Interview: The Adams Family for HELLBENDER

The Adams Family’s new film Hellbender starts streaming today on Shudder. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the filmmakers — John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, and Lulu Adams — to talk about the movie. We discussed “hidden magic,” the happy accident that led to some of the film’s most striking imagery, and their devilish new work in progress.

Note: There are some spoilers for the film in this interview.

Congratulations on all the festival success and being picked up by Shudder! What has that journey been like, from your premiere to now?

Toby Poser: Excellent.

John Adams: Wonderful. The best thing about it is we get to meet people like you, we get to learn about kind of what we’re doing, we get to learn about what other people are doing. It’s a great way for just interaction, even though COVID kind of put a little bump in the road. But we’ve been able to — actually, Zoom meetings have been wonderful. And it’s just a great way to make friends and learn.

Absolutely. It’s such a pleasure being able to meet people, especially something like this where you can tell that you put your blood, sweat, and tears into this. Obviously, it’s a family affair. It’s such a tight-knit crew and group. Can you talk about what it’s like working with your family on this, and having three writers, three directors, and a cast and crew being friends and family?

Zelda Adams: Well, it’s so great getting to work together as family and as friends. We all started at the same time: I started when I was six, Lulu started when…?

Lulu Adams: Eleven. 

Zelda Adams: Eleven. And so we all started at the same time. So we’ve all gotten to evolve together as filmmakers. And I feel like in the process, we’ve also gotten so much closer as family and as friends. And I feel like, being a family is like — some people can kind of think of it as a disadvantage, but I think that we really do use it to our advantage. It makes it so much easier to work on a small scale. If we want to go shoot something, it’s like, “All right, let’s go eat a PB&J and then go film it.” And if we don’t like it, we’ll go film it again. (laughs) It makes life a lot easier.

One of the things I loved about the movie is it feels like you take a multimedia approach, incorporating your own music from your band and some of the art direction and the sound design. It feels like it’s more of a multimedia approach to film. Can you talk about that a little bit?

John Adams: That’s super cool of you — that’s the first person who’s put it into those kinds of words. I think that that’s really important to us. We all are artists, so we love painting. We have a band together. We love listening, playing music; we love photography. So the fact that you call it multimedia is really great. It’s really important to us. I think one of the things that’s — the simplest way to put it is: music is a great way to drive story quickly. And we noticed that if we need to tell a story, but we don’t want to “blah, blah, blah,” and bore people to death with background details, we can put that in a song and then back it up visually. And in two minutes, or even in a minute and a half or even a minute, the audience can have all the knowledge they need for the next step of the movie. So we love to integrate music as a way to speed the audience through things that they need to know in a really fun way.

Toby Poser: I would add really fast, too, if I could, that in a strange way, I think we use nature almost as animation. Because we’re surrounded by so much cool nature, you know: crooked, gnarled trees and pocked roads and rivers that are just beastly and powerful. We’ve always — we don’t have special equipment. I think nature is kind of like our way of illustration.

A still from Hellbender. Mother stands in the woods with her fingers outstretched as a figure floats in front of her with smoke underneath their feet.

Yeah, there’s such an elemental sense to the movie, not just in the witchcraft and the folklore that you build, but also in the music. It feels like they’re of a piece and they’re in relation with each other. I just loved that. And I can see the painting and the photography in terms of the shot composition, especially some of those beautiful shots of the woods that you were exploring. And also poetry when she’s — the lyrics about the wolf and the lamb. I just thought that was so brilliant and so much better than a conversation: reciting these lyrics, just reciting a poem to the audience, that in 20 seconds gets across what it would have taken other people 10 minutes to get across. I just loved that.

John Adams: Thank you.

Toby Poser: You’re, again, you’re the first person who I think has ever mentioned the wolf poem.

Oh God, I love it. It’s my favorite. I paused to write it down in my notes because I love it so much.

Toby Poser: Oh, cool.

John Adams: It’s so interesting. I had kind of forgotten about that, and you are the first person to bring it up. And we talked a lot about that in the truck, with Lulu and Zelda and Toby. We drove around and we tried to come up with a way to, again, speed the audience through something pretty important.

Toby Poser: And in a very elemental, elementary style. Even with the magic in the spells that they’re casting…I always say, I like to think of it as something you could jump a rope to, something that a second or third grader could understand. Just strip it down to its basics, you know, out to its elements. And the poem is like that, too.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about that magic. I like that it’s so natural and it’s everywhere. It’s in the air you breathe, the blood that pumps through your body. And I loved the attention to detail, like talking about when you mix huckleberries and tears or the collection of keys on the table in the secret room. Can you talk about adding in those little details and working together to do that and what vision you were going for with that?

Toby Poser: Sure. Okay, I’ll step in. (laughs) Yeah, in terms of that spell with the huckleberries, and she talks about ivy — again, we just stripped everything down to its simplest, the way we could see them so simply. We thought, “Well, if you have the power to climb a tree, you need to have sticky hands. So what would you mix? You’d mix spider webs, they’re very sticky, and ivy is something that clings to trees.” When you can smell something on the wind, you’ve got mushrooms which have spores: self-reproducing, like Hellbenders. And they float on the wind. In terms of my favorite, I think, might be the totem, the sigil, that they cast into the air, because we made it look like an eye. Because it’s going to be their eye onto what’s below. They’re spying, but also to make it fly. Zelda’s character, Izzy, uses a bird’s feather to paint it. So that’s just another reference to flying or an eagle eye view. It’s so much fun.

A still from Hellbender. Izzy stands in the forest, looking up to the sky with her bloody hands outstretched.

That’s one of the things I love about it. It doesn’t make magic something cloistered in a tower. It’s natural, and it’s all around you. And it’s very simple. Not that it’s easy, but it’s very simple. And it’s there if you look for it, which I think is a beautiful thing.

John Adams: I think we’re coming to terms with the fact that a lot of our movies are about hidden magic. And it’s two words that are starting to make sense. Like I don’t think we understood that we’re making movies about hidden magic. But The Deeper You Dig was also about hidden magic, and the dramas that we — and actually The Hatred before that — they’re all kind of about hidden magic, even in a human sense. The magic in us all, just a regular human magic of being a good person. So it’s been really fun to realize, “Oh, that’s one of our themes.”

Another theme I wanted to touch on — which I found so interesting because this was a family production — was this idea that you have to kill your mother to become the true version of yourself. Literally in this case, but metaphorically for a lot of people. What is it like working with your mother, working with such a heavy, possibly dark theme? 

Zelda Adams: For me, I mean, I know it’s not exactly real. So I’m kind of like, “Oh, this is exciting.” But I thought it was a really, really interesting theme to cover. 

I like the idea of mothers and daughters as this cyclical destruction and rebirth that can lead to contentious relationships. Obviously, you’re working in harmony with each other on this piece of art, so I was wondering about the tension there.

Zelda Adams: No, yeah, absolutely. I mean, in real life, Toby and I are really great friends. So it honestly was kind of a challenge portraying that in front of the camera. There were a lot of times where John and Toby had to be like, “Remember, you’re kind of getting ready to think about eating your mom so that, you know, someday you can make your own hellbender.” And that was a little bit of a challenge for me, because Toby and I are such great friends. But it was really, really fun, you know, having to push myself to be more evil. And it was really fun because in the beginning of the movie, we were really close. So it was more acting just how Toby and I normally act together. In the middle of the movie, a little bit more spice, and then towards the end, much darker. What do you think, Toby?

Toby Poser: Yeah, and I guess for me, from the mother’s point of view, it’s like: most mothers would sacrifice themselves. She’s not quite ready to; she wants to go have a little more fun a little longer. But again, the whole cyclical thing, we’re kind of obsessed with that cyclical theme you mentioned — the ouroboros was a big influence for us, because we just thought the snake eats its tail, the seasons that surround us consume each other. The cycle of birth and death and then rebirth from all the decay around us, it was kind of our lodestar theme. This whole theme of decay and rebirth — it just made sense that the hellbenders would be like that, too. And it adds conflict, you know, because you kill what you love.

John Adams: And we also love the philosophical idea that you have to consume backwards to move forwards: fall eats summer, summer eats spring. It’s not like spring moves into summer, like the way we all think about, the Western view of how things work is, spring moves into summer. But it’s a fun kind of koan, I think it’s a koan, but to think about how things move backwards to get to the future. It’s kind of a weird concept. And that’s what was cool about Hellbenders and cool about the imagery in the last part of the movie that we won’t spoil for people. But there’s an image there that shows that she has to return the opposite direction of the direction you think she would be having to return.

Yeah, there’s so much striking imagery in the movie, but that, I thought, was especially brilliant. 

A still from Hellbender. Izzy stands on a barren, rocky hill wearing a black cloak. Her cloak and face are dissipating into black smoke.

What other challenges were there in shooting? Because there is — even if I didn’t know that you were a family, there’s such an immediate sense of chemistry and camaraderie. Like when Izzy and Amber first meet, there’s an instant connection. And there’s just so much shorthand, it feels like, emotional shorthand between you that everything just flows. But were there challenges working within that?

Toby Poser: I bet Lulu has some good answers.

Lulu Adams: Oh, don’t give me any pressure. (laughs) No, it was mostly fun and playful, because we did kind of have that playfulness. Like, I’ve also always been the older sister for Zelda. And we haven’t quite had that dynamic where I’m like, “Eat a worm!” But maybe Zelda disagrees. (laughs)

Zelda Adams: She’s always making me eat things I don’t want to be eating, so. (laughs)

Lulu Adams: Okay, maybe it was very easy. (Zelda laughs.) But that kind of fighting part, like the scene where she tries to choke me, that was — I wouldn’t say it was hard. It was just super different. For me, it was really, really fun having that dynamic, something of that twist, and getting to have this kind of intensity towards each other that we don’t have in our dynamic. That was just super fun to play with. And I feel like Zelda really enjoyed getting into the show and having fun with that. 

Zelda Adams: Yeah, I think so much of our art in our real life is totally blended together. But sometimes it’s really hard separating those two. In one of the scenes, in the end, there’s a pretty tough scene with Amber in it that’s a little bit terrifying. And I know as a family member it was hard watching that in live action. I was like, “Oh my God, are you okay?” It was just terrifying. But I knew it wasn’t really real. So sometimes it’s hard, you know, separating art from real life.

Toby Poser: And also Lulu…she wasn’t quite in our pod during COVID, because she was living in the Northwest and we were traveling in an RV. And we actually went out there and got to shoot with her. But because Lulu worked with kids, and this was pre-vaccination, there was the challenge of actually shooting in separation as much as possible. And putting Lulu in the rain and in this cold, dank cave. I mean, those were hard as a mother —

John Adams: In a bikini. 

Toby Poser: Yeah, in the ocean.

John Adams: In a bikini at 40 degrees with the ocean waves crashing. It was like, “Lulu, no, stay — don’t move so much!” (imitating Lulu) “Dad, it’s so damn cold.” I think one of the things that’s fun, but difficult, about shooting with the Adams Family is that we love nature at its extremes. So we love to shoot in the super cold because it looks so wonderful. We love to shoot on a crazy-ass beach where the waves are crashing. We love to shoot in the rain. We love to shoot when it’s too late and we still have three miles to hike back to our car. And so we’re constantly finding ourselves walking in the dark, up cliffs, or getting swept out to sea on a table in the Pacific Northwest. You know, it’s all funny and crazy. But I think sometimes we all get back to home and we’re like, “Oh my God, I’m exhausted.”

Zelda Adams: “Why? Why did we do that?” And then we do it again.

John Adams: “Why are we doing this?” And then it’ll be like, “Oh, but you know what? You were wearing the wrong clothes, so we’ve got to shoot it again tomorrow.”

A still from Hellbender. Izzy and her mother sit in front of a piano looking at each other warmly with slight smiles on their faces.

Obviously you’ve been making films together for a long time. But what was the genesis for this specific project? Where did the idea come from for Hellbender?

Toby Poser: A couple things. We had our band H6llb6nd6r, but the “e”s are “6”s. And we had started to make some music videos, and just exploring what the visuals were for this strange concept of, “What is a Hellbender?” It came out as just really witchy. And we thought, “Oh, if this is ever an invitation to take this further.” And so there was that. And then I also found out that — when I was 50, right when our last one The Deeper You Dig was dropping, my mother died. And right before she died, she told me that my dad who raised me was not my biological dad, that I was donor-conceived. And that was a wild revelation, a beautiful one, actually, because my dad was — he’s my dad and he’s wonderful. But I ended up having all these — you know, genetics became a big thing for me to think about. And we thought, “Well, what if my dad was the Devil?” So for a while, we thought we were going to make a movie called The Devil’s Daughter, and we thought, “Oh, the Devil is too big a concept for us right now.” So we kind of evolved into this idea of this higher than humans on the food chain Hellbender entity.

You mention that the Devil is too big for you right now. Is that something you want to tackle in a future film? 

Toby Poser: Funny you should say that.

John Adams: Yeah, we’re taking another slice out of the Devil, and it’s an 18-year-old girl. (laughs) Actually, yeah, our next movie is called When the Devil Roams. It’s about a family. We’re all doing it together again, which is really exciting. And we don’t have to do the COVID restriction deal, because we’re all together. It’s basically Bonnie and Clyde meets Frankenstein. And it’s a really, really fun movie that is just unfolding in front of us. It wants to be made. It’s been so easy and wonderful to make so far. And we’re maybe 70% done shooting. So that’s super exciting.

Zelda Adams: And once again, we’ve been shooting it in the extremes of winter. (laughs) It’s cold.

John Adams: It’s great though, because it is so cold that nobody has time to BS around acting. Everyone’s just being serious. It’s really great. (laughs) Nobody shows up with bells and whistles, all the bells and whistles are frozen off of our toes. It’s really great. It’s so fun.

That log line, I am so excited.

Something I love to ask people: is there anything about the movie that you have not been able to talk about? Because no one has asked you about it, but you’d just love to talk about it?

Toby Poser: Well, the wolf poem that you mentioned, it really was one that nobody wants to talk about. 

John Adams: Yeah, it’s so cool that you mentioned that.

Toby Poser: And it’s such a big clear theme. It’s sort of like, there we are giving it to you on a platter.

John Adams: And it’s a wildly brutal scene. It’s one of my favorite brutal scenes, and no one talks about it yet. So it’s really fun. I’d kind of forgotten about it. So it’s neat that you’re bringing it up, because we love that. And that was shot in the Pacific Northwest. That’s actually when Lulu almost got swept out to sea on a little picnic table.

I also wanted to talk about the visions. You know, it’s kind of — not naturalistic, but we’re in a very natural setting, not a lot of extravagant special effects. Very well done special effects, but nothing extravagant. But when we see the visions, when they place their hand on the book, I wanted to talk about your influences in shooting those or the style you were going for, because they’re so striking and they’re so different from the rest of the movie. 

John Adams: That was a happy mistake from us making music videos together. We were cutting together one of our first music videos for H6llb6nd6r — it was called “Black Sky” — and a couple mistakes were made. We figured out what we had done to make those mistakes, and we just applied it to the book visions. So that was a happy, wonderful mistake. And we still are utilizing that mistake quite a bit in our music videos.

Toby Poser: Oh, and we’re going to have that soundtrack coming out! Songs that aren’t in the movie. And they’re wonderful.

John Adams: Yeah, we wrote a lot of songs for it as a band together, all in the theme of Hellbender the movie, because we knew what the movie was about. But you can’t put 26 songs in a movie, so we have all 26 songs on this album that’s being put out by Ship to Shore. So we’re really excited about that. And it’s going to be on vinyl, which is so cool.

Hellbender is currently streaming on Shudder.

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