Talk to Me is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling movies we’ve seen this summer. Following a group of teens who find themselves in possession of an embalmed (and haunted) hand, they become addicted to the drug-like rush they get from allowing spirits to inhabit their bodies.
It’s a story that makes Talk to Me possibly the best horror movie of 2023. It’s also a product of innovation. Talk to Me is the directorial debut of YouTube stars Danny and Michael Philippou. After finding fame making comedy-horror shorts on the platform under their channel RackaRacka, the brother duo ended up seeing their movie make the rounds at Sundance Film Festival and eventually get picked up by A24.
It’s an impressive entry into the world of horror, and marks what many hope will be the first of a slew of new movies by the pair. The brothers sat down with The Digital Fix to break down their journey to the big screen, horror influences, and, of course, ghosts. (Warning: some mild spoilers ahead for Talk to Me.)
The Digital Fix: You have experience in doing horror comedy on your YouTube channel. Did you know that you always wanted to do a horror film as your debut feature film?
Danny Philippou: We were writing a whole bunch of different stuff, and that was the first script that really caught momentum and felt like it was unfolding the quickest.
Michael Philippou: We were writing a coming-of-age before that. That was going to be our debut, called Concrete King.
DP: A sort of drama action. So we did a drama horror.
You could almost say that Talk to Me is kind of a coming-of-age, but just a really twisted one. I read that the story is based on a video you saw about someone doing drugs and getting the adrenaline, and then you kind of went from there. Is that correct?
DP: We saw a video of a neighbor taking drugs for the first time and having a really negative reaction, and he was on the floor convulsing, and all his friends that he was with were filming him and laughing at it, as opposed to helping him. That was footage that inspired a lot of stuff.
We see possession a lot in horror movies, but this feels very different and like something we haven’t seen before in terms of the physicality. How did you come up with how exactly you wanted to portray the possession?
DP: Well we wanted each possession, and the ghosts that they’re connecting to, to connect to the characters and the emotions and the things that they’re going through, mentally and emotionally. So each spirit needs to feel different and to be tapping into a different part of those characters. We knew we wanted it to be A) be physical, but B) every time would be a mixed bag and you never know what you’re gonna get.
MP: They kind of lead into today’s culture with [the idea of] if you were able to get possessed, how kids would react to it. And I think that’s what would happen. Everyone would film it and it’d be like a party game, you know?
With the hand itself, you don’t give it a massive over-explained backstory. It’s just there. You either believe it or you don’t, and the fun of it is there if you just decide to go with it. Was that intentional, making that decision to not spend loads of time on the lore of the hand?
DP: We definitely spent a lot of time coming up with a lot of the hand. We had a massive mythology book that details everything, but we wanted the kids to be in over their heads and not understand what it was that they were messing with and what it was capable of. I think it’s scarier that way and more realistic than if they had that. They couldn’t possibly know exactly where it came from and all the history of it.
MP: It is just a film with a bunch of friends going to a party but you get away with alluding to this thing that’s happening in the background.
DP: That was a big note that we had from a more conventional studio that was wanting to pick it up. They wanted us to explore the hand and have the kids research it. But it’s always that part of a film where I’ll sort of switch off. When they’re diving too much into the mythology of things, and they’re in the library or they’re on Google, or they’re talking to the expert. …It’s always that part of a film that sags for me, personally.
It leads to some really shocking scenes like the scene with the dog, and the scene where Riley is smashing his own face up which is just so hard to watch in a great way. Of all those scenes, is there one that you enjoyed filming the most?
MP: That scene was a lot of fun, him hitting his forehead against the desk. The behind the scenes is always a lot of fun because you’ve got prosthetics and fake blood and foam tables and things like that. Making it is very different to watching it.
DP: It’s trying to capture those little magic frames. It’s a bunch of techniques that you throw at it and try to capture all of it and see what’s going to help put together the sequence the most. But I think overall the most fun we had in any of the scenes was probably the montage sequence.
MP: It was a very tight day and we didn’t have too long to get it. It was the last day we were at the house and we couldn’t go back there. So it was like, ‘Whatever we get is what we’re getting.’
DP: And it was last. We had like two hours or an hour and a half, whatever it was, and we’re cranking music and everyone’s energy was just thrown into this thing. It was so chaotic, but it was beautiful.
MP: Danny was telling everyone off for yelling and it was great.
How would you split the responsibilities? How would you tackle what each of you would do on the set, and making sure there was that balance?
DP: I would normally talk to the actors, Michael would yell at them. I think I was the main voice on set, and Michael was looking at the smaller things. And if [Michael] had something he wanted to say to the actors, he would tell me and then I would relay it to the actor.
MP: We kind of did it the same way we do for the YouTube videos. Danny would come up with the premise of the script, if there was one for the videos, and then he would do a rough cut. And then I’ll do a fine cut. I do sound effects and music and he would do VFX and color. Having two people I think it’s a bit of a cheat code, directing, because we could split things up a little bit, especially in post-production.
DP: Michael really focused on sound effects and music and I was looking more at the VFX and the grades and stuff, so we would lead different parts of the post-production.
You both worked together on The Babadook, another amazing horror. Having had that experience, working on set already, did you have any lessons that you took from that?
MP: We have a YouTube channel and that’s what we’re primarily known for. Before that we were working on film sets. So we understood how they ran, you know. If we just went into this without ever working on a film, or seeing a film set, I think I think would have been a big shock because it’s a lot slower. There’s a lot more people involved.
With YouTube, you know, if we wanted to go film at a train station, we’d just take a camera and go film and it’ll take ten minutes. Whereas with a film, you’ve got permissions, traffic control, police, council, you know, trucks, unit…and it’s like 100 people going there. It really slows things down. So it was good to work on films beforehand to get an idea, to feel how it actually runs. You’re usually supposed to get like a minute and a half to two minutes a day of screen time on a film, as opposed to, you know… Well, to be fair, our shoot was so tight. Some days we had to shoot eight pages.
DP: We had eight weeks initially that went down to seven, then went down to six, then went down to five. So we had five weeks to shoot the whole movie and it was a lot to get through.
Five weeks to shoot the whole thing from start to finish?
MP: You know, it was great. It’s like an awesome team, like the crew were amazing, the cast were awesome, so we had such talented people working on it that we were able to work at a pace. When I look back on it I go, ‘Man, that was a lot to get through in five weeks.’ There’s a lot of no sleeping because some locations we’d only be there for two days. So we’d be shooting all day, going home, edit the rushes all night to see what we were missing or what else to pick up. We’d get back, no sleep, then go again and pass out, then wake up and go back to set.
How much time did you get to spend on post-production?
DP: The actual edit I think was seven [weeks] and then the rest of it…
MP: We had three to four months, I reckon.
DP: Altogether, for sound effects, music, VFX, edit.
MP: Which is still a quick turnaround, because we had to have it done for the Adelaide Film Festival, October 30. That was our cutoff.
DP: So we wrapped in March and we premiered it in October. So yeah, it was super quick.
What were your visual draws? Working on the small screen with your YouTube stuff, I imagine that’s a bit different from thinking about how something is going to visually look on a cinema screen.
DP: For the possession sequences I knew that I wanted the camera to be really anchored to the spirit and be floating and following them around. A bit like astral projection. There was a lot of kinetics videography that I did on the YouTube stuff. I will do those sort of shots on our YouTube channel.
I handed off to our cinematographer and I tried to discuss that with him and show him on our phones, and then he’d bring in his own touch. In pre-production we did like a pre-vis of that first possession sequence and trying to figure out how to unfold it. But it was always about having it feel different from the other sequences in the film.
MP: It was a lot, in pre-production, of shortlisting and coming up with stuff and then finding the visual language. We had the cool stunt team as well, like we created rigs that could be attached to people and chairs so it would move with the people you know, so it was homemade things that we did with it as well. We had a camera on poles so we could do cool camera moves. If we did it with proper rigs and stuff, it would take ages, so we just did our own thing.
There’s a really good combination of classic jump scares and several moments were you’re just holding on a really horrible image. What scares you when you watch horror movies? What gets you the most?
DP: For me, it’s less about the jump scares and more about being really attached to the character that’s in danger or in peril. Like that feeling that you’d get if you watched Game of Thrones back in the day, and you didn’t know whether or not that character was gonna die because you know the series would go there. I just like when you’re really attached to the characters and that’s where the dread comes from.
MP: Yeah, the dread. You’re waiting for this thing to happen. There’s a scene in Zodiac, when he’s in the basement. And there’s someone walking around upstairs, and he’s like, ‘Who’s upstairs?’, and the guy’s like, ‘There’s no-one, it’s just me and you.’ That’s so scary. I like that idea instead of jump scares.
DP: Although, I do love a good jump scare. My favorite parts in films are usually the parts between the jump scares.
You’ve got some amazing young talent in this movie, especially with Mia [Sophie Wilde] and with Riley [Joe Bird]. And you’re just so kind of drawn to them. How did you find these guys?
DP: Riley is based on our neighbor Riley. And then his friend James [who plays Riley] is actually his friend in real life. I was like, ‘Oh man, you can act’. I based the character on him and cast him.
MP: He was better than the auditions. So we got James.
DP: Yeah, well, I’m casting normal actors, but I’m like, ‘James is better than all these people.’ It was a really extensive casting process. And Covid happened in the middle of our casting process. So we were literally casting for nearly two years. And it was just finding the gems one after the other and then just knowing straight away that we found someone special.
Even Zoe who plays Hayley, when I saw their audition, I knew straight away. I’m like, ‘I will not make this movie unless they’re available.’ Like even if everything else falls into place, I need to have Zoe because the audition was so powerful and they encapsulated the role straight away. We knew as we found these people as we went along. It was a really special but long process.
I saw that you’ve had these crazy horror directors reaching out to you guys and congratulating you on the film, like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. Is that just the most surreal thing that’s ever happened?
DP: Everything has been so surreal, and the meetings that we’ve got to have and the people that are talking to us now even over text as friends, it’s crazy. It still feels so surreal.
MP: Yeah, answering a video call and it’s Jordan Peele, it’s like ‘Ah!’ I think in the horror community, everyone kind of knows each other. We’re able to be introduced and meet all these amazing people through that. And a lot of them are producers and are really open to producing our next film, so we’re discussing that as well. A lot of big horror directors slash producers. Every time we get back to LA it’s like, ‘Woah, what’s happening?’ It’s awesome.
What is your favorite horror director and horror movie? Of all time?
MP: [To Danny] Well, I know yours is The Exorcist.
DP: I think my favorite horror movie of all time is definitely The Exorcist. It’s such a cliché answer, but it’s so powerful. The characters and the situations…nothing feels like a horror film. Everything feels so real. All the scares are really granted.
MP: Yeah, I don’t know, I’d have to think about that. Something that’s up there with The Exorcist.
Talk to Me is playing in theaters now.
For more on the new highly praised horror movie, take a look at our Talk to Me review, and find out more with our guides on everyone who dies in Talk to Me, the Talk to Me ending explained, and if there’s a Talk to Me post-credit scene. You can also check out our lists of the best ghost movies and best movies of all time, where you’ll find some horror classics.