Of all the movies I saw last year, two viscerally exhilarated me, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end for the power of their craft and the empowerment of their messages. The first was Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, the finest spectacle film I've seen in I can't remember how long--a smart updating of a well-travelled text by one of the few unquestioned masters of the medium. The other was Hellbender, the seventh film by a family of wanderers--and artists--who decided at some point to buy a rickety old RV, drive it across the U.S., and make a very particular brand of home movie to document their nights and days. Hellbender is so alive with the rapture of living that it almost pulsates; watching it is a tactile experience, and its celebration of women and coming into power feels effortless. It's not unlike the idea of "blood harmony"--when it happens, it's supernatural. Hellbender is the truth. So when I was offered the chance to interview filmmakers Toby Poser and John Adams and their daughters Lulu and Zelda Adams over Zoom one snowy afternoon, I was beside myself. It's fun to catch phenoms right before they take off into the stratosphere.
I started by cutting straight to what I thought was the heart of it: the story they wanted to tell about a young woman growing into her skin:
TOBY POSER: Well, that's the question we wanted to answer. We wanted to write something where the young woman, Izzy, is starting from this isolated spot up on the mountain and during the course of the story [comes] into the fullness of her agency. And as three of the four of us in the family are women, it's always important for us to be sure that we privilege women. We wanted to usurp the usual tropes of the woman as gatherer of the field or of young girls as the victim.
ZELDA ADAMS: Covering this period in our lives with blood was really fun, especially as this was a personal story for myself and Lulu, too, in a lot of ways. We're both going through some majorly transformational times, you know, women coming into adulthood...though she's more of an adult. (laughs) But I like this process of learning about and embracing whatever it is that you are.
JOHN ADAMS: We wanted to challenge traditional roles in films like this, too, like the beginning of the movie, having a mob of women hanging what appears to be one of their own. Instead of like the classic, like, a bunch of men scared of sex doing this, it was giving women all the power from the start.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I'm interested to hear if this speaks to an idea of women being complicit in the oppression of other women.
TP: To your point, I think we expect to see a group of men punishing a woman out of fear of a woman's power, whether that be demonstrations of their intelligence, or sexualitiy, or their alleged abilities. What if instead, we had a scene where it's the women who are pretty pissed off that their children and families, their lineage, are being destroyed by this creature? Not that we don't like men. We love men and I happened to marry one (laughs), but we wanted to focus this on women in all their complexity.
JA: And sometimes women are angry, of course they are. And sometimes they do kill. They're predators in every way a man can be a predator. Sometimes they hang. And in this case they're right. They're righteous, This thing is high on the food chain.
ZA: I think the opening scene is also really powerful, because those women, you know, aren't being complicit in oppression, they're actually taking power themselves. Because you find out later on in the story that this thing they're killing has just rampaged through the village. Those women are powerful. I think it's beautiful that they're trying to get revenge.
The first image of the film is of a woman sewing her mouth shut--to what extent do women participate in their own silencing?
TP: There were a couple of things we were toying with. One definitely was that women will sometimes silence themselves, that they need to unstitch their mouth in order to speak out. To find their voice. We were playing around with lore, too, of how they reproduce. It's almost subterranean in the film, but what if they reproduce not with men, but by eating their own kind? So then if they sew their mouths shut, there becomes a reproductive element to act--a denial of reproduction.
ZA: There's this menstrual metaphor we had attached there that I... I love that some people are thinking about this in those terms, of speaking and eating and reproducing.
JA: The mother is hiding, is starving her own nature in a sense, so now there's also a theme of identity and owning who you are, and celebrating who you are. In line with the sewn mouth, then, the mother is also trying to starve her daughter to keep her from her true nature.
TP: We wanted to play with the complexities, the consequences of squelching one's own power, you know, starving it, squashing it, so you sew your mouth shut. Like, there's an image later when she looks at the family book and there's an image of the mother with her mouth sewn shut, too, which is a reference to her suppressing the truth.
JA: It's true. And yet, and yet, isn't she right to do it? Maybe she's right. You know, we wanted to show that there's no easy answers here, because the mother doesn't want to rampage and she doesn't want her daughter to experience that gluttony, either.
Talk to me about the role-switching in the end, where the daughter encourages the mother to show her "real" self.
TP: This is kind of everything we'd hoped people would think about. I think there's a journey the two, the mother and daughter, take together to end up in maybe different places. When we were first making the film, I kept thinking about when women were burning their bras, you know, that you were coming from the housewife of the Fifties and Sixties and then you had these women who were like, no, let's let it all hang out. There's this friction between the nice, pretty, acceptable female identity and then the very wild female identity. In a sense, the mother has regressed from being a full-blown hellbender to trying to live this nice life where she doesn't, where she's not dangerous or ugly.
ZA: I think she thinks that Hellbender face is ugly, but that is a face that expresses power. It's these things we love to think about: how they, women, hide themselves.
JA: Women are feared. Women have been feared in history when they're powerful and smart and outspoken. The mother for some very good reasons is closed-down. And the daughter is saying, "No fucking way, I want to be powerful and outspoken. And I want to be who I am." It was so fun to represent that visually and through the drama between a mother and her daughter. I think each generation has to reckon with the prior generation. For men to evolve and become, you know, better human beings, they have to reject the roles they've had in the past.
I like this idea that you can groom nature, but only for a little while.
ZA: Nature has always played a huge role in our films, you know, in front of and behind the cameras. We base a lot of what happens in our films off what nature is doing around us. Like if it's a cloudy day, we're going to shoot on a cloudy day. If it's a sunny day, we're going to shoot on a sunny day. It brings us so many gifts. It brought us, you know, that scene where we come across a carcass, we were going there to shoot another scene and then we come across that carcass and it inspires an entirely new scene.
TP: And ultimately so much of our story revolves around that scene with the deer carcass--there's real beauty and wisdom in trying to go into the flow of nature. Also, it was the perfect metaphor for us because nature is powerful. And nature doesn't give a shit. It's always in a state of devouring itself--the perfect metaphor for the Hellbender, because every season consumes the last. We live in the Catskill mountains of New York, where every season has its own distinct, and wonderful, qualities and characteristics. But for instance, in the winter, everything's eating, eating. The river eats our road. In the summer, the trees and moss, everything suffocates what was dead in the winter, just swallows it up. It's just brutal. We constantly hear coyotes eating, too, small things at night. We hear rabbits dying and foxes yelping. And then we witness human interaction with nature--there's always roadkill. So nature was our thematic lodestar.
JA:.Another important aspect of that is we always talked about, well, what if a Hellbender follows her nature? Can she be judged? Is that evil or is that notion of good and evil just a construct of a human point of view? She devours and that's terrible, but from nature's point of view, it's beautiful and perfect. Who can judge nature? We certainly try to. We judge a tornado and we judge a hurricane because they're no fun for humans, right? But they're not evil.
The tunnel that leads through the vines and into the dark, that felt pretty organic. A vaginal tunnel? A womb space in the earth?
TP: I think it's the mother, this umbilicus the mother has to crawl through. She's the only one you see crawling through it. She's crawling back to her, to her nature, to what she was born to be in pursuit of her daughter.
JA: And we love this. We love the backwards evolution of life. You know, fall eats summer, summer eats spring, it's not spring goes into summer, summer goes into fall. Everything's spinning backwards, but this act of consumption is taking you to the future. Crawling back through that umbilical cord. It was fun to create. It was fun to film. And I think it's a really fun image it's a really somatically tight image, too.
It ties to the eating of the worm: a chthonic creature burrowing through the ground. Related to fertility, too.
JA: (laughs) We're going to steal that. Totally on purpose.
"We love the backwards evolution of life. You know, fall eats summer, summer eats spring, it's not spring goes into summer, summer goes into fall. Everything's spinning backwards, but this act of consumption is taking you to the future."
The sound design is pretty remarkable. Almost familiar, but...not quite?
JA: I love sound design. It's important for me to try to come up with an original sound design. So a lot of the time, like, if a piano is being thrown out... I was working in an old house, and as I tore this piano apart, I saw the strings inside and I just reached out and scratched them and I was like, oh my God, that's amazing. It's like trying to find something original, fun, terrifying, or sad. Original sounds are really important to me. I'll hear a squeaky board and I'll be recording it for a half-an-hour to get the right squeak from the squeaky board. A lot of the sounds in the sound design are squeaky boards that you don't know are squeaky boards, or they're broken washing machines that sound like violins. There are so many wonderful sounds in life. Capture them, twist them a little bit.
ZA: While we were making Hellbender, we were travelling around America to film and we went to the Pacific Northwest, right on the coast, and we brought our bikes with us and they got really, really rusty. So when we started biking, you're biking down this little alley or something and down a hill, and I brake and it was so rusty, like, when I hit the brakes, it was like a huge shriek. And John holds up his hands and he'll tell us, wait a second, let me get my recorder. He made me go back and forth over and over and recorded my bike screeching, and then he distorted it and now a bunch of the weird sounds in the movie are me trying to brake on my rusted-out bike.
TP: There were a lot of recordings of the little things dying at night around the house, too, you know. We'll wake up in the middle of the night and John will just sit there with the recorder held up in the air. John even did that with my snores. The other day, I woke up in the middle of the night and he's leaned over me with his little machine.
JA: I mean, she was a great sport about it. She's like, are you recording me? (pause) Yes.
So you're John Travolta from Blow Out.
(Possibly only polite laughter from all.)
I loved how the mother tries to nurture her daughter with art: music, the crown sculpture.
TP: (pointing to a beautiful painting of a green tractor on the wall) That's John's painting back there, he's a great artist, and if you could see that painting over there behind him, that was done by another relative of theirs, so we're surrounded by art--mostly art we've created or family has created. If you could see our house, we have so much art that we're out of all space and we have it now up on the ceilings. Art and life are so intrinsically who we are. Ever since the girls were six and 11, when we started making films, movies have been part of their lives. And before that with John's paintings, art is just, it's air to us. We breathe it, sleep in it, and it seeps into everything we do. Art/life, life/art. They've grown up with it. Lulu and Zelda last night, we were having dinner and they were making their own watercolours and paints.
JA: It's the perfect way for all ages to communicate. A three-year-old does amazing, perfect, the best art. An 80-year-old does this art that's different, maybe, maybe full of wisdom, but they both are equally magical things. Magic because the three-year-old and the 80-year-old can communicate through it. Art is always a bridge for relationships.
Expand on that notion of "truth" and "honesty" in your work.
TP: It's really important for us that we don't, we've never had, a lot of makeup in our film. We are who we are. If someone's got a zit, great, you have a zit. Zits happen. We're interested in the wrinkles, the cellulite, you know, the soft things and the bones, too.
JA: There's nothing wrong with watching films that are very polished, but that's not for us. I was just saying this yesterday to the girls, watching something that was so beautiful...I kept noticing and getting distracted by how beautiful it was. And I thought, you know what? I just want to stick to things that are raw and real.
TP: That's what we want to portray in our films. And it's not to please, you know, it's just to show how it is.
You talk a lot about "legacy" in the film. What's the legacy you hope you'll leave?
JA: I think if I leave any legacy, I hope that my kids will say he was thankful to be invited to life. That's what I hope. That all I want to be remembered for.
ZA: I'm a believer that life is for exploring life. Exploring all the identities possible, an artist's identity, a sports identity, a filmmaking identity, whatever identity I want to experience it. John and Toby have been so great in providing me all these, like, avenues to explore these different identities. I think that kind of translates into the film, because the mom wasn't really letting Izzy explore many of these identities outside of the house. She wasn't allowed to go play out in the band and she had to stay in isolation. It's the opposite of that in my life. My parents want me to go out and explore all these fun possibilities in discovering my identity.
How do you raise daughters to have confidence in a world designed to take it from them?
LULU ADAMS: Speaking as a daughter, I just think I'm super lucky in that--and a lot of people aren't used to this, or you just don't see this very often--my parents have always seen me as an equal and a friend. Even when we were very small children, we called our parents by their names. It wasn't forced on us to do one thing or the other or anything, it just came naturally because we would grow up going to everything with our parents. Our parents weren't the typical nine-to-five kind of work-away-from-home parents. We were very lucky to have them with us every day. We went camping as a family. We're going to watch movies as a family, though sometimes I would pretend to fall asleep so I could watch things I wasn't supposed to watch. (laughs) But being raised this way has made filming together, acting together, so easy. There's no need for a system or titles. I'm obviously going to be the director and you're going to do this. Or you can boss me around or I have an opinion of where John should be or where Toby should stand, we can tell each other things. We see each other as people. There's a respect there, and we're committed to learning together. Those conversations in the film where the mom is teaching Izzy about herbs and stuff, that's how we are. That's just the truth.
TP: I think the secret is never letting them know that they should be anything other than confident. You know, sometimes people say, how do you protect your kids when you make horror films, or if you swear a lot in your movies? And I always beg to differ and say, how do you protect kids by not letting them know about the things you tried to protect them from? Silence is the worst protection. We never talked down to our kids.
JA: I think what's really important is trying to show our kids what a great, what a lucky thing it is, to be invited to life. And that includes when you break your leg, breaking your leg is a life moment. And it's great. We never picked our kids up and cooed over them. We were like oh my God, that's great. You're gonna have a scar and it's going to show that you lived, you know? Life is 360 degrees. You got to love that whole. Hopefully, that's what we've given to our girls. You love the whole circle. When you're in pain, cry. Feel it. Or laugh. We have a phrase now, Toby and I, especially as we get a little older and all those broken bones and things start to hurt a little. We say, "It hurts. It hurts, but I like it."