Thicker than Blood: A Conversation with the Family Behind ‘Hellbender’

The family that makes horror together sticks together, or so would say the clan behind the upcoming Hellbender (2022). John Adams and Toby Poser, alongside daughters Lulu and Zelda, have made six films together under their Wonder Wheel Productions. Each family member wears multiple production hats. For Hellbender, John, Toby, and Zelda all co-wrote and co-directed. Zelda, Toby, and Lulu also co-star in the film. After premiering at Fantasia Fest last year, Shudder picked up Hellbender for an exclusive release on February 24, 2022. I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with John, Toby, and Zelda to talk about the film. The following is my conversation with them, lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

Devin: Something I’m interested in as a fan myself is this current folk horror revival we’re in the midst of. Did you approach Hellbender as folk horror when you were making it?

Toby: When we were shooting it, we didn’t necessarily think of it as folk horror. There were definitely strong elements of it because nature, for us, is thematically the pinnacle. That idea really influenced how and what we shot. It’s kind of like when you’re cooking with these ingredients and you meant to make something else, but then you realize you actually made this other thing that’s even better. I think that’s what it was like with Hellbender. We realized we had steeped in folk horror, and pleasantly so.

John: I totally agree, and once we realized we’d made a folk horror movie we went and watched The Wicker Man (1973) because that’s kind of like the folk horror masterpiece right? So we were like yeah we should watch this, and it was so much fun. 

D: Such a great movie! Well, running with this line of thinking, and using your wonderful cooking metaphor Toby, I’m curious about the rich mythology and folklore you built out for Hellbender. Can you let me in on the process you used to create that for the film?

T: We had so much fun building the Hellbender mythology. We started with research into some really powerful women in lore. Some big influences were Lilith, Lamia the serpent goddess from Libya, and Kali the destroyer. They were all wonderful influences that inspired us. And that’s kind of the rule for us. We want to be inspired, and then want to shred it up a little bit and toss it away because it’s important for us to come up with something original. 

In fact, we only mentioned the word witch once which was a challenge we set for ourselves. We want to let other people define Hellbender how they see it. So we had fun and elements. I mean, as far as the magic that they had, we also had fun exploring that, in particular blood. That fear of blood connected to the magic and the spells. 

J: Yeah, we wanted to have fun with it, and also think about how women have been persecuted throughout history if they’re powerful or knowledgable. So we aimed to mix that in, thinking about how the more people tortured these witches, the more they became afraid of their power. We wanted to flip it around, almost comically, and show that this hellbender was sucking her power from their fear, which is where it really comes from in history.

Toby Poser as Mother – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

D: Continuing on the magic strain, what was your approach, both from an acting and directing standpoint, to get the most out of those moments of hellbender magic?

Zelda: Well, I think that for all of it, we really wanted it to be as practical as possible so that when we did have to use special effects, it was like a huge moment. We wanted audiences to be like Wow, you don’t see that too much! 

J: Yeah, we wanted to tell a story in visuals and music. We didn’t want these characters to be talking heads explaining a lot of the magic to people. So we wanted to show their magic and powerful history. We decided the best way to do that was to back it up with some kick-ass music. If you listen to the lyrics, the lyrics a lot of the time explain what we’re trying to get across to the audience. And then, visually we have a very trippy, nature-driven, almost music video kind of thing so that they feel like powerful visions that are also fun. 

That was a really great aspect of the movie that we worked really hard on, but also came from a mistake that we made making a music video for our band, also called “Hellbender.” We made a mistake when we were editing and everyone was like, Wow, that’s so cool. We took that mistake, figured out what we had done, and then basically applied it to all the book visions and dream visions the hellbenders had.

D: We love a great mistake.

T: [laughter] If only high school was like that!

D: A truly tough throwback [laughter]. I’m glad you bring up the music though because I wanted to ask about your process in fixating on the music and incorporating it so prominently. Specifically, I’d love to hear from Toby and Zelda on how the music and mother-daughter band aspect influenced your performances.

Zelda Adams as Izzy, Toby Poser as Mother – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

Z: For sure! Well, we had just finished making another movie, The Deeper You Dig, which was pretty dark. So we talked about wanting to make the next one, Hellbender, a little more fun. Keep it thrilling for the audience, but bring in some more smiling and fun stuff. Since we’ve always been a family band, that felt like a natural way to bring in the joy that comes from us making, you know, music together. We kind of thought what if we made a movie that was sort of a bunch of music videos put together? And, you know, it’s cool, because you don’t see a lot of women rock bands in movies a lot. 

I think it’s also a good avenue for each of [Mother and Izzy’s] storylines. In the beginning, they’re just kind of a sweet band. Izzy references wanting to play in town but then it’s shut down. Towards the middle, she’s getting more ready to play out and eat out [laughter]. She’s ready to go chow down out there. 

T: As a mother, it was really so much fun to be able to have this intergenerational aspect with these rock-out sessions with my kid, and they’re in our basement. And the makeup played a big part in that. We love to find interesting parallels, but through strange supernatural lenses, and in this case, where some mothers might…I don’t know, we’re not the kind of mother and daughter who go get manicures and put on nice makeup. But, we are the kind of daughter and mother who put on heavy grease paint and go down in the basement and rock out.

J: We also, secretly, wanted to make a musical. I don’t personally love musicals, but because we love music, and we make music together, it was fun to secretly and indirectly sort of make a musical. 

D: Well as a viewer I can say it definitely had that musical tinge in the best way. Plus, as someone who enjoys musicals and horror movies, it was a bit of dream come true.

J: Amazing. Love to hear that. 

D: Before I kick us on a musical tangent, I want to stick with the aspect of the mother-daughter dynamic you all touched on talking about the music. How did your real-life relationship and dynamic influence your on-screen one with this incredibly intimate yet dark familial bond?

Toby Poser as Mother, Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

T: It’s interesting because I think [laughter] Zelda and I have a really close relationship. We don’t quarrel and we’re very close. So, toward the end of the movie when it gets contentious it was kind of neat to step into those areas where the emotions are alien to us. Even so, it’s very easy to do those scenes because we are comfortable together. And that comfort is an ambient perk from the fact that we do wake up and eat breakfast and take the dog for a walk together. 

It’s fun. I have to just, it’s a mother moment, but it’s such joy working with Zelda because beyond the fact that she’s my daughter, she’s a really incredible actor to work opposite of. So as a mother and an actor, it was pretty cool.

Z: [turning to Toby] Thank you! [turning back]. As Toby said, it was kind of tough towards the end. I really actually had to start acting to create that tenseness between us. The beginning of the movie was so fun because we were just being ourselves in front of the screen, rocking out, being in nature together, and all that stuff. One of my favorite scenes was the one in the snow with all the blood and the throwing up. That was a fun bonding experience in front of, but also behind, the camera.

D: Gotta love throwing up blood on your mom [laughter]. Kicking further into the later part of the movie because it sounds like there was a lot of capital “W” Work happening to craft the tension, I want to zero in on a particular scene that I loved. That is the sequence when Izzy recites that eerie “wolf and lamb” poem, and we pivot to the psychedelic patch of cannibalism. It’s a show-stopping moment, and I would love to hear what went into the performances and direction there. 

Toby Poser, Lulu Adams, Zelda Adams, John Adams – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

J: Thank you! Thank you! That’s such an important scene for us. Everything about that scene is what you said. It’s kind of the, what do you call it, the coup d’état of the movie? It’s like, a coup d’état, or I don’t know, something French. 

T: I think you’re looking for denouement.

J: [laughter] Yeah yeah, that’s it. Anyway, we worked on that poem quite a bit. We were driving up and down the Pacific Northwest at the time living in, like, in a trailer. We talked about that poem over and over until we finally zeroed it down to its bare-bones, essential literally [laughter]. What was fun was, as we were coming up with that poem, which is a great allegory for the whole movie, we were also meeting up with our daughter, Lulu [Ed. note: Lulu plays a character named Amber in the film]. 

We put that gory scene together on the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. There were storms coming through, and Lulu was sitting on a picnic table, waves were crashing on her it was freezing cold. So it was really fun [laughter]. Because, as we were doing the scene about nature, nature was just pummeling us all. And so it just, like, as we say nature’s our favorite actress, and she’s so temperamental, and she shows up and does whatever the hell she wants. In her own way, she came in and stole the show.

Z: Lulu likes to say that she was just method acting because she was actually freezing cold and screaming [laughter].

J: Yeah, it was like January in the Pacific Northwest storm is coming through and we’re like Lulu, can you put this white bikini on and sit in the table on top of these waves? Yeah, what’s for dinner? Don’t worry, we’ll take you out to Korean food after.

D: Thank you for that! I love a good behind-the-scenes story. And on that, actually, we’ve been able to touch on so many aspects of the film, and since you all worked as writers, directors, and in Zelda and Toby’s case, actors in the film, I’m wondering if you each have a favorite part of the process? Is there something in the filmmaking that calls to you most fervently?

Zelda Adams as Izzy – Hellbender – Photo Credit: Shudder

Z: Personally, I love the cinematography part of filmmaking. It’s just so fun. Sometimes I feel like, I don’t know if I can necessarily put what I’m thinking into my words, but I can put it into what I see in front of the camera. It’s a great outlet for what’s inside my head. And it’s so fun because with Hellbender we experimented with a lot of new technology. We got a ronin, a drone, a micro-lens. I was in heaven.

T:  I love writing. I just I absolutely love thinking about all the different angles that go into making a full story. I always think of it as kind of a cobweb and how can you piece together everything into something beautiful that you can see through but also where certain, you know, themes stick. 

J: [turning to Toby] Where you catch the tasty meat. [turning back]. For me, I have a super short attention span, but it’s intense. So I love every part of making a movie. What’s beautiful about making movies is I can work on music for 20 minutes. And then when my mind’s blown, I can be like, well, I’ll edit for a little bit. And that’s completely different than making music. I just love all the pieces. It’s something that I really love about this process. 

D: Thank you for all of that! I’m also seeing we’re just about at time, so I have one last question, something I like to ask everyone I talk to. For all of you, what’s something you’ve watched recently that you want to shout out and make sure our readers check out themselves?

Z: Good Time [the Safdie Brothers’ 2017 thriller]!  I just rewatched it, and it was like I was watching it for the first time over again. That movie is just a stress ball! And it’s so fun because you’re following along this one dude’s adventure. It’s…it’s just exhilarating.

T: We also just recently rewatched The Descent [Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror masterpiece]. That movie is just it. It’s so effective. Particularly, I just love all the characters coming out of it. Even though I think there were six women, I was like, Oh, I know exactly what their names are. I know what they were about. I know how claustrophobic I felt and how hard it must have been to shoot that. And they were just such incredible characters and the film is super. Sticks with you.

J: I would go with Chinatown by Roman Polanski, because, we just watched it and I was blown away. I hadn’t seen it for many, many years. The reason I say it is because it’s this huge Hollywood production that is done so eloquently. Everybody showed up. It’s, to me, it’s just incredible.

Hellbender streams exclusively on Shudder and AMC+ starting February 24th.

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