Sundance 2023 Interview: Danny and Michael Philippou on Taking Fate Into their Own Hands in “Talk to Me”

“You’re not being weird. You just need to loosen up,” a friend tells Mia (Sophie Wilde) at a party in “Talk to Me,” a typical teenage bacchanal where liquor flows freely yet it’s nowhere near strong enough to help the young woman who’s just lost her mother join the fun. It’s been a few weeks, so it seems like getting back into the world would be a good idea for Mia, one that she’s not opposed to when her bestie Jade (Alexandra Jensen) hauls her out for the evening, but while she’s prepared to be around people again, what she couldn’t have anticipated is the game that they play, involving the plaster cast of a hand that casts a momentary possessory spell over anyone who shakes hands with it.

Michael and Danny Philippou, the twin brothers who rose to fame on YouTube under the moniker RackaRacka by adding sly VFX touches to already outrageous adolescent exploits, do well not to delve too much into the mythology behind the hand or how it made its way to the basement where Mia first comes into contact with it as drunken buddies egg her on, and like their videos, get at something relatable even as the supernatural takes hold when Mia curiously enjoys having her body inhabited by someone else’s soul for a time, giving her a much-needed break from her own pain, no matter how strange and disparate from her the character is that takes over her corporeal form.
This refreshing feeling extends to “Talk to Me” overall where the skin of a shock thriller is delicately placed over a tender drama with a big beating heart when Mia is hardly alone in her grief in Australia where loneliness appears all over the streets, and like others, Mia seems unaware of what to do with it all at her age, even with all the support in the world around her as Jade’s mother (Miranda Otto) and younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) readily take her in as another member of the family. While possession at first seems like a relieving escape for Mia, it becomes increasingly dangerous emotionally when it puts her back in contact with her mother, or whatever version of her exists in the hereafter, and the Philippous fuse their impressive penchant for wirework, often yanking people across the room or the sky, with a wrenching character study in which Mia is threatened to be torn apart by all her conflicting emotions.
Global domination is nigh with “Talk to Me” set to premiere in Sundance’s Midnight section, following by bows at Berlinale and SXSW to come and amidst a crazy time for the brothers, the dynamic duo generously spared a few minutes to talk about making the leap to the big screen, the unexpected emotional undercurrents that make its shocks all the more reverberant and pulling off its remarkable opening tracking shot set at a house party.

From what I understand, you’ve worked on a lot of scripts that you pulled ideas from, but you sparked to a story idea Daley Pearson had – how did those things coalesce into “Talk to Me”?

Danny Philippou: Daley had a short film idea that he presented to me and I loved the idea of kids using demonic possession to get high. He wrote a short film and then he passed it to me and then I did a pass, and then I just couldn’t stop writing. As soon as I was in that world, I couldn’t get out of it. Within two weeks, I had the first draft, which was about 80 pages and then I linked up with our co-writer Bill Hinzman and we collaborated and then got [the production company] Causeway on board and continued development.

Michael Philippou: And that was before there was a hand in it as well. But we have about 15 different things that we’re working on, so [“Talk to Me”] takes bits from each one [because we felt] whatever makes the best first film.

Danny Philippou: Yeah, from multiple projects, there’ll be secrets or scenes or locations or characters that I’m in love with and it’s about taking those elements that I love from the different parts and just trying to make this big ultimate project, [which is] the way that we usually work.

Michael Philippou: Now we have lots of holes in our other scripts.

I’m already looking forward to see how you’ll fill them in future films. Were there things that you had always wanted to try, but waiting for something of this scale to pull them off?

Danny Philippou: All of the RackaRacka stuff was always training for us — we’re obsessed with doing things practically, whether it’s stunts or special effects makeup, so all that experience helped this and we knew how we’d shoot certain sequences or pull off certain effects. Even the final sequence was always something that’s lived in my head for ages. There’s a lot of stuff like that.

Michael Philippou: But what we were excited to explore or thinking about is more character and story [which] we weren’t really able to explore with YouTube. That was exciting to us — to be able to create a script that’s layered and works on many different levels, doing that blend of genres seamlessly.

Danny Philippou: Yeah, because there were no scripts for RackaRacka. It was always just go on a location [with] a rough idea. It was never a muscle that we tried to flex or tried to explore, so it was amazing to be able to do it finally [with] “Talk To Me.”

Michael Philippou: There’s no three dimensional characters in “Nerf War 3.” [laughs]

Usually, you had to be the stars of the YouTube videos as well. Was it exciting to be able to step back and work with other actors?

Danny Philippou: It was heaven. Every time our casting agent brought through a bunch of new audition tapes, it was just the most exciting feeling, just exploring and finding people and you know straight away when you found the character. There’s this amazing moment where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, there they are.” It’s thrilling. And then seeing what they can bring to it is a whole other aspect.

Michael Philippou: Ever since we were kids, we were used to just dragging friends and family members— people who don’t want to act — just do this for us, so getting people that are actually passionate and want to act and give them a character was the most amazing experience. We loved the rehearsals and workshopping with the actors and then helping them bring it to life. They just bring a uniqueness and a special tone to it that we don’t get when we’re just trying to act ourselves or get our friends to do it.

Danny Philippou: Yeah, once the actors were there, we were able to sit down and really flesh out their characters and figure out their backstory and make the world feel super lived in. And Michael, you can talk about your little curve balls.

Michael Philippou: We were with a drama coach and I was like, “I love that idea where you’re doing rehearsals and you tell one actor to change things up a little bit in a scene [where] if they’re walking in the door, don’t let them walk in the door. Change things on the spot where one actor knows the other one doesn’t, and then seeing them play off each other and it keeps it fresh because they’re expecting one thing and then another thing happens and then they’ve got to react in the moment. There’s something about that that’s special, so we’d do that a lot on set. Even [takes] that we know we’re not going to use, we just tell them, just do something funny.

Danny Philippou: There would be times [where] I’m like, “We’re behind [schedule].” But Michael would throw these curve balls that would add nothing to the plot or the film, but it was just funny for him to do.

Michael Philippou: It was important.

I understand one curveball was that Sophie actually came in for the role of Haley and ended up as Mia. What sold you on her?

Danny Philippou: Just her range and the strength of that audition. We just knew it wasn’t right for Hayley, but the audition itself was so powerful, we [thought], what would happen if we tested her as Mia? Because initially we were looking for a bit of a name for Mia. But once we saw the audition, we were sold on her and Sam, our producer, was sold on her, so we just fought for her. And luckily everyone agreed. Now, she’s going to be a star we think for sure.

Michael Philippou: She already is. That’s what was awesome, having her when we were casting the other actors to bounce off because she was the [constant] and casting took a long time…

Danny Philippou: Two years.

Michael Philippou: Yeah, even [for] Riley. Joe auditioned two years ago when he was 12, and now that he’s 14, it was like two different kids. I didn’t realize it was the same person.

Danny Philippou: Joe had [also] auditioned for a different character and we saw the strength of that audition and it was the samesituation where the strength of that audition, even if it’s for a different character, shines through.

Michael said earlier the hand wasn’t in the initial idea for the story. How did it make its way in?

Michael Philippou: The film’s all about connections, real and false, and so Mia is rejecting the genuine connections and attracted to these false connections and the hand is a physical representation of that. It’s all about touch – that’s why there’s a lot of that in the movie.

Danny Philippou: When I was 16, I got into a bit of a brutal car accident where they thought maybe my spine was broken and my head was bleeding excessively. I went to the hospital and I couldn’t stop shaking. They were giving me blankets and warming up my bed and nothing would stop me from shaking, and my sister visited me and she held my hand. Just her touch stopped everything, and it wasn’t because I was cold. It was because I was in shock. The touch of a loved one and a genuine connection between people, whatever it was, stopped my whole body from shaking and it calmed me down and grounded me, so that moment always stuck with me. The connection of someone that you love can be such a powerful thing.

I was surprised by the emotion that’s in there. Did you feel even though it’s a thrill ride that this had that capability in there?

Danny Philippou: Yeah. There’s so many scenes in the film that are so vulnerable and real and it’s embarrassing to watch [for us]. There’s one scene in particular, every time I watch it, I cry. Because it’s so personal and I can’t believe it’s on the screen and people are watching it. The whole thing is very exposing.

Michael Philippou: There’s a lot of tears in the pages.

This might’ve brought tears in another way, but that huge house party at the beginning of the film looks like a bear to pull off, particularly as one long tracking shot. What was that day of shooting like?

Michael Philippou: It was the very last shot of the film, and it was 3 am when we started shooting it. We did 10 takes, we had hundreds of people there and we felt it evolve and get better as we went on, [which] was awesome to see. We were in overtime at that point, so [we’d tell our producer] Sam, “Just one more. We’ve almost got it.” Because there was just so much going on in it. But [because] it was the end of the day, when we got it, everyone was happy and it was also the end of the movie, so it was this added special thing that when we got it, everyone at the party exploded, and we all started partying [for real].

Danny Philippou: And what was so amazing was having everyone there that we built up — so many family and friends were there, and we did call outs on our socials for our fans to come join. Everyone came there and no one was getting paid. They wanted to be part of it, help us with this scene. It was such a beautiful, magical, wholesome moment.

“Talk to Me” opens on July 28th.

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