‘Talk To Me’ Filmmakers on Their Breakout Horror Hit and the Prequel They’ve Already Shot

‘Talk To Me’ Filmmakers on Their Breakout Horror Hit and the Prequel They’ve Already Shot

Logo text

From high jinks on YouTube to the high-brow slate of A24, Danny and Michael Philippou’s origin story is about as 2023 as it gets. 

The twin Australian brothers began making homemade horror movies at the age of nine, and in 2013, they took things a step further by creating their YouTube channel, RackaRacka, which now sports nearly 7 million subscribers. The Philippous’ videos featured the usual antics of those who grew up on WWE, Jackass and horror movies, but they always contained a number of flourishes that pointed to the brothers’ greater aspirations as filmmakers.

Related Stories

Eventually, the brothers Philippou were inspired by their friend Daley Pearson’s short film about possession as a means to get high, and out of that, Talk to Me was born. Having worked on local Australian movie sets such as The Babadook (2014), the twins made use of their connections at Causeway Films and approached founders Kristina Ceyton and Samantha Jennings. 

The producers were immediately taken with Talk to Me and initially guided the brothers to the American studio system, but the Philippous were a bit irked when they were asked by U.S. studio execs to hit more of the genre’s familiar beats and to cede creative control. 

“They gave us some notes that weren’t necessarily bad notes at all, but it was veering in a direction that we weren’t connecting with a little bit,” Danny Philippou tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The way we’d written it was not as typical. We weren’t finding out the origins completely and explaining where it came from on screen and talking to the expert. So we just wanted to have complete creative control and not have to change the script too much. We also wanted to have final say on casting and final cut as well.”

The cold opening of Talk to Me tells the story of two brothers, Cole (Ari McCarthy) and Duckett (Sunny Johnson), as Cole is desperately trying to track down his brother at a house party. It’s quickly realized that Duckett is possessed by something, and so the scene becomes disturbingly violent, as spectators either stare in horror or scatter with their camera phones in hand.

The Cole and Duckett sequence is meant to show what’s in store for the film’s main character, Mia (Sophie Wilde), and her group of teenage friends. However, the brothers have even shot some form of a Duckett prequel that they hope to release at some point.

“We actually shot an entire Duckett prequel already. It’s told entirely through the perspective of mobile phones and social media, so maybe down the line we can release that,” Danny Philippou says. “But also while writing the first film, you can’t help but write scenes for a second film. So there’s so many scenes. The mythology was so thick, and if A24 gave us the opportunity, we wouldn’t be able to resist. I feel like we’d jump at it.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, the brothers Philippou also explain the unique way they bonded their cast and crew during auditions, before discussing the warm welcome they’ve received from genre titans like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. 

So did all of this begin with a Ronald McDonald obsession? Is that your filmmaking origin story? 

Danny Philippou: (Laughs.) Our filmmaking journey began with an obsession with Chucky and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps

Michael Philippou: The Ronald McDonald stuff was funny. We did one video, and people just loved the character so much that we kept doing more with it. 

Danny Philippou: But the first horror movie we made was when we were nine years old. It was called The Evil Flamingo, and we pretended that our sister’s childhood doll was going around and killing all our friends.

Michael Philippou: It was really three-dimensional stuff. 

Danny Philippou: It was really deep, actually.

The Brothers Philippou: (Laugh.) 

I profiled James Wan recently, and when he was coming up in Perth, he felt isolated in a very remote part of the world. He didn’t have YouTube to launch himself, and as an Asian filmmaker, he didn’t have any examples of genre filmmakers who made the jump from Down Under. So, as fellow Austrailians, was James an example for the two of you?

Danny Philippou: James Wan, altogether, is so inspiring, and he is one of the people that I really badly want to meet and haven’t had a chance to meet yet. But coming from Australia, it’s so incredible that he did stuff independently and then built all these franchises, not just one, but multiple franchises. He’s so talented, and he’s definitely been an inspiration. 

Michael Philippou: It was kind of the opposite for us, because (James Wan and Leigh Whannell) wanted to get (Saw) made in Australia, but Australia couldn’t do it for whatever reason. So they made it in America, whereas (Talk to Me) was going to be made in America, but then we made it in Australia. So it was kind of the reverse. 

Sophie Wilde in Talk to Me.

Sophie Wilde in Talk to Me.

Courtesy of A24

In the film, a group of teenagers treat demonic possession like a party drug, and there’s cell phone footage shown of people convulsing during it. That cell phone footage is similar to what inspired the movie, right? You saw cell phone footage of a neighbor convulsing during a bad trip?

Danny Philippou: Correct. I just remember trying to capture that feeling that I had looking at that footage. It was really bothersome, especially when you know the person. And the way that people reacted, I was like, “Why is no one helping this person?” So we tried to capture that with this film.

So whose hand was used to create the mold of the embalmed hand that connects the spirits with a host?

Danny Philippou: Bethany Ryan, our production designer. We did so many different molds and we could never really get the right thing. She did all of these tests and she was like, “I think it needs to be like that.” And she just started doing these shapes with her hand. So she just stuck her hand in the thing, and that was the final mold that we did. It was perfect.

Michael Philippou: It’s kind of like writing. It was more difficult to pull off than you would’ve thought. I think we did like 20 molds or something crazy like that.

How many hands are in existence right now? 

Danny Philippou: There’s six! 

Michael Philippou: We know where three of them are, but three are in the abyss somewhere. 

Danny Philippou: One of them is in my bedroom. The sad part about it is you feel less lonely holding it. (Laughs.) 

Michael Philippou: That is sad. Sad fuck.

The Brothers Philippou: (Laugh.) 

Zoe Terakes in Talk to Me.

Zoe Terakes in Talk to Me.

Courtesy of Andre Castellucci/A24

During the casting process, did you have each actor read as their normal selves and then as their possessed selves?

Danny Philippou: Everyone did each other’s possessions, so every single actor pretended to kiss the dog on the floor. We did that as well. So did our producer and our cinematographer. Pretty much everyone did it so that when it was time to come on set, there was no embarrassment. Everyone had already done all those things. You could also grab elements from everyone’s different interpretations and help build your own possession with it. 

Michael Philippou: Joe Bird was the only one who did his possession in the auditions. I don’t think anyone else did their own possession in the auditions. 

Danny Philippou: Alexandria (Steffensen), who plays Mia’s mom Rhea, did a reading of the scene, and Joe would constantly listen to that and try to mimic her the best that he could so that he could pull off that possession as well. That was part of his process. 

Have all those tapes been destroyed? 

The Brothers Philippou: (Laugh.) 

Danny Philippou: The only person who wants stuff destroyed is our producer Sam (Jennings). She did the possession as well, and she was like, “Do not publish that.” She was the only one that was embarrassed. 

It seemed like you really focused on casting people with interesting eyes, Sophie Wilde and Joe Bird especially. Was that a priority? 

Michael Philippou: No! Subconsciously maybe. 

Danny Philippou: It was mostly just from their audition tapes and their personalities and the way that they were reading their lines and the way they were committing to the performance. It was so weird because once we found each person, we knew straight away that they were right. 

Michael Philippou: It is interesting that you say that, but no, that wasn’t a conscious decision at all. 

Danny Philippou: I do like pulling out eyes though, as you can tell in the movie.

Has Otis Dhanji forgiven you guys yet for what you did to his character, Daniel? 

The Brothers Philippou: (Laugh.) 

Michael Philippou: Man, Otis got the short end of the stick, for sure. When we first met him in person, he was like, “Did you ever think about giving some of these scenes to other characters? Why is it always me catching it?” 

Danny Philippou: And it’s so funny because some of those scenes were with other characters, but once you’re rewriting and finding the structure and what’s the most meaningful to Mia’s story, unfortunately, they all started reverting back to him. In the earlier drafts, it didn’t hit him so heavily, but in the later drafts, it definitely did.

Michael Philippou: Has he forgiven us? I don’t know, but we love Otis. 

Danny Philippou: Yeah, he was a trooper for sure. 

Michael Philippou: He’s a completely different person to his character. It’s unreal. That’s how good of a performer he is. 

Danny Philippou: He was completely embarrassed by the idea that people might think he actually kissed a dog, which he did not. The dog was a puppeteered head and then CG was blended in. 

Michael Philippou: Yeah, he kissed a puppet head, and then we did a plate shot with the dog licking food. 

Danny Philippou: And it was a fake foot that was getting sucked, so nothing actually happened to Otis.

Michael Philippou: Yeah, on set, it wasn’t as wild as it is in the film.

Danny Philippou: In the credits, we say, “No animals were harmed and no dogs were kissed.”

The Brothers Philippou: (Laugh.) 

Talk to Me

Talk to Me

Courtesy of A24

You really captured how aggravating and invasive cell phone culture is. When characters would record the possessions, there was usually plenty of light in the room, but they still had their flashlights activated. Did you have them turn their flashlights on just to make the phones even more irritating or unsettling? 

Danny Philippou: Yeah, a big thing for us is trying to capture that phone culture, and you do see that all the time, even if it’s daytime. (Danny holds up his phone with its flashlight turned on.) People will record without the right settings on their phone. There’s this weird disconnect when something really extreme is happening and someone gets their phone out and films it. It’s like that footage that I saw of the friend on the floor convulsing, so that just felt natural to us. 

Michael Philippou: There’s positives and negatives to the power of technology today and social media in general. When kids are growing up, their moral compass isn’t formed yet. So there’s a dark side to it where you’re not really allowed to make mistakes. You’re supposed to make mistakes growing up and then learn from them. It changes who you are and helps you become a better person. But now, through everything being recorded, your mistakes can be immortalized for people to see, and kids aren’t allowed to make mistakes because that stuff can be brought up to tear them down later. So it’s a strange world that we’re living in now, and we won’t really know the effects of it till down the line.

You touched on it earlier, but you were originally going to make this film by way of the U.S. studio system. How different would the film have been had you not made it independently in Australia? 

Danny Philippou: There were hints that maybe they didn’t want to shoot it with Australian accents anymore or even shoot it in Australia. So that was really terrifying to us. They gave us some notes that weren’t necessarily bad notes at all, but it was veering in a direction that we weren’t connecting with a little bit. The way we’d written it was not as typical or something. We weren’t finding out the origins completely and explaining where it came from on screen and talking to the expert. So we just wanted to have complete creative control and not have to change the script too much. We also wanted to have final say on casting and final cut as well. 

Michael Philippou: Yeah, the final cut was a big thing as well. We just care so much about every single frame of the film. If someone had the power to come and change that without our consent, that’s terrifying to us. So doing it independently just gave us a lot more leeway to know that the film was gonna be ours and not misconstrued by someone else.

In your Sundance vlog, a who’s who of Hollywood reached out to offer a kind word. Has there been a lot more of that in the months since? 

Danny Philippou: Yeah, a bunch of people have reached out, and it always feels so surreal. 

Michael Philippou: Especially being from Australia where it’s not entertainment driven at all. So having people see it of that caliber is the craziest thing ever. We’ve been doing this giant press run, and we get told, “Guys, get some rest when you can.” But then you see Guillermo Del Toro tweeted about it, saying, “Can’t wait.” And it’s like, “Oh my God!” Leigh Whannell also came to a screening, and Hideo Kojima has reached out and hung out a few times. Ari Aster, we’re friends with him now. We’re actually gonna go meet him after this today. 

Danny Philippou: But we do need to clarify something in that video because there’s a little part that was edited out. Stephen King and Steven Spielberg’s reps reached out for a link; they didn’t reach out personally. So I just wanted to clear that up just in case. But Ari and Jordan Peele reached out directly.

How much talk have you given a potential sequel? Or even a Duckett (Sunny Johnson) prequel? 

Danny Philippou: We actually shot an entire Duckett prequel already. It’s told entirely through the perspective of mobile phones and social media, so maybe down the line we can release that. But also while writing the first film, you can’t help but write scenes for a second film. So there’s so many scenes. The mythology was so thick, and yeah, if A24 gave us the opportunity, we wouldn’t be able to resist. I feel like we’d jump at it. 

Michael Philippou: We have a lot of original stories that we want to tell, but the Talk to Me stuff is exciting to us, too. So the idea of a sequel, we wouldn’t be opposed to it. 

Danny Philippou: We do have another horror script called Bring Her Back that I’d love to make next. 

Michael Philippou: And an action drama.

Danny Philippou: And also Street Fighter. You never know. 

Joe Bird in Talk to Me

Joe Bird in Talk to Me

Courtesy of Matthew Thorne/A24

Early on in the film, Mia (Sophie Wilde) tries to convince Jade (Alexandra Jensen) to let Riley (Joe BIrd) grab the hand, and then things quickly go very wrong. Was Mia still under the influence of the demon without even knowing it?

Danny Philippou: I do want to leave it up to interpretation, but I will say that the demon never left. We sort of show that in the scene where someone else’s hand comes into frame. It’s just to say that Mia is not entirely in control, sometimes.

How did you divide up the work on set? Did one of you focus on performance, while the other focused on composition with the DP? 

Danny Philippou: Well, Michael was never really on set. We made sure to lock him up off set, so it was mainly me. 

Michael Philippou: Lies. You’re an idiot. 

Danny Philippou: (Laughs.)

Michael Philippou: Through YouTube, Danny used to come up with the idea a lot of the time, and then we’d both shoot it. I’d be in front of camera, and Danny would be behind. Danny would do a rough cut, I’d do a final cut, and then I’d do sound effects and music. And Danny would focus on VFX and color. So, during the process, we were more involved with those departments. I did a lot more with the sound and the music, and Danny did a lot more with the color. But on set, Danny would be the main voice communicating. If I had something like a direction that differed from what he was saying, I’d speak with him first and then we’d do a take like that. It was good having two of us, especially with scenes that had a lot more people. Danny could focus on the main, and I could look at the peripheral stuff. I feel like having a co-director is a bit of a cheat code. I can’t imagine doing it all by myself. 

Danny Philippou: But with the writing, I couldn’t ever do that with Michael. I’d share the script with him, and he’d start butchering it and giving me really brutal notes. We’d always argue in the edit. That’s how we really let out our rage. 

The sound design was really well done. A woman sings at a certain point and it sounded like she was in the theater. When Mia slaps herself, it was electric. Did Sophie actually slap herself on the day? 

Danny Philippou: She did. 

Michael Philippou: Yeah, it was a jump scare in the film, but it was also a jump scare on set because she started doing it for real. It was actually really terrifying on set. 

Danny Philippou: We were hiding in the cupboard next to her, giving direction, and then she started bashing on the thing. And we were both in there just like, “Oh shit!” 

Michael Philippou: We were afraid she was gonna hit it so hard that the door would open with us in there and ruin the shot.

Danny Philippou: So she was super committed, and with the sound design, Michael was super hands-on. The sound designer, Emma Bortignon, was incredible. What her and her team did was incredible. Every time we’d give notes, they’d go away, and when they came back, it was like Christmas. We couldn’t believe the power of the sound. She even conveyed the different spirits through certain sounds, alluding to how they died.

Michael Philippou: Yeah, we learned so much. It was an amazing process. I care so much about sound and music, and I think I was a bit of a nuisance and a bit hard to work with, especially during the mix of the film. 

Danny Philippou: He was very hands on, to the point where he was like, “That’s a dB too loud.” The sound designer was like, “Shut up!”

Michael Philippou: I’m just really specific. They do manual fades when they’re mixing, and I can hear it when it drops too quickly. So I annoy people like that.

Danny Philippou: But Emma and her team were a ten out of ten. They’re the best.

There were some interesting gender dynamics in the film, and I appreciated how you didn’t call attention to any of it. It’s just there.

Danny Philippou: Thank you. Even with ethnicities and character dynamics, when you’re in that group of friends, those things are never really pointed out. Everyone’s just existing together. 

Michael Philippou: We grew up very multicultural, and we were all just friends. 

Danny Philippou: Nelly, who’s in that Sundance video, was like our older sister, and I looked up to her so much. So it’s just about trying to put some of that stuff on screen. Even in the rehearsals, we acted out scenes from the characters’ lives that aren’t in the film, just so we had that sense of history.

Sam Raimi has Bruce Campbell. James Wan has Patrick Wilson. Have you found your version of that collaborator yet? 

Danny Philippou: Oh my God, I hope it’s Sophie Wilde.

Michael Philippou: Doing a second film where Sophie isn’t the lead is terrifying to me. It feels like whoever the next person is, they’ve got massive boots to fill. 

Danny Philippou: Impossible boots to fill, it seems. 

Michael Philippou: Oh man, the idea of doing something without Sophie is now a bit daunting. Even a lot of the crew, actually. Our DP, Aaron McLisky, we want him on everything. Samantha Jennings, we want her to produce everything. We had such an amazing cast and crew, and I want to bring as many of them back as possible. 

Danny Philippou: We made a deal with Sophie that for every film that we do, even if it’s a small part or background extra, she has to appear in it in some form or another. And she’s agreed. So, if this is in print, we’re gonna highlight it. We really want her back.

Michael Philippou: When she doesn’t, highlight that too because you’re a fraud. 

Danny Philippou: (Laughs.) 

You mentioned your DP’s name, Aaron McLisky, so I’m going to cut him out of this just to keep things consistent with that Sundance Programming Guide. (Writer’s Note: In their Sundance vlog, the brothers gave McLisky a hard time about being omitted from the festival magazine.)

The Brothers Philippou: (Danny and Michael jump out of their seats and explode with laughter.)

Michael Philippou: Poor McLisky! 

Danny Philippou: Oh my God, that is so funny. 

Michael Philippou: I couldn’t help but make fun of him for it. It’s kind of a blessing in disguise. If less people know about him, the more we can use him.

***
Talk to Me is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.