Guest interviewer Fern Field joins Alix Turner in this conversation with the makers of Hellbender.
Hellbender is a remarkable low budget film, which won awards for the team at Fantasia International Film Festival, a team who doesn’t let the size of the budget or resources get in the way of making quality output. The team in this case is essentially a family, who have written, directed and starred in the film themselves: John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser. Because of this family dynamic, I asked whether my son might join me in conducting this interview, and they were excited to see him.
So after briefly introducing myself around—this time, Fern Field, too—Fern asked the first question: Tell us about the process of working so closely with your family; do you draw a line at the end of the day and turn into your real selves? “Perfect question,” said John.
“That’s such a good way of putting it,” agreed Toby. “Sometimes they blur pretty easily. Sometimes if we’re in the middle of a scene and we get hungry, we’ll just say ‘you know what? Let’s just have lunch and then come back to it.’ It’s easy when you’re a family.”
“I guess my answer,” added John, “is that there is no line between us making movies and us eating breakfast. Since we do it all together, hanging out all the time, they’re pretty seamless.”
“Yeah, we really do mix our business and our family friendship,” said seventeen-year-old Zelda. “We’ll be driving to a soccer game and talking about an upcoming scene we want to film, so they really do blur.”
That was a little concerning: I hope Zelda doesn’t talk to her mother like she did in the film! They all cracked up at that.
“I do!” laughed Zelda.
“Hopefully, I don’t have as many secrets as I do in the film,” said Toby.
Zelda clarified, “Maybe not the ending. Looking at the beginning of the film, our relationship is pretty natural like that.”
I had a couple of questions about the film itself. To start with, in the opening hanging scene, I wondered how come there weren’t any men. “We thought it would be interesting to remove men from the equation,” said Toby. “Often in hangings, we see it’s women being hanged, which it is here, sure, but we wanted to show her being hanged by a bunch of other women in order to differentiate between what’s human and what we find out are ‘hellbenders.’ Also, we wanted to pay attention to this matrilineal kinship, this ancestry of women. We completely desexualised reproduction and took men out of that equation.”
I had found that scene interesting because unlike many other period horror scenes, the possibility of misogyny had been removed. “That’s a great way to look at it, too,” said John. “I don’t think we struck out to think about men at all, but we specifically wanted to think about women. So we just wanted them to run the show. There was no better way to start this movie about these powerful women than with a group of powerful women trying to take power away! We never once decided, ‘Hey, let’s not have men in the movie,’ but we always said, ‘This is a really fun movie about powerful women.’”
Fern asked whether the house in Hellbender was the Adams’ own home. “Yep,” answered John. “It was a combination actually. We used my sister’s house for the kitchen. We used a house that I had just rebuilt (because it looked kind of new and Puritan, and the Puritan style was going to look great for the hellbenders’ house).”
Fern had particularly liked the shots looking upwards on staircases; this made Zelda light up. “Yeah, we really wanted to use the staircase to show a power dynamic. At the beginning of that shot, Toby was at the top of the stairs because she was in a place of power, but I had just come home from eating the worm, and she’s then at the bottom and I’m higher up than her, showing that I’m the one coming into some power.”
Fern couldn’t help asking whether she had actually eaten the worm! “I didn’t actually eat it,” said Zelda, “but I did drink that water, and I ended up choking on it in that shot, which is a natural reaction. But we did work with actual worms, and it made me really sad. In the close-up of me you don’t see what’s inside the cup: we took the worm out first.”
Moving the subject outside of the house, I asked about the plant blends (as used in the spells) and the sigils. Were they inspired by actual folklore or made up? Toby answered this one: “We shot in forests here in the east coast and also in the north-western rain forest of Oregon and Washington. We were driving in an RV during the pandemic, visiting our daughter in the northwest, and so while it was snowing here, it was still summer there, with lush green forest. We had to do some mix-and-match with the resources at hand: that area was lush with mushrooms and other fungi and it was the most perfect place to shoot. Just walking in to those forests, you feel a little witchy.”
“Toby is like a little witch in real life,” teased Zelda. “She’s always mixing turmeric and mushrooms in our food, and John and I are like ‘OK I guess we’ll eat this, whatever’ and don’t ask.”
“But the totem does have symbols, and we did think a lot about that,” said John, coming back to the topic. “We had a good totem, which is mixed with the mushrooms and the fungus. It was important to us to get a lot of geometric symbolism in that totem.”
Toby expanded on that: “We really wanted to just come up with our own mythology here, our own spell rituals. Everyone’s familiar with witchcraft spells, cauldrons and such. We thought these are really people who make full use of the elements, and the nature surrounding them represents the nature within them: it’s beautiful, as well as brutal. The totem had blood surrounding of course, and all that extra stuff in the rituals.”
“More like witchuals,” chimed in Fern.
“Oh my God, can I steal that?” asked Toby.
That’s my boy.
When I had seen the animal bones in the forest in one scene, I had wondered if much of the film was inspired by what was actually there around them, and it sounds like that was indeed the case. “A lot,” agreed Zelda. “A lot of inspiration comes from nature and what it provides us with. We were actually going to shoot a different scene out in the woods, and then we came across this huge carcass and we were like, [gasp] this is too crazy to pass up on, so we wrote an entire scene around this carcass, and it’s like nature just gives us the best gifts.”
“And when we were in the forest in Oregon,” continued John, “there were these fuzzy-wuzzies, you know those things they ate in that scene? Well that scene came about purely because of the fuzzy-wuzzies that were just available to us.”
“’Nature gives us the best gifts.’ Can I steal that too?” asked Fern.
So what film inspirations do they draw upon? “We all loved Midsommar—that came out a couple of years ago,” answered Toby. “As far as that goes, I think we were all intrigued by the power of the female bond in that movie, especially the ending.”
I don’t think I’ll be showing Midsommar to Fern just yet.
“We also drew inspiration for one of the scenes from the film Raw,” added Zelda. “You know, biting down on the finger.”
“And we did a little bit of research on folk horror,” said John, “because we knew we wanted to celebrate it. We watched The Wicker Man because we really wanted to see an example of what the genre was doing before us.”
Fern wanted to know about another source of inspiration: where did the ideas come from for the surreal images (referring to the magical “headspace” the two central characters get into). “We thought about that a ton,” said John. “The movie has a dark theme to it. When they went to the myths and the book, celebrating the magic, we wanted it to be super-saturated with colour to kind of just show power and beauty—and to make it a little surreal because magic is surreal. So we worked hard on editing those scenes, the witch visions and when she opens the book. The colour was very important to us.”
Fern really liked the music and asked whether it’s on Spotify. “Yeah!” said Zelda. “That music is from our band, which is called H6llb6nd6r, and it is on Spotify and Apple Music. A couple of songs from the film aren’t on streaming platforms yet because we want to release them as a soundtrack, but you can find lots of others there.”
“We’re always posting more stuff there on Spotify,” added John. “We have a band, and this film was inspired by the band, and we wanted to celebrate the band with the movie. And we really wanted the music to bring joy into the movie.”
Fern figured that without it the film would have been miserable!
“Your point is well made, actually,” said John (indulging my boy a little?). “The reason the music is there is that because by having the two of them play together in the band, showing their relationship, showing how they talk…making music together is like a metaphor for a beautiful relationship. And since this was going to be a very dark movie, we thought that this music and the fact that they are in a band, having fun, putting on make-up, would help break up a film that people might find miserable otherwise.”
My son conceded: that was an exaggeration. And again, John cracked up with laughter.
So what are the Adams working on next? “We’re working on our next film,” said Zelda. “It’s going to be a horror, and it’s also a time piece taking place in the 1930s about a traveling gangster family. Something really bad happens to the parents, and the daughter—me—is left to pick up the pieces, and I have to use some pretty dark magic to do so. So we’re going to have a lot of fun with themes like the carnival circuit, and vaudeville, and the era.”
And a different kind of music, I would imagine.
“Absolutely,” said John. “We’re working on that now, trying to figure out what would be a suitable soundtrack for something set in the thirties: do we try to make thirties music, or do we do something like what Peaky Blinders does with modern music placed right over the period? We’ll see—we’ve not quite decided yet. I think we’re leaning towards that direction, but you have to take the visuals and set the music to them, then it either works or it doesn’t.”