Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me is a raucous, funny, unsettling, grisly, and genuinely haunting movie, created by filmmakers who came up making YouTube videos. The Australian twins drew millions of subscribers to their Rackaracka channel, a prime staging ground for chaos, full of snappily shot videos with fights, stunts, and other mayhem (some of it featuring a Ronald McDonald character). But Talk to Me, their feature debut, is a sustained piece of horror, in which thrill-seeking Australian teenagers seek out possession by the dead, by grasping a disembodied ceramic hand. Mia (Sophie Wilde) is immediately mesmerized by the possibility of reaching her deceased mother, despite the concerns of friends (and the very mixed results for her best friend’s kid brother, Riley).
Wilde gives Mia’s grief a real ache, and the contours of the movie’s easily marketable horrors come wrapped around the hungry emotions of fear, dread, sadness. I had a rollicking conversation with Danny and Michael Philippou, who have a contagious delight in moviemaking and a refreshing sincerity, as they also shared details that helped inform Talk to Me a little. Their movie is also a slice of Australian suburbia, using their old high school as one of the locations; the brothers hail from Adelaide, South Australia, where they first learned to split the duties of moviemaking as kids.
Talk to Me opens July 28 in wide release, with more projects to come from the Philippous, who probably have done the only press tour that’s referenced Super Eyepatch Wolf and Asghar Farhadi. I talked to them about their DIY path and inspirations for Talk to Me.
Nicolas Rapold: You’ve been shooting movies since you were kids. When did you first get your hands on a camera?
Danny Philippou: We always stole Dad's camera. He had a big VHS camera. We were just obsessed with making stuff. We were nine years old.
Michael Philippou: No, earlier! With friends and stuff, nine. But I remember at six, when we were going to visit our auntie and I didn't want to go, so I was like, “Oh, I'll take the camera.” Dad let me take the camera and I was filming... nothing. I was filming Alien on the TV. We did things showing our books and comics and things like that when we were very little. But making proper things—yeah, nine.
DP: I was always obsessed with things like Goosebumps. I remember seeing all those Goosebumps books and being like, “What dude made all this stuff?” Being obsessed with the covers and with R.L. Stine. Those early days I was like, “I want to write, I want to write!”
What were you making at this point?
MP: The two things we did with our friends was make movies and beat the shit out of each other in backyard wrestling. The backyard wrestling got very violent very quickly. Everyone was trying to top each other. And we used to steal fluorescent light tubes from the back of shopping centers and smash each other.
DP: Kids would be going to a hospital. We’d be bleeding. So we did that as kids. And then our friend Tamani, his older sister, Nelly, steered us in a really positive filmmaking direction. Because we’d do the film stuff but we were delinquents. She told us about Sundance for the first time, and we were excited to make stuff for her. So we'd have premiere nights and we'd make films for her to watch. She’s kind of what that Riley-Mia relationship is based on.
How did you learn to do the effects in these videos? Did you learn from anyone?
DP: No, you just make your own style over the years. I have my own camerawork—the way that I work a camera, the way that I shoot kinetically, and edit as we're shooting. We'd film all the Racka videos like that. I could be inspired by things like Xena: Warrior Princess, the sound design and the wirework and stuff.
MP: Yeah, there are so many different things that we've borrowed from, even TV shows like The Sopranos. We were always obsessed with films and TV shows that get renewed for more seasons. So we used to write up contracts for our friends: “You’ve signed on to eight episodes of season four now.” We made all different kinds of worlds.
DP: Yeah. From 13 to 18 we made a TV show. 10 seasons, 80 episodes, and six movies. And it'd be for nobody but Nelly. We'd film it, edit it, and show it to Nelly. If you watch that, you see us progressing as filmmakers as it goes along.
But technically how did you learn to do all that? Were there YouTube videos yet that show how to do stuff?
DP: No, no.
MP: We were right before that age where YouTube kind of took over. When we first started filming, it was on tape. So we’d punch walls behind the camera to make sound effects, and we couldn't do visual effects. It was like, how do we do this in camera? That's when we started trying to do things practically and work out things through cuts. You know, put pliers in someone's eyes and then cut to pulling their eye out and things like that. We tried to do things as practically as possible, because we couldn't hide behind visual effects. When we started shooting digitally, we had a glimpse of both worlds. It wasn’t quite like we began cutting frames out of 8mm film or whatever, but still pre–being-able-to-edit, you know?
And in your early years, your grandfather would often watch just to make sure no one was breaking their necks?
DP: Yeah, our parents were never really home. So our grandfather would look after us and so he would babysit us. But then he passed away when we were 13. And so that's when we were just running around. There was no parental figure. We’d be breaking into houses. We were wild.
Did your grandfather or anyone in your family make stuff too?
DP: My dad renovates kitchens, my grandfather was a welder, and my mother is on the dole.
MP: She fixed computers but she had a severe depression issue, so she couldn't work.
DP: But I remember she used to draw us up our own “Monster Bump” series, which was like Goosebumps. We’d go to sleep each time and we'd wake up and she'd drawn us a new cover. I loved that!
What else were you into early on?
DP: Oh it was always movies. Obsessing about horrors. We would always seek out the things that we weren't allowed to watch. We’d use my grandfather to buy the stuff for us because he didn’t really understand what he was buying. And then my dad's friend Jenny would take us to watch all the MA 15+ movies when we were 10. When we were 10, we got to experience Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Freddy vs. Jason. She would take us to see all those films weren't allowed to see.
MP: Yeah, it was a lot to do with the rating thing: what are we not allowed to watch—and let's watch it.
When you made videos, who was doing what?
MP: When we were starting out, no one wanted to do any specific job. So we just did everything ourselves growing up. Danny would write scripts, we'd film it, we'd edit, we'd act in it. Our friends would act in it with us, but no one would do anything else. We just did everything because we had this obsession with everything. So it was good that we dipped our toes in every single department. And even before YouTube, we did jobs on films. I'd volunteer as everything. So I did a bit of rig work, sound, production running, production assisting. I just wanted to be a part of film.
DP: But as we progressed with Rackaracka, more people were interested. We were able to get a VFX artist to help us out, a stunt coordinator. We were able to expand and work with crew members.
You must have been making a bit of money at this point.
DP: Well, sometimes, but we would put everything back into the videos, and there were people that would work with us for free because we weren't making that much money. Rebecca Buratto would work on all of our Rackaracka stuff for free, and we were able to get her a head of department role on Talk to Me. Head of makeup. So it was cool to bring those people with us.
MP: When we started doing the YouTube stuff, we weren't doing it for money. We just always had to be creating, it’s just in our blood. So when the YouTube channel was blowing up, we purposely didn't monetize. We didn't put ads on our videos because we're like, “We're not doing this for money, so we're not going to put ads on.” We thought that was a cool thing, but our audience was like, “That’s fucking stupid. What are you doing?”
DP: “Just monetize!”
MP: At a million subscribers we monetized and it let us put extra production value. But if we got a brand deal and someone would give us a bunch of money, we'd always put more in to make the video better. It’s like, how can we make this the best thing possible. And that mentality was in the film as well. That’s why we reinvested our fees, and our producer did too which is awesome. Just to make it the best thing it could be.
When you weren't making money off Rackaracka, how were you supporting yourselves?
DP: I couldn't really hold a normal job. So my first paid stuff was medical trials. I’d check into hospitals and get a drug tested on me that wasn't on the market yet. And they'd see what the side effects were. I’d check into hospitals for one to two months at a time.
MP: I had odd jobs that I just couldn't keep down. Once—I don't know how I got this job—I was rolling dirt on this tractor on top of a hill. In my mind, I was just so separated from what was going on. I was just playing a movie scene in my head. And I was rolling closer and closer to this edge of this hill. People on the radio started yelling and I didn't hear them because I was in my film world. I capsized and rolled down this hill in this tractor! And people came up and they’re like, “Are you OK?” And in my mind I was like, “Oh, something happened. I'm fine! It's awesome. You guys need anything?” And I never worked again there, because I was illegally working on that site. I destroyed their tractor!
When were you able to support yourself only through the videos?
MP: Probably the second year of the YouTube channel.
DP: We were able to not have to worry about getting jobs and stuff like that. We would just sink it all back into the videos anyway. And we were so bad at juggling money that when we were in pre-production on Talk to Me, we couldn't afford to fill up our cars. We're out of fuel, we can't afford it. It was stressful.
MP: And there was a switch with YouTube with what they were monetizing. Our videos were violent and had a lot of language, swearing and stuff, that our channel was basically fully demonetized. It went from making money to nothing. But we had this level of quality that we wanted to maintain. It was very difficult to, when people are used to cranes with wires and all this stuff. So that was kind of a blessing in disguise to force us to focus on the film stuff. That's where we always wanted to be.
So that was when you really turned to making a feature film?
DP: Yeah, because there's always like there's an instant gratification to YouTube and you can get lost in that world. I was also getting really tired of the stuff that we were shooting as well. I never felt like I could express myself creatively fully. So I was already primed, I'm like, I want to make a film now, I'm ready to tell a different story and make something outside of this thing that we're doing for Rackaracka.
But you must have been getting offers to do stuff during the years doing Rackaracka?
MP: The craziest, weirdest things in the world. We would get emails for the most insane things, like a condom brand. We directed some commercials in Norway in the Rackaracka vein. Or, you know, “promote this film in this country.” So we were able to travel heaps, which was amazing. We got so many cool weird different offers. But it's also pretty bad because some of the companies are predatory towards fans. Some places will offer a lot of money to you to kind of scam your fans by advertising so much. And the community that we've built—I mean, I love our fans so, so much, I could never bring myself to take things for a paycheck to fuck over our fans.
DP: One time we did sign up for a brand deal that we didn't understand what it was. YouTubers are so naive that those companies are able to take advantage of those people. That's why you need really strong managers.
When did you first get management?
DP: It was probably after the first year of Rackaracka.
What did Rackaracka prepare you for in making a feature film, and what didn’t it prepare you for?
DP: With crew members we really wanted to find people that we looked up to and I knew that we couldn't achieve it without them. The cinematographer, the production designer, they're all bringing a skill that we can't get to ourselves. And finding people that we trusted. We also just had so much experience with so many different things that we were very practical on set.
MP: Yeah, and we were lucky enough that we were able to be part of both worlds, the film world and the YouTube world. And making stuff since we were kids, we've had a lot of experience with all the failures of making stuff, that we just had an understanding of both worlds. The biggest thing is having a crew that you trust and that want to be there and having fun. It's a mammoth task and there’s millions of dollars on the line. Having people that want to be there and helping is integral. And especially our producer: Sam Jennings from Causeway Films—we don't want to make another film without her, because she was the rock on set, and she would never put finance stuff over the creative. The creative always came first. She always knew to nail the creative, which is amazing.
DP: One thing that we learned on this film is to start the scoring and the music in the pre-production while we're writing.
MP: Yeah, we want that to be part of the bones of the script of the story. So right now, stuff that we're writing I send to a composer that I love, and we try and find the world of the sound early, which is so much fun. And we edit to music and stuff all the time, so why not edit to your own music?
You’ve said the Rackaracka videos were a bit more on the spot, but they definitely take some planning out to achieve. How did the planning compare?
DP: Talk to Me is the exact opposite of Rackaracka. We wanted to tell a really strong story. The Rackaracka stuff was so run-and-gun, but Talk to Me was way more thought out.
How did you decide to start with a horror movie as opposed to another genre?
DP: I think that's a cool way or a fun way to tap into really dark themes. Audiences want to go on that ride. And it’s a genre that I always loved. You can portray drama in horror really powerfully. It's just the genre that I've always loved and it was a natural fit.
MP: There was a bunch of stuff getting written, because we've always been writing even when we weren't focusing on it. It's like a never-ending whirlwind of ideas for both of us.
You’ve got like a jukebox going at all times up there, right?
[together]: Yeah, yeah!
MP: From the moment you wake up to when you go to sleep. It's almost a curse in a way. You just can't stop! You can’t sleep! You’re always just thinking of stuff. There were other scripts. But Talk to Me is the one that picked up momentum the fastest. Danny was able to get it going really quickly and engage pages with our co-writer, Hinzman, to structure it.
Bill Hinzman is a co-writer on Talk to Me. I tried to find information about him, but it’s just the name of an actor from Night of the Living Dead!
Who is this? Is it a pseudonym?
DP: Bill Hinzman’s a strange man. We don't know where he came from. That’s all I know.
MP: He’s the shadow! He’s here right now—he could be one of us.
DP: I can't write without Bill Hinzman. Everything I write, I have to collaborate with him. He's so well-versed and knowledgeable in film and so smart.
MP: The cool thing about Hinzman is he understands scripts so well, that he can break down every film, the characters, the meaning, everything. You can write pages and he can tell you, “Okay, I think it's about this and let structure it around this.” We're so blessed to find him. When you talk about finding the right people, we really struck gold with a lot of the core crew that we used. Bill Hinzman is one of them.
DP: He’s a wisp in the wind...
I figured it might be a pseudonym...
MP: That’s Danny—he’s gonna be Bill Hinzman!
DP: Stop trying to give me credit! Bill Hinzman is Bill Hinzman.
I think Ben Wheatley or someone also works with a writer in the shadows.
DP: Bill Hinzman and Ben Wheatley should have a fistfight!
So making a horror movie, did that make it easier in terms of budget? As opposed to a big action movie, say.
MP: We really want to make an action film. We're writing one right now that’s in the same vein in that it's action and drama, like it’s horror and drama with Talk to Me. The outrageous stuff, we can do YouTube for that. Maybe one day we’ll just do a complete batshit crazy thing... We just respect cinema too much to do that.
What are some important dramas for you?
DP: The Return.
[they rapidly alternate]
MP: Memories of Murder.
DP: Let the Right One In.
MP: The Hunt. A Separation, The Past. Onibaba. Throne of Blood.
DP: Hour of the Wolf.
MP: You know what I started doing recently, I’ve been going to the Criterion Channel—I’d love to have the whole DVD collection, but I've been going to the very first one and watching the stuff I haven’t seen yet which is awesome. I've only got up to number 10 or something so far.
Coming back to Talk to Me, I read somewhere you wanted your first film to feel closest to our world now.
DP: Yeah, capturing youth culture today and trying to really portray young people authentically. I just see so much of the online world and this thirst for attention, and also how social media is a little bit causing a bit of a depression between young people. But also capturing the fun side of it as well.
MP: Yeah, with the social media aspect, it's just the world that we understand that we come from. So when we're writing a film, that’s genuine to us, the way we’ve been, how we grew up.
DP: And you see these weird trends of harmful things that go viral, and kids doing all these extreme things for attention. And us as well on YouTube, doing extreme things for attention! So I just like tapping into all that. There isn’t that much social media in the movie, though.
MP: Yeah, but the world they're living in, everyone's filming on their phones. When you do something, it’s immortalized forever now, it's not just spoken about and forgotten.
How did you want to do something different from other possession horror?
DP: I just think that in today's day and age, if you could get possessed, people would be doing it for fun. So it’s just capturing how people have these morbid obsessions, and they obsess over serial killers or stay in haunted places, or do the Ouija board and film it. If that hand existed, man, I think even I would be doing it.
I also thought of Flatliners.
DP: I’ve never seen Flatliners!
MP: Flatliners comes up.
DP: And Society.
MP: And The Monkey’s Paw. And I've seen none of them.
How did you cast Sophie Wilde? She’s incredible—her character goes through so much.
DP: It's all in those audition tapes. She initially auditioned for Haley, and then she ended up reading for Mia and we were blown away. We knew straightaway.
MP: She read three scenes that were different emotions, and she encapsulated them all perfectly, and then had a read against the other cast and just fit right in there. She was like this diamond, she is amazing. She understands every single emotion so well on a human level and can convey the subtleties. She has a presence and you just want to keep watching her on screen.
DP: A big shout-out to our casting agents Barrett Casting and Nikki Barrett because COVID happened so we had two years to cast this. We were just combing through all these auditions.
With the possession scenes, it’s such a physical performance. I kept thinking someone was going to get whiplash.
DP: Oh my god! [On one scene] she'd stay up all night and come to set, not sleeping. There’s a scene where she's attacking herself, and she started doing it for real. She's so committed.
MP: She was the first one to get possessed, and she was possessed for the whole day. She just brought it. That first possession, she just set the bar and we felt like we had something special when we edited that scene together. So when we got to the second possession, we were like, how are we going to top this now?
DP: In the rehearsal process, we got every single actor to do each other's possessions, so everyone was comfortable. Everyone looked stupid together. We did it. Our producer did it. Our DP did it. You could pick and form like the ultimate possession sequence. There's all these little elements to everyone's possessions.
Who possessed them?
MP: Well, whoever they connected to with the hand...
I think what makes it all work is the emotion, Sophie’s grief. Have you ever experienced anything like that? Thinking of when I’ve lost a family member, the feeling of wanting to connect is definitely strong.
DP: Yeah, when we were 13, our grandfather passed away. He passed away in our house on Christmas Day. And his bedroom always stayed in the house. It always felt like he was there. So that was tapping into that a little bit. And then also our mom lost her mom to suicide, and there’s a fear...
MP: It kind of runs in the family. It’s this generational thing. Also, when you lose friends and things like that, you’d do anything to speak to them again and talk to them one last time. If that’s going to happen with the hand, who wouldn't want to sit there and talk to them?
DP: You’d do anything to talk to them.
MP: If you love somebody that much, it doesn't matter what the consequences are, you just want to talk to this person again.
I think you also make different choices with the possession story than might be expected, how the beats work.
DP: Oh, yeah. There were so many choices that were a bit more unconventional. Even the first act going into the second act, there's not like a driving thing that pushes us into those acts. It just felt natural in the script. I like not being too bogged down by those rules. I understand the rules, and it’s not like to break them just to make a big statement, but just like tell a story that felt right.
MP: The tragic story of Mia being stripped of every ounce of intimacy, it's like you're watching this tragic car crash and you want it to stop but you can’t. She's making all the wrong decisions there. It's all true to the story.
You were shooting in the day and then also editing at night—is that right?
MP: Sometimes we'd have to bump out of a location within a few days, because originally it was gonna be an eight-week shoot, and that dropped to seven, six, five... So we had a five-week shoot to get a lot of stuff. And some locations we had to wrap out of weekly, so we had two days in some locations. We'd be on set all day, go home, edit all night to get everything that we needed, and then go back to set, no sleep, to finish it off.
DP: Just constantly editing on set, constantly going home and editing rushes and getting them to export it out. Knowing that the budget was so tight, we couldn't go back and get these pickup shots. We need to get everything we could possibly want now, while we're here.
MP: It's like in between setups, any brief section [makes Brrrrr sound] editing on my laptop.
DP: And that’s not to take away from our editor, Geoff Bland, who did such an amazing job. I had a cut of the film, Mike had a cut of the film, and the editor had a cut of the film. He taught us so many lessons during that post production process.
MP: Yeah, he'd bring a point of view that wasn't anchored from the beginning, that wasn't ours, which was awesome because he interpreted the footage and the editing in a different way. And he's so experienced that he showed us that the things that you do early in the film change the overall script. When you talk about pacing and character and things like that, he taught us a lot.
IMDb tells me that he worked on Streetfighter.
DP: Oh yeah, yeah! He texted us that. “I worked on the first Streetfighter.” That’s so funny.
MP: And that's good because we’re actually re-creating Streetfighter shot by shot.
You guys seem to be on all the time. How do you get to unwind?
DP: Dude, dude, I’ll put on headphones and I’ll rock for hours until I fall asleep. It's so odd. But I find that walking is a really calming thing and helps me to get into headspaces to be able to write.
MP: I think it's something that we still have to navigate properly with sleep and wind-down downtime, because there is no off time. As soon as we stopped doing one thing, there's a million other things that need to be done. Finding time to stop and sleep is difficult. [laughs] I fall asleep, I wake up an hour and a half later! We’ll figure it out.
Just as long as you have it under control!
Right now it seems like you’ve been on a cross-country tour almost.
DP: Wherever the tide takes us.
What’s the next thing you're working on this year? [Note: this interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.]
DP: Bring Her Back. It’s another horror film. I want to try and shoot that hopefully early next year or end of this year, but it's depending on casting and contracting. And a documentary at the moment as well. We’re developing so many different things.
MP: We’re doing a bunch of different stuff that we're writing as well. But probably that horror film is the main one, and then developing Street Fighter and a few other things as well that we're excited about.
What's the documentary about?
DP: Can’t say yet because it’s not been announced.
MP: Oh yeah! [covers mouth] That’s a scoop!
With Streetfighter, that’s an even bigger project.
DP: It's so early days!
MP: We’re looking at things that inspired Streetfighter, the games, the mood, people. Where did it come from. Because we love the game, it’s such a rich world there, diving in is so much fun.
DP: And those characters surprisingly have a lot of backstory and a lot of graphic novels and mangas and interpretation.
MP: We're looking forward to doing a big action film, with a studio budget and with these characters that we love. It would be fucking awesome.