Interview: Filmmakers (and Twin Brothers) Danny and Michael Philippou Talk Horror Mythology and Messages, and What Film to Make Next

The Australian-born, twin-brother filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou have spent the better part of the last decade making memorable and successful horror short films for YouTube under the collective banner RackaRacka. But the new A24 release Talk To Me marks the first time the brothers have released a feature-length film, and it’s something of a doozy. Part haunted-object scary movie, part possession tale, part emotionally driven ghost story, Talk To Me takes place in the world of reckless teenagers who think nothing can hurt them, let alone cause their demise.

The film centers on Mia (Sophie Wilde), whose mother passed away years earlier, though the pain still lingers. Her father isn’t really taking part in her life, leaving her to spend more and more time with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother Sue (Miranda Otto). But when the three friends show up to a teen party, a mysterious porcelain hand and forearm mounted on a block of wood is the centerpiece of the evening. When you grab the hand and say the right words, a ghost will supposedly enter your body and communicate with others in the room. You can only do this for 90 seconds at a time (or the ghosts want to stay permanently). All the other teens film these creepy encounters, but everyone seems to be having a great time, almost like getting high—once you do it, you want to do it again immediately.

Things go sideways fast, with Mia staying under for too long, while Riley is severely injured when he finally gets to try it out. The incident sends a rift between the friends and between Mia and Jade’s whole family. The film is the complete package in many ways, giving us emotional content surrounding the death of Mia’s mother (believed to have been a suicide), as well as big, terrifying moments. It’s also about a young woman re-examining her friendships, since every bad thing that happens in this movie happens during one of these parties.

I had the chance to sit down with the Philippou brothers during a recent stop in Chicago, and we walked through the process of coming up with the story of Talk To Me as well as some of the movie’s ideas and messages, and coming up with the scariest moments and images. They are two of the friendliest blokes on the planet, and they have the exact same voice, making transcribing this interview a true dream. Please enjoy our conversation.

You’ve taken something as innocent and comforting and romantic as hand holding, and you’ve ruined it. I think a film like Smile did something similar—took something you would never be scared of and made me desperate to avoid it. Were you looking for something that had no evil attachment to it in order to make it evil?

Danny Philippou: As a metaphor for things, it was such a reoccurring motif all the way through the original draft of the script. And when we were looking at what the horror object would be, it was so crazy how evident hands were and human connection was through the material, so it just felt right, and we found that in the second or third draft, and it felt like it had been there all along.

Michael Philippou: It wasn’t purposeful to ruin hand holding for people , but it was so cool seeing people bringing handmade hands to the screening.

I also love that you don’t really explain the history of this thing. If you make sequels, don’t ever explain it. Knowing where something comes from doesn’t usually make it scarier.

MP: Oh no, you’ve ruined Danny’s sequel idea .

But in your heads, do you know where it comes from?

MP: Our mythology bible is so thick; we have so many details, everything is broken down, every single element of the hand is in there. We definitely know where it came from.

Can you give us some hints?

MP: We’ve planted little seeds in the film.

DP: There are things written on the hand. And every spirit the kids connect to is done for a reason. That’s all written in the mythology bible.

The opening of the film is so strong. I’ve seen it twice, and I sat in just to see how the crowd reacted to the beginning last night. And it feels like a short film, which is where your roots are in horror. Did you see the importance of starting strong right out of the gate, getting the crowd unnerved. Tell me about constructing that opening.

DP: Yeah, it was something we didn’t have straight away; it came later on in the drafts. But we definitely wanted to pull the audience into the film and have something that revealed something new around every corner.

MP: But also, it’s a party horror film, and it felt right to start with a party. And there's a big one toward the end of the film, and we wanted to have that moment at the start of the film as well to bookend it.

You also have this incredible tag at the end that gives us a clue where things might be going next. Was that always the end?

DP: What happens to the character was always the end, but the exact ending we found drafts and drafts in. That’s the fun of writing, bouncing ideas back and forth with my co-writer Bill Hinzman, and letting the story unfold and letting elements progressively get stronger. It was just something we found in the writing process.

It feels like which spirits end up showing up is random, but you’re giving me the impression that it’s not random.

DP: Yeah, it’s not random.

The second time I saw the film, I was really struck by the kangaroo scene at the beginning, where Mia finds a dying kangaroo at the side of the road but doesn’t have the stomach to put it out of its misery. And I really wondered why that scene was so important. Can you talk about the significance of that moment?

DP: Yeah, it’s a very big thing and very telling about Mia’s mental state, and the kangaroo is very metaphorical for a bunch of different things.

MP: Even the way it’s shot pays off later in the film. We’re hinting at things that come later, and I like that audiences who are re-watching are able to piece those things together. I like that some people aren’t getting it the first time around, but if they watch it again, they start to notice things.

DP: Like you did, you picked up something like that on a second viewing. That’s amazing.

Honestly, I’d forgotten the scene. I saw it six months ago at Sundance the first time, but when I saw it again recently, I remember how much that moment struck me. And it’s not only a great moment but one that is uniquely Australian.

MP: There aren’t too many places where you’ll see that specific animal dying on the side of the road .

There are parallels to what these kids are doing with the hand and taking drugs. They are getting a rush from doing this, and they keep wanting to do it again. That party montage scene feels like something we’d see in a teen comedy. Do you see those parallels?

DP: I think vices in general, sure. The hand can easily represent any vice, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex, and that’s even tied into the phrases they say when they grab the hand: “I let you in.” I’m letting you into my life, my body. Whether or not you’re good or bad for me, you’re leaning into those things when you’re desperate or broken; it’s a sad thing, I think. That sequence was important to us because it shows the thrill and fun of it. Why do these kids want to keep doing this? That was so much fun to shoot.

I waited the whole film for that hand to grab someone back, and as far as I could see, it didn’t. Again, was there ever a moment where it might have?

MP: If you look very closely when Mia first does it, you do see it very slightly grab back. We didn’t want it to be too fantastical or over the top; we wanted that to be very subtle, but it’s there.

Everyone who does it reacts like it has grabbed them, but the hand is mostly immobile.

MP: Or is it? {laughs]

In it’s own unique way, the film fits nicely into this current trend of trauma-based horror. Most of these kids are going through things, especially Mia, so it feels very vulnerable. Is this a personal film for the two of you?

DP: Oh my god, yeah. One big thing is that mental illness is such a big thing in our family. We lost our grandmother to suicide, and our mom deals with pretty deep depression. There’s always that fear, since it runs in our family, that we’ll succumb to that same sort of fate. When I was writing, I was tapping into the therapeutic aspects of it. I was always tapping into things that scared me personally, that being among them. Every single horror scene is based on some sort of fear of mine; I just wanted to express myself and be personal and vulnerable with the script.

One of the ways it felt very vulnerable was in the way you visualize Mia’s relationship with her father, whom we see out of focus initially and then in the dark, and he becomes clearer to us the more he becomes a part of her life. How deliberate was that?

DP: Yeah yeah, Mia has a home away from home with Jade’s family, and she’s not dealing with issues at home with her own dad. She’s at a distance with him. And even with the lighting and set design, there’s a big difference between her house and Jade’s house. Her house feels cold and distant, so I wanted to show that she wasn’t connecting at home with her dad.

I imagine to some degree, I’m guessing that making shorts for YouTube prepared you to take on your first feature. I’m curious to know in what ways it did not prepare you. Were there things in this process that perhaps caught you off guard?

MP: We were lucky enough that we’d worked on films before YouTube, so we understood what we were getting ourselves into. If there was a big thing we weren’t prepared for, it was the post-production music process. That was tough to navigate. It was very difficult to find the sound, but we did in the end, which is awesome. But there was a big chunk of time where it wasn’t working. For the next film, if there’s a lesson going forward, it’s going to be to have that music process involvement earlier. We want it to be engrained into the script. We don’t want to be at the end and go “Alright, put music on now.” Why not find that sound earlier and have that as part of the pre-production?

DP: We were editing on set between shoot days, or between takes sometimes, so to be able to play that music on set would be so strong for the next film.

The other thing I realized the second time around is that Mia needs to do a serious re-evaluation of her friendships going forward. A bunch of them are certifiable assholes.

DP: Yep!

Are you prepared for some people not to like these kids at various point?

MP: I think that part of the fun of it. We’re Australians, and people are very brutal with each other, and there is a bit also a bit of love in the air with some of the characters who are butting heads. In high school, kids can be so cruel; it’s just a part of that group, and it feels very real to us.

DP: Yeah, I empathize with all of the characters . I’m in love with how toxic Hayley is.

The actor who plays Hayley is amazing; there’s nothing false about them.

DP: Zoe was the first person we cast. Their audition was so powerful. They’re non-binary in real life, and so we let them adapt themselves. We let every single one of those actors embody those character and bring them to themselves; it’s so awesome.

You also have Miranda Otto in this, who feels like Australian royalty. How excited were you to get her in this?

DP: Oh yeah. Dude, even having her allowed us to cast more of the unknowns and get us more freedom when it came to casting. It was a bit daunting at first because it was like “Who are we to direct Miranda Otto?” But she was so open and warm and wanted to collaborate, which was awesome. Speaking to her was like speaking to a family member; we loved having her on set, and she matched the energy really well. She was incredible.

I’m sure you’ve been asked about the pressure of putting out your first film, and I’m sure you’re beginning to realize that the real pressure comes with your second film, because that’s where you prove you aren’t just a flash in the pan.

MP: For sure. We’ve been told that the second film is more important than the first. We’re trying to not let it freak us out too much, and just go with the flow. We’ve got ideas that we think are right for the next film, and we’re trying to not be afraid.

DP: If we think about it too much, I’m afraid it will make us not want to pull the trigger on the second film. It’s kind of like this film; we didn’t go into it thinking it was going to hit a particular audience. We had no idea; we just made something that we wanted to make, and whatever audience embraced it, we’d be happy for that. We’ll keep that same mentality going forward.

MP: But even going into production on the first film, there’s always self-doubt and you’re over-thinking things, but that’s just part of it.

But I’m guessing getting picked up by A24 out of Sundance alleviated some of that anxiety.

MP: You wouldn’t believe it. It’s so insane. I couldn’t think of a better outcome. If I think of a dream scenario, this would be it. I’m so thankful.

Do you an idea of what you might do next? And is it related to Talk to Me?

DP: I’ve got a finished script. It’s not related, not right now. The next film won’t be a sequel, I don’t think. We got another film called Bring Her Back, and I’d love to make that next. It’s also a horror film.

Yeah, please don’t stop making those just yet.

DP: With the YouTube stuff, it was good to get our smaller idea out there into the world, but we have a whole lifetime of feature film ideas that we haven’t been able to tell you. We have so many stories we want to tell, in different genres as well, so we’re really excited get moving on those. Let’s go!

Do you even consider getting involved in an existing franchise, or do you want to get doing self-generated stories?

DP: We have a lot of original ideas still, but if the feeling is right, I want to jump into the middle of something that has so many previous films that we’d have to stick to all of these pre-established rules; we’d definitely have to do it.

Do you have one in mind, with a take on it no one has thought of?

DP: We’re attached to develop Street Fighter now. It’s a game I’ve always loved, and it has such a rich lore to it with all of the characters. That’s been really exciting to look into. And the idea of having a studio budget to do a crazy action film, that’s exciting to us.

MP: We’d love to put together some never-before-seen set pieces. We love action as well, so we’ll see.

Guys, thank you so much. Best of luck with this.

DP: I’m really glad you watched it twice, that’s amazing. Thanks so much.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.