The Warriors (1979) / The Descent (2005)
Unable to connect with the more flamboyant prevailing winds born out of the 1980s, a young John Adams sort his tribe amongst the American punk scene after being 'awakened' by a live performance from Black Flag in 1984. Blown away by the specific visuals as much as the music, he began to find solace in the wave of cult classics inspired by this subculture — such as Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia and Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Having spent some time with John during Nottingham’s Mayhem Festival, there is still plenty of punk left in him; one of the very things that has helped shape the Adams family’s independent methods of filmmaking; not just co-directing and producing but building everything from the sets to the music. For John, the soundscape is as important as the landscape…
How did you eventually find your own direction?
After being kicked out of bands over the years, I picked up a bass so I could write my own tunes. The punk era created some brilliant cinema and I finally felt like now I was part of a conversation. But it took me a long time to find my musical voice... and I'm still settling into it. In terms of my love of making films, it really just happened by accident as I wanted to help Toby bring her stories to life. So, I figured out how to use a camera and edit and quickly realised I had been waiting to do this my whole life. I love the entire process of making movies, top to bottom… everything about it.
What else inspires you in and outside of filmmaking?
Nature. It’s our lead actress. She always shows up and tells us how a scene is going to be shot. We spend countless hours waiting on clouds because we shoot only in flat light. Luckily, we live in a pretty remote part of New York State where we have access to countless miles of beautiful forests, rivers, and lakes that we use to our advantage. Since we don’t have much money to spend on ‘production’ we believe there is no higher production value than our surroundings.
Another beautiful thing about where we live are the animals. Their presence is so constant that we often write them into our stories. A fun example is the bald eagle that watched from the trees as I built the sets for Where the Devil Roams. She sat and watched and had such a condescending presence I knew she had to be a part of the film. What better way than to have her represent the continuation of the gaze of the airplanes from Seven’s First World War experience. There’s this idea that the patriotic eagle still watches him with a judgmental gaze but also represents the ushers of death in history and myths… so this also played well symbolically. All these fun ideas were brought by the eagle itself as it sat and watched me work… and it showed me the part it wanted to play.
What attracted you to your chosen double bill?
I love the pairing of The Warriors and The Descent because they’re both about teams trying to get through a tunnel together. For The Warriors it’s the New York subway system and for The Descent, it’s a cave. Both play out in unknown environments; strangers navigating through terrain filled with others that are deadly and watchful of our heroes who are attempting to pass through unharmed. Watching a team crumble as the pressure mounts is always riveting.
One film consists of (predominantly) an all-male cast attempting to get back home in an urban environment vs. a group of females swallowed by the natural landscape.
I would even argue that The Warriors’ epic journey back home is not out in the open but also rather claustrophobic... just like the cave in The Descent. Even when they are in the park, it’s covered by trees and darkness, then, when they are in the streets, they are walled in by buildings; caught in a classic tiny New York apartment when they seek cover with The Lizzies. Obviously, most of it is shot in the subway system which is one of the most wonderfully crazy, dangerous (but strangely beautiful) cave systems in the world.
"Nature. It’s our lead actress. She always shows up
and tells us how a scene is going to be shot."
— John Adams
As for the gender of the gangs, that isn’t as important to me as the incredible performances and their cohesiveness that slowly deteriorates as the tension mounts. Each movie starts out with two groups of friends that seem unstoppable and inseparable but as the outside world closes in, their individual natures and histories pull the groups apart so their power in numbers is no longer effective. Then the real drama takes place which is each character confronting the real forces that drive them.
Walter Hill is an archetypal American filmmaker. What do you think it is about his films that speak to audiences outside of the US?
I read once that Walter Hill said that he directs all his movies as if they were Westerns. That really shows with The Warriors. All the actors were directed to play their characters very still and never over the top; very much like Serge Leone directs. Also, even though the film is shot in NYC it definitely has a deserted, lonely feel to it… if a tumbleweed blew through the frame, it wouldn’t be that out of place. I don’t know Hill’s other films as well, but I imagine this lonely stillness that he captures so well in The Warriors is why the film stands the test of time.
What do you feel Neil Marshall managed to capture with The Descent that few filmmakers have since?
For me, what makes The Descent stand out among so many horror films is the fact that Neil Marshall pays so much attention to the humanity of his team. While they navigate through an inhuman terrifying world it’s their humanity that drives the story… and not necessarily the monsters. There is this struggle with loss, ageing, and sexuality, but most of all the power of forgiveness and being forgiven. In fact, it is the antagonist, Juno, who is the most compelling as her attempts at finding forgiveness are flawed but they seem genuine. Up until the end, she continues to find forgiveness and the fact that she will never be forgiven is so well symbolized in the maze of the underground cave. Conversely, our hero's inability to forgive is even worse and has the most brutal consequences of all which is to stay caught in the darkness amongst the demons that won't let you go.
How do you relate to each film?
I love stories about the disintegration of groups or gangs or friends. I think it’s a natural progression of growing older as a human. Friends can become teams which evolve into work and social groups then slowly drift apart as families take over… and then if all goes in a natural direction the children leave the family and people are left alone. This isn’t a sad thing it’s a beautiful thing. How we each deal with our eventual ‘aloneness’ is vital; it’s what I love about films… how a main character (or characters) confront and accept the fact that they are alone.
Amen. Thanks for sharing the films, John, and good luck with your latest project.
Thanks! You're welcome, my friend.
Where the Devil Roams is currently available on various streaming services and pay per view in the US. Please visit Wonder Wheel Productions for updates on other regions' releases along with the Adams family's Instagram @adams.family.films. You can also listen to the Adams family's band, H6llb6nd6r, via Spotify.
Check out the rest of the Adams family's COMPANION PIECES:
COMPANION PIECES with Lulu Adams (22nd January)
Cover photo of John by John Huba.