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‘Talk To Me’ Directors Danny & Michael Philippou Talk Sequel Ideas, Plans For ‘Street Fighter’ Flick, “Twin Telepathy,” Imposter Syndrome In Encounters With Filmmaking Heroes & More – The Deadline Q&A

With their incredibly atmospheric and compelling debut feature Talk to Me, a fairly gory supernatural title out of Australia, twin brother filmmakers Danny & Michael Philippou have set themselves up as the next great A24 success story.

Directed by the duo from Danny’s script written with Bill Hinzman, Talk to Me tells the story of Mia (Sophie Wilde), a teenager grappling with the loss of her mother who gets in over the head, to say the least, when she and her friends begin playing a malevolent party game as a kind of way of getting high. As they sit around a table and whip out their smartphones to record, Mia grips a mysterious ceramic hand, says some magic words and finds her body taken over by an unknown spirit. There was initially interest in making the film at a major U.S. studio. But when the brothers sensed that their vision would be compromised, they stuck to their creative guns and went the indie route. The ultimate incarnation of Talk to Me sparked huge buzz out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a bidding war to go with it, which is where A24 came in.

Joe Bird in Talk to Me

A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

The Philippous have been honing their craft for around a decade with their YouTube channel RackaRacka which has amassed massive, viral viewership, and are now likely to get the chance to steer themselves toward a major career. (They’ve already inked a deal to develop a Street Fighter film for Legendary and have other projects in the works.) Ahead of the release of their first feature, the filmmakers hopped on Zoom with Deadline to discuss how they’re making th most of this pivotal moment in their career, digging into the “mythology bible” they put together for Talk to Me and directions they’ve already mulled taking with a sequel, capturing Australia in a horror pic in a way they hadn’t seen done, doing their own thing with Street Fighter, the importance of “original” films to the health of the industry and them personally, “imposter syndrome” in meeting their filmmaking idols, and more.

DEADLINE: You came to make Talk to Me after spending many years developing your command of stunts, effects and other visual concepts via your YouTube channel RackaRacka, and after working on numerous film sets. But how did you acquire the knowledge of story required to make the jump into features?

DANNY PHILIPPOU: Pretty much analyzing so many other films and consuming so much of it. And, and all the way in the background — not full time, and not seriously — but we were still writing things. Before the YouTube stuff had even taken off, [we] had a short film that… we directed called Deluge about a farmer and his son and a suicide cult, which was more Talk to Me and not RackaRacka. It was like the exact opposite, and I was always scared to upload that to the channel because it felt too different from the YouTube stuff.

MICHAEL PHILIPPOU: I think it’s also surrounding yourself with people smarter than you in their fields. Like, we did a workshop with Samantha Jennings, who produced our film. We had written an outline for a TV show and she gave notes on it, and then you just start learning through them about character development and arcs and things like that. Because usually when we write, we’ll write without an ending in mind, or anything in particular — just scenes and moments and character. And then you board it with our co-writer, [Bill] Hinzman, and people like Sam give notes and help structure it that way.

DEADLINE: How much different was your first draft of the script, given that the image of the ceramic hand that’s so central to the film only emerged on your second pass?

DANNY: The essence [was] there, the characters were there. Those set pieces were there, whether it was like the dog scene, or the headbutt scene, and the hospital stuff. So all that stuff was there, and then…

MICHAEL: …It was a lot more cutthroat. It was a lot more violent.

DANNY: But through that process, [the goal was to] not let it feel exploitative and really find that line. Because we knew we didn’t want to make a splatter film; we didn’t want to make it too extreme, and the first draft was probably a bit more extreme.

DEADLINE: You’re part of a movement these days of artists coming to mainstream cinema from platforms like YouTube. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for creatives looking to launch careers through these channels?

MICHAEL: There’s a weird stigma that comes with being a YouTuber. Especially when you want to transition to anything else, it’s like you get branded as a YouTuber. But YouTube’s a platform to share your content internationally at the click of a button. And any director, I feel like, from generations ago, if they had YouTube, they’d be using it to upload because it’s kind of a no-brainer to get to access different parts of the world.

DANNY: Even George Miller told us that he’d [have been] on YouTube if it was available to him.

DEADLINE: How did you land on the powerful, specific visual of the ceramic hand at the heart of your story?

DANNY: That was our awesome conversations, even at the concept art level, looking at different variations and trying to figure out what the strongest version was. And then a really hands-on, super detailed thing with our production designer, Bethany Ryan, about making it come to life. She was pivotal, doing so many different molds, and looking at different shapes, and trying to find what was mobile and easy to access for the actors. Initially, it was on a wooden board, and it was nailed to it. But then we found the weighted base throughout…that collaboration with those heads of departments.

MICHAEL: I remember the concept art, there was like 12 completely different types. And one just stuck out, in particular.

DEADLINE: You initially looked at setting up Talk to Me with an entity other than A24, but went your own way after balking at some of their notes or proposals, including a change of setting. It’s hard to imagine the idea of taking this film out of Australia when that setting is part of what really makes it work.

DANNY: Yeah. It was just sort of getting inklings that maybe [the companies] weren’t going to want to shoot it. We knew that we weren’t going to have final cut, we wouldn’t have final say on cast. And they were just giving some creative notes, which by the way, weren’t bad. They were just sort of in a direction that we didn’t feel like we could tell that story, or that story had been told before. We really wanted to stick by what we’d written initially and didn’t want to overdevelop it. We know what the mythos was…So, our producer, Sam, made us feel really safe and secure about stepping away from it. But it was a very tough decision, and they were seriously the nicest people. I hate to make it look like we’re sh*t-talking them. [Laughs]

DEADLINE: What did you hope to capture, as far as Australian youth culture?

MICHAEL: Our experience of most Australian horror films is The Outback, and that’s not how we perceive Australia at all. You know how they say seven of the 10 most dangerous creatures [live] in Australia? We haven’t seen any of them. [Laughs] We’re in the cities where it’s just a very different look that I haven’t seen captured in too many films. So, it just felt natural. And also just the dialect. If we were going to change it to American, it might’ve felt false or not right in some way.

DANNY: We grew up and know those voices that are around us. We captured the people around us and captured their voices. And I just don’t know how it would’ve translated in America because I don’t know that many American young people or anything like that.

MICHAEL: It was just trying to be as authentic as possible, because that’s the world we know and understand. That’s what was what most comfortable to shoot.

DEADLINE: How did you figure out the rules that would govern encounters with the supernatural in this cinematic world? It seems like that aspect of the writing process must have been fun.

DANNY: The really fun part was doing our mythology bible, which breaks down every spirit that the kids connected with, why they’re connecting with them, all the people that have had the hand, where the hand came from, what the actual rules are. I think like with any sort of drug, everyone’s body reacts differently to the same thing, and one person’s experience may not exactly be the other person’s experience. And I knew that we wanted the phrases that the kids are saying to the hand to really be tied thematically to what that character’s going through. Like, “Talk to me. I’m lonely. I need someone to talk to, and I’m letting you into my body. Whether it be drugs or alcohol or sex, and whether or not you’re bad to me, I’m letting you in and using you as a crutch. I’m connecting to this unnatural thing to feel good.” So, we just tried to really ground it in the characters.

MICHAEL: Working on a strong backstory, even for characters, it just makes it more exciting when you’re writing. If you’ve put effort into the backstory and why these characters are crossing paths, it’s just so much more fulfilling and dynamic.

DEADLINE: Were there specific tricks you employed to give the film such visceral atmosphere?

DANNY: I think that with the possession sequences specifically, we knew that the camerawork wanted to feel different — like astral projection and like the camera is tied to the spirit that’s embodying the kids. And it’s sort of tied to the movement that the spirit is doing around the room.

MICHAEL: The sound design, as well, because there’s so much you can do through sound. It was so awesome working on the sound design with Emma Bortignon, creating specific feels for each of the possessions. There’s so much effort that we put into the soundscape. It’s tied to the way [spirits] died, to [character] themes. There’s a lot of that with the sound and the music.

DEADLINE: Was it challenging to find actors who could not only embody a depth of emotion for this film, but also so effectively channel the experience of possession?

DANNY: Well, it was two years of casting — due to Covid, as well. But we got to really comb through different auditions and find the people that were right. A lot of kids were able to capture the dramatic elements of it, but then the possession side of it, they were sort of struggling with. But Joe [Bird] came into the room and did that possession in front of us. He just sat in front of us and started doing it, and we’re like, “We need someone that already is there and can already pull it off.” The directing is just heightening that, but you need someone that has that talent and skill already.

MICHAEL: Also, patience [was required], because there were a lot of prosthetics…

DEADLINE: What is it like having a twin brother director? How much did simply having each other to lean on help you through the learning curve of your directorial debut?

MICHAEL: I feel like it’s a cheat code in film if you have someone who has the same vision as you because creating a film is such a mammoth task. Being able to delegate tasks and split the load a bit…Like with YouTube, Danny would do a rough cut, I’d do fine cut. Danny would’ve filmed it; I would be in front of the camera and do sound effects and music. Danny would do VFX and color, so we kind of learned doing that on the YouTube stuff and worked with those departments one the film, as well. You know, if it’s one person doing all of it, like Spielberg, god. My hat’s off to them because it’s so difficult doing a film.

DANNY: It’s like you’ve grown up together. We’ve made stuff together for so long, so there is a weird shorthand and a united vision, and twin telepathy. [Laughs]

DEADLINE: Were there aspects to the feature filmmaking process that surprised you in their level of difficulty?

MICHAEL: It was mainly in post. It was the music. That was the most difficult. The shoot itself, because it was supposed to be an eight-week shoot and it dropped down to five, that was difficult. But we had such an amazing cast and crew that were dedicated…

DANNY: …And when we ran, they ran.

MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s funny. When you’re in the storm, you don’t really realize…I remember we had a friend come and film everyday behind the scenes, and when you look at that back and the problems, it’s like I have no idea how we pulled it off and got the whole film. Genuinely…

DEADLINE: Why was getting the film’s music together so hard?

MICHAEL: I’m so particular with music, and I can’t even explain technically why I feel certain things are the right feeling, or whatever. But I can show you through sound and music. So, I did a really in-depth temp score of the whole film using a whole bunch of different things. The composer was going to stick close to that, but then went off in a different direction, and it felt like a different film.

DANNY: But it was edited to certain musical beats, as well. We were constantly editing while we were on set, and it was always edited to these temp scores. And then when the music came in and was not hitting these beats and it went off in a different direction, it just felt like it wasn’t right.

MICHAEL: Yeah. Then, we did the mix and tried to make it work, and it was genuinely really stressful. Then, we had to get a second go at the music and another mix. When we first played it back and the music didn’t work, it was supposed to be finished that day and the tickets went on sale for the Adelaide premiere in Australia. And I was like, “We’ve got no music. We’ve got no film here. I don’t know what we’re going to do.” So that’s where having an awesome producer, Samantha Jennings, was [critical]. She was like, “We’re so close to finish line. Let’s not fumble this now. Let’s finish this properly and do the music again.”

DANNY: Poor Michael broke down crying in the music suite. [Laughs]

DEADLINE: You’ve said you’re very game for a sequel to Talk to Me if A24 is interested, having in fact written out ideas for the sequel while working on the film. How did you come to the decision to actively go even deeper in your exploration of this world at the time?

DANNY: Because I was writing it for so long and we were redrafting and redrafting, you just can’t help but start writing other scenes, scenes of different people experiencing the hands, continuing on these characters’ story. So, there’s scenes for a sequel, yeah. And if A24 want it, I’ll bloody give it to them. [Laughs]

MICHAEL: When you’re writing and you know, say, the ending — and it’s not just specific to Talk to Me; I think it’s everything that we write — you think of the scenes after. What are the characters going to do after? How they’re going to interact after the climax. So you always just naturally write, even though you’re like, “Oh, this is probably a bit rough.” [Laughs] But it’s just fun because you love the characters and can just keep going.

DANNY: You take one for a walk and see where it goes.

DEADLINE: You anticipate that a sequel could center on an entirely new set of characters?

MICHAEL: What do you think? Do you reckon we should do a new story or continue?

DEADLINE: That’s a tough one… the Stranger Things one-off dilemma. Though this world does seem ripe for future exploration through new stories.

DANNY: That is the stressful thing because I’m super proud about both [the original and the sequel scenes].

DEADLINE: It seems like the industry is pivoting back in the direction of originals, having recognized between franchise fatigue, the ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon, and other circumstances that this is perhaps what audiences want now. If studios insist on doing franchises, perhaps a homegrown, fresh one like a potential Talk to Me franchise is the one to explore, rather than a continuing of the long ongoing. What do you think?

DANNY: That’s the most exciting thing, is an original story, and not not having to hit certain beats. I’m really excited by the idea of creating more original work. We’ve got another script that we finished called Bring Her Back, which is another original horror film that I’m so excited to do.

MICHAEL: You get these opportunities for these awesome redos of films…With YouTube we’re able to get a lot of the small ideas out of our head. But we’ve got a lifetime of stories and original concepts that we want to do. I’d more inclined, I really want to do mainly original stuff. We got signed on to develop Street Fighter, which has an amazing lore, characters and world. But then we have so many original ideas. The only thing about them is when they get in your head, some stick around and they won’t leave your head till you make them.

DEADLINE: To expand on this last point, what exactly do you feel the industry needs now, at a time of such uncertainty over its future?

MICHAEL: It’s interesting; I’ll just speak from my experience with it. This whole world now of releasing a film and box office and performance, all this stuff, this is so alien to us. We’re used to just making the thing, it’s finished, and we click upload. Even when we read up on past films and stuff, I never read the opening weekend or how it performed. I just read the reception and critic reviews and things like that. It’s all telling the story and trying to make the best story possible, and then the thing that comes after it, I have no idea. So, this whole past four months has been so new to us.

DANNY: So we’re definitely the wrong person to ask. [Laughs]

MICHAEL: I just hope that we’ll get the opportunity to keep creating our original stories. Because that’s what’s in us.

DANNY: I’m also also open to book adaptations, I’ll say. I’m excited about some book adaptations, too.

DEADLINE: The success of this film has led to you connecting with a number of filmmaking idols, from the aforementioned George Miller to Jordan Peele, Ari Aster and others who have expressed admiration of your work. What has the experience been like?

DANNY: Literally every time was just us fanboying the whole time. [Laughs]

MICHAEL: It’s interesting. It’s like, you know when you look at old pictures of all these great filmmakers in the past, all these iconic directors meeting and talking to each other? Seeing those people, in general, now, that you admire and you grew up watching, actually having a conversation with them, especially being from Australia where it’s so separated from the entertainment world… Like, we’re on the other side of the planet and it’s a not film [culture] at all. To have those people see your film and like your film and then actually meet and talk to you, it is really surreal. It feels like I’m kind of interfering with history, in a way. [Laughs] It’s like, “We shouldn’t be in a conversation with these guys. Why are we at dinner with Sam Raimi and getting a call with Jordan Peele?” The imposter syndrome is massive.

DANNY: How awesome that they’re all nice people and then everyone’s like, “Oh, don’t meet your heroes.” We’ve met so many of them now, and they’re all f***ing awesome.

DEADLINE: We sort of circled around this question earlier, but how do you negotiate your next steps in the industry when there is such a focus on linking up breakout indie directors with franchises or IP for massive tentpoles? While that route can obviously work, we’ve certainly seen that it doesn’t for everyone. How are you going to look to ensure, in other words, that no matter the kinds of projects you take on, you wind up creatively fulfilled?

DANNY: Just with those conversations with the studio. With Street Fighter, Legendary, [it appears] that they’re going to let us take control and really do our thing with it. It’s very exciting. And so it’s just about negotiating how many cooks are going to be in this kitchen and how much freedom we’re going to have.

MICHAEL: We just want, if you see a film that comes out by us, to know that we’ve put a hundred percent into it, and that it’s ours, and that it’s not like we’re just jumping on something for a paycheck or something like that. We want to make stuff that we’re really passionate about and put everything into it. That’s what we want. So, we’ve been offered stuff, but it’s like you want to stick [with] stuff that you know you’re going to want to be dedicated to doing for the next few years and putting your all into it.

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