In 2019, a family of filmmakers—John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams—burst onto the scene with The Deeper You Dig, which premiered at that year’s Fantasia Film Festival. Now, they have recently completed another indie horror project, Hellbender, which just celebrated its world premiere at the this year’s Fantasia as well, a wholly impressive feat. A badass blend of witchy horror and family drama, Hellbender stars Toby Poser and Zelda Adams as two women living in isolation, harboring a dark and powerful secret that threatens to tear them apart.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with these three incredibly talented filmmakers and during the interview, the trio discussed the inspiration behind Hellbender, the joy they feel while working on films together, showcasing their killer music skills, and more.
Hellbender was recently acquired by Shudder and will make its debut on the platform sometime in 2022.
So great to speak with you all today, and congrats on the film. I think because I'm somebody who grew up with a single mom, there’s a lot about this story that really spoke to me. I’d love to hear about the genesis for this story and your approach to exploring this kind of folklore in a way that I really haven't seen before, either.
Toby Poser: There were a couple of things going on. Well, we have our band, H6LLB6ND6R, and that was something that has been going on for a couple of years. And we started making some videos for that and exploring these sort of visual themes of witchy, dark characters, and nature. We thought, "This is really fun, exploring this visually." And then, I started to jump into some research on Lilith and powerful historical women, and Eve, but going deeper. And then we thought, "Well, let's just create our own mythos, our own mythology of this titular Hellbender, and see what we can come up with on our own. We're not really one to follow rules, so it was natural for us to say, "Let's just throw in a few bat wings and frog spit and see what comes out of our cauldron and have fun."
I was just so completely struck by the music and obviously, you're very talented on screen, but I was completely blown away by the musical performances. Are you planning to do a soundtrack to Hellbender?
Zelda Adams: Thank you so much. We're continuously making new songs, John is always pumping out great riffs and beats, and Toby and I, and our sister Lulu, are singing on it. And a lot of our music actually is on Spotify and Apple Music under our band name H6LLB6ND6R, but we definitely are going to keep releasing new music. Is our soundtrack out yet, John? For Hellbender?
John Adams: No, it's not out yet, but we're working on putting the whole soundtrack out with some little extras on it because it was really fun. It's something we love doing and it's a fun way to celebrate the movie with other people that enjoyed it.
I just thought those little vignettes were super cool, with the makeup and everything. It had such swagger to it and you don't really see that kind of swagger when you have a movie that's centered around two women. That was truly badass.
John Adams: That is really cool to hear. We wanted those music scenes to show what a cool duo these two are, that they can have fun, that they can blast dirty rock and roll together and have a laugh. It was a great way to show that, and it was a great way for us to have fun, to be honest. It was fun shooting that stuff.
I wanted to talk about the mother-daughter dynamic in this. Zelda and Toby, I was hoping you could talk about exploring that in Hellbender. Obviously, you both were involved with everything from the writing and directing and things like that, but how was it to then translate that relationship on screen and find those moments, especially the quiet moments? Those to me were so powerful.
Toby Poser: I'm so glad you mentioned the quiet moments because I think that, for me, my biggest interest, as far as the story behind the story, was what it's like to be a parent and a child, in this case, a mother and a daughter. It's something that I love in real life, and I love exploring on film and it's a privilege to sit across from Zelda in that scenario. In real life, I'm obviously enamored of my kid, but I'm sitting across from her as an actor, too. It was just like, "Oh my God." I realized normally I never really think that the two cross over, but I really did more than any of our other films, and I played her mother in a couple of films. I felt it was so organic in this one, and it was important for me to explore the universality of parenthood, whether you're a human or a Hellbender. So the fact that you're noticing those, and especially the quiet moments that life is filled with, all the moments where nothing is said, but says everything, are really important to me.
Zelda Adams: Thank you so much. It was so great getting to play Toby's daughter because I am, and it's so fun getting to play that on screen. I think a lot of what you're seeing is just us being ourselves. Maybe not that tearing each other apart and the violence stuff, but as family filmmakers, it is fun exploring family themes in our movies. It was really fun tackling the theme of parenting styles, because I think the mother in the movie is a little strict and she doesn't want her daughter to go out and try those dangerous things, being a Hellbender, but that just makes her daughter want to do it even more. So it's fun covering those parenting style themes.
Did you end up shooting this during COVID then? Obviously, the isolation that they're living in really heightens the story, but I was curious if this was something that you guys did because of everything else going on in the world, and it gave you an opportunity to tuck yourselves away from the world and still be creative despite everything else going on?
Toby Poser: Yes, I think that COVID definitely killed closeness for people and because we are a family that is very close, we found ourselves isolated just like everyone else. We didn't realize that there were going to be so many parallels between COVID and this story as a study of isolation and loneliness. That really rang true as we were shooting, I think.
Zelda Adams: Yeah, a lot of the film is actually shot in our neck of the woods in the Catskills, New York, just right in our backyard or right in the woods around us. But a good chunk of the movie is actually shot in the Pacific Northwest. During COVID, we bought a truck and a trailer and decided to travel around because I was all remote for school and we thought traveling around, we would get beautiful landscape footage for the movie. And the forests in the Pacific Northwest were just too beautiful not to shoot in. So a lot of that greenery that you're seeing is in Washington and Oregon, and a lot of the dream sequences that you see are, Wyoming and the Badlands, and other beautiful places across America.
So, what comes next for you all? Are you just going to enjoy the ride of Hellbender for a little bit? Or are you planning on getting back into the saddle again soon?
Zelda Adams: We are starting our idea for our next film. We have a really fun, exciting idea. It covers the story of a family of gangsters, and let's just say they do some robbing and stealing but John, you're really good at finishing it up.
John Adams: It's so funny because Zelda on a car ride to New York City, from our house to New York City, came up with this beautiful skeleton of a story about a gangster family set in the ’30s that are super violent and something goes terribly wrong and they basically have to make a deal with the devil. And then the devil comes for payment. So, we're going to mix ’30s gangsterism, romance, family drama, and a little bit of Frankenstein.
Toby Poser: As the theater geek here, I just wanted to say that we’re also going to mix in a carnival atmosphere with these carnival performers and sideshows, carnies, all that fun stuff.
John Adams: And the fun thing about this story is that basically the daughter is going to see that her parents are now disappearing, so we're going to explore that angle now, instead of the mother watching the daughter disappear, like we do in Hellbender.
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