Raising hell

Toby Poser, John Adams and Zelda Adams on Hellbender and making films as a family

by Jennie Kermode

Hellbender Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

It’s the story of a mother with a secret and a daughter on the brink of adulthood, just discovering her power – along with the darker side of her personality. Set in atmospheric woodland and played mostly as a two-hander, Hellbender is the latest work from filmmaking family Toby Poser, John Adams and Zelda Adams. Ahead of its screening at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival, I met up with them to discuss the making of the film and how their unusual approach to working in the industry first developed.

“Well, in 2008 we were living in Los Angeles, and we moved there from New York City,” says Toby. “And I'd been in acting. And when I moved to LA and hit my forties, things started to wane. And John kept saying, ‘You know what? We should write our own scripts and make our own films.’ He had been working on a reality TV show and it kind of got his juices flowing, being in that setting. And so that's what we did. We bought an old RV and by 2010, we just set out in this RV for a year. The kids were six and 11 at the time, and we just learned the ropes, shooting our first film, Rumblestrips, and we were hooked.”

It's been interesting seeing the stories can change as Zelda has got older and been in different kinds of roles, I note. Has that driven that narratives that they've chosen?

“I think the answer is absolutely,” says John. “I think one of the things that we're having fun with is that we always write our movies around where we are as a family. So this is our sixth or seventh movie and each one of them deals with parents and kids at that age and their relationship. And then we obviously add either horror or drama or things to make it more of a film. But I think we love the whole family dynamic and exploring and talking about it. And, you know, our opinion of what it means.”

“Yeah, I definitely think that we try to do with deal with the theme of family,” Toby adds. “And I think that’s the best thing to do because we're working as a family.”

I mention that I’ve recently noticed Zelda breaking out into other roles as well, and that that I enjoyed her work in John Law’s The Hatred in 2018.

“I'm definitely trying to like create some shorts on my own and music videos on my own, and trying to discover other like roles in filmmaking that I really like,” she says. “I love being the cinematographer. So I like exploring that role, a lot.”

So what was the inspiration for Hellbender?

“I think it was a couple inspirations,” says John. “For me, I really love watching a kid become an adult, because that's where it's all is right now. So that just like that question you just asked before this one is like basically saying, Zelda, you're becoming an adult, what are you going to do? And that's what Hellbender is about, about a mother realising like, ‘Oh, this, this daughter of mine is now becoming an adult,’ and how she deals with it. And it's really fun to put that whole concept in a witch story. And we also wanted to explore the idea of parenting and how so many parents don't really tell the truth to their kids, and it finally catches up to them. You know, like, there's a lot of denial about what a parent's past has been like, and so it was it was fun to explore that. And I find it interesting.”

Toby nods. “Another interesting tidbit is that right around the time we were thinking of a new film, after [film]The Deeper You Dig,” I discovered my genetics weren't what I thought, that my biological father was actually a sperm donor. I'm a donor kid. And my father I grew up with for 50 years was not my biological dad. And so it was interesting exploring the idea of well, how do you know what your biological father was like? You know, could he have been the Devil? So originally, we were thinking of a film called The Devil's Daughter, which was fun from that idea of trying to figure out where I came from. It ends up he wasn't a serial killer or anything, he was a nice Jewish doctor. So there you go!” She laughs.

There's the narrative that as a child gets older and they’re leaving and you feel a bit overprotective and you don't know how to look after them in the wider world, I venture, but also there's something that's less often talked about, which is the feeling that as somebody becomes their own person, they become a threat on a certain level. How did they approach exploring that?

“Yeah, that's a super question,” says John. “I'm really glad that you asked it and that you recognise that and I think what's fun about that is the exploration of being your true self. If your true self is being a hellbender, and like, society, we think a hellbender’s evil, but should a hellbender be a hellbender? Like, it's like following your destiny. It's being your true self, even if it seems kind of evil. I think that we had a lot of fun exploring that and trying to kind of show what a conflict like that is like. The mother is trying to make her daughter something she's not. And is that fair? And is that good? And those are really fun explorations. I think that's why I like shows like The Sopranos and why we watch Breaking Bad and stuff like that. It’s because they're exploring good and evil and what it means and how you can relate with that. And it's a really fun, endless thing to explore.”

This also seems a more ambitious film than The Deeper You Dig in terms of the direction, making more unusual shot choices and being more creative with that.

“Oh, well, thank you,” says Toby. “We spent a lot of the past year on the road again, and so often for us, our life and our art are so in mesh. They become this strange, symbiotic creature. So we really were inspired by a lot of what was around us. We spent a lot of time during Covid, this last year, in the Northwest and in beautiful mountains and in the desert. And so I think we were inspired by what the scenery was, like, how that could work into what we were shooting, as well.”

Zelda looks across at her and she continues “I was just going to say, and Zelda’s perspective now, as three directors was just invaluable.”

“But also, I think, since we've made six films, in each film you can see how our style has evolutionised,” says Zelda. “Every time we release a film, we're learning what we can do better and how we can change that. So I think it's really interesting how you can see how each film has changed.”

I tell them that I liked the montages in this film, in particular, and was impressed by how John edited them together.

“Well, I think we all had the ideas,” he says. “It kind of refers back to what Toby just said about how we were travelling. And you know, we do have a limited budget, so there's only some things we can do. And so it became apparent that it was really smart to do these montages where we could put in backstory that would explain what's driving these characters. And that's all three of us really being out, like, in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and saying, hey, this would be a great opportunity to have a metaphor for Zelda disappearing in Toby's life. And so we would talk about it and we'd shoot it a couple different ways, and then we'd go home and edit it, the best way to tell that story that we wanted.”

There are lots of different ideas in there about witchcraft, building up the world of witchcraft that we see. How much of that did they create and how much of it came from research?

“It was really important for us to try to as best as we could to come up with our own brand of witchcraft,” says Toby. “We like the idea of building our own legend of the heritage of the hellbenders. I think we only even mentioned the word witch once in the film, when Zelda’s character says to the ranger, ‘Oh, we're kind of a cross between a demon, a witch, and an apex predator.’ I know for me it was very important that we tried to concoct our own original idea.”

Although it's happened occasionally through film history, recently we've been starting to see more characters like that from their own perspective...

“I think that it's always fascinating,” says Toby. “I mean, I know I personally love mythology. I love witchcraft, I love reading about legends and more. So I think that perhaps, especially in today's day and age, when there's much more fluidity as far as gender and all the preferences that are becoming more out in the open right now, maybe there's more of an open field for talking about these legends, because I think they're innately open minded and inclusive. And so maybe it's just the time is ripe for exploring really cool supernatural entities.”

“Also, every single one of our movies is about identity and coming to terms with your own identity,” says John. “And this is really the pinnacle of that thing. Like, this girl really wants to understand who she is, and she wants to accept it. And I think that that's exactly what we're all talking about these days in society. And it's fun, it was a fun way to look at it. And there's definitely political undertones throughout the movie, but we're not super political.”

These are themes which are often easier for younger people to connect with and bring fresh insight to, so I ask Zelda about her contributions to the story.

“I definitely really loved playing my character, because I kind of was just playing myself,” she says. “You know, growing up as a teen, discovering who I am. What is my identity? So yeah, I feel like it fit really well. And just like growing up in a world, as a woman, I think it's really important to explore. Like empowerment and stuff like that.”

“It was fun to direct,” says John. “We all direct each other. And it was fun to direct Zelda because she is between a girl and a woman. And now she's more of a woman. And it was sometimes fun to be like, ‘Well, remember in this scene that you're more like the woman,’ because we didn't shoot everything in chronological order So sometimes we’d have to remind Zelda, ‘Remember Zelda, you're now like a full hellbender so you have to act more like a woman.’ Whereas if we were shooting one of the beginning scenes it would be like, ‘You're a little naive and you're still more of a girl.’ I think Zelda did a really great job of doing that, like really great. I love watching her art.”

There are some interesting scenes with other teenagers that are shot a little bit differently from how we often see that kind of thing. There's a certain lack of glamour to them that works quite well, I say.

“The characters that acted in that scene are literally our neighbours,” says Toby, “So we were all ourselves in that scene. And our other older girl, Lulu, she plays Amber, and it was wonderful to have her back in her full because she was in college for the last few films. She brings an incredible sunny energy to the film. But yeah, we're I think we're all pleased that you feel that way. Because I really wanted to show youth in the raw, beautiful and unpolished..”

“Yeah, that really means a lot that you saw that that's so cool, because we talked about that exact issue. So you're the first person mentioned it and that's really awesome,” says John.

It has just been announced that the film has been picked up by Shudder, and all three of them are very excited about it.

“They're so cool,” says John. “It's not just the business side. It's the people we're working with. It's, you know, we're a family. So our business and our family are just completely mixed. And so it's nice to be dealing with Shudder and Yellow Veil. All these people are very family oriented too, so it's not just this distant business deal. We feel great about who we're working with.”

“I think they're very brave with their choices too, about the kind of films that they put out there,” says Toby. “I mean, Shudder has such a wide range of films, and a lot of the newest films that have been coming out on Shudder are just exciting. And they're diverse. And it's really fun to be in with that group of filmmakers.”

So how do they feel about being at Fantasia

“Fantasia is just greatest,” says John. “I mean, Mitch Davis and his whole crew feel like our family now because, you know, we went with The Deeper You Dig and there's Mitch, you know, and his whole crew, including Kaila and everybody, because they're just so welcoming. And they treat us like the family we are. And we can't be more thrilled. We sent this rough cut to Mitch and Fantasia almost as a litmus test to say ‘What did we make, and do you like it? Did we make anything good here?’ And then the response was just immediate and enthusiastic.”

They already have another family project in the works, Zelda reveals.

“We're currently working on a time piece that's going to take place in the 1930s, surrounding the idea of a vaudeville family.”

“Yeah, it's going to be a family of gangsters,” says John. “And she runs the gang and we're her sidekicks. And so it's going to be a mix of gangsterism, we're going to throw in a little Frankenstein and some cool drama...”

“Music,” adds Zelda.

“Right. Music. So we're really excited and working hard on that. Toby's writing the script but it's an original idea that Zelda came up with. We started jumping out of our skin the minute she laid it out loud. It's going to be a fun one.

“One of the fun things about our process is like, Zelda came up with the skeleton of this, this next one that we're working on. And Toby's, our writer. She's such a great writer, and so she can put meat on the skeleton. And then I'm starting to work on building sets and looking at where we're going to shoot it. All of us are running forward.”

Hellbender screens at Fantasia on Saturday 14 August and is scheduled to screen on Shudder from early 2022.

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