Fantastic Fest: From Backyard Movies to Festivals With Hellbender
The Adams family prove that the family that films together stays together
"It makes my heart happy that people like our family films," Zelda Adams gushed.
When the Adams family – John Adams, Toby Poser, and daughters Lulu and Zelda – talk about family films, it's not what you might think. They started making backyard features in 2012, but it was their fifth, 2019's supernatural chiller The Deeper You Dig, that made them lo-fi horror stars. A breakout success from Fantasia and Fantastic Fest, it was a zero-budget smash, was quickly acquired by MPI and Dark Sky Films, and is currently available through horror-streaming experts Shudder. Now the same has happened with their follow-up, Hellbender, before its festival run even began. John said, "We wake up every day. 'You guys, it's on Shudder, and we're not even out yet!'"
However, they still have festival dates, including a U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest after the film made its debut at Fantasia. "It feels like a homecoming," said Toby Poser.
When the Adams talk about family film, they're not kidding. They do everything they can in-house, from script to direction to acting to effects: Poser and Zelda even provided the score as the family band, H6llb6nd6r. Poser said, "Just in typical nature for us, we use what we've got. We've got John writing these amazing tunes, we have the equipment, we have the basement that we can hang black fabric on to shoot in, and we have some lights. It was simple to do, and we're doing it anyway.
"There's always a parallel between our family life and our films," she said. In The Deeper You Dig, it's the parental fear of losing a child; in Hellbender, Mother (Poser) has been raising her daughter, Izzy (Zelda), separate from the world, claiming that she has a disease. What she's really hiding is a twist of the blood, a dark legacy that both women share. John said, "How do you celebrate when you find out what you really are? Who determines good and evil?"
For those that still claim that horror attracts the disturbed and sick, the happy Adams family is the ultimate rebuttal. Poser explained, "We like to make parallels between the most mundane familial things and turn them into twisted narratives for our films." Their stories help them work out concerns and fears, like those inevitable moments where parents have to play the "do as I say, not as I do" card. "Back in the day," Poser recalled, "I used to sneak a joint on the side, and we thought, 'How do we fit that into the narrative of a horror film and supernatural beings?'" Call the end result "nightmare logic": "At night, you dream about things you don't want to happen, and you work them out in the context of your dream world."
Indeed, John argued that being contented is what makes their films so powerful. "When you're happy in your life, the potential for extreme sadness is one action away, and that is what horror movies are all about. One thing happens, and everything turns upside down."
Austin Chronicle: That theme of the parent being surpassed by the child – when did that become such a part of the story? Was there a moment when you went, "Hang on, Zelda's getting better than me with the camera"?
John Adams: [Laughs] Exactly! It's like, how many interviews do you sit through where it's, "So, Zelda, you were just amazing in that!"
AC: When did that theme start to come through, these issues of parental decisions about protecting a child from the outside world and who they are?
Toby Poser: Because of the nature of how we work, sometimes we start out with one goal and then we realize, "Oh, that was the wrong goal," and we get hitched on another theme. I think there were a lot of mercurial themes going on as we were shooting. In the end, we really did think this was a story about nature and nurture.
One of the things I learned just as we were starting to shoot is that my father I grew up with, and for 50 years thought was my father, was not my biological father. I was donor-conceived, and I learned this on my mom's deathbed. That was pretty dramatic, but it brought up the idea of, "What if you don't know who your parent was, and what if it was the Devil?"
The truth is not so nefarious. I found out my biological dad is a nice Jewish doctor, but we did have a juicy time coming up with some ideas around that.
JA: [Hellbender] started out and it was called The Devil's Daughter, but what we ran into is that the Devil is such a massive character, and to tangle with the Devil and do it any justice is very tricky. So what we did was that we took an element of the Devil – witchiness, demonic stuff, dark magic – because a small unit like us can deal with a subject like that.
AC: And we need to talk about the music, because few things fill me with as much joy as black metal and noise duos.
JA: We love doing music together, and we all have our different opinions on what music we like. So we go from Eighties hardcore to Billie Eilish, and we have our little band, H6llb6nd6r, and we have a lot of fun doing different styles.
It was really important to us, especially after The Deeper You Dig, that right off the bat we said to the audience that was watching the movie that this is gonna be fun, and what better way to represent fun than to have a mother and daughter ripping through this heavyass music with zero respect to the rules?
Zelda Adams: We also use the band scenes to separate the movie into different acts. In the beginning, it's when I'm happy living alone with my mom. The next time is when I experience teenage life for the first time.
AC: Was this a bigger production than The Deeper You Dig?
ZA: The only big scene was the opening which was right before COVID [and] originally, we wanted this to be a bigger production. We'd just finished The Deeper You Dig, and we were like, "You know what? I think we should have a bigger cast, maybe spend a bit more money, hire a few more people," and then COVID came along and that put us in our place. So we were like, "You know what? I think we should go back to our roots, and not have a bigger cast or any of that."
And I'm so happy it put us in our place. It was just a small, little production.
TP: We did add fun toys that expanded the look. Zelda's always wanting us to have more movement in our films, so we got a drone camera that Zelda operated, and we got a little Steadicam, a Ronin gimbal.
JA: I think what was cool about Hellbender was that we had learned a lot from The Deeper You Dig, from being at festivals, from reviews. We could see where we needed to improve, we could see what people liked, and I think there were a couple of things that were important to us moving forward. One was that we seemed to feel criticism about developing the characters more, so that you felt more of a relationship with them. We wanted the relationship between the mother and the daughter to be really celebrated.
The other thing that we wanted to do was not necessarily spend more money on production, but to think through how we could look more produced. When COVID hit, we realized that one of the ways we could look more produced is if we filmed in beautiful locations – because beautiful locations are cinematic and wonderful. So we went and we drove around the country, and the backdrop to a lot of these scenes are these amazing locations that imply a bigger production. But they're not: It's still just the three of us, setting up a mic and a camera and shooting things.
Hellbender screens Tuesday, Sept, 28, 10:15pm at Alamo South Lamar, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 7pm at Alamo Village. For a longer Q&A with the family about the band H6llb6nd6r, and how the pandemic changed the film, head to austinchronicle.com/fantasticfest.