The Adams Family Talk WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS
They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re all together ooky, The Adams Family.
Audiences who know the DIY Horror Auteurs, The Adams Family – made up of John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughters Zelda and Lulu have been clicking their fingers in appreciation for a long time. Best known for their works THE DEEPER YOU DIG, HELLBENDER, and now the brilliant depression-era freak show cum serial murderer joint WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS.
For the Adams Family, filmmaking is a communal project – they don’t just work with their direct family, but also their chosen family of outsider artists to create visual and visceral delights all heightened by the excellent music of their grunge core band H6LLB6ND6R.
With the Australian Premiere of WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS at MONSTER FEST 2023 in Melbourne fast approaching, Nadine Whitney got to dig deep into the psyches of some of the best people in the contemporary horror scene.
Speaking via Zoom following their World Premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival; Toby Poser, John, Zelda, and Lulu Adams were on a well-deserved high after the reception of WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS which was awarded at the festival.
Nadine Whitney: Oh, my! You’re all here. I loved WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS so much!
Toby Poser: Thank you, Nadine!
John Adams: That means a lot to us because we’re coming out of the gate. Every bit of fire helps us keep going.
NW: People, and by people, I mean me and other people with excellent taste, adore THE DEEPER YOU DIG and HELLBENDER. WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS really is a singular film. You’re playing with ideas that some people might not expect. Carnys, serial killers, period cinema. It’s also incredibly community focussed. You bring in people you know and love not just to act but also provide props, music, costumes, and locations. In effect, your filmmaking has a carnival atmosphere.
Toby: Have you been in our minds?
John: Exactly! When the movie was completed and we watched it I said to the girls, “I think we just made a documentary about ourselves.” We’re realising this whole thing is one big carny. We’re all a part of it and it’s so exciting. I’m not sure we knew when we were making the film that it was something that was happening, but now we’re seeing it we realise we are all a huge family – from our community to our soccer teams, through to the people we’re speaking with out in the audience. It’s a big carny and this is a celebration of that.
Zelda Adams: Also, the festivals are like the same thing as The Buffalo Horror Show that the characters are trying to get to. When we made the film we wondered, “Do you think the festivals will like this?” All of the travelling around is totally connected.
Toby: It does feel like a wonderful ride.
NW: Your films are so DIY. Everything is made on a miniscule budget, but you get the best quality work out of it. Everything from the H6LLB6ND6R soundtrack to the extraordinary visuals that have a Tod Browning feel. The use of newspaper fades, old photography techniques – especially referencing early ‘Spiritualist’ trick photographs. All those elements come together in a grotesquery and carnivalesque aesthetic.
Toby: The original idea came from Zelda.
Zelda: Have you seen season four of AMERICAN HORROR STORY? The Freakshow season. Lulu and I used to watch that show all the time. That season really stuck with me because of the clown antagonist. I would have nightmares about him every damn night. I got to the point where John and Toby said, “Hey, try to think through this nightmare and rationalise it so maybe it might help.
So I started to think, “Maybe the clown has a family. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. Maybe there’s more to him than just being scary as fuck.” I began to think that it could be a really good movie idea, that there’s this clown on the carnival circuit travelling with his family. They’re flawed but also they’re the protagonists of the film. So I brought that idea to my family and like a lot of things, some ideas stick, and some don’t. The family on the carnival circuit idea stuck but the clown didn’t. I’m so happy the clown aspect didn’t stick because I would not like to dress up as a clown for every day of the film.
NW: You are a pretty convincing angel. Especially when you sing!
Zelda: Thank you! It’s kind of funny. I’m actually a bit shy about singing in front of people, so the film is kinda big for me.
NW: Are you putting out the soundtrack?
John: We are absolutely putting out the soundtrack and we’re putting it out pretty quickly this time. We have been so lucky that people have enjoyed our soundtracks and we’ve developed relationships with people that way.
NW: There’s a lot of anger in the film toward the people who screwed over the disenfranchised during the depression, especially those who took away farms and homes. There’s also anger about the way in which war veterans were treated. Where did this ideas stem from?
John: Beautiful statement. Beautiful question. I think it comes from us being Americans in contemporary America. There is a tonne of anger here in America and there are many reasons. The anger comes from our wars, from our economic problems, and obviously politics. We wanted to make a statement about that anger and the film was a perfect place to set the film in the 1930s because in many senses where we are right now is similar to where we were then. The movie was a great way to talk about issues that we’re all thinking about. We’re all families here in America, too.
It was a perfect spot to put the fictional family and make comments about the grey area between good and evil.
NW: And anger can drive people to discover something they didn’t expect to find in themselves.
John: With love comes anger. You can’t be angry if you don’t have love. Loving people get angry because they want to protect, they want to survive, they want to help their families and communities.
NW: Which is a reflection of Maggie (Toby’s character).
John: One hundred percent. And also our forgiveness of her anger because of her love. So it was a really fun balancing act that we wanted to express.
NW: You do show your political hand a bit because it’s the outsiders and the people who are left behind whom you are championing.
Toby: Even the devil himself in our story only goes up to earth dressed as a pauper. Because then he’s just unseen like all the other odds and ends under this shiny God’s sleepy eyes. We had fun thinking about the real denizens of the earth.
NW: That’s one thing I was going to ask about too. In the thirties the same time as you had Carnival shows there were also revivalist tents who were competing spectacles. They were both penny entertainment, but one was trying to make people believe that God had brought these miracles down and have the audience empty their pockets for salvation. They were snake-oil salesmen, whereas carnys were much more upfront with the “this game is rigged.” It sets up an interesting idea of the sacred and profane and how they were used to entice people. And how the sacred often becomes profane by being twisted by people who want to profit from others. (Laughing) Anything you’d like to add to my rambling statement on your work?
John: No, because you’ve nailed it. We love the terms sacred and profane. Earlier on we did have an idea of having a religious character, but we thought, “No, that’s too obvious.” We’d rather take the religion and put it inside these profane characters and how religious structures impact upon them. We had the idea of having a preacher who is travelling with the carny and pointing out the evil of the carny, but then we thought we could be too hand delivering.
Toby: Like the Greek chorus. Like at one point the family would be clowns and not invoke angels but we veered from that.
NW: There is so much symbolism in the film. Rotten apples, ravens. All these biblical allusions, and of course Zelda’s character is named Eve – she who sinned in the bible but is also the mother of us all in Judeo-Christian mythology. Can you tell me about inserting symbolic elements above and beneath the film?
Toby: Nadine you are making us very happy. I was hoping someone would notice the rotten apples. Also birds as psychopomps. We love to infiltrate our films with all these little pieces of the “web” – also the shoes as well. Lowliness and the closest thing to the earth, beyond their relevance to Maggie’s story. We had so much fun putting these elements together.
NW: Your films haunt my dreams. They snag on my consciousness.
John: This is the most fun conversation because you’re talking about all the things we want to talk about in why we made this movie. Fundamental religion is on the rise so what we want to do with this movie is to discuss the complexity of what religion tries to communicate. The problem with fundamentalism is that it’s black and it’s white. It says, “God is like this and the devil is like this and let’s not ask too many questions in between.”
But we should ask the questions about the in between and let’s ask tough questions. That’s why we bring in numerology and the Gnostics. The film is about turning things on its head and the main question is “What is true love?”
NW: True love is part of the process of letting go in WHERE THE DEVIL ROAMS.
Toby: Or not letting go.
John: The other question we hope people ask is, “Was Eve controlling the situation? Or was the Devil controlling the situation to find his lost lover?”
[At this stage of the interview Nadine’s head metaphorically explodes]
NW: Lula and Zelda you’ve both moved out of home and gone to college. How does that feel?
Lulu: We made this during my first year of college and I thought “Okay, we can squeeze one more in” because I’ve been missing making films with my family. I realised that it isn’t over because I fricking love making movies with my family. I love that I can go to school and come back during the holidays and make films with my family. We’re really excited for what comes next.
NW: Yeah, you’re not allowed to stop, sorry! I just won’t stand for it. How long did the shoot take?
Toby: I think it took about eleven months from the start to our last shot. On the Hellbender festival circuit we tend to drive everywhere we can in the States. We already had a seed for this project and we just started collecting tchotchkes and clothing that we packed our car to the hilt. We got home and stuffed it all in a room and then started shooting right away. The first shot is the 1931 Chevrolet (which belongs to John’s Dad).
John: Lulu came home with her boyfriend and me and Alex, and Lulu made all the sets. We sat out in the rain and the snow. It’s the most romantic time of the film for me because we just sat out there getting pummelled by great dreary weather. It helped to make the set we were building to look even drearier. We’d build things up and the next day they’d have fallen down, and we’d be like, “Oh my god! It’s better than we could have imagined.”
Lulu: There’s a frozen cockroach in it!
NW: It’s just amazing how skilfully you all put things together considering your budget. Your films never look low budget. They always look a full-bodied experience. How have audiences reacted?
Toby: The crowds at screenings have been amazing. The energy is so special. I was really nervous about it, but they laughed in the right places. They got it.
John: It was like a punk rock show. The crowd has been amazing. It’s really like a family. The reactions have placated all our complete fears. It’s basically terrifying to show your movie to people.
NW: We need you to come to Australia personally. I’m so glad Australians will have a chance to see the film on the big screen at Monster Fest.
John and Toby: We need to come there! Part of the joy of making movies is getting to travel and speak to people.