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Interview: Directors Danny and Michael Philippou Talk Going From Making YouTube Videos to Making Their Feature-Length Horror Debut, ‘Talk to Me’

July 26, 2023Ben MK

The Australian horror genre is a relatively small, niche sub-genre that has given moviegoers some of the most creatively daring and downright terrifying films the genre as a whole has ever seen. From the supernatural-meets-psychological scares of The Babadook to the serial-killer suspense of Wolf Creek, Aussie filmmakers have proven time and time again that there's so much more to the land down under than just beautiful beaches and cuddly koala bears and kangaroos. And with their terror-filled feature debut, Talk to Me, identical twin brothers and directors Danny and Michael Philippou are continuing that tradition, in this tale about a group of teenagers who unwittingly invite malevolent supernatural forces to wreak havoc on their lives.

I caught up with Danny and Michael Philippou to chat about Talk to Me, from how their experience making short films for their YouTube channel prepared them for making a feature to their filmmaking influences.

You're best known for your YouTube channel, RackaRacka. How do you go from the more fun horror comedy tone of the videos you've made there to the very intense and very creepy vibe of Talk to Me?

Danny Philippou: I always knew that I wanted to create something that could exist outside of RackaRacka. That was specific content made for a specific audience, and I never felt like I could really express myself in a more vulnerable way on there. So I knew I wanted to make Talk to Me to be something that could exist outside of the channel, really. [That] was the main goal. All that YouTube stuff was always building up towards making feature films. Every video that we made was getting us more experience in building up to finally being able to direct a feature film.

Michael Philippou: And the stuff we liked watching was very different to the stuff we were making on YouTube, so we wanted to show a different side of our filmmaking.

And how did your experience of making short films come into play when directing this feature?

Michael Philippou: It was knowing how to compromise and get certain things. Like we had done so much practicing with different techniques [and] things like that. We knew how to pull things off quickly and effectively, so every video was experience that helped us in the feature filmmaking process. Also, we worked on [film] crews before we did YouTube, so we knew our way around a film set, we knew what we were getting ourselves into, and the pace that it moves, so we felt very prepared going into it.

Danny Philippou: Working with the heads of departments, you achieve things that you could never accomplish by yourself. Working with our cinematographer, Aaron McLisky, and our production designer, Bethany Ryan — these people brought an artistry that we just would never have been able to tap into on the YouTube stuff. It's such fun to have all these masterminds put all their efforts into this one vision and this one project. It's powerful.

The premise of the movie is fairly straightforward, but you're able to get so much, both emotionally and thematically, out of it. Where did the idea for Talk to Me originate from?

Danny Philippou: There were these kids that we watched grow up and lived down the road from us, and one of them was having a negative experience from a drug that he was taking. And all the kids that he was with were just filming him and laughing at him as he was convulsing on the floor. So that was footage that I saw [on] Snapchat that really stuck with me. And then there was a short film a guy named Daley Pearson sent to me, about kids that were having fun with possession. So all those things just sort of fell into place, and I was able to write the film.

The film has such a strong sense of confidence, in terms of the style, the tone and the direction. As first-time feature filmmakers, what were some of the filmmaking inspirations that you drew from?

Danny Philippou: I think The Exorcist is a very obvious one, because it's the granddaddy of all possession films — I think maybe the granddaddy of all horror films. And Let the Right One In and The Return, in terms of tone, [and] The Vanishing and then Memories of Murder.

Michael Philippou: Bong Joon-ho, the way he merges genres is amazing, and I love watching his movies. He can go between different emotions within a few minutes, and it still feels of a piece. So we're really big fans of his.

The entire cast was just phenomenal, but especially Sophie Wilde, Joe Bird and Alexandra Jensen, who play Mia, Riley and Jade. Can you talk a bit about their casting and what they brought to the movie?

Danny Philippou: The movie would be nothing without the cast. And it was a very in-depth [process] and [we were] very picky of our cast. It took two years to cast the film, and once we found these people, we knew that they were right straight away. There was no question. It was literally just all off of those audition tapes. And having the room in pre-production to really go through every beat and find the dialog to make sure that it felt right in and out, for them to insert their own personalities. We had a lot more freedom to cast more unknowns because we had cast Miranda Otto. In Australia, that was a bit of a big deal, so that gave us more freedom to cast the unknowns.

Michael Philippou: And then also knowing what they needed to pull off the heavier scenes. 'Cuz everyone has a different way of approaching that stuff [and] getting into that headspace.

Was there a scene in the movie that was especially memorable or challenging to shoot?

Michael Philippou: The montage sequence, because we had two hours to get fifty set-ups. The first AD told us it's mathematically impossible to get all of these shots, but we just said, "Oh, let us just control the set." I think our YouTube energy came into play there, because we had two cameras and a boom box, and we were just riffing with the actors and knocking off all these shots. We got through so much in so little time. And that energy, I think, really translates to the screen. That was so much fun, and those were of course very stressful scenes as well. It felt like we rushed through it, but the performances were so good that we were able to pull it off somehow.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers hoping to break into the industry?

Danny Philippou: To just start and not be embarrassed if the stuff that you make to begin with doesn't feel like it's great, or if you're cringing at it. You learn from every single thing that you do, whether it's writing or it's directing or shooting. Just start, just do it. And then you'll learn.

Michael Philippou: And with writing, just get the idea out of your head and onto the page. I know people that keep an idea in their heads because they're waiting for that moment. Just get it out of your head and onto the page in whatever form, and then you can build on it from there. Like sometimes I'll write without knowing the ending or what the arc is for characters. So yeah, just start, in whatever way that is.

Talk to Me is in theaters July 28th.

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