Hellbender: We talk nature, music and horror with the filmmakers behind Hellbender

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In Hellbender, 16-year-old Izzy (Zelda Adams, pictured above) is kept isolated on a mountaintop with her mother (Toby Poser), who tells her she has a serious illness and can’t be around other people. However, Izzy begins to question her sickness and pushes back against her confinement, secretly befriending Amber (Lulu Adams). Her happiness at finally connecting with someone is short-lived, however, after she eats a live worm as part of a juvenile game and finds an insatiable and violent hunger awakened within her. Soon, she finds out that she is a Hellbender, part of an ancient line of beings who have powers and a darkness inside them. Can Izzy confront the secrets of her past, understand her lineage and battle against the growing hunger that lies inside her before it’s too late?

Hellbender is the sixth movie created by Wonder Wheel Productions, the family-run production company founded by Toby Poser, John Adams and their children, Zelda and Lulu, and we sat down with Poser, Adams and Zelda during this year’s Fantasia Festival to discuss working as a family, creating a horror movie during lockdown and their experimental punk band H6llb6nd6r…

How and when did you first get the idea for Hellbender?

Toby Poser: There were a few things going on. First of all, we had our band H6LLB6ND6R, which kind of came first and we were doing videos for that and toying with these witchy dark visuals, and then something came up with me and I learned that I was donor-conceived at 50 years old! Which was like ‘wow, yeah, okay!’ and that kind of got some juices flowing, thinking about genetics, and we just started to play.

John Adams: We talked about it a lot. Zelda was playing soccer at the time so we were in the car all the time driving to soccer games and we were just talking about movie ideas. We had such fun making [our previous movie] The Deeper You Dig that we knew we wanted to make another horror. So we just talked over and over about different ideas, bounced them off each other, and finally came down to this idea that turned into Hellbender!

Your band, H6llb6nd6r also features a lot in the film, when did you first form the band?

Zelda Adams: We’ve played music for quite a while. We’ve just called it different bands. When I was a bit younger, our band was called Kid California, but in the past two years, we changed our band named to H6LLB6ND6R, simply just because it sounds awesome.

Then we were like, ‘we need to make a movie with this title!’ But yeah, John used to be a rock star… he still is! He’s great at playing all sorts of instruments and I love singing and Toby has a wonderful mystical voice so it’s something that we just love doing together.

So can we find your music online?

Zelda Adams: We’re on Spotify and Apple Music, our band is called H6llb6nd6r but all the Es are 6s! (Find H6llb6nd6r on Spotify here).

There is a lot of folklore included in Hellbender, did you do any research when writing the movie?

Toby Poser: Yeah, I really love taking deep dives into research and in this case, I was doing a lot of reading about Lilith, and Eve. I especially was really snagged on the Aural Burrows, this idea of regeneration, and we wanted to come up with our own mythology, which was influenced by all of these old antiquated stories of females, power, fear of power for women. We jumped off from all of that it was super fun.

John Adams: Toby writes this stuff down and it’s very important. It’s really cool because it’s great that she keeps it organised, because there are definite rules and laws to Hellbenders and Toby made sure we followed them!

Toby Poser: Nobody can read my handwriting but me. That just adds to the mysticism!

John Adams: It’s so true, but there’s no code so when she’s gone, no one’s gonna be able to know what the hell that was!

Did you shoot the film during the pandemic?

Zelda Adams: Yeah, this was shot during the pandemic. After we finished The Deeper You Dig we were thinking, ‘oh, we kind of want to make our production size a little bit bigger, maybe have a bigger crew hire, more actors…’ and then COVID came along and put us in our place and we’re like, ‘yeah, that’s definitely not happening!’.

Where did you shoot the film?

Zelda Adams: We went back to our small roots and I’m really happy that we did. We actually bought a truck and a trailer and decided to travel around America, so that we could still see the world during COVID but still be isolated.

So a lot of the film is actually shot around the United States of America, a lot of which is in the north west. A lot of the dream sequences are just shot in mid-America and the deserts. So yeah, this is a COVID film! In a lot of the scenes Amber’s character is played by my sister Lulu (Adams), and we’re actually social distancing in all the scenes that we have together, pretty much. Ot was interesting social distancing with my sister while filming!

All your movies are family affairs, how do you manage to keep work life and home life separate?

John Adams:  Well I think at this point, this is our sixth film and I think we know what each person does best. We work very seamlessly and we rarely have any kind of arguments because one of the things that we can do since we shoot on a Canon 5D is if somebody has an opinion on how they want to direct the scene or how they want to seem to unfold, we just shoot it their way. Then we shoot someone else’s way. We can shoot it three different ways, and then we let the editing process tell us which way wins.

All three of you take on multiple roles when making movies, are there any roles you particularly like and any you particularly don’t like?

Toby Poser: I love writing, and I love directing actors too. I come from a theatre history so for me, it’s fun to be on the other side, and then to talk with actors and try to get my thoughts in, filtered through their performance. So writing and directing I really love.

John Adams:  I love cinematography and I love music. I’m not a huge fan of acting so luckily I was dusted really early [in Hellbender]!

Zelda Adams: Cinematography is my favourite too, because when viewers look back on a film, they’re picturing the visuals. So I love trying to leave a visual impact. My least favourite is probably writing but luckily we have Toby to do all the writing work!

Speaking of the visuals, there are plenty of beautiful shots in the film. Do you have a particular favourite?

John Adams: My favourite is this shot of Toby, making the first totem out in the dark blue woods. For me, everything about that I just love. How about you Z? What’s your favourite?

Zelda Adams: There’s a shot of me going down the river with blood all over me that is I think it’s just so visually appealing!

Speaking of that totum scene Toby, did you pre-rehearse how you would move your hands to create the look of casting a spell?

Toby Poser: We didn’t really plan it, we knew we wanted her to be casting a kind of spell, but once we got into nature, which is pretty typical for us, we let nature sort of guide us on what to do. There were these amazing orange fungi, and cool mushrooms and we shot that in the Pacific Northwest. It was just incredible.

John Adams: We did work on the rhythm of her hands [though]. We started working on the rhythm of her hands so that they had a spell-like quality that had a nice rhythm. We knew there was going to be some cool sounds over it. I think that was one of the things that we shot twice, because the first time we didn’t think we captured it the way we wanted to. The first time we shot it turned out to be a rehearsal!

Seeing as you’re all there from the film’s conception to its completion, do any aspects of the filmmaking process happen organically?

Zelda Adams: A lot of our film happens organically. Like the scene with the carcass. When we come across that huge deer carcass. We were actually going to shoot another film in the forest, and we’re walking, and we see this gem of a dead deer and we’re like, ‘wow, we have to make an entire scene around this’. So, a lot of it is improvised based around nature.

John Adams: Yeah, one of the dream sequences, was shot in the White Mountains and it all came together because a storm rolled in. We were out in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t really know exactly what we were doing but a storm suddenly rolled in, and the elements really determined how that dream sequence was going to unfold. So I think organically a lot of stuff just happens off the cuff.

Toby Poser: Speaking of elements, often the nature of where we’re shooting informs what our story is. The more we were steeped in nature (and we live in a very rural area too in the mountains), we realised, ‘oh, Hellbenders are just a beautiful parallel to what nature is’. It’s brutal, it’s beautiful, there’s life, there’s death. It was really informing our mythology. Nature was like: ‘Let me give you a hint.’

Is it similar when it comes to the editing process? Or are there still surprises at that point?

John Adams: Oh editing always gives you surprises. Editing always seems to edit itself. The three of us will sit, I’ll push the buttons but they’re over my shoulder, and each scene edits itself.

Zelda Adams: It’s also really nice working as a family because we can shoot that scene, go edit it, see how it looks on the computer and if we don’t like it, we’ll just go shoot it again right there in that moment!

What would you say are the main themes in the film?

John Adams: It’s a story of a mother who is watching her daughter become an adult. And that is exactly what’s happening in our family. It’s beautiful and it’s painful, and one of the great things about horror movies is you can take just a regular drama, something as simple as a mother watching her daughter become an adult, and you can dress it up with blood and witchcraft and it just explodes with fun!

Zelda Adams: It’s also a story of nature versus nurture because the mother is raising Izzy to be like a human, but that’s not her nature. Izzy’s nature is to be a Hellbender and is that okay? Is that okay to live out her nature like that? So I think that’s one of the things that we cover.

Toby Poser: I would just say that life is just rough, whether you’re a Hellbender or a human, and we wanted to show what it means to be a family, but within this strange supernatural lens. For me it was about nature and it was about families and we were just hoping that we could fuse them.

Why did you decide to focus the film on a mother/daughter relationship?

John Adams: We noticed a lot of reviews from The Deeper You Dig had said, ‘oh, I really would have loved to seen, the mother/daughter relationship get filled out a little more’, so it seemed like a nice piece of advice to us as moviemakers. Ot’s something that we enjoy doing so we got to fill out that relationship, we got to build up those two characters.

It’s [also] kind of a celebration of Toby and Zelda. We’ll be able to look back as a family and look at Toby and Zelda together on screen, and it’s kind of like a family album!

Zelda Adams: Toby and I are mother and daughter so it’s really nice just getting to naturally play out our relationship on screen.

What is it about horror that appeals to you and audiences?

Toby Poser: Horror is just so much fun and it’s just an endless candy shop of possibilities. I think we’re very happy people and so I think [with] horror, it’s just natural sometimes to gravitate towards the opposite of what you are. I mean if you’re happy all the time it gets a little boring writing movie about happy people! It’s like, ‘now let’s play on our deepest fears’ and we’ll be happy doing it!

John Adams: We’ve also noticed the horror community is really accepting of taking chances as a filmmaker. They want you to take chances. They want to see more art. A wonderful thing about making horror films is that acceptance to push the boundaries.

There are two ways to get through life, you can cry or you can laugh, and horror fans have chosen to laugh. I love the horror community because mostly they’re laughing. Now, occasionally some of them slip and are really dark and mean, but generally we’re all laughing at Friday The 13th, in a sense. We love being scared and it’s a terrifically joyous community I think.

Toby Poser: I have great trust in people who love horror! A lot of people say, ‘I don’t do horror’ but horror people just go there. They’re in touch with their most primal fears and they can laugh.

 Zelda Adams: Yeah, and fear is fun, like that’s why we go on roller coasters, it’s exhilarating. So I think horror films are another way to get that exhilarating feeling!

Without going into spoilers, the ending of Hellbender certainly stays with you after the credits roll, was this always the plan?

Zelda Adams: We definitely didn’t know how the film was going to end actually [haha]! It could have gone so many different ways, and we came up with that line, right as we were shooting it. That was pretty much improvised right on spot. Then when we were going through the editing process we were like, ‘that’s it, that’s the line, that’s how this movie has to end’. It’s fun because it really loops back to a beginning scene, and they really tie together well.

What would you like for audiences to take away from Hellbender?

John Adams: I think we all have different goals and we started out with different goals. My main goal with Hellbender was I wanted people to walk out and look at each other and say, ‘that was fun’.

Toby Poser: I think I’d like people to feel that there was a balance between escape and familiarity, which is something that I really appreciate. I’d like to think that people got to escape into this witchy world but also recognise something about the humaneness of their own families.

Zelda Adams: Yeah, I really hope that people can relate to it because I think that there’s a lot of things that the audience can relate to in the film, whether it be parent-kid relationships, coming to terms with your identity and isolation, especially during COVID, I think they can relate to Izzy’s character.

Hellbender was seen at Fantasia Festival. Audiences will be able to watch Hellbender when it is released on Shudder in early 2022.

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