Like all of you currently sheltering-in-place (and I hope you are), I’ve been spending a lot more time scouring through streaming services in search of new horror movies and shows, and as a huge fan of DIY indie filmmaking, I’m always on the lookout for a hidden gem. That’s why I’m thoroughly enjoying Demon Squad — a fun, monster-filled romp from the creative team of Thomas Smith and Erin Lilley.
These two have been writing and producing movies with a pool of super talent for a while now, in and around the Mobile, Alabama, US area. I can see the love they put into Demon Squad, from the writing and acting to the camerawork. It’s also a practical effects-heavy show with great costumes and props — something always near and dear to my heart.
Demon Squad is now streaming for free on Tubi, and co-writer and co-director Thomas was able to take some time out to answer some of my burning questions (normal burning for my love of great indie fare, not from COVID-19.) It’s a pleasure to talk to a director who understands what his production crew does to make the monster magic, and who subscribes to the “Sam Raimi School of Filmmaking.”
TOM HOLLAND’S TERROR TIME: Demon Squad looks like it was a lot of fun to make, and you have a track record of bringing scripts to fruition. Where did you guys shoot it?
THOMAS SMITH: We shot Demon Squad in Mobile, Alabama… and, unlike a lot of films that double one city for another, the film is also set in Mobile. It’s the sister city of New Orleans [Mobile is about 2 hours to the East], and there are a couple of friendly nudges to our more famous neighbor. One explanation in the film for why Mobile is such a hotbed of paranormal and supernatural creatures is that New Orleans got too commercial, so many of the monsters moved over to Mobile for more relaxed and low-key living.
THTT: I’m really digging the real locations, exteriors and the amount of care your art department put in. How hard (or easy) was it to get all the locations together?
TS: The locations came together fairly easily. Being part film noir meant we needed an office and lots of back alleys and grimy city locations. The office was probably the most difficult to come by — for a moment we were thinking about building a set. Luckily, things worked out with the real location. We shot Demon Squad (then titled Full Moon, Inc.) in 2015, and since then we’ve watched many of our locations (and potential locations) become gentrified. It’s great for the community, but not for an indie filmmaker in need of a decrepit, creepy warehouse space!
THTT: It looks like you were able to cast quite a few actors as demons and creatures… there’s even a puppet effect making an appearance. Does your production crew normally work on films with a cast this large?
TS: Normally, no. Being a small production with limited resources and crew, it’s very difficult to wrangle as many extras as we had some days. Luckily, everyone listened and paid attention, and that made my job and the crew’s job much more manageable. I remember one day that was particularly stressful… We were shooting inside “The Mash,” a monster-only bar, which was filled with various creatures. At one point a huge brawl was supposed to break out. In the script, it was written as this huge thing. The day of filming, we were behind schedule and it was the last thing we had to shoot. I remember standing over a pool table with script pages scattered across its top and scratching out any unnecessary bits of the scene — some of which included more of the dragon puppet. It was an incredibly stressful afternoon!
THTT: I see you are once again working with Khristian Fulmer, a regular from your previous films, as well as Erin Lilley, with whom you have a “very special relationship with.” How has the filming process evolved and grown for all three of you?
TS: One other mainstay was Soren Odom, who does all of our music and is my assistant director and right-hand man onset. All four of us work really well together. We’ve been doing this together for just over a decade and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
In addition to being an actress, makeup artist, costumer, co-writer, and co-producer, Erin is also my wife, so she puts up with a lot of craziness. She’s always my sounding board of reason. If I get stuck on something or have a questionable idea, she’s able to pull my head out of the clouds.
Soren I can always count on for delivering an outstanding score, a good laugh, and for a fresh perspective onset. Having a fresh pair of eyes and ears is invaluable — when we’re short on time or something isn’t working in a scene, I’ll turn to him and ask, “Do we really need this?” or “Is there a better way?”
I always enjoy pushing Khristian as an actor. I can count on him to show up, know his lines inside and out, hit his marks, and do a stellar job. That’s invaluable when you’re a low-budget production with time constraints. He has stunt training, too, so I always love putting his characters — meaning him — through as much physical torment as possible. If his character needs to be poked with a stick, I’m going to be the one just off camera holding the stick, giggling. I guess I subscribe to the Sam Raimi school of directing in that respect. Sorry, Khristian!
THTT: The make-up and effects in Demon Squad are top notch, as are the costumes and props. Again, you guys have a lot going on with a lot of actors. I have a degree in Theatre, so I really appreciate what you and the crew have accomplished. How did you find your make-up effects and costume crew?
TS: First of all, thank you! We worked incredibly hard on doing a lot with a little. There are a few main creatures in the film and we put a lot of thought and detail into their design. For the monster extras in the bar, since we knew we would have a lot of people and only one or two makeup artists, we found workarounds. Most of the extras have minor monster prosthetics — horns held in place by hats, a weird nose, a bumpy forehead, small spikes on their faces, etc. I called this the “Star Trek” makeup method.
Our Big Bad creature, nicknamed “FrankenDemon,” got a lot of attention. I wanted something scary and unusual, but knew we wouldn’t have much time for applying and touching up his makeup everyday. So we actually used a silicone mask from CFX Masks that made things so much easier. The actor could slide the mask on and off between takes… it was that simple, and looks great!
The prosthetic makeup was a challenge. We had a vampire henchman, a troll pimp, a pig man, and a few others. When choosing the prosthetics for these characters, I tried to find pieces that would blend easily with an actor’s face, or were small appliances that would make a huge alteration to an actor’s appearance. Probably the most complex and difficult of the practical characters was Gil, the troll pimp. She had a full-face appliance with tusks and any exposed skin had to be painted to match the green of her face.
Erin had some experience applying prosthetics from previous projects, so she was able to assist, but couldn’t do it all alone. We had some friends with experience who could handle some of the smaller makeups and we got them involved. However, we still needed someone to handle the more complex makeups so I searched online and found Chris Nelson of Acrotomic Studios in Mobile. I messaged her, explained what we were trying to do, and she came onboard to handle the bulk of our prosthetic work. She did a great job under circumstances that weren’t always ideal — we shot in some hot and humid conditions, which doesn’t mesh well with the application of any type of makeup, monster or human.
THTT: For everyone wanting an insight into how people write screenplays, how long did it take you and Erin to write Demon Squad? I do a lot of writing with my live-in partner, and I find it really advantageous to be able to throw ideas back and forth any time of the day. Separating work and home life has never been an issue for us. Do you and Ellen have certain parameters in regards to “work” and “home life?”
TS: The script for Demon Squad took a while to come together. The central character of Nick Moon was originally intended for a different project that never came together. I loved the character, though, and wrote a short script centering around him, but could never find a way to get it shot for one reason or another. I kept revisiting the character and concept and somewhere along the way ended up with a first draft of the full screenplay. I passed it along to Erin and she did a polish, gave her notes, etc. We went back and forth with different drafts, usually scaling things down for budgetary restrictions and better developing the characters.
We have a good work/home life balance. The biggest issue is the added stress it can bring during a production, but we both know we’re in it together and that helps alleviate some of the burden. It’s also great to have someone to vent to, one who understands the situation firsthand. We’re also able to throw around ideas at random and either shoot them down without hurting anyone’s feelings or riff on them at any time — it makes road trips interesting!
THTT: Thank you Thomas. Wishing you and your family and crew safety. Tom Holland’s Terror Time is looking forward to more films from you when this is all over!
If you’re new to Tubi, it’s very easy to get started, and their horror catalog is unbelievably massive. I was able to go straight to Demon Squad on a laptop without any registration. For your phone or other mobile device, you’ll need to download the Tubi app — and you’ll want to keep it, because we’re going to be making some streaming recommendations soon! In the meantime, check out for yourself how easy it is to watch on Tubi.
Editor’s Note: Shout-out to CFX masks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Acrotomic Studios in Mobile, as mentioned by Thomas Smith. When we come through this current pandemic, my hope is we can help out our indie film production and below-the-line businesses get back on their feet!