Filmmaker Damon Thomas Talks 'My Best Friends Exorcism'
My Best Friend's Exorcism (2022) - IMDb is the latest of Cult Author Grady Hendrix’s novels to be adapted. Out currently on Amazon Prime, the film focuses on two best friends “Abby” and “Gretchen” and one demonic entity that enters Gretchen’s body. The friends must fight the evil back and restore their bond in this 1980’s horror comedy from Damon Thomas. We spoke with Damon Thomas about his latest film.
HorrorHound: I love the film and I had the opportunity to watch it twice before I jumped on the talk with you. I'll tell you, Grady Hendrix's work is some of my favorite. It's a favorite of horror fans as well. It was a lot of fun and man, that tapeworm must have been nasty!
Damon Thomas: Oh, thank you so much. It was tough to make with the budget. I've done this kind of stuff in this area before with Penny Dreadful and Drag Killer and even further back with Mark Gates. But, you know, it seemed to never simple. You rarely have just two people talking.
Oh, yeah. It took quite a lot of work actually, to get right and Rachel did a really good job on the day. It helps having done those types of visual effects work before and to know how it will come out. She was like that all day long. All day long and I was pretty pleased with how it came out.
HH: Well, let's start off with that. One of the things that I noticed with your career is a lot of TV work, and you have a lot of modern horror TV work. Can you talk about having that experience on set in the TV environment and how that works, and how that benefits you and the production, when it comes to this kind of hybrid comedy horror film with My Best Friend's Exorcism?
DT: I think experience counts for a lot in every walk of life. Every job that we do, experiences just always come back to help you. When you aren't just two people talking in a cafe, you're doing to people and then someone throws up over someone else, your experience tells how it's gonna take a little longer and you will know how it all comes together. In regards to the throwing up scene, you know that when you have to pause the action and then you'll have to put the vomit rig on. If you've never done that before, you might end up getting someone totally wet with all sorts of fake vomit. They're gonna have to get dried down, and you may not start filming again for a while depending on if it goes in their hair and also if you do the shot of Maya, you know that she doesn't have the rig on and you can just do it with the hose. I also know that we can enhance it further in visual effects. So, the volume is the way I want it, especially when it's coming out of her mouth. If it is not correct, I know that I can address it. We played it back and I talked to the visual effects supervisor if they're available on that day and they will confirm that they can do what I want. Otherwise, we'll have to reshoot.
Getting onto the horror comedy element, if someone you know is sick, it kind of makes other people feel like they want to be sick. Clayton (Royal Johnson) does the retching as well. It's a kind of a whole performance thing. You have to get right for me. So it's those things that you're always combining. I think it comes down to just a lot of experience and also that kind of tone. It was funny, because if the characters are truthful to themselves, like the character of ‘Christian,’ (Christopher Lowell) he's really truthful. He acts like it looks when the demon shows himself. Hhe's like, ‘Fuck yeah,’ because he's overjoyed that he's actually managed to do this. I think that was nice, as you have ‘Abby’ (Elsie Fisher) who's like the audience who is reacting to everything. I always think that when they were in the mall cafe having a conversation. I had Jenna Lamia search and change the dialogue, because basically she needs an exorcism. Like, it's like, nothing for ‘Christian’ to tell his customer why he’s having yogurt. She is like, ‘Sorry?’
Originally, Christian was a much bigger person, and he was eating corn dogs. He was like, really stuffing in loads, but Chris is such a good actor and he's not that kind of physicality. So I thought it would be really interesting to have him just eat every single bit of the yogurt and don't let her talk before you've absolutely finished, so that we could just do that thing when he just stopped. Just really get in there and I knew because of the performer that he is, he could really make that physical comedy work. Some people can't make that funny, but he is a clever actor. So, I knew that he would be able to do it. It’s very pleasing and kind of elevates it, gives it that heightened comedic feel. Every day you're trying, ‘Is that funny? Can we make that or is that too much?’ You might make it detract from things, but it’s what the story dictates?
HH: Well, it's a challenge. Damon, it's a challenge also to be able to do horror and comedy. Alot of directors look at it, and they can't seem to find the tone or the balance or too much or too little when it comes to it. That's one of the things with Grady's work, and then Jenna coming on to pen the script. What connected you to this material and what was it like working with Jenna, bringing this script to the screen?
DT: Well, I just thought the script was great. I just thought it had a real real balance and I loved it was set in the 80s. It's such a formative time and we look back to Stranger Things all the time, which is brilliant. I thought it was a really good story and I liked the fact that it was kind of a story about friendship wrapped up in a demonic possession. I thought that the friendship came across really well and the dynamic between the four of them. It's almost like, ‘Can you survive high school, and if one is possessed, they have equal weight in terms of things you have to kind of get through. Of course, I've got my daughters kind of in that position now and it's a very difficult period for young women to go through. There's a lot of pressure.
It was sort of different because we didn't have phones and the internet, but nonetheless I like that dynamic between a group and I thought that Clayton and Christian could be quite funny kind of outlets. I like the way they talk to each other and we sort of worked a lot on that. When you adapt a book, you have to make choices about where you're going to go with it. This is a demonic possession, we're going to see a team and this is going to happen. We're going to definitely do those things and deliver on that. I think when we originally started talking about it, we were quite interested in whether she is possessed or is she just literally going through high school psychology. So, we kind of played around with that. We sort of pushed it more into that, I mean, it's in the title for Christ's sake! So, it's gonna be really disappointing if you don't get a possession. Also, going back to experiences, like when we did the actual exorcism. I really sort of pushed the moment where the demon comes out and he shows himself with all her going up.
HH: Can you talk about blending the acting and cinematography with the effects work in the film? What was that like to bring these effects to life and create scares?
DT: So if you do something practical like that, you get something really good. However, the thing with the tapeworm was obviously performance with the reaction from Abby. It’s also eyeline and POVs that are really important. It’s that sense of trepidation. In a way you're always like going, ‘What's in the dark?’ You always want to see what people are looking at. So you always wanted to do point of view shots, because that's how a lot of scares or atmosphere is sort of derived from. What can you see and what can you hear? We did a lot of work when Abby runs out of the house with the fake voices that she's hearing, something she thinks is calling her like the demonic entity in the house. You can also tell performance because everything is in the face. Isn't it? Like, when you say a creature, it's in the eyes, intense. That's why “Gollum” from Lord of the Rings is so brilliant, because Gollum can be vulnerable and then can be really cross. Unfortunately, we didn't have the luxury of motion capture. We just had a small guy, so a lot of it had to be imagined. I had to work quite hard with the visual effects guys and say, ‘Look, make his face be like this, and then like this.’ It’s also in the writing, t's not just about positions. It's not just like, he's over there. He goes there. So, that's kind of where you're straining, and use what is at your disposal. Obviously with the resources, I push it to the max. For a $10 million dollar film, it's pretty good.
HH: Can talk about casting “Abby” and the group of girls. What was the process like? How did you build chemistry with them throughout the production?
DT: Well, that was interesting that you mentioned chemistry. We wanted Elsie to do it very early on in the process. I thought she was fantastic in Eighth Grade, she's very natural. I thought she would be great as Abby and give you a total naturalistic performance. Obviously, you need to push it, she needed to kind of change gears a lot to be scared and upset when the things aren't there.
When Amiya Miller came in to read for “Gretchen,” she came in quite late in the process. I thought she was fantastic. She's like a pro, she's been doing it a long time. I did a callback with three people and I just thought the chemistry between Amiya and Elsie was brilliant. They seem to gel like even on the Zoom. We did zoo chemistry because it was the pandemic. I was sitting like this in a room in Atlanta and I think they were both in LA or different places. The funny thing is you have to do things when you have to be possessed. As a young actor, you have to really push yourself to quite extreme lengths. The people that come in for that role, some just couldn't change that gear as am I just like completely. Amiya scared me on Zoom. I was like, ‘Wow, she's so good!’
HH: Damon, there are plenty of films where the possession aspect of it is more sinister and more evil. But for the character of Gretchen, there's a level of humiliation that goes in. Like when the demon takes control over the classroom scene and she takes a piss in the garbage. It’s humiliating. You're bouncing humiliation at a very vulnerable age with the demon who is working its way inside her. Amiya was fantastic, but did she hit any walls portraying the journey this character goes through?
DT: I knew from doing the kind of online audition with her, she could go there. She had that craft as an actor to be able to be unhinged and she was also what you're looking for in response to direction. Like some people do performance but then they'd do the same performance again, it's gonna be a problem. When she was in the car with Abby and she's telling her about the night and what happened, I directed to go against what you're feeling and where you think you should be in the scene. Just play with it. As you saw from Amiya, it is kind of evil, strange looks. It sort of shows that it's sort of bubbling inside her and that kind of performance which is a mixture of, I'm really scared, this bad thing is happening, but you can't tell anyone. Oh, God, that's quite scary. I think that's what she was able to bring to the part and it's such an accomplished thing to do at her young age.
HH: She's amazing and the cast brings authenticity to the characters, but it's an 80s film. You know, horror fans, especially, are very rabid about filmed horror from the 1980’s. How much of the authenticity went into crafting My Best Friend's Exorcism?
DT: No, It's important. I think it's a really good question. Bruce Curtis, who worked with Richard Linklater, was the production designer. I thought that his kind of lookbook for the design just felt very real. And, because the thing about the 80s, is that not everyone was wearing leg warmers, right? You know, there's sort of, like, the leader of the pack may wear them, sometimes when she's, and everyone else took, like, you know, what to wear them. Obviously, you see dancers in those videos, and I think sometimes everyone can get carried away in those departments and push the 80s. I kept having to say to everyone, because I suppose we get used to how women are portrayed on screen across all media, and they tend to be, especially it’s all lip gloss and like they have just stepped out of the chair. The makeup chair, the hair chair and they're immaculate, and sometimes I just wanted to make it a bit more real, a bit more like they've done it themselves and they have not been made up by professionals.
That was my constant note, because obviously, people just go into autopilot sometimes, they just do an amazing job, but not like they're going to Studio 54. It's that thing where you want to really enjoy the 80’s, but sometimes you want to sort of just bring it back a little bit tiny. So I just kind of got very involved in the costumes and what people were wearing. And, you know, so that we didn't, I think there was a tendency to quite early on to push it all too far.