the most amazing stunt sequences. So when Jen and I signed onto ‘Vendetta,’ we wanted to bring Kimani back. He brought our fight coordinator, Dan Rizzuto, as well CSA Stunts Canada, which is an amazing stunt group. We knew what their capabilities were, but for ‘Vendetta,’ we really wanted to show it off.
These guys were completely hard-core; not only did we film a coordinated stunt sequence every day we were shooting, sometimes there would be two or three. So as we were shooting, these guys would be at the gym and their training area, where they would be going over all of the stunts. It wasn’t just the stunt performers who were training; Dean Cain and Paul Wight would join them. They all put their hearts and souls into it. Jen and I know fights, but we like to put people who are super capable at the heads of these departments.
JS: We like to bring in talented crews and allow them to play, which is what we did with all of our actors, specifically with Dean, Paul and Michael. Some projects you do are so cut-and-dry, and everyone’s told to do and say things like this. But they really had the opportunity to play off of each other, and you can see it with the fights.
The stunt team really had the chance to make those sequences their own. They were able to bring in what they thought was cool, and incorporate wrestling and jail fighting moves. They really gave the stunts a style and flavor of their own.
SY: With a majority of the thriller being set in the prison where Mason is sent after he’s convicted, what was the process of shooting in his cell and throughout the jail? Did you actually film on location in an actual prison, and if so, how did that influence your performance?
SS: We were so happy to return to Riverview Hospital, which is the same locations where we shot ‘See No Evil 2.’ We were able to re-imagine it as a prison. It’s half open, and the only people who still reside there are the criminally insane. That’s scary, but also exciting, considering that we were making a movie about criminally insane people.
JS: This is a location that’s also famously haunted, but there are more film crews than ghosts in there nowadays. But when you go in there, it really does have that atmosphere. We may have also shot ‘See No Evil 2,’ but we didn’t use any of the same locations. It’s such a versatile place for film crews to go into.
SY: The action movie (received a) theatrical and On Demand (release in June). Are you personally a fan of watching films on VOD, and why do you think the platform is beneficial to independent films like ‘Vendetta?’
SS: I think the On Demand option is really great, because it allows people to watch films no matter where they are. People just don’t always have the opportunity to seek out, and drive to, theaters that are playing films they want to see. A lot of times people come home after a long day at work, and they want to invite some buddies over and watch something cool. So I think ‘Vendetta’ is really going to thrive in this VOD world.
JS: I absolutely agree-the VOD platform is a great atmosphere. To be able to watch a film in your own home, especially with the evolution and thriving of platforms like Netflix, is amazing. I think there are audiences who prefer to stay home to watch films. There are, of course, always going to be the theatergoers who prefer to watch films, especially like this one, on the big screen. But I do think that if people crank up the volume on their screens at home, they’ll have the same great experience.
SS: We had the Oscar-winning team who did the sound on ‘Whiplash,’ so the sound on our film is also really good. So we suggest that people really turn up the sound as loud as you can as you watch the film.
SY: Besides ‘Vendeta,’ do you have any other upcoming projects, whether directing, writing and/or producing lined up that you can discuss? Are you interested in venturing out into working on other genres, or are you interested in doing more horror films?
JS: We will always have a passion for horror. Whatever we do is going to feature horrific elements, because it is our favorite genre. With that being said, I don’t think there’s a genre that we can’t do.
Our next film is actually another non-horror movie. It’s a psychological thriller, and it’s called ‘Plastic.’ It’s about a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who gets himself in a lot of trouble.
SS: It was written by Frank Strausser, who’s incredibly talented and wonderful. We (recently) held auditions for one of the leads, and it was one of the strongest and most beautiful auditions I have ever seen. So I think people are going to be excited to see what the next film is. That’s the thing with Jen and I-we always want to leave audiences guessing.
JS: We’re also delving into the world of comic books, as we’re big fans of graphic novels and video games. I hope video game-inspired projects will come our way soon. We (recently) finished a Kickstarter campaign, which was very successful, with Daniel Way, for a comic book called ‘Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack.’ It’s a return to our grindhouse style. It’s very crazy and in your face on the surface, but it’s also full of social commentary, which is our favorite kind of project to do.
Written by: Karen Benardello