Horror movies canada halloween Talk to Me Danny Michael Philippou interview

Danny and Michael Philippou on their feature debut, the terrifying Talk to Me

An interview with the Australian twin filmmakers known for their eyebrow-raising YouTube channel RackaRacka.

In my five years of attending the Fantasia Film Festival, I have never seen a crowd quite like the one at the premiere of Talk to Me. A wave of cheering, screaming and self-soothing whimpers hit the screen, only to resurface again and again. With their first film barely out, the directors, Australian twins Danny and Michael Philippou — known for their eyebrow-raising YouTube channel RackaRacka — are already in talks to adapt the video game Street Fighter. The wave keeps rising.

In Talk to Me, Mia (a captivating Sophie Wilde) is barely holding it together after her mother’s death, two years prior. One night, she sees a classmate post videos of a freaky séance on Instagram. She convinces her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) and her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) to come with her to investigate. Once there, they discover a severed, embalmed hand frozen in a handshake. By holding it and saying “talk to me,” they are told that a ghost will appear in the room. “I let you in” welcomes a possession. Like a hit of DMT, these possessions are short and intense. And there’s a very good reason for this. Possessions that last longer than 90 seconds risk becoming permanent hauntings. But when Mia’s mother turns up, the filial reunion isn’t so easy to call off. 

At just over 90 minutes, Talk to Me is tight and slick. The shocks are scary, and the practical effects are delightfully revolting. But the film paints Mia’s grief in strokes too broad to feel lived in. As I left the screening, a friend of mine aptly joked that the Philippous must’ve seen the Jamie Lee Curtis “it’s about trowma” mash-up. At times, the film feels crafted around its own self-importance. Do all horror films have to be “deep” now? 

I spoke to the twin filmmakers the day after their Fantasia premiere.  

Sarah Foulkes: The feedback loop of YouTube is very different from that of a feature film. You’re not in dialogue with the fans in the same way when you make a film. Do you miss that community aspect of YouTube at all? 

Michael Philippou: You know, with YouTube, it’s interesting because we did some videos that got a lot of views, but it feels like just numbers. It doesn’t feel real. It feels false, but going to cinemas and seeing people in person and everyone reacting together, it’s like you never get that on YouTube. It’s way more rewarding. YouTube’s like instant gratification where you can shoot, upload and see growth straightaway. You see comments straightaway. You get that kind of feedback. Whereas a film is a lot longer, there’s a lot more writing by yourself, and you don’t get that kind of instant gratification. So it’s a lot longer, but a lot more rewarding.

Danny Philippou: You’re working and collaborating with all these amazing artists, from the actors to the production designer to the cinematographer — all these, like, masters of their craft, putting their energies into one thing and making it the best it could possibly be. You can’t really achieve that on a YouTube video.

SF: But I can imagine during an at-times-gruelling process, the instant gratification might appeal. 

Danny Philippou: We found every step of the filmmaking process so overstimulating. Like the writing, I find it so stimulating. I found pre-production so stimulating, designing the sets, finding the look, casting the actors, rehearsals, shooting and editing. Every single element of this was so exciting.

Michael Philippou: That had been our dream since we were little kids. So finally doing it, it was so much fun. And it was interesting, like, we didn’t know what the reception for the film would be. We had a screening in Adelaide, and people were like, “Good job.” It was like friends, families, some fans. So when we got into Sundance, it was a whole big thing. And then going there and then, you know, it was the first time it was gonna be seen by critics and distributors and things like that. It was either gonna make our careers or destroy it on our first film. So that was a terrifying experience. But for it to be received the way it has been has been so heartwarming, and we’re so thankful.

SF: What’s the experience of dealing with a big tech company like YouTube when you get demonetized? How does that compare with dealing with producers? I know you had an experience with a Hollywood studio, which made you decide to produce it in Australia.

Danny Philippou: It wasn’t a negative experience per se, but we were just getting some notes that were steering in a direction that we weren’t feeling comfortable with. We knew that if we made it independently, that we’d really be able to control it every step of the way. And there’s no fear of anyone being able to come in and change anything. So that was a big thing for us. But our producer was so aligned with our vision and she knew exactly what we wanted, and it was never a battle. We never felt like we were battling her. We always felt like we were on the same side, and we felt like we were protected by her.

Michael Philippou: It was like, what’s best for the film? Yeah. You always see those horror stories of Hollywood screwing over directors. And we care too much about every single frame, every single sound effect. The idea that someone can come in and change that to fit into what they’re trying to sell just wouldn’t work. So we took the gamble of doing it independently and yeah, thank God it pulled off.

SF: But I guess the experience informs some of that of making YouTube videos? YouTube doesn’t have a say in how you make it exactly. They have a say in how they design the algorithm and whether your video gets demonetized.

Danny Philippou: It’s the same as getting a rating. We were very nervous about getting our rating. We really wanted to get an R rating and not an NC 17. That was nerve-wracking when we put it in for the rating, because I don’t think you can go back and do it a second time.

Michael Philippou: Especially Australian ratings. The things that make up 18 + are self-harm, facial trauma and damage to children. And we had all three in one scene.

SF: Speaking of which, can you speak to the Australian-ness of the film that maybe non-Australians wouldn’t be able to identify?

Danny Philippou: There’s a lot of slang and just the way that some characters interact. There’s a bunch of inside jokes for Australia. There’s a word called “ocker” in Australia. We swear a lot. And so that’s in the film as well, like over 100 swear words. But we hadn’t even realized.

Michael Philippou: It’s great that it’s translating internationally, all the bits that we thought maybe wouldn’t. Especially the dark humour. Because Australians, we love to take the piss out of each other.

Danny Philippou: A lot of Australian films, when they start to feel a bit weird to Australians specifically, is when they over-announce things, and they try to be too clear in their dialogue. It feels like it doesn’t feel real. I liked that our characters are mumbling a bit, and maybe some foreign audience members will struggle to keep up with that. But it just felt authentic to me and felt real.

Michael Philippou: People talk about the outback and about, you know, “7 of the 10 most deadliest animals live in Australia.” I haven’t seen any of those animals. We live in the city. I’ve never seen the proper outback. I remember driving out there once, and I blew a tire. I got trapped in a town for two weeks. That was my first and last time going to the outback.

Talk to Me

SF: Social media is the instigator in the film. But it’s not a film about social media, since it kind of recedes into the background and becomes much more about this extended family. Did you ever think about really embracing social media and its aesthetics? 

Danny Philippou: We wanted the film to feel modern. We’re not necessarily trying to make a statement on social media. It was just evident in how the kids would be using it. That’s what would happen. We wanted social media to be represented authentically as well. So before pre-production even started, we were really working to get the rights to use Snapchat in the film. I didn’t want us to be using something fake like Face App or something where it feels disconnected and false.

Michael Philippou: It’s just a world that we know. It’s just the way it is today. So if we wanted to make something current, that’s today’s world. And I think there’s positives and negatives with social media or like everything. But that idea of making mistakes, back in the day, it’d be spoken about and forgotten. Whereas now it’s immortalized. So kids aren’t really allowed to make mistakes or grow from mistakes. It feels like it’s already like it’s cemented in. That’s who they are in a way.

Danny Philippou: And there’s a sort of peer pressure aspect to social media where you’re trying to keep up with people. You’re trying to perceive yourself as cool and you’ll do things that you normally wouldn’t do. There’s a thirst for attention as well.

Michael Philippou: And it’s strange because I think everyone knows that we’re all chasing this dream life that we see through social media, but I think we all know that’s not real.

Danny Philippou: Man, we say that it wasn’t about social media, but we can’t shut up about social media.

SF: But it’s, it’s also interesting because my understanding is that a lot of teens don’t really drink anymore because they’re so aware of looking stupid on social media. But in the film, the mum is so worried about them doing drugs and getting wasted. The real threat is the hand. 

Michael Philippou: Imagine everyone stops drinking, but they start doing demonic possession.

Danny Philippou: It represented vices – whether it’s drugs or alcohol or sex or social media. I think we wanted that hand to represent all those things.

SF: Yes. And can you talk a little bit about the casting process for the film? Because a lot of the actors besides Miranda Otto are not super well known, at least in North America.

Danny Philippou: Well, it’s so awesome that we got Miranda Otto. ’cause they gave us the freedom to cast more unknowns. And, we lost a million dollars out of the budget just by casting Sophie because she wasn’t so well-known.

Michael Philippou: Not that much freedom. [laughs]

Danny Philippou: Yeah. But still freedom. Like they allowed us to do it, then they trusted us. So we’re so thankful to our finances, to to, to allow us to take that risk. And yeah, it was just about finding people that felt authentic and real and then working with ’em in the rehearsal process to really find their voice and let them put themselves into the character. Allow them to change dialogue if they wanted to. But even have a say in what they were wearing even.

Michael Philippou: And we knew from each audition, when we saw that everyone first audition, we knew straight away. It was difficult to find ’em, but when we did, it’s like, “Oh yes. Perfect.”

SF: I also read that you made all the actors do the possessions. Yeah. As a way to kind of break down the awkwardness.

Danny Philippou: Everyone did. We did it as well. The producer, the camera guy. Everyone just did each other’s possessions.

Michael Philippou: There are some embarrassing possessions. So having everyone do it, it helped relieve the tension.

Danny Philippou: And yeah, you just help build each other’s performances. Because everyone can see different elements of each other’s portrayals that can help build your own possession.

SF: So it was very collaborative in that sense?

Danny Philippou: Yeah, it was so much fun on set—especially that possession montage. We had the funnest time on set. It was great. ■

Talk to Me (directed by Danny and Michael Philippou)

Talk to Me opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 27.

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