By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
After seven features, starting when the girls were 6 and 11 years old, we’ve learned how to dance together pretty well. It’s a constant evolution, not only our collective education with camera and sound equipment, but also in building a solid democracy as far as how we peacefully communicate ideas, share direction, and join visions through editing.”
With The Adams Family having just launched upon the world their sixth feature film, Hellbender is yet another jewel by Toby Poser, John Adams, and their daughters Zelda and Lulu Adams, released under their auspices of their production company, Wonder Wheel Productions. Following up on the success of 2019’s smash hit The Deeper You Dig, the cult fame that film suggested has been solidified in earnest by Hellbender. Directed, written and starring Toby, Zelda and John and with Lulu making a memorable on-screen appearance also, The Adams Family redefine DIY; aside from these roles, the film’s music is performed by Zelda, Toby and John’s band H6LLB6ND6R with John editing the film, Zelda and John providing cinematography duties, and Toby helming the producer role while also in charge of wardrobing.
While the behind-the-scenes family angle of Hellbender’s production is enough to make it somewhat of a curio, this is more than a mere novelty. As a collaborative filmmaking collective, this family are very much at the top of their game, with Hellbender suggesting that the best is still yet to come. The film follows isolated teen Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) who live alone in a remote rural house and, between them, have created a seemingly hermetically sealed existence, cut off almost completely from the rest of the world. But when Izzy discovers almost by accident that her mother’s claim that Izzy has an immune disease that means she cannot socialise with others or go to school was just an excuse to keep her excluded from society, the true reason for her mother’s actions are revealed; the two women come from a line of “hellbenders”, a combination of witches, demons and hunting animals who, Izzy’s mother tells her daughter, must learn to control their powers if they are to have a functional existence. But overwhelmed by her newfound autonomy, Izzy has different ideas and her desire to develop as a hellbender and find her own identity grows in increasing tension with her close relationship with her beloved mother.
With the film’s recent world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival and scheduled to hit the popular horror streaming service Shudder in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland early in 2022, Toby Poser and John Adams from The Adams Family kindly took the time to chat to Film International about Hellbender and fascinating collaborative filmmaking practice.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: We are at a moment in film history where there is an enormous focus on identity politics and authorship – what kind of people make movies, and what does that mean in terms of the final product. For me, you guys absolutely blow the often very simplistic way this is critically discussed right out of the water in a really punk way by rejecting the notion of the single artist and instead acknowledging, embracing and celebrating the collaborative nature of filmmaking itself. And obviously, that you are a family adds an entirely new dimension to this. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you perceive the difference in the way you work to the way that authorship in cinema is so traditionally conceived.
Toby Poser (TP): First, thank you! That our collaborative process (as a family and small clan of film makers) is producing decent fruit is the cherry on an already delicious cake. Our motto is always something to the tuneof: “Let’s make good art…and have fun doing it!” Fun is not a flippantconcept here; it’s vital. It’s the currency we run best on. We still work like hell, but we love it. So I think at heart we are like most film makers in that we love cinema – that many-headed beautiful beast – and we want to crawl inside and feel its heartbeat. Don’t most film makers feel that way? I hope so. I think whether you’re on our tiny shoot or a big studio’s, the excitement (and sometimes exhaustion) of being part of the hive is a beautiful thing. Even before I personally was making films, I felt compelled to sit through the end credits of movies because all these people were invisible but integral parts of this artful organism that lives again and again onscreen. I think we are just a minor anomaly because we’re a family – and our end credits are pretty damn short. The sharing of authorship is great for synergistic reasons: we hold each other up, we struggle and succeed together, and we all really love looking back on the body of our works. It’s like looking at a living photo album – not only the images of the fictional story onscreen, but also the memories of making them. They’re mental negatives burned in us. I wonder if other film makers who are related or coupled might agree that there is something thrilling but also very convenient about sharing the creative process. Some families have Game Night; we make movies.
This is an extension on the above question so ignore it if you’ve already addressed it, but I’ve spoken to a lot of different filmmaking collaborative partners over the years (although only duos – you guys are unique!) and I am always fascinated by how different their filmmaking practice is when it comes down to the nitty gritty. How do you guys’ work, and has that evolved/changed over the years, and/or from project to project? And if it’s not too personal, do you ever switch off, or is making stuff an integral part of your interpersonal dynamics?
TP: After seven features, starting when the girls were 6 and 11 years old, we’ve learned how to dance together pretty well. It’s a constant evolution, not only our collective education with camera and sound equipment, but also in building a solid democracy as far as how we peacefully communicate ideas, share direction, and join visions through editing. At this point, our art and our living have reached a wonderful symbiosis. We really do live where we shoot; shoot where live. We love to travel, so whether we are at home in the Catskill Mountains of New York or on the road, whatever is in front of us is food for filming or sustenance for
storyline. So we don’t turn off so much as just keep the creative vents open daily so that while we are walking with the dog or cooking dinner or looking out the window of our car, inspiration always has a smooth flow. (And our camera is close!)
As far as the fabric of our work goes, we all have different knitting skills, so to speak. Zelda is a really good visual storyteller. She loves having that camera in her hand, and she sees things with a cool, young eye. She also operates the drone and steadycam (both new toys for us!). She’s always advocating for more movement in our films.
John is really an engine for music and action. He is constantly writing and recording music/sounds, devising wild moments for active horror in the film, and making sure the ball stays rolling. “No stopping!” is John’s personal motto.
I’m particularly interested in research and writing. I love to wade into all kinds of lore and legends, get lit up but them, then take all the pieces of our culled ideas and stitch them together with what I like to call the “invisible thread.” Small, unnoticed, or private moments – the very human stuff (in this case with some supernatural bells and witchy whistles sewn on for good measure!).
I’m absolutely fascinated with the intersection of witchcraft in Hellbender and the act of filmmaking itself – a kind of spellcasting or magic-making that is making art itself, but is also embedded quite literally into the narrative. And that this is a collective effort I think really adds to that, the idea of The Adams Family as a kind of creative coven really appeals to me! Is this random critical speculation here, or do you guys see on any level a connection between that element of the film and what you guys are doing more broadly?
TP: A “creative coven.” Oh, I love that. In the way that a spell might be crafted out of something tangible and primitive and released with the direst will and intention, sure, this sounds like us! Our films are crafted relatively simply, and when we release them into the world you can bet we do so with a burning intent that certainly feels like an invocation. Even the spells, the poem, and the grace said before dinner in Hellbender were created with an almost childlike logic. The floating totem is meant to spy on Izzy in the forest, so it looks like an eye made from foraged items, then is activated by blood and feathers because…bloodlines and a bird’s eye POV! The wolf poem you could probably jump rope to. Spring does eat winter; winter does eat fall…There’s something ritualistic, too, about how we work, I’d say. We’re always huddling together throwing ideas into a cauldron of what-ifs, seeing what rises. And when we’re scouting, often on foot in remote wild places, we have backpacks stuffed with camera and costumes (for Hellbender it was gauzy black material) so that when the muse beckons we can honor her with an impromptu scene that just feels intuitive; a kind of binding in and of itself. And if we get it right (sometimes we don’t), it materializes into the narrative.
The focus here on the power dynamics between a mother and daughter is so refreshing, in anyone else’s hands it could become so reductive and excessive, but here – even when things go absolutely wackadoodle – there’s such an authenticity to the relationship between Izzy and her mother. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this; how much of this is a kind of ambient energy from the relationship between you, Zelda and Toby, and how much is crafted? Or can this even be quantified (does it need to be quantified?!)
TP: Zelda and I are close, but it’s funny – and I think Zelda might agree – that the more we think about ourselves as real mom and daughter, the harder it is to act together. Suddenly you’re putting something so natural under a microscope and then it just feels weird. It’s easier just to understand the narrative needs and then play them as naturally as we can, the ease of which, sure, may be a flow-over from the fact that we were just hanging out eating lunch together a half hour earlier or something. But our comfort together is always secondary to the story. How we cloak that story in visual and emotional layers we may (or may not) relate to is where the fun begins…searching for themes that are familiar to us and others, the quirks of family dynamics or the universal struggles and triumphs of being an adolescent and a parent…and then peering at them through a different glass. Why can’t a girl who comes from a long line of bloodhungry fear gobblers also love Kurt Cobain, sketching, and nature walks? And her mom love vintage cars and good grammar? Izzy herself asks why can’t they love each other, be “a team,” even while fulfilling a violent destiny. I guess it’s hard for us to drop the families-should-love-each-other-no-matter-what ball. Love is never boring. We’re certainly attracted to its bitter notes. But they pop more when they’re juxtaposed with joy.
I don’t wish to be reductive, but if I am keeping this spoiler free for me the heart of Hellbender is how both power and knowledge are almost tangible elements that are passed down generationally, but that this transition is a natural one in its chaos and violence. There’s such an enormous emphasis on nature in the film and how humans integrate in both positive and negative ways with it – how do you conceive the relationship between humans and the environment more generally?
TP: For us nature plays a huge role in our film making, literally and thematically. Because we have very little equipment (only a camera, tripod and two mikes most of the time), we rely on nature’s light as much as possible. We live in a rural, mountainous place where nature opens wide arms, so it makes sense to work with whatever we have right outside our windows. Or to travel to places where the environment is different from our own, like the desert or rocky tundra or the ocean. We always say nature is another main character in our films. But in Hellbender nature was also this kind of thematic lodestar. We are constantly reminded of the beauty and brutality of it. Each season envelops the last so drastically here. Frog song, coyote choirs, the shriek of dying deer all pierce our sleep. The river swells and chews on the road. The road is pocked with signs of human nature collision (which we used a lot in The Deeper You Dig). Everything is consuming everything; one big ouroboros. We wanted to invent something one step higher than humans on the food chain, a being that represents the power and destructiveness of nature itself. But just as humans feel guiltless overpowering and trying to tame nature, shouldn’t a hellbender feel free to overpower and dominate humans? It’s a fun ethical question to ask. When we found the picked-clean whole deer carcass in the woods, it was the greatest gift. I mean, nature really threw us a bone. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) This beautiful piece of death work summed up the question of nature vs. nurture so perfectly, in relation to Izzy’s urges and Mother’s starvation of them. So we ran home, changed clothes, ran back, and built a scene around it.
The idea of a Hellbender being a witch/demon/predatory animal hybrid is really captivating, as it allows you to bring in references from all three. What was the research process for the film – was it a formal exercise, or something more organic? Particularly with the spell casting elements, I’d love to hear what inspired those fabulously nuanced recipes and things that Izzy’s mother teaches her!
TP: We had so much fun with the spells. Spiderwebs are sticky and ivy is clingy, so when you combine them in a spell you can climb trees like squirrels. Ferns and mushrooms issue spores in the air; they’re self-reproducing (like hellbenders). So when mixed with blood and sniffed, a hellbender can smell blood on the wind. Again, their logic is somewhat childlike, but we figured spells are elemental and should be simple if they’re to work. Research-wise, we were captivated by stories of ancient women associated with eating babies. I think our discovery started with Lamia, the awesome Libyan serpent-goddess. Our first go-round for Hellbenders was this very extravagant concept of baby-eating women whose jaws unhinged like snakes. They could eat dogs and humans. It was a bit out of our reach, but some elements lingered, like the ouroboros, and inspired the idea that a hellbender can only be created by consuming another (the mother). Of course, research on baby-eaters flowed into stories of Lilith and Eve and witchy women in general. Menstrual blood is something I always want to slip into our films, and in this case it’s all pretty subliminal but it’s there. We read lots of fascinating creation myths about how ancient cultures considered the creation of mankind through women’s blood…coagulated in the womb, or clay smeared with blood (Mesopotamian goddess Ururu, The Great Potter). I think the name Adam comes from the feminine Adamah, meaning “bloody clay” (later tempered to a more polite “red earth.”) So much fun. At any rate, we committed to creating our own mythology, influenced by powerful historical women, but colored by our own imagination. We wanted Hellbenders to be female in form, but de-sexualized, removed from a patriarchy. Moreover we wanted to explore the complexities within a matrilineage. The sewn mouths are symbolic in several ways. We see Grandmother’s sewn mouth at the beginning and later Mother’s in the book’s visions. A sewn mouth can mean several things: A closed mouth doesn’t speak, and it doesn’t eat. Do all mature Hellbenders reach a place of spiritual turmoil? Mother chooses to starve her true nature, for reasons she as an experienced hellbender and mother rationalizes, but Izzy’s teeth are just cutting, and she’s looking for something to gnaw on. Or is the sewn mouth akin to a cervix in a hellbender? Keeping all that ingested “clay” down to coagulate into something new but the same. Birth through violence; through sacrifice. The puking blood scene was another menstruation suggestion, but in keeping with the consumption theme, we figured they’d shed blood through the very place they conceive – their mouths. All these things were spun from research to nourish the story, but we tried to keep hellbenders shrouded in mystery to a certain extent; to keep their identities somewhat unreachable on a human level.
In both The Deeper You Dig and Hellbender, there’s a fascinating tension when it comes to strangers and outsiders that I’d love to hear your thoughts on – there’s a tension that comes with the presence of outsiders and how they seem to act as catalysts.
TP: I think there is something about how we live and how we create that makes us feel a bit like outsiders, but in a benign way. If there’s a wariness in our films for strangers or the world at large, perhaps it’s a subconscious playing out of fears we have as parents. Sometimes making a horror film feels like giving breath to a nightmare, insofar as a nightmare is a kind of safe rehearsal or sparring ground for your worst terrors. But to answer your question, we’re not very interested in the status quo. We’re more interested in residing in a perpetual state of discovery, which means ignoring the status quo to some extent. Rules have never been a big part of our functional vocabulary.
Please tell me about your music – it really is the heart of Hellbender in so many ways, and I’d love to hear about how the music was created in relation to the development of the film itself. And how hard do I have to beg you for a vinyl soundtrack?
John Adams: Thank you so much for referring to the music as the heartbeat of the film. At the very beginning of creating Hellbender we all knew we wanted the musical soundtrack to drive the joyful aspect of the mother/daughter relationship. Fun, revealing, dark lyrics tucked into tribal grooves or a sparse warped acoustic guitar. The band music had to be primitive and stripped down so it could actually be just the two of them. Keeping it simple really helped to keep a fluid tone to the main numbers and was incredibly fun to record. The background soundscape was an entirely different beast. An eerie but powerful foreboding needed to underlie the drama that was unfolding onscreen. Hopefully we achieved the feeling of seeing a distant cloud front of a coming storm on an otherwise beautiful, still day. For that, droning keyboard sounds slowed down til they were unrecognizable, and beating on metaI doors in an abandoned military bunker served our purposes best. My favorite sound discovery was realizing that squeaky bicycle breaks recorded in a concrete pedestrian tunnel had the exact sound of everything we wanted a Hellbender to be. A wail that is relentless, and harrowing. I don’t like musicals. I don’t know why? But secretly I wanted to try and make one. An album is in the works now and will be released in the new year and you will get the first slice of hot wax!
What – if anything – do you think the way that you collectively make films in such an actively and openly collaborative way teach us about cinema more broadly? What have we missed or taken for granted that if there was one thing you would like emerging filmmakers (or even established ones) to learn from your practice and relationship to creativity, both as individuals, collaborators, and family?
TP: If there’s anything our track record supports, it’s that creativity can be interactional. We’ve simply taken a note from ants and bees: stuff gets built from working together and working hard. In our case, we’re building music and movies. But this brings us back around to the element of fun. It’s good glue.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.