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Thursday, March 10, 2022 | Interviews


Already one of the best-reviewed horror films of 2022, the supernatural coming-of-age thriller HELLBENDER represents a revolution in DIY filmmaking. Toby Proser, John Adams, and  Zelda Adams, the filmmaking family behind HELLBENDER, are quickly (and deservedly) becoming folk heroes in the indie horror scene. The story of the mom, dad, and daughter team that takes the concept of the multihyphenate to ludicrous extremes is well-known by horror fans by now thanks to extensive press coverage, including a recent cover story and interview in this very publication. And thanks to its recent Shudder premiere, HELLBENDER will no doubt add even more acolytes to its rapidly-expanding cult.  

However, there’s still a bit more of the behind-the-scenes story of HELLBENDER left to tell. Believe it or not, even the ever-resourceful and immensely talented Adams family can’t do everything. One of the most impressive aspects of HELLBENDER is its amazing blend of practical and digital effects. The sorcerer behind the film’s terrifying on-screen magic is none other than special effects master Trey Lindsay. Lindsay, whom the Adamses consider a virtual member of the family,  has been with the horror genre’s answer to the von Traps since the beginning. Recently, we were fortunate enough to sit down with Lindsay to discuss the film’s mind-blowing visuals and get his take on the HELLBENDER phenomenon.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with Rue Morgue about HELLBENDER.

Before we start, I gotta say that I’ve been a monster kid from the beginning, so this is just so cool — to be a part of Shudder and getting to talk with Rue Morgue. I got so psyched to see the screengrab of one of the shots I worked on on the cover [of issue 204]. I’ve been collecting Rue Morgue since issue 6, so this is all very cool! I’ll try not to gush too much. (laughs)

As a fellow monster kid, believe me, I understand! Let’s talk about your background. How did you get involved in visual effects and film?

I was one of the weird kids who would make movies on the weekend. I was always attracted to and grew up on genre movies. When I was 6 years old, I saw Star Wars and that kind of blew my mind. Everything was kind of about recreating those moments and learning about [Ray] Harryhausen and all that stuff. I never necessarily wanted to be an effects artist. Like to go work at ILM or something, because to me it was always like the whole movie was the goal — coming up with the idea and shooting — and the effects were always a part of that. It was a cool way to add production value that not a lot of people could do as I got older.

That’s one of the things that I love about the Adamses. They have that same sort of do-it-yourself ethic. You don’t have to wait for permission. You don’t need a crew and all these extra things. You can teach yourself to do a lot of that stuff. I was kind of lucky in that the one thing they didn’t feel comfortable with on The Deeper You Dig, which was their previous movie, was effects. So I was able to kind of be adopted by them, at least creatively.

Who do you consider your influences as an effects artist?

That’s a big question! The gods to me were always Dick Smith and Rick Baker and Tom Savini. For my generation, those guys were the rockstars of special effects. You knew them by name. Previous to that, maybe only Ray Harryhausen was the only one who had that rock star status. The biggest lesson that I got from them was that they started out as fans. They were monster kids just like myself. For me, that made movies and making creatures and stuff seem very doable, despite the fact that they were so talented — they’re up on Mount Olympus. But knowing where they came from made it all feel very tangible and kind of legitimized making my own little weird things in the backyard on Super-8.    

How did you get involved with the Adams family?

They were already seasoned filmmakers when I met them. They had made four indie family dramas beforehand, and they really hadn’t broken through yet. They had done this extended short film called The Hatred which was an extra feature on the The Deeper You Dig Blu-ray that came out. That was their first foray into genre stuff, and it was sort of a Terrence Malick-style, very thoughtful horror movie. I got them very excited about doing something more ambitious within the genre. So, when they got ready to do The Deeper You Dig, which was a Yankee ghost story kind of movie, they knew they would need some stuff that they hadn’t done before. They knew they would need some effects and stuff. We had a mutual friend that recommended me to them.

I had this sort of test effects shot online that I had done of a decapitation. For like five minutes on Facebook, it went viral. My friend passed it on to them, saying, “This guy does effects stuff.” They immediately decided that they had to have a decapitation in their movie. That kind of snowballed, and I ended up doing some makeup and ghost effects. It was just a great creative collaboration. When HELLBENDER came along, it was just sort of a given that we were going to keep going down this path, and I could do as much stuff for them as I could.

What would you say the ratio of digital to practical effects is in HELLBENDER?

HELLBENDER is a little bit more digital than what we had originally hoped for, but that was primarily just due to COVID. This whole thing was written, produced, and shot during the lockdowns, so, unlike The Deeper You Dig where we could all get together and do shoots, it was much more like they were in isolation and I was in isolation. We would send shots back and forth, and I was adding effects on top of stuff that had already been shot. That being said, I still tried to keep as much of it as real as possible like in the opening shot with the witch on fire right before the main titles. For the fire elements, I painted a soccer ball black and covered it with rubber cement and filmed it in my backyard, looking up at the night sky so I could have the flames coming off of her head. I still tried to do as much practically as we could, but again, just from the necessity of COVID [restrictions], we couldn’t collaborate quite as closely as we did on The Deeper You Dig, and that necessitated a lot of stuff being done in post. 

The word that John [Adams] and I always used as a measure of whether a shot was successful was “honesty.” Does it feel honest? Even though there are computer-generated elements, it’s mainly for stuff like particles and smoke and things that are kind of witchy — alchemy-style effects. Even in the best of circumstances, things like that are probably better served by doing it digitally anyway because you can sculpt smoke in post in a way that you can’t with a “real” practical effect.

The look of HELLBENDER is very understated, and the effects never seem to overwhelm the Adamses’ very distinct, desaturated cinematography. In many low-budget genre films, CGI really stands out, but the effects of HELLBENDER are really seamless and subtle. 

A large part of that is just having the advantage of being able to closely collaborate with the Adamses. Unlike on a big feature where you might be assigned just one shot, I get to talk with the Adamses about the purpose of the shot and what the characters are thinking. All of the effects in HELLBENDER are trying to serve a story purpose — even more so than design half the time. There are a couple of shots where [Toby Proser or Zelda Adams] put their hand on the attic door and the key comes out through their hand. People really seem to like that little moment. When Zelda put her hand up, I had the key kind of spin around like she was sort of excited that this was happening. But when the mom does it, it just kind of plops out very matter-of-factly. Just thinking of little character motivations for things like that kind of helped make the effects feel like they’re part of the story rather than just pasted on. That’s the hope anyway.

Trey Lindsay and John Adams behind the scenes of THE DEEPER YOU DIG

On first viewing, that shot has almost a stop-motion feel to it. It kind of felt like something Tom Sullivan would have animated for The Evil Dead.

Yes! Those are all my touchstones. When I think of shots like that, those are the first kind of “mind movies” that I go to. The key shot itself is ridiculously simple. They shot the plate of their hand on the attic door. We had a couple of discussions about how they wanted the key to come out of the back of her hand. It could be gory or it could be ghostly. It could magically appear. So we hit upon the idea of it coming out of the skin, but it’s not bloody. The skin just opens up, and this key comes out. It all stays physical and feels immediate and possible. Also, it’s understated like you mentioned. It’s not calling attention to itself. It’s just a little moment.

To actually do the effect, I just took a piece of green construction paper and cut a little slit in it. I did about 20 takes of me just shoving a key through this piece of construction paper. The little tear in the construction paper becomes the hole in the back of her hand. It takes a little finesse compositing it, but that was basically it — just shoving a key through a piece of construction paper, But that’s the one thing that people seem to remember. There are other shots that we did like 40 versions of, but it’s always those little, simple ones that make an impression.

What’s the dynamic like on an Adams family shoot?

When they first reached out, I watched their first four dramas, and I was amazed at just how polished and how great the acting was. I make little short films on my own, so I had a selfish motivation. I wanted to work with these people and find out what their secret sauce is — like what makes it work and if they’re doing something that no one else is doing that makes it magical and work really well. It just turns out that they’re all just immensely talented and creative. 

They all three have equal say. In some ways, you would think that’s almost like a committee, so that might be diluting a point of view. If anything, they all make each other stronger. Toby is always concerned first and foremost about character and story; John loves the visuals and coming up with as many crazy visuals as he can. Zelda, and I say this lovingly, she is like the bullshit meter. Nothing gets past her. If she doesn’t buy it, it’s not in the film. She is sort of the arbitrator. She’ll say, “That shot works” or “That shot doesn’t work.” She’s a tough critic. But that being said, they all have equal say. It’s just great to watch. As a family, there’s a huge amount of respect between them, and they all have creative points of view. The beauty of what they do is that if they can’t decide on how to approach a certain scene, they’ll shoot it all three ways if they all three have different ideas, and they’ll let the edit room decide, which is probably the best possible solution. That’s not something I think you’d ever be able to do on big studio movies. For them, it’s just a matter of another take.

How does that family dynamic affect your work as a visual effects artist? 

The benefit for me is that I get direct contact with the storytellers. I think that if I was an effects person on any other film, I would be so far removed from the people making the decisions I would be answering to an effects supervisor or something. With the Adamses, I’m just the fifth spoke in this wheel. We talk through all that stuff, and having direct contact with them about their feelings on a particular look or effect is just great. It kind of streamlines the whole process. I love it. They’re collaborative with each other, but they’re also collaborative with me. If I come up with an idea, there’s no ego involved in terms of like, “Well, we’re not going to use that because we didn’t come up with it.” They love trying everything and seeing what works.

Who’s the toughest?

That’s a tough call!

Obviously, Zelda has to be up there with her critical eye.

Zelda’s pretty tough! They’re all tough in that they’re so united in what they’re doing.

 I say this as the highest compliment: Their scripting process is somewhat loose in the sense that they’ll come up with ideas for scenes, and that’s a dialogue. But they really write with the camera and they kind of write in the moment. They all have equal say, and they’re all literally writing the script together. They’re figuring things out and solving problems all at once  — together as a group. If anything, their secret sauce is working with people you love and respect. That only makes for a better product.  

What were some of the most challenging effects sequences in HELLBENDER?

The burning witch took 42 tries before we had a render that we all liked. But it’s funny because with some of the effects, they’ll like the first pass and sign off on it. Ironically, the one that made the cover [of Rue Morgue #204] was the first render that we tried of that particular shot. The one that took the longest was one that’s invisible in the movie. At the beginning of the film when they’re hanging the witch from the tree, we had an articulated dummy that we hung from the rope. We literally did the low-tech solution of fishing line attached to the ankles. The fishing line was attached to the ankles and ran around a tree and came all the way back to where we were at the cameras. So we’d roll and when they pulled up the witch, we’d be yanking on these fishing lines to make the legs kick. I thought the fishing line probably wouldn’t even show up on camera. When we watched the scene in the edit, all you could see was this glisteny string bouncing back and forth on both sides of the witch. I was like, “Ugh!” I had to go in and paint it out in every single frame. I think that took like a month and a half! In between other shots, I was kind of like, “This is my homework for tonight,” and I would spend an hour just painting over five frames to get this one glistening wave of fishing line to go away. And nobody’s even going to know that’s an effects shot at all.

You’re one of the first effects artists that I’ve ever spoken with who has a foot in both practical and digital effects work.

Yes! I’m a big believer that it’s really a combination of both that makes something really realistic. If you have real light hitting a real object, that’s doing so much work for you that you can’t easily replicate in the computer. There are people from ILM  who can do amazing photorealistic stuff, but I’m not that good of a modeler. I’m not that good of a lighter.

As a monster kid growing up, making my own little Super-8 movies, 90 percent of the joy of this is throwing goo on a rubber mask and filming it under firelight because it’s tangible and it’s real. It gives it a verisimilitude that it wouldn’t have if it was all just pixels in a computer. The nice part of [using] the computer is that you can composite stuff and take out rods or fishing line or whatever. You kind of get the best of both worlds. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m doing now that you wouldn’t be able to do in the ’80s just because they didn’t have the technology to paint out stuff that we need in order to make an effect happen. At the end of the film, when you see the Hellbender faces underneath their human form, that was a combination of practical and digital. Because, even though it’s digitally applied, the Hellbender faces are little Super Sculpey sculptures that I did to get the wrinkled skin textures, and I photographed a skull that I then painted to look like it had skin on it and stuff. Those become the eyeless, screaming monster face. I just digitally tracked it to our actress in the movie when she’s shrieking. Rather than make everything in the computer, I like to start with something physical first. 

Were there any effects that you wanted to do in HELLBENDER that time, money, or circumstances just wouldn’t allow?

When we had our first discussions about HELLBENDER — this was pre-COVID and pre-lockdown — we talked about an opening scene that I was so excited about from an effects standpoint. The original opening scene was going to take place in hell. I wanted to do a practical Satan standing in, and this sounds really sick to say it out loud, a world of dead babies. Mountains of dead babies everywhere. And out of the bleak, bloody rubble of dead babies, he was going to conjure up a daughter who was going to be the first of the Hellbenders. He was going to pull her up out of this muck of dead babies. So, in doing this kind of Dante’s Inferno opening, we thought that would be a great way to throw down the gauntlet. But, as the Adamses refined their story, that wasn’t needed, and it wouldn’t be appropriate as it is now because it’s far more theatrical than the movie would ever need. If there was one thing that got away, it was doing my version of Satan in a movie. Who knows? Maybe it will show up in another one.

What’s next?

I’m helping [the Adamses] out on a movie now that is an even bigger leap forward. It’s a period piece. I don’t want to steal their thunder, but I see it as sort of a Bonnie and Clyde meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with just a touch of the supernatural in it. It’s a different style than their previous movies which have been much more driven by the supernatural. This one that we’re working on now is still family-oriented, but if you take the genre element out of it, it would still be a fascinating film. That being said, I get to play Tom Savini. We’ve already done a stabbing through the neck, and we’ve cut off somebody’s head. I’m excited because this film is going to have even more types of effects. 

Can you reveal the title?

They have mentioned it on their Facebook. It’s going to be called When the Devil Roams. It should be quite cool. 

HELLBENDER is available now, exclusively on Shudder


William J. Wright
William J. Wright is RUE MORGUE's online managing editor. A two-time Rondo Classic Horror Award nominee and an active member of the Horror Writers Association, William is lifelong lover of the weird and macabre. His work has appeared in many popular (and a few unpopular) publications dedicated to horror and cult film. William earned a bachelor of arts degree from East Tennessee State University in 1998, majoring in English with a minor in Film Studies. He helped establish ETSU's Film Studies minor with professor and film scholar Mary Hurd and was the program's first graduate. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, three sons and a recalcitrant cat.