Children shouldn’t play with dead things, or so claimed the title of a ‘70s horror movie, but kids tend to have little regard for what they “should” do. And so, in Talk to Me (out Friday), the debut feature from 30-year-old Australian twin directors Danny and Michael Philippou, teens play with spirits in a viral party game. An enchanted hand allows them to experience temporary demonic possession—it’s like a DMT trip compared to The Exorcist’s ayahuasca. As long as they let the demons in for less than 90 seconds, the kids (led by Sophie Wilde as Mia) are all right. I’ll let you guess how it pans out.
That this group of Aussie kids film their temporary possessions and share them online is an unsurprising plot turn from the Philippous, who know a thing or two about going viral via their popular RackaRacka YouTube channel. In a recent Zoom interview with Jezebel, they frequently finished each other’s sentences and otherwise burst with energy as they discussed their film, “elevated horror,” and the car accident Danny was in as a teen that was a major inspiration for Talk to Me—alongside other inspirations The Vanishing, Let the Right One In, The Exorcist, and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: Your movie opens with a shock. Was that intended to immediately rope people in?
Danny: The idea was always to have an opening that just pulled the audience into the world of the story we were telling. We wanted to start outside of this horror and then pull them in. And we always knew that we want to have this one at the start and bookend it with one towards the end.
Michael: There’s even things happening through the frame of that first one. We wanted to reveal something new around every corner. It was the first shot of the film, but as the last shot of the shoot.
Danny: We had to build up to it. It was too intimidating.
Was making this movie cathartic at all? Were you able to process your own feelings about death by making such a dark movie?
Danny: All of the scenes and themes that we’re talking about, from the mental illness, from these close calls with death, and losing a loved one—all of this is drawn from real life experiences. I could break down so many different horror elements that are based on real things, like even down to the swelling on Riley’s face. I remember my face swelling up that exact same way when I was in a car accident [at age 16] and I destroyed my face. I fractured my spine, and I was in hospital. They cut my clothes off, and they were trying to see if I was okay. I couldn’t stop shaking after the accident. The doctors would come, turn the heaters on, bring extra blankets and jumpers, trying to warm me up because I just couldn’t stop shaking. And then my sister came in to visit me and she sat next to me and she held my hand. And the shaking just stopped. And it was like, yeah, I wasn’t shaking because I was cold. I was shaking because I was in shock. And the touch of someone that I love pulled me out of it. And that was already a really powerful moment to me.
I remember that always, knowing that if you’re ever in a vulnerable position like that, whether physically from the car accident or mentally and emotionally, you need someone and a connection to help pull you out. Human touch, connection was such a big thematic thing throughout all the drafts.
Was the general tone of the shoot jovial?
Danny: Yeah, it was so rogue.
Michael: There are certain sequences where we had to peel it back, but in general, it was a very chaotic set. We were already dealing with heavy subject matter. Having that be the environment when you walk up to set will make people not want to show up to work.
Danny: Even like all the crew members and costumers, we would all do Uno in between all breaks and stuff. And everyone would do socially awkward dares. The loser [of Uno] would have to do something that’s humiliating or embarrassing, like, messing up a take or, like…
Michael: …telling the producer her films suck. Probably 70 or 80 percent of the crew we had worked with before, so we knew these people. It was just like a bunch of friends getting together.
Going into this, what was your philosophy regarding what’s scary and how you were going to affect viewers in that way?
Danny: We knew that the horror was going to come from hopefully an attachment to the characters—to have it really be grounded in a sort of reality and not have it feel like it’s a splatter film or like there aren’t any stakes so that we’re not caring about the characters. The horror for us was coming from the characters feeling like real people.
Given your background on YouTube, do you think the movie bespeaks a certain anxiety regarding the lengths people will go to go viral?
Danny: Yes. There’s so much subtext with all different elements. But yeah, that was definitely a part of it.
Michael: And you’re looking at the people that do that. [Both laugh manically, mouths gaping, heads thrown back.]
Was it kind of like an exorcism or an interrogation of your own psyche in that respect?
Michael: I think like we wanted to make a film that was current, and it’s just a world that we understand. It’s our job. Even with teenagers and how they speak today, it’s all through social media. So it would be weird to shy away from that. It’s just what we know and it’s hard to see it translated right on film, I feel like.
What kind of games inspired the one in your movie? I was reminded of the “pass-out game” that I played as a kid, where someone would take a few deep breaths and then someone else in the group would choke that person, and they’d pass out.
Danny: Yeah, I mean, it’s all those sort of things. We were looking for a modern day Ouija board, something that we could create our own lore around and that we could create our own history of. But the drug analogy of it and those peer-pressure environments where kids will make each other do that or doing drugs for the first time, we just wanted to try and capture that party culture as well.
Your characters are playing with demons, which on one hand is, unwise. On the other, kids do a lot of unwise things…like making each other pass out.
Danny: [In your teens] your brain is still forming and everyone’s like feeding off each other’s energy and there’s no real life experience.
Michael: The line between right and wrong isn’t developed yet. So what they think is fun in the moment… and one of the negatives I feel like on social media with cameras is you can film everything, so people aren’t really allowed to make mistakes. It can be immortalized.
Danny: But I do think that if the hand did exist for real, even at my age, I’d probably be doing it.
Michael: Some of the videos we made when we were kids, I look back on like, “Oh my God.” Like, crazy, like suicidal. You know, some of them are, like, insane.
Danny: You just don’t, like, recognize your own mortality or you feel like you’re invincible.
With A24 horror comes this idea of kind of elevated horror. Do you have any thoughts about that as a categorization?
Danny: A horror film is a horror film to me. Subtextually, before the elevated horror boom or that name came, which is like around 2010 or whatever it was, there were so many strong and powerful horror films.
I agree. I think at the end of the day, most filmmakers want their movies to be good.
Michael: I think it depends on what the director’s after or what the writer’s after with the script. There’s different vibes, different types of horror films. Us personally, we weren’t out to make “elevated horror,” but we wanted to make a film that worked both as a horror and a drama. We wanted it to be rich in character and story.
Danny: Where I found that I was scared of horror films is when I was caring for the characters. But [Talk to Me protagonist Mia] is off-putting to some people. Some people can’t connect to Mia. I like that. She feels real to me.
I read in the press notes that you had some interest from U.S. studios, but you made your film in your homeland nonetheless. Was setting your movie in Australia an expression of national pride?
Danny: Well, the script was already very Australian, and I always just pictured it with Australian accents. And there’s so much small Australian-isms.
Michael: But I don’t think it’s like, “Hoo-rah Australia,” because people watching it will be like, “Don’t visit Australia.”
Danny: “The kids in Australia are crazy.”
Michael: It just felt natural to us. It was an Australian story, and it might have felt false if we were trying to force it into a different [environment].
In the beginning of the movie, Mia and Riley (Joe Bird) sing Sia’s “Chandelier.” What made you choose that song?
Michael: Sia is Australian and she grew up in Adelaide, where we grew up.
Danny: And where we shot the film!
Michael: We were looking at a different song initially…
Danny: ...but thematically, what “Chandelier” is talking about, there’s that dark side of the party girl. The whole song is like a party anthem, but you’re listening to the lyrics to a really dark song. So we knew we wanted that to be something that Mia is singing along to. And then we got it for a quarter of the price because she was from our hometown.
So you let her know that?
Danny: Pretty much. We reached out to her and she gave it to us for a quarter of the price, which was incredible.