“Film Sets Are the Best Film School”: YouTubers-Turned-Filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou on Their A24 Horror Debut Talk To Me
Jul 27, 2023
Joe Bird as Riley in Talk To Me
Ventriloquist demons go viral in Talk To Me, the feature film debut of twin brothers and co-directors Danny and Michael Philippou. While the A24 horror venture marks their first official foray into feature filmmaking, the duo have been uploading action-packed videos onto their YouTube channel, RackaRacka, since 2013. Unlike Kyle Edward Ball, another YouTuber-turned-filmmaker whose chilling feature debut Skinamarink released earlier this year, the Philippou’s prior output wasn’t necessarily horror-focused. To date, their channel is mostly comprised of stunts, comedy sketches, satirical vlogs and prank videos. This decade-spanning commitment to making content is likely what primed the brothers to helm Talk To Me, which in itself possesses an angle that concerns (and falls just short of critiquing) the rabid desire for young people to capture increasingly wild videos and post them for an unseen audience.
Mia (a fantastic breakthrough performance from Sophie Wilde) is still reeling from the death of her mother, the one-year anniversary of which looms imminently. She distracts herself from grief by constantly crashing at the house of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), inserting herself into the comparatively happy family dynamic between Jade, her younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) and “cool mom” Sue (Miranda Otto). Sue is so lax, in fact, that she turns a blind eye while Mia, Jade and Riley attend a nearby house party hosted by teenage cool kids Hayley (Zoe Terakes) and Joss (Chris Alosio). The latter presents the group with the party trick of a lifetime—a ceramic hand purported to encase the real mummified appendage of a deceased clairvoyant. Allegedly, if one clasps their own hand with the ceramic one, they will gain the ability to see and commune with the dead, even able to have spirits possess their body by uttering the titular command: “talk to me.” Don’t get too comfortable, though—if 90 seconds pass and you’re still grasping the ghostly hand, whatever spirit is occupying your body can claim your soul for eternity.
Mia is the first to volunteer—desperate to gain the approval of peers who don’t hide their distaste for her—and, weirdly, falls in love with the experience. Apparently, the trauma of her home life trumps the terror of succumbing to demonic possession. As she habitually uses the hand at house parties, she becomes increasingly exhilarated, eventually convincing young Riley to give it a go. But when his ghoulish apparitions manifest as Mia’s mother, she urges him to break the cardinal rule and maintain his grasp for more than 90 seconds—a selfish move that begets catastrophic consequences.
I spoke with the Phillipou brothers ahead of Talk To Me‘s July 28 theatrical release from A24. We discuss the potential for content creators to effectively pivot into feature filmmaking, the struggle for Australian films to turn an international profit and why volunteering on film sets served them better than attending a formal film school.
Filmmaker: You’re part of a recent trend of YouTubers breaking into feature filmmaking with hyped horror projects: Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink released earlier this year, and A24 recently green-lit 17-year-old Kane Parsons’s Backrooms, which originated as a YouTube short. What do you think is so appealing, from the perspective of distributors and studios, about getting in on the ground floor with these types of projects from creatives like yourselves?
Danny: If the YouTuber has shown that they’ve got talent in that medium, and they’ve proven that they can reach an audience, I think that it’s cool that studios are taking the gamble. It’s not like they’re forcing a YouTuber that’s not interested to do a film. These content creators are obsessed with the medium of videography and film.
Michael: Well, and it’s just this generation. YouTube was a way to get your stuff seen back in the day. When there wasn’t YouTube, you’d have to go the short film route to get recognition and climb the ladder. Whereas now, YouTube is a platform that you can release on and be seen and noticed. So the stigma around YouTubers doing things has faded a bit, because that’s just the norm today of how to get things out. It’s just a way to publicize yourself. You’re free to create whatever you want.
Filmmaker: Do you think maybe next we’ll see Tik Tok-ers breaking through into feature filmmaking? Or is there a distinction there?
Danny: I think that each generation of social media [users] looks down on the other ones. Filmmakers initially looked down on YouTube, now YouTube looks down on TikTok, and the next thing will look down on, too. Sometimes they really get boarded off and everyone’s in their own world.
Michael: But I think whatever [platform] you’re on, if you’re creative and unique, you can really make something special. Some projects are green-lit or pushed because of someone’s presence or following—not necessarily because of their talent—and that’s when there’s an issue. But like with this Backrooms kid, who’s obviously extremely talented with unique ideas, it doesn’t matter whether he’s from YouTube or not, he’s just a talented person. Give him the wings to do film.
Danny: There was even a TikTok you showed me the other day—he was on Instagram, as well—that we were like, “Whoa, he’s awesome and could definitely make a film.” I was messaging him like, “Bro, you need to keep doing it.” He is struggling to pay his rent and stuff, because he is trying to live off the TikTok wage. But him getting that audience and sharpening his skills as a filmmaker is awesome.
Michael: And even if there is a platform with a lot of junk, the gold really stands out.
Danny: But I don’t think there is that much junk on TikTok. Everyone’s on TikTok!
Michael: Dan does lots of the twerking vids.
Filmmaker: Perhaps unlike the other examples I listed, you’ve both worked on film sets before, most notably Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Do you think that having experience on a film production before helming your first feature was essential to the success of your shoot, or did you find yourselves relying more on your DIY YouTube ethos?
Michael: A mix of both. Before YouTube, we shoehorned our way onto sets by being volunteers, offering to do jobs for free just to get the experience. A producer I kept doing these free movies for was like, “You can’t just keep doing this stuff for free, Michael.” And I was like, “I wanna be here, I just wanna experience it!” And she said, “I promise the next film I’ll get you will be paid.” And that was The Babadook. Making a film is a long process, so understanding that before going in is definitely a leg up.
Danny: Also, working as a crew member helps you realize and sympathize with their jobs and being in their position. It adds more respect, as well. I wouldn’t trade my set experience for anything. Film sets are the best film school.
Michael: We did jobs with sound, grips, gas, stunts, catering. We did everything.
Danny: We were extras, too. Any chance we had to get onto a set, we would put our hands up.
Michael: What was great about that is that you met people on those sets. In South Australia, it’s quite a small industry, but you meet people that you click with. Like, “Oh, when we do a movie, I’m gonna get them to be on the crew with us,” which we were able to do.
Danny: We had a lot of people that we met while being on sets over the last 10 years that we brought onto Talk To Me, which was so sick.
Filmmaker: I was going to ask how you assembled your crew, but that answers that question.
Michael: Well, there was that, but there were also the really talented makeup girls that we worked with from RackaRacka, Bec Troisi and [Rebecca] Buratto. We came up on YouTube with them and they helped us out. Being able to have them be a part of the film and heads of department was the best thing.
Danny: There was a bit of concern with Bec Buratto, because she hasn’t been head of department of many productions, but we were able to vouch for her. She’s been doing stuff for free for, like, six years.
Michael: She does crazy stuff and makes it look good. Continuing to work with people is the best feeling.
Danny: Finding your squad.
Filmmaker: One of my favorite facts about Talk To Me is that the concept was originally developed by Daley Pearson, who’s a producer on the animated children’s show Bluey. I’ve seen so many clips of that show on TikTok, to bring it full circle a bit. But you’ve previously said that while fleshing out Pearson’s original story, you added more dramatic and serious elements. Can you expand on what those were and why you made that decision, particularly when so much of your YouTube content veers toward humor?
Danny: He did this awesome horror-comedy short and I did a pass [on the script, which would turn into Talk To Me]. I was more interested in narrative [filmmaking] outside of the YouTube stuff, because I wanted to really express myself in a way that I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to—or maybe I was scared to do—on YouTube. So, I was able to work more on characters and a deeper storyline. Me and my co-writer, Bill Hinzman, were able to take that idea and just run with it. There were other projects we were writing that had the characters from Talk To Me, then I was like, “Let’s just put them in this world.” Suddenly, it just had a life of its own and it all fell into place.
Michael: The stuff we make on YouTube is very different to the stuff we like watching as consumers. People watch [our channel] and think we’d like a brainless action-comedy film or something. We like foreign dramas. We don’t like splatter films, we like psychological ones. The stuff that we make [on YouTube] is so fun to make—you get to be creative and ridiculous. But the stuff we like watching is very different.
Filmmaker: Something else the film does really well is depicting teen group dynamics and the ill-advised antics they often foster. I know you’ve been making content for RackaRacka since you were teens yourselves, so I’m curious if these on-screen relationships were inspired by your own experiences at all, or were there outside influences?
Danny: Every single character is inspired by different people. There are characters named after people that I know—James [Oliver], who plays James in the movie, is James who lives down the road from us [laughs]. Everything’s inspired by real experiences, and I think that helps it feel authentic and real. Everything that I’m writing is coming from a really personal place. I just wanted the world to feel as fleshed out and relatable as possible.
Filmmaker: When we sent our annual Sundance Question ahead of this year’s festival, you stated that your seven-week production timeline was whittled down to five, meaning you had to get creative for a certain effects sequence that was going to take multiple days to shoot. What exactly was the “alternative solution” that utilized “old-school editing techniques” you alluded to in your response?
Danny: Initially [for the scene with] Riley in the hospital bed, Mia was going to see him slowly transform into [the demon] Quain. His legs were going to extend, his hair was going to fall out, he was going to age before our eyes.
Michael: We had [an] An American Werewolf in London transformation sequence.
Danny: Our special effects team mapped it all out, and it would’ve been so cool. But that edit of the urine tank filling up with blood and then the sudden cut to him as someone else was stronger for this film. [Up until that point], we based it in reality, and something that extreme maybe would’ve gone too out of that realm. That being said, we always planned on shooting that sequence.
Michael: We didn’t really have time for it, but we were like, “Let’s just shoot it secretly ourselves with the makeup team and maybe that footage would just appear on the editor’s desk somewhere down the line.”
Danny: We called it “ghost unit.”
Michael: But once [Geoff Lamb] edited it, he was like, “Oh, you don’t need it.” So we would’ve gotten it if we thought we needed it, but we really didn’t.
Filmmaker: I want to ask about Australian-specific horror touchstones that may directly or indirectly be in conversation with your film. I see shades of Wake in Fright with the kangaroo imagery; Walkabout similarly deals with young people being left to their own devices amid supernatural occurrences; Wolf Creek in terms of terror and brutality; Lake Mungo as it pertains to teenage grief and the paranormal. I have no idea if these were influences, I’m just a huge fan of Australian horror.
Danny: I’ve not seen much of those films. I’ve seen Lake Mungo, which I really loved, and Wolf Creek, but I didn’t see the other two, so I’m curious to watch those. A lot of Australian films represent country life out in the desert and stuff like that. I think that viewers overseas perceive Australia to just be a desert [laughs]. I really wanted to show the suburbia of Australia and that we live in a normal city like anyone else, you know?
Michael: There was a discussion about [making either an] Australian or American [film], because Australian movies don’t make money.
Michael: So they say. But even with our YouTube channel, we have Australian accents and are Australian, but we’re not making just specifically Australian stuff. We want to make stuff that resonates internationally with everybody. I think that’s the thing with the film as well—whether you’re Australian, American, German or whoever, you can relate to the characters.
Danny: It’s a human story.
Michael: We lean in a little bit. We make our turn on, say, the animal on the side of the road. It is an Australian animal, so we’re leaning into the tropes a bit Australian-wise. But we’re also making something that works worldwide, not just for Australian audiences. And I think it was a challenge to ourselves to be like, “Can we make an Australian film that is international and prove some people wrong?”
Danny: You know, when we cast Sophie, we lost, like, a million [dollars] out of the budget because she wasn’t a [well-known] name. We had to reinvest our fees into the film, and so did our producer, Sam Jennings, from Causeway. Our lawyer was like, “Do not do that. 8% of Australian films make their budget back.” That was the first time I’d ever heard that statistic, and it was horrifying. But we really believed in the product and the team and I was like, “Even if we don’t get our money back, this could be our only chance to make a film.” So, we had to give everything to it and make it the best.
Michael: If I can make it 1% better by doing whatever, I’ll do it. Taking that cut to get Sophie is a win for us. Even [losing] the weeks, I guess we had that YouTuber mentality of, “We can get it done in five weeks.” Even if it was four weeks, we’d get it done!
Danny: Oh, I dunno about that! [laughs]
Filmmaker: There is a lot of shocking, boundary-pushing imagery here: intense harm to children, borderline bestiality, depictions of suicide. Did you ever feel you were taking things too far, or were you confident that audiences would embrace the nasty bits?
Danny: It was actually way toned down.
Michael: You should’ve read the first draft of the script!
Danny: No, you shouldn’t have [laughs]. There was a sequence where Mia goes to hell that [was supposed to go] way further. We knew in the edit, and as we were shooting it, that we couldn’t go that far. I feel like it did cross the line. We hide a bit of that imagery in the [existing] sequence—like flashes of what we originally shot—but it was just too much. I didn’t want to turn into something that was too gratuitous. It felt like torture porn.
Michael: Of course it’s a horror film and you want to have shocking moments, but we want those moments to be earned, not lingering on them, being gratuitous for the sake of it. We didn’t want to just be a splatter film. If you watch our YouTube stuff, you know, we could make these scenes go for 15 times as long. We could have really gone there, but what’s the amount that’s right for the film?
Danny: But hearing the audiences, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, we did push a line.” I like treading that line. I like that we’re able to push that, and a horror film is the best genre to do that in because the audiences seem really open and willing. So it was never a boundary of “too far,” I guess. It was always a boundary of, “Does it feel like torture porn and are we staying true to the characters in the story?”
Filmmaker: Your next step as directors, at least the last I heard, is ostensibly to direct the film adaptation of Street Fighter, which certainly feels like a fantastic fit considering your experience with fight choreography and practical effects on RackaRacka. I’m curious, though, if you feel any drive to continue making horror films?
Danny: Well, we don’t know if that will be our next film.
Michael: It’s something that we’re developing. We have many ideas for different films, TV shows and things that we’re working on. We’re so ADHD and we’re bouncing between things.
Danny: And the writers’ strike is on right now, so the work on Street Fighter hasn’t begun yet, but I do have another film that I’ve finished writing already that I’m like, “Okay, when the writers’ strike is finished…” Or however it works, I’m not familiar. I’m so new to this world. But I think we could squeeze in another horror film before anything else.
Michael: We just have so many ideas.
Danny: But one is done!
Michael: It’s like, where do we delegate the time and what makes sense to be next? We have horror films, drama films, a romantic comedy. We’ve got a lot of different things.
Filmmaker: I know you probably don’t want to share anything story-wise, but is there anything you’re particularly excited to explore in the future?
Danny: It’s always the characters that I get excited about. The characters of the film that we’re writing and the films that we’ve been working on. That’s always the thing that excites me the most. I can’t really discuss it, but there’s a character in the new project that I cannot wait to cast and bring this person to life.
Michael: And it’s worlds, you know? Different genres and stories we want to tell in each one. They all are exciting, and we can get lost in each of them. It was the same with Talk To Me. Whichever script catches fire the most is what makes sense for us to do. But the idea of, say, doing Street Fighter with our experience with action is exciting to us. To be able to do that with a proper budget and try to give justice to fans of Street Fighter and also new audiences.
Filmmaker: I remember hearing that Talk To Me took several years to cast. Do you anticipate having that long-term of a production process behind your next film? Or do you think it’ll be a little smoother?
Danny: What really made the casting process elongated was that COVID happened, so everything got postponed. So, we started casting and then we stopped. It was always happening on and off in the background, but it wasn’t like a full on “Let’s find these people.” It was always like, “Is this happening?”
Michael: But it was good, in a way, because then we were able to find Sophie. There were some parts that weren’t clicking 100%, then when we saw Sophie, it was like, “Oh my God. we found her!” Hayley as well and Otis, who played Daniel. There are characters when you see them where it’s like, “That’s it.” We wanted that for each character.
Danny: We had all these people’s names, and then we were switching things around, because originally [Chris Alosio] was going to play Cole, who’s Duckett’s [played by Sunny Johnson] brother. As soon as it all fell into place, it was the most exciting thing ever. I was like, “Oh my God, we have our cast!” I was ringing up our producer and casting director like, “Please tell me they’re available!” Zoe as Hayley was a big thing, where I didn’t want to film the film unless Zoe was available. But everything fell into place so perfectly.
Filmmaker: My last question is about the film’s central prop, the hand that conjures all of these demons. Was there a specific reason why it didn’t get any sort of backstory?
Danny: We had an entire mythology bible we wrote that says the history of the hand, everything that’s written on it. We’ve got everything mapped out. But there’s always the part of a film where I’m bored by the investigation. I find that it’s such a typical part in films, and I switch off when it’s like, “This is the history of this thing and where it came from.”
I really like the idea that the kids are in over their heads and don’t understand what they’re messing with. And the rules [about using the hand] in the film: are they the [actual] rules, or are they just the rules that the kids have made up? I like that the kids are using this homemade bomb as a drug and not understanding what it is they’re touching or what they’re doing.
Michael: The hand does have history, and you’ll see things written on it that allude to Easter eggs. It does have a very strong history, but it’s also about how much the kids would know. Having the kids know everything…I don’t know if we like that.
Danny: Them not knowing how to beat it is horrifying.
Michael: Maybe in the second movie they’ll go to the library and find the newspapers [laughs].
Danny: I definitely would love to expand the mythology more, it just didn’t feel right for this film. Who knows if there will ever be a sequel. But we could expand. We’ll see.
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