Australian filmmaking siblings Danny and Michael Philippou, perhaps better known as YouTube sensations RackaRacka, know a thing or two about horror. In fact, they have parlayed their love of the genre into their first feature film, Talk To Me, which has gone down a storm with genre fans.
The movie, on release now via Altitude Entertainment, updates the classic Monkey's Paw principle of being careful what you wish for. The story revolves around a viral social media ritual that involves clinging to a disembodied, seemingly possessed hand, which appears to put the subjects in direct contact with the dead and allows lost souls to take over their bodies.
When grieving young woman Mia (a strong performance from Sophie Wilde) participates in order to reach out to her late mother, she cannot anticipate the terror she's about to bring down on her own head. The ensuing mayhem is all but guaranteed to tingle the spine and make viewers jump out of their skin, so how did the Philippou brothers manage this and end up conjuring this summer's breakout horror hit?
The following interview covers the inspirations, themes and challenges lurking behind this ghoulish big-screen treat.
Lovely to talk to you guys. Are you standing up to the Barbenheimer onslaught?
[both laugh] Michael: In our minds, we are! We're right up there with them.
So I saw this movie at a preview screening, sitting next to a colleague who isn't a fan of horror movies and he near-enough soiled himself. And I think that's the highest compliment I can pay to the film.
[laughter] Michael: We're really glad to hear that.
Do you sit with audiences and observe their reactions while they're watching the movie?
Danny: All the time. We sit there and take note of what beats are hitting. It's so fascinating.
Michael: We don't do that while we're in the process of making the movie. While we were making it, we watched it with, like, 10 people and only once, I think. To see if things were landing and stuff. In Hollywood, they do screeners while they're editing but we didn't do that. [laughs]
Danny: We have been sitting in on the recent screenings around the world.
Michael: You learn so much from watching, which is great.
I love that the film is supernatural in its approach. I've always enjoyed stories in that realm and I appreciate the heritage that's running in the background of the movie. Was it inspired by a particular urban legend?
Danny: It was all inspired by personal experiences. The hand was inspired by a car accident that I was in when I was 16. I was in a car crash and I split the top of my eye open and the doctors had suspected that I'd also fractured my spine.
I was in the hospital afterward and I couldn't physically stop shaking. The doctors were trying to do everything they could to get me warm but I just couldn't stop trembling. Then my sister came in, sat next to me and held my hand. The shaking just stopped.
The power of her touch, just bringing me out of this state of shock, always stuck with me. In the first draft of the script, before we even found a hand to use, it was just a haunted object. Later on, touch and human connection became a recurring motif in the script. So, a hand became the physical representation of all of the things we were talking about.
It's fascinating to talk to directors who are siblings. I'm reminded of the Coen brothers who are often described as the 'two-headed director'. How did you guys coordinate on the set?
Michael: Danny's usually the main voice on the set. He's usually the one speaking although we have a pretty united vision. If I had a sense of direction, I'd usually defer to what he's saying first and then speak to the actors.
In our YouTube work, we usually split up our roles and duties. I would usually head the sound effects and music whereas Danny would lead on the colour and VFX.
Danny: We argue the most in post, over edits especially. I had an edit of the movie, Michael had an edit of the movie, the editor had an edit of the movie and everyone argued over which version is better.
Michael: Yeah we both rocked up with cuts of the movie and the editor had one, too. It's a question of who punches the hardest. [laughs]
It's remarkable that this is your feature film debut. What lessons did you translate from YouTube into the process of making this movie?
Michael: We were lucky to have worked on [the set for The Babadook] prior to making this. So, we knew how the world ran. We knew broadly how it worked on a set. As for YouTube, with every video, we were learning something new. Even with stuff that completely failed, we could take that lesson and apply it the next time we're trying something similar.
It's all about knowing how to compromise and learning new ways of shooting specific things.
Danny: The YouTube stuff was our way of building toward making a feature film. That was always our main goal. YouTube was all about practising and learning and then we knew we were ready.
Have you guys always been horror fans?
Danny: I'm like the biggest horror fan ever. My biggest inspiration growing up was R.L. Stine and Goosebumps. Our mum was always so specific about what we could and couldn't watch.
Knowing that we weren't allowed to watch something made me want to watch it. It made me really obsessed with horror because we weren't supposed to be watching it. We'd trick our grandfather into buying R-rated DVDs. My dad's friend from work would take us to watch all the MA-15+ movies in the cinema. We were always sneaky.
Michael: I just remember going to the video store. You remember going to that particular section of the video store, the horror section? You see those covers and you think, 'What is going on in this movie? I want to see this movie!' Our grandfather didn't speak any English and didn't know any better. We'd just ask him to get us something and he'd get it. He'd get yelled at.
There was a point where he had to stop doing it with feature films and then we started getting him to do the same thing with R-rated cartoons. And he got told off for that as well. He was like, 'What? It's a cartoon!' [laughs]
You're absolutely right about the impact of VHS front covers on horror movies. I remember being terrified of the ones for Stephen King's IT and Cape Fear, in particular.
Michael: And the one for Child's Play 2 where has the scissors and the jack in the box! And on the back cover, they always had images of stuff that was screwed up.
Danny: I love those old-school covers for those retro eighties horror movies. I'd love to see Talk To Me released on VHS! That would be awesome.
Your movie is grounded by a terrific performance from Sophie Wilde who emotionally grounds the whole thing. How important is that emotional principle in a horror movie?
Danny: Yeah, well it's important for all characters in general. We try to have someone that everyone can relate to. Actually, Mia is a very polarising character. Some people don't like her. In the movie, the character of Hayley says, '[Mia] really gets under my skin.'
Some viewers relate to Hayley whereas others would relate to Mia. We tried to create a world that felt lived in.
Michael: It makes the horror more real. If you care about the characters and understand the dynamics, when stuff goes wrong, you feel it more. That's the stuff I love when I watch. horror movies. It's one thing to just kill everyone but then it's something else to invest in actual human characters. That's what we were trying to do, for sure.
Yes, at the beginning of the movie, we sense that Mia, although she's grieving, is also trying to ingratiate herself with the clique by participating in the ritual.
Danny: Yeah, there are so many of these dynamics. I also love the triangle that emerges when you realise how she's almost forced herself into her friend's family. The character of Jade is a bit over it but doesn't know how to verbalise it or say it. That's what a lot of teenagers do. They can't express themselves. They find such interactions awkward. I really love all the character dynamics.
Most of the movie is about building a sense of dread so how hard is it to punctuate the shock moments effectively?
Michael: There's one shot before a big moment in the film. We'd already edited it and the whole movie was exported. That's a big process that takes a long time. And then we watched it and I was like, 'That shot needs to be a tiny bit longer.'
I made it eight frames longer and then made them re-export the entire film. [laughs] It was just off in a rhythmic sense. No one else would likely see it but I just saw it in terms of timing. You just feel it. Even balancing the drama and horror was a big thing, both in the writing and in the edit. We have a tendency more toward the drama side and it can get bogged down. We have to give enough time for both drama and horror but we also have to keep it moving.
Danny: It was so important for the movie to work both as a drama film and as a horror film. I really connect when there's a balance of both.
I bet they loved you for that, didn't they? Re-exporting the whole movie again?
[laughter] Michael: They thought I was insane! Maybe I was just losing my mind.
Well, drama and horror are both governed by the same principles, right? As in, you have to care about what's happening?
Danny: Yeah, exactly. Timing and spacing come out of editing and editing, and rewatching and rewatching. Our editor's studio was under his house so we got his son to sit down with us and watch it one time. You can feel it in the room where it's lagging too much. Some horror fans maybe wanted it to be more horrific but for us, we wanted the balance.
When you see the apparitions, their appearance reminded me somewhat of Evil Dead. Am I reading too much into that or was it a deliberate homage?
Danny: There are so many things that you watch and consume and just live in your head. There was never an exact pinpoint reference to Evil Dead but I know that DNA's very likely in there. That filmmaking style is probably also in there. We watched Evil Dead growing up.
Michael: We did this thing at Sundance and we got a lot of people talking about it. It got this crazy hype. We were then able to meet some of the most amazing directors. We ended up having dinner with Sam Raimi. [laughs] It was so crazy. He liked the film and we loved his stuff as well.
Danny: We were just asking about Spider-Man during the whole dinner. [laughs] Our love for Sam Raimi mostly came from that.
Michael: Yeah he was asking us all these questions and we were like, 'So, Spider-Man...' [laughs]
You guys down under turn out some truly incredible horror movies like The Babadook, for example. Why do you think that is?
Michael: We're disturbed [laughter] A lot of us are criminals, or our ancestors are.
Danny: There's a raw style of filmmaking.
Michael: I recently looked back at the seventies era of 'Ozploitation'. I was thinking, 'How have I not seen this before? This is crazy!'
Danny: We're really behind in terms of catching up with Australian cinema. We don't know too much of it in all honesty but revisiting that era is insane. Next of Kin is a good one, as well.
Michael: Have you seen Nitram? There's that uncomfortable feeling all the way through the movie. It's so well done.
What do you make of the enthusiastic global reaction to Talk To Me?
Danny: It's so odd and bizarre and surreal. It feels like a dream constantly. We just feel so grateful that people simply want to talk to us about the film and that people are writing about the film.
Michael: We're so happy to put the performers like Sophie up on a stage so that people can see their talents. We never imagined this to be the outcome. We get taken around the world to participate in screenings. It's been unbelievable.
Danny: Even on Instagram, we're seeing people tagging us in the promotions that are happening. Big billboards in Mexico, giant hands in the streets of Spain. We're from Adelaide in South Australia and there's no film scene there. We just assumed that no one was going to see it.
Horror films really do generate a strong sense of loyalty from fans, don't they?
Danny: They do! There's a really strong sense of community and family. You wouldn't think it. You'd maybe assume that horror fans would be a bit weird, but they're not. They're lovely and welcoming.
Well, you guys have proven that horror filmmakers are fantastic as well. Thanks very much!
Are you brave enough to experience Talk To Me at Cineworld? Click the link below to get your tickets.