After making 6 movies together, and recording a tiny mountain in unreleased music, it’s safe to say that the Adams’ are the coolest family on the planet. Their previous film, The Deeper You Dig, was a huge success at the 2019 Fantasia Internation Film Festival and would go on to travel the festival circuit all over the world before landing a killer home video release with Arrow Video. Their most recent film, Hellbender, just celebrated its World Premiere at Fantasia 2021, and will be available to stream on Shudder in early 2022.
At its core, Hellbender is the story of a mother and daughter trying to live life for each other in relative isolation, but it’s also a coming-of-age story unlike any you’ve ever seen. It’s got witchy weirdness, a killer soundtrack of original songs, and one hell of a brutal monster hiding in plain sight. Hellbender is my front runner for favorite movie of the year and that’s, in large part, due to the scrappy, independent spirit flowing through the veins of this kinda touching, kinda creepy low-budget banger! NOFS reviewer Kimberley Elizabeth called the film a “visceral and organic […combination of] folk horror with punk-rock, femme-powered rage“. Read her full festival review of Hellbender HERE.
The Adams have always taken the story of their lives and spun them into new narratives, using their own experiences as jumping-off points for new projects. They also put an incredible amount of themselves into their films as well. As you’ll read below, the original idea for the film came from a shocking family discovery, but it also extends to the production of their films. They write together, they shoot together, they act together, they edit together. The list goes on and on and on. I sat down with Zelda Adams, John Adams, and Toby Poser to discuss their unique approach to DIY filmmaking and how everything they do, they do together. Including rocking out in their family band H6LLB6ND6R!
“We just wanted to come up with our own hybrid of […] a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator.”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: I had such a blast watching Hellbender. Was it fun to film?
Zelda Adams: So much fun.
Toby Poser: I think it might have been my favorite of our 6 features together.
John Adams: It was really fun and, in some ways, it was the easiest to film. I think [it was easy] because we had fun, we had time, we didn’t have a schedule. We knew what we wanted to do and we were able to just really take our time fulfilling our vision. There was no hurry- I mean, COVID was in full swing, we were out on the road and we just had a lot of time to hang out and reshoot things, have a laugh, no stress, if it rained too hard [we could] stop.
ZA: Yeah, we shot it during COVID and at first everyone was like, ‘oh, what do we do?’ but this gave us a nice project to do and fill our time with during COVID.
NOFS: You really seem uniquely prepared to make movies during COVID. Compared to everyone else, you guys are like a self-contained movie studio.
ZA: It’s a little lucky, yeah.
TP: And we did hit the road. We got a trailer so we shot a lot of it on the road and we were this little self-contained pod of living and filmmaking. It was really cool.
NOFS: That’s so awesome! Were you editing in the trailer as well?
JA: Yeah, we edited on a really small little laptop which was semi-challenging, until you got used to it. In the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh I don’t know,’ but that was the way we did it. We’d go shoot in the woods in Oregon, come home, and just chuck it all out. It was really fun.
NOFS: The music in this movie is awesome, by the way. Did you record that in the trailer as well or was that all back at home?
JA: That was all back at home which was a big advantage. So, when we brought home the visuals from shooting, we had lots of sound to pick from to throw it up against. That is really helpful when you have the sound all done.
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“We got a trailer so we shot a lot of it on the road and we were this little self-contained pod of living and filmmaking.”
NOFS: And all four of you wrote and performed the songs together, right? When did you decide to put these isolated characters in a band?
TP: Well, we’d been doing H6llb6nd6r before the movie, In fact, it was kind of getting us revved up to do a feature before we quite knew what it was going to be and then, I think it was John who said they should just be in the band in the movie too. And it gave our characters something to do, to show that they really have a cool relationship. Even though they live on the top of this mountain in isolation, they’re tight and they try to make eachother happy, and they play rock gigs it’s just not enough for the adolescent of course.
JA: And there was also- the thing that we really wanted to do with Hellbender was to have joy in the drama to show that these two were friends and it wasn’t just a big drag the whole time, like mom and daughter hating each other. And we already are a band. We play downstairs, we already have all that stuff, and it was kind of like, we already have a lot of fun down there so let’s just film it and do it because it’ll just show that it’s a lot of fun. It really is kind of a weird little thing in the movie.
NOFS: Just out of curiosity, Zelda, did you what your first horror movie with your parents or was that something you discovered on your own?
ZA: I think Toby showed me my first horror movie when I was in 2nd grade. She showed me Carrie and I remember that I was like, ‘I can’t go to sleep after watching that’ but then I started to fall in love with that feeling of “Oo I kind of like being spooked out like that,’ so thank you Toby for introducing me to that.
TP: You’re welcome. It’s good horror. It’s good drama too.
ZA: And then we got so into watching horror movies these past couple of years. We just try to watch horror movies all the time and after dinner, we just go and watch stuff together. It’s like our little tradition.
NOFS: What are some movies that all of you respond to together?
ZA: Midsommar, Parasite–
TP: I’m always talking about The Witch. I’ve kind of got this big itch for The Witch. We watched The Thing together-
JA: Yeah, we’ll watch The Thing anytime. Over and over and over. It’s so good, and that’s about isolation too, something that we love.
ZA: I think the one movie that scared us the most is Coraline. That movie is invasive!
NOFS: And so when did you all decide you were going to make a witch movie?
ZA: We were originally going to play around with a devil, or the theme of a devil but then that wasn’t really working out very well so we were like, ‘what if we switched it over to witchy powers?’.
JA: Yeah, we were working really hard on [that]. Toby found out that her dad, that she always thought was her dad, wasn’t her dad. And so it was like, ‘Wow! Let’s write about this,’ and then we were immediately like, ‘how about if your dad wasn’t your dad but your [real] dad was actually The Devil?’. So we started moving quick on this thing called “The Devil’s Daughter” where Zelda released that she was The Devil’s daughter but The Devil is such a massive figure and it comes with so much weight it became hard to navigate that very well without immediately falling into some pretty lame ruts.
TP: It was really fun but then we segued into something on the witchy end but then we thought ‘let’s make our own brand of witchiness’. We had the band H6llb6nd6r already, with 6’s for the e’s and, just kind of naturally, we wanted to create our own supernatural, devilish creature.
“We live in the wilderness […and] there’s just so much death around us so it seemed natural that we would write something about nature”
NOFS: So everything about the “Hellbenders” is all from you guys? You created your own lore for the movie?
TP: Yeah, we just thought ‘let’s create our own creature’. For a while, I was reading up a lot on Lillith, and Hell, and Oroboros was a big thing I was interested in. We live in the wilderness so nature is such a big part of where we live. All the roadkill that we had in The Deeper You Dig, and in this film- there’s just so much death around us so it seemed natural that we would write something about nature, and then there was the whole question of Nurture. When I meet my new siblings, that’s been a big deal, like ‘are we alike? are we differnet?’. So yeah the whole Hellbender thing- that was all just sort of an undercurrent, the stuff we would research. We just wanted to come up with our own hybrid of- I think in the film we say it’s a cross between a witch, a demon, and an apex predator.
JA: I think what was fun about inventing the Hellbender is the idea of, should you follow your destiny? Should you be good at what you’re supposed to be good at? She’s not human, so should she be a great Hellbender? And that’s always fun, you know, like in Breaking Bad or The Sopranos the people we’re rooting for, in fact, are kind of evil. You know? They do these evil things but that’s always what’s interesting about it. It’s like, ‘well if you’re great at it, and that’s your destiny, should you be doing it?’.
NOFS: I couldn’t help but notice in the credits that you also cast John’s father in a small role, so it really is like a whle family affair.
JA: That’s one of the fun things about what we do. If we need a cop, we use the local sheriff and if we need an older guy- my dad’s a really interesting person and we loved filming with him, he was really great and he’ll always be there. Toby’s mom was in The Deeper You Dig and she was in the movie before that. It kind of like we’ll write scenes and be like ‘Hey dad, could you do this?’ and he’s like ‘I dunnno’ [laughs]
TP: And having Lulu in the film too was really fun.
NOFS: And Trey Lindsay, your visual effects guy, he’s been working with you guys for a while now too, right?
JA: Yes, and he is in the family, a beautiful human being, and he loves horror so everything you talk about, he’s just so enthusiastic and it just brings a ton of joy to the process. What’s really fun about Trey is that he always sends us back an effect that is SO HUGE and we’re always like, ‘oh my god, that’s so great…but can we dial it back a little bit?’. And he always says, “I knew you were going to say that but I wanted to show you what I wanted to do,’ but the next thing that comes back is always so beautiful and in our realm. But that’s what’s so fun about Trey. His amp is at 11 always.
“we have a really, really fun thing set in the 1930s about a gangster family but with a total horror element and we’re all just super excited about that”
NOFS: So what’s next for you guys? I assume you’re already working on something else.
ZA: We’re starting to develop our next idea, that’s going to be a timepiece, which is going to be so exciting to do. We’re also constantly coming out with new music for our actual band called H6llb6nd6r. We’re working on a lot of music right now and trying to release it.
JA: Zelda [also] came up with a wonderful script. We had a two-hour drive and within two hours Zelda had completed this wonderful skeleton of a script. We called Toby and told her what it was and when we got home Toby was starting to throw meat at it. So, we have a really, really fun thing set in the 1930s about a gangster family but with a total horror element and we’re all just super excited about that
TP: Oh yeah, I’m like jumping out of my skin excited about. It’s going to be really, really fun.