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How The Deeper You Dig's Toby Poser turned filmmaking into a family affair
Filmmaker Toby Poser is redefining home movies by making gritty and great indies with her husband, John Adams, and her daughter, Zelda Adams. With modest means but plenty of imagination, this family has made five films, which they write, direct, shoot, headline, and edit as a team. Their latest is The Deeper You Dig, a boldly imaginative horror-thriller that had SYFY FANGRRLS freaking out at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
So, ahead of this frightening film's U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, we sat down with Poser to discover how she turned her household into the mini-studio Wonder Wheel Productions, which boasts a buzzed-about movie playing the same fest as the latest from the likes of Taika Waititi, Bong Joon-Ho, and Rian Johnson.
The Deeper You Dig stars Poser as a single-mother/working clairvoyant whose quiet life in a small town is thrown into a spin when her wisecracking teen daughter (Zelda Adams) goes missing. While she papers telephone polls with flyers and calls on the supernatural for help, this mournful mom begins to realize it's her haunted new neighbor (John Adams) who holds the answers she seeks.
The path to The Deeper You Dig began back when Poser and her family were living in Los Angeles, where they'd moved when Adams was cast on the reality-TV show Rock and Roll Acid Test. But by 2013, his time on the series had ended, and Poser, an actress who'd appeared on TV shows like The Guiding Light and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, was struggling to find work.
"I was almost 40," she said. "My acting roles were waning, and I think I was complaining a bit about that. And John kept saying, 'You know? You should just write your own damn film.' And so that's what we did. Our kids (Zelda and older sister Lulu Adams) were six and 11. And we bought this old RV — Harvey the RV — and we got in it. We just skipped out of school for a year, and we drove around the country making a narrative feature, using what we had, which was amazing scenery everywhere we went in America. We were a family, so we just thought, 'Let's just try this.'"
"It's funny," Poser said, looking back. "We had asked friends of ours in Los Angeles, 'Do you think we can learn how to use a camera and sound equipment and make a film with two inexperienced adults and a 6- and 11-year-old?' And they were like, 'No!' And we were like, 'Great.' That's like yes in our book. It was like, 'F*** you, we're doing it.' And we did. We loved it and we just moved on from that. And we've made five features since then."
This bold experiment resulted in Wonder Wheel Productions, the family's production banner, and their first film, the 2013 road trip movie Rumblestrips. From there, the family went on to make the crime drama Knuckle Jack, the heist thriller The Shoot, and the family drama Halfway to Zen. And each film offered Poser and her family a venue to stretch creatively.
But for Poser, filmmaking is about more than writing herself the roles she'd like to play. It was also about the importance of representation onscreen. She has a background in classical theater and indie film, and a stint on a soap opera that she described as "fun as hell," noting, "If you're going to be on a soap, you want to be the bad girl."
Still, she felt something was missing from her work. "I've been able to play a bunch of different roles," Poser mused. "But nothing quite as grungy as this. I actually like in our films to be the antithesis of something glamorous. It's important for me to represent women who look like me. If I were out there in the casting world, I would probably be limited in what I could play. But with our films, I can do whatever the f*** I want. If anything, I want to embrace my wrinkles, my gray, and I'm lucky that I can do that in our films. I can portray people who look just like me."
Poser's films have also created a path to empowerment for her daughters. Forget the small armies of crew members boasted by many indie films. Wonder Wheel Productions are often made with a crew of three or four. This means, at 15 and 20, the Adams daughters have already earned credits as camera operators, sound mixers, and assistant directors. But The Deeper You Dig offered a couple of major change-ups. For one, Lulu wasn't able to play a part in its making, as she was studying abroad in France during its year-long production. Meanwhile, 15-year-old Zelda took on new responsibilities on the production, earning credits as the film's co-director and co-cinematographer.
While such a small crew demands that everyone get behind the camera on occasion, Poser credits her husband and Zelda for The Deeper You Dig's cinematography. "They really have a great vision," she said. "And Zelda has a more modern eye than John and I have. So, she brings in a lot of the movement. We don't have fancy equipment or dollies, but that movement was really important for her. And it was really important that she got credited as a DP (director of photography)."
Zelda also came up with the creepy concept of this spooky story with her dad. "John and I usually do most of the writing and the directing, because Zelda's often in school," Poser said. "They'd done a trial run of a ghost story that took place in Civil War era [called "The Hatred"]. And it looked so beautiful. We shot it at the same place we shot The Deeper You Dig, [near their home in the Catskill Mountains]. That [hour-long short] was an appetizer. We realized, 'Oh. We've got to do the full feature.'"
From there, the parents/co-directors considered entrusting Zelda with more creative control. "She always has been our bullshit monitor, along with our older girl," Poser mused. "But she was definitely more involved this time. So we thought, 'Let's make her co-director.'" Poser and Adams were so impressed with Zelda's work on The Deeper You Dig that she's gotten a promotion on their next film, The Devil's Daughter. "She's definitely one of the full-time directors because of the amount of time she's putting in," Poser said. "At 15, she's a full-blown director!"
How does it work having three directors, who are also family? Poser shrugged. "After five features, we've really learned to dance with each other. What we do is, if we have a disagreement, we shoot it each way, and then we duke it out in the editing room. We see what worked."
Asked what advice she'd give to other self-starting filmmakers, Poser offered, "I would say just do it. Really, it's so simple. It sounds like a Nike ad, but, to me, story is the pinnacle. You want to tell a great story, and you can write a short story in a few lines. You can tell a story with a low budget and few resources. So, I would just say, 'Just start doing it and then you'll only get better.' I think the hardest thing with anything you do creatively is to just fucking get started. And that to me is whether it's putting a pen on paper to write a story or getting behind a camera to shoot a film. You just have to start rolling."
Personally, Poser finds indie filmmaking liberating. Asked about what unique obstacles she and her filmmaking family face, she smiled.
"I feel the gifts are greater than the challenges," she said. "Once you get over the idea that you have to have a big budget or fancy equipment, it actually really frees you."
For Wonder Wheel Productions, the filmmaking isn't the challenge. It's what comes after. "I guess the challenges would be being taken seriously," Poser said, alluding to how the family filmmaking background can come off as a quirky gimmick.
"And I feel this time around, people really have actually embraced the family dynamic. I like to say it's not enough just to be a family that makes films. Like how kitschy-cute is that? It's just got to be more than that. So the challenge, I think, is to be taken seriously as filmmakers. And I think this time we really have been in a way that we're very happy about."
The Deeper You Dig made its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest. "The Hatred" and Rumblestrips are now on Amazon Prime.