Rite of Passage: Danny and Michael Philippou on Talk to Me

Conventional horror wisdom holds that children shouldn’t play with dead things, but the teenaged Gen-Z protagonists of new horror film “Talk to Me” just can’t resist a trend. Once videos start circulating online of parties where their high school peers hold a supposedly embalmed hand, light a candle, whisper “talk to me,” and experience a kind of otherworldly possession, Mia (Sophie Wilde) and her friends want in. 

So far as they understand it, this process summons a random spirit from the beyond and allows them to temporarily inhabit a human body, with unpredictably entertaining results. Soon, they’re hooked on the experience and encouraging others to take a turn. But for Mia, grieving the loss of her mother, the ritual is about more than fun and games, though her friends—Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Riley (Joe Bird), Hayley (Zoe Terakes), and Joss (Chris Alosio)—warn Mia not to stay “under” for more than 90 seconds, lest the spirit settle in more permanently. She doesn’t listen. 

Working from this simple premise, first-time feature filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou approach “Talk to Me” (out July 28) as a nerve-wracking thrill ride, sometimes funny and often startling in its high-speed collision between living and dead. Made independently in the South Australian suburbs of Adelaide, where the twin brothers grew up, the story presents a fresh perspective on Down Under’s youth culture, even as its cautionary tale and hyper-energized filmmaking—which offers no shortage of tension and gore—has already resonated more widely.

Having first made a name for themselves through the popular RackaRacka YouTube channel, uploading homemade slashers and chaotic comedy sketches (in one of their most maniacal and viral, Ronald McDonald goes on a blood-soaked rampage at a rival chicken shop), the Phillipous, 30, channeled their dynamic, do-it-yourself ethos and infectious energy into crafting an unusually confident horror feature debut. “Talk to Me” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it ignited a bidding war and was acquired by high-profile indie distributor A24; the filmmakers have already become a hot commodity in Hollywood and are in talks to next direct a “Street Fighter” adaptation. 

Amid a whirlwind press tour, the Philippous appeared in person for a late-night July 13 screening and Q&A at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. The next day, their hyperactive energy levels still intact, the twins spoke with RogerEbert.com at The Brewed, a horror-themed coffee shop in Avondale, where they did their best to inspect every creepy collectible on display in The Brewed and adjacent Bric-a-Brac Records. 

Immediately spotting a “Friday the 13th Part 2” poster, Danny named “Friday the 13th Part III” and subsequent “The Final Chapter” as his favorites in the franchise. “It was the peak of their effects,” he gushed. “They started toning them down after that, but ‘Part III’ and ‘The Final Chapter’ are so gory. I’m obsessed with the fourth one, where Jason falls onto the machete and his face is sliding down it.”

Michael, meanwhile, pointed out a poster for the 1992 “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” film, starring Kristy Swanson: “It just doesn’t get enough love, does it?” Both brothers eventually convened by The Brewed’s Blu-ray section, where after much deliberation they picked up two Shout! Factory Collector’s Editions—of John Carpenter’s “Halloween II” and “The Fog”—as well as, on this writer’s recommendation, Ozploitation classic “Body Melt.”  

In and around discussing horror inspirations, the Philippous told RogerEbert.com about immersive sound design, the dissociating effects of social media, and grounding scares in character.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Where did your relationship with the haunted hand first start? It’s crucial to “Talk to Me” but also a classic horror concept, from “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” to “The Addams Family.” 

Danny Philippou: I was in this car accident when I was 16. I’d split my face open, and they thought I might have broken my spine. I was in the hospital, and I just couldn’t stop myself from shaking. And the doctors would come in, turn the heaters on, and give me extra blankets to try to warm me up, but they couldn’t get me warm. I just couldn’t stop shaking. And then, my sister sat next to me. She held my hand, and the shaking just stopped. The touch of someone I love brought me out of this state of shock that I was in. 

How hands relate to human connection was always such a strong idea in my mind. All the way through the script’s first draft, before we even found the [concept of the embalmed] hand, hands were such a big motif, a recurrent thematic concept representing connections between people. It lent itself to the film. And when we inserted that [embalmed hand] in the second draft, it was like it had been there all along. It made so much sense.

Your film’s poster, which features that hand, reminded me of the first horror-movie poster that terrified me, for Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead,” of a woman getting dragged into the ground by a demonically possessed hand. Have any posters stuck with you in that way?

Michael Philippou: I’m trying to think of the posters that first pop into my mind. The one I remember first is “The Thing,” with that silhouette of a man in the Arctic. There’s “Child’s Play,” with the doll holding the knife, and “Hellraiser,” [with Pinhead holding the puzzle box.] Those are the first horror posters I can remember. 

Danny Philippou: Also, there’s “Cujo,” with the title written on this white picket fence in his blood, and the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” poster, with Nancy in the bed and Freddy’s glove overhead. I loved both of those. [Within a few minutes, Danny spots this “Nightmare on Elm Street” poster in Bric-a-Brac Records and hesitates before buying it: “We’re traveling so much. I’m worried I’d destroy it. I’ve got some papyrus paintings and a baby mummy figurine already rattling around in my backpack.”]

The opening sequence of “Talk to Me” follows a character from a quiet street into an out-of-control house party in one extended take. It’s such a propulsive start to the story. What do you remember of filming that?

Danny Philippou: We really had to build up to that opening. It was actually the last scene we shot, so the whole film felt like it was building up to executing this gigantic sequence. 

Michael Philippou: We wanted to drag the audience into the world, and we wanted every corner of the frame to be revealing something new. Finding that house was difficult. We were originally supposed to wrap at 2:30 a.m., and that’s when we started shooting it. We ended up doing ten takes, and every shot was slowly getting better, but it’s such a massive undertaking. 

Danny Philippou: We had ten different doors to smash down. We got so lucky, because we nailed it on the final door. Our poor actor—Ari McCarthy, who plays Cole—had to smash down ten doors that night, so he was sore afterwards, but he was game. It was a team effort, all of our cast and crew members calling for extras and fans to come out, dragging more and more people onto the set. 

Michael Philippou: Even people that weren’t supposed to be there showed up and started stealing things. It turned into a crazy party, an actual party, by the end of it. It was chaos. [Both laugh

In that sequence and others, “Talk to Me” features these sudden, intense horror beats that serve to accelerate the story. It’s clear from RackaRacka’s horror videos, which include similarly fast-paced stunts and shocks, that you both spend time thinking through how to best execute those moments. 

Danny Philippou: It’s important to both of us that our big horror moments are grounded in character and really affect the story. We didn’t want to have shocking imagery for the sake of having it. Each of these scenes have a purpose, we build up to them, and they’re rooted in character. We do love all our shocking little scenes that we chucked in there. 

Michael Philippou: That’s what effective horror does. If you care about the characters when these things happen, whether it’s visceral or not, it really affects you. It was always a constant line to toe, with how much is too much. We didn’t want to shy away from the violence, because there are consequences for what’s happening, but we didn’t want it to be gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. 

Danny Philippou: Building up those scares, and doing things practically, was incredible. We had a super-thick makeup bible, and our effects team brought it all to life, so shout out to Make-Up Effects Group. 

The sound design is carefully constructed in “Talk to Me” and plays a particularly unnerving role in the sequences of demonic possession. How did you go about unlocking that sonic landscape? 

Danny Philippou: First of all, we have to shout out Emma Bortignon, our amazing sound designer. Michael was super OCD with sound, and super hands-on, to an almost annoying extent. He can be a bit annoying at times. [laughs]

Michael Philippou: That’s what it’s like collaborating with such talented artists, though, because there’s so much they bring to the table. There’s so much you can convey through sound that you don’t necessarily need to tell visually. You can describe it auditorily, through sound. It was such a fun process. Giving notes and then having Emma go away with her team then come back and present what they’d done was like having Christmas every couple of weeks.

Danny Philippou: Certain sounds and sound elements, as well, were tied to different demons, and so the sound design was so intricate. There were many different pieces moving. 

Michael Philippou: It was a blessing in disguise that we didn’t have very long to mix the actual film before Sundance. When we were mixing, the music wasn’t working. We knew we needed to take another pass at the music. And so, when we were initially mixing, we mixed with temp music and focused on sound design. When we put the final music in, we did a second mix and integrated it more, but we were able to dive into every sound of the possessions, the atmosphere of every room, and what it all sounded like. We were able to finesse all of the sound design in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do had we had all the music finalized right away. 

Danny Philippou: We also experienced so much kinetic energy, building up to that possession sequence and to a midpoint moment in the film with a possession-related accident. We wanted it to feel like we were in a moving car, that things were flowing, and then have a sudden halt, a crash where everything slowed. I wanted it to feel, really, how my car accident had felt, where you’re moving so fast, the car is spinning, and then you’re dazed and disoriented. Things feel like they’re moving at a different frame rate. We wanted to capture that sensation as the essence of the film. 

And that sensation, as you mentioned, is subjective to the experience of your characters, who are dissociated from the traumas they’re experiencing but increasingly unable to shake their collective sense of unease. 

Danny Philippou: The instant reaction when something shocking happens, for most people, is just to stand there. You haven’t processed what’s happening in front of your face, you know? We have seen a few horrible things, growing up in South Australia, and that is one constant that we have observed in people’s reactions.

“Talk to Me” explores this idea of spectatorship in the age of social media, of characters who feel indirectly involved in events unfolding in front of them—and shielded from consequences—because they’re filming on camera phones. Even the vehicle of possession, where characters let demons occupy their bodies, allows them to experience their actions vicariously without being held accountable. What did you want to say about social media and the psychology of a generation raised within it? 

Michael Philippou: It’s the world that we grew up in. If we were going to make a film that was current and set in a world that we understood, it had to be that. There are positives and negatives to social media, to that craving for attention that we all have. You also see kids using social media as a mechanism for disconnection. When horrible things happen, you pull out your phone and start recording, as a way to dissociate yourself from what’s happening in front of you.

Danny Philippou: We’ve also seen the rise and fall of all these dangerous trends, ones that people lose their lives over. And we’ve seen rising rates of depression for young people, because of social media, and people getting so insecure about body image. It’s funny when you see influencers posting footage from behind the scenes. Suddenly, their smiles fade, and they’re normal people. I find that fascinating. 

Michael Philippou: Social media is crazy, because what everyone is trying to attain is impossible. It’s an image that I think everyone knows isn’t real, but we’re all still chasing after it. No one’s life is like their Instagram story, but we’re after that validation. And young people can’t make mistakes these days, either. Back in the day, if you did something embarrassing or said something wrong, it would be spoken about and then forgotten, whereas now it can be immortalized and brought up to punish you later down the line. What a strange time for young people to be growing up in, because you haven’t even learned right from wrong yet.

One could also say that all these characters are filmmakers, to a degree, transforming their first-hand experiences into entertainment for others. 

Danny Philippou: There are so many positives and negatives to that. People turn up their noses at YouTubers, but the whole of this next generation will have made and uploaded content to YouTube or TikTok at some point. It’s just a part of our culture. 

Michael Philippou: And it’s crazy that people still make excuses for themselves not starting out as filmmakers, right? Everyone has a 4K camera in their pocket. So many people never start, but you just need to start making content and get better with everything that you make. On YouTube, the competition is denser now, because everyone has the ability to start. Everything’s so easy. 

What films influenced you the most in making this one? 

Danny Philippou: It’s so obvious, but “The Exorcist” is such a powerful film and grounded in such reality that everything has such weight to it. The way they react to each situation is credible. I bought those characters. I love realism in horror, and the weight those horror scenes have. I also love the original “Let the Right One In,” which similarly has a reality and weight to it. 

Certain elements in our film were more fantastical, and we eventually turned back on them. With Mia, in the initial possession sequence, her hair started floating, and our VFX team at KOJO Studios put together this amazing effect of hair floating as if she was underwater. It felt like a step too far, too crazy and fantastical in a way that took away from the realism. We had to make the painful decision to cut that effect, to keep it grounded. They did the best job ever. It looked amazing, and we decided we weren’t going to use it, after they’d been working on it for months. But you realize, in the edit, as you’re putting everything together, you have to perfect the film with elements like that while making sure the tone remains intact. 

Michael Philippou: Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” was a big inspiration for us in how he blends tone. Before “Talk to Me,” one of the scripts we wrote was called “Concrete Kings,” and we got told by a script editor that there were no films that merged genres in the way we wanted to. We said, “But Bong Joon-ho does it!” He responded that Korean films have a tone of their own, and we said back to him, “That’s what we want to tackle, is to make a movie that feels like one story but bounces through different emotions.” Life isn’t just one emotion.

Danny Philippou: Working on that film, I wasn’t comfortable properly writing scripts yet, and so we were working with all these different writers to try to get our vision across. With one of the writers, I was typing out pages of notes about a scene, and she read those pages and told me I needed to go write it myself. She said, “I’d take the money and the job, but you already have such a unique vision for what it is that you just need to build up your own confidence, take that step, and go do it yourself.” Writing “Concrete Kings” before “Talk to Me” was so valuable in terms of learning how to do that, becoming comfortable expressing ourselves. 

We actually moved to Los Angeles to try to sell the script, originally. We wanted to get it made in Hollywood, and we had some studios interested, but they kept giving us all of these creative notes and steering it in this direction that we didn’t want to go in, which is why we kept taking it away from them. Those deals were tough to walk away from, because they had guaranteed bigger budgets and a theatrical release. But you always hear those horror stories about filmmakers getting screwed over by studios, and you don’t want to become one of those horror stories. 

“Talk to Me” introduces a social media trend that its characters participate in, and we see glimpses of a supernatural realm, but there’s more to the film’s mythology than you see on screen. Do you see yourself returning to this world in the future?

Danny Philippou: Yeah! I’m so into that world. The mythology bible became incredibly thick. Even when we were writing the first film, we were writing scenes for a sequel. I’d love to expand the world and go further. It would be amazing to get that opportunity.

Michael Philippou: Even attending screenings of “Talk to Me” on this press tour, Danny has been inspired to go home and write. We have barely scratched the surface of that world, and so the idea of doing “Talk 2 Me” would be very exciting. 

Danny Philippou: I’d love to keep doing original horror films as well. I’m so down to jump into another one straightaway. We have another film, “Bring Her Back,” that is written and ready to go. I want to try to get that made. 

Michael Philippou: The challenge is wrangling our ADHD energy into one project. But that’s usually the way it goes. We’re writing a few things at once, and one of them spirals and catches fire, like “Talk to Me.” People do say your second film is more important than your first, because it proves that you’re here to stay, so that’s nerve-wracking. But we don’t want to wait too long. We plan to do what we did with the first film: just go for it.

“Talk to Me” opens in theaters July 28, via A24.

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