If you see a horror film as creative as Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me (2023), you start to list the questions you’ll ask if at any moment you get the chance (logistics of particularly visceral practical effects, or how they got to the end product of a particularly effective scene). And when you do get the chance, you hope to God the creators are as easy to talk to and personable as the Philippous.
When my video call connected, the brothers were in the same frame. It surprised me at first, though in retrospect I don’t know why I expected them to be in different places when they’re so clearly flourishing together. They rocked forward in their seats when we signed on. Michael wore a beanie with the production house A24’s logo, and Danny’s hair was bleached, standing fashionably on end. They gave the vibe of wrestlers: they were both smiling, brimming with energy—eager to talk about their new project, the horror film Talk to Me.
Brothers Danny and Michael Philippou set out to make a coming-of-age horror film that utilized two key concepts: first, teenagers using demon possession to get high… and second, what happens when the other kids at the party videotape it. Early viewers of the film have been buzzing about the authenticity of the teenage characters, so I began my questions there.
“What were the top three non-negotiable things that you wanted to accomplish for the film to feel like a success, to you?”
Their answer is ready: “To be rooted in character. For the horror beats to serve a part. (They're not just there to be exploitive, or you know, shock horror.) And Sophie Wilde. Those are the three things!”
When the Philippous speak, they speak individually of course, but they weave into each other’s sentences—they’re independent and part of a whole. I loved that they had the answer locked and loaded without feeling rehearsed, and I shouldn’t have been surprised: when you have a clear end in mind, it’s much more likely that you’ll get there.
“What was the like the journey coming off of directing shorts and moving into a feature?”
“It's definitely very different. We were lucky enough that we had worked on film sets before the YouTube stuff, so we understood that world. So, we went into it knowing how it works. If we didn't, I think it would have been more of a slap in the face. And because it is naturally slow, there's a lot more people involved. I guess it was just in a way it's more pressure because there's a lot of money on the line—and reputations, in a way—but then also, it's a little bit relieving to be able to delegate. You're working with such amazing heads of department and people that specialize (in their) crafts. It was kind of relieving to be like, ‘Oh, they're going to head this side of it.’ Everyone worked together to create this one vision… because the heads of department can accomplish things we can never accomplish on our own. It's the most rewarding thing, to have all those masters of the craft put all their powers into this one thing.
“I think it was the amazing cast we had, and Aaron (McLisky)’s cinematography on screen looks way better than I ever would have imagined.”
By this time, it’s clear to me that these twins are super in-sync—more in sync than the audio and visual on our call—so I had to ask: “From a craft perspective… you're co-directing this. You’re siblings. How does that work… where you’re, like, not just at each other's throats like many siblings are?”
Danny’s quick to say, “We could never write together. It's impossible.” (Michael is the one credited with co-writing, though they both directed.) Danny continues, “but we have a pretty nice vision for directing. Like, we've got a shorthand, and we've worked together for so long.
Michael adds, “I would speak to Danny first, because we didn’t want to give two sets of directions to the actors.”
Danny says, “Most of the disagreements (overall) were more in the edit. We differ on certain edits, how loud certain sounds are, and things like that. That's where the biggest conflict was, but as I said, I'd write aggressive notes and show them to Michael like, (gestures) because we didn’t want to argue in front of the crew.”
I said, “You did the old ‘united front’ bit, like parents!” and I realized that one reason it seems like they finish each other’s sentences is that they sound so alike. Not just their voices, but the way they put their thoughts to words: chipper, thoughtful, self-assured, and passionate, winding syntax with a touch of an Australian rhythm and accent. And they answer questions in the present tense, as if it’s still happening, as if we’re right in the middle of something very exciting going down. At any moment when one brother is speaking, the other is nodding and gesturing in agreement. They really do give the impression that they are, in fact, a united front.
“Do you have a favorite scene? Either your favorite to work on, or a favorite result?”
Danny says, “My favorite scene to shoot was definitely the montage sequence. Yeah, because we had 50 setups to get into. And they told us that it was mathematically impossible to get all those shots. It would be a disaster. But we had two hours, two cameras, and a boombox. And we just were like—we were wild. Crazy, but I think that energy translates through the screen very well.”
“When you're talking about the montage, you mean the montage, the party scene, right? So… you actually had a party, and then cut it down to a montage?”
They both laugh and agree.
Michael says, “One of the most difficult, on the other side of the spectrum, there's a tracking shot through a hospital hallway that is very, very hard to pull off. And we think we've gone too far. We were in overtime. It was very stressful. It was relying on a lot, the tape just kept screwing up, timing to an elevator door closing as well. It was so difficult—we had this amazing performance, and then the light doesn't turn off.”
“Speaking of tactile logistics, the actual hand prop that you had… whose hand is that?”
“There were six hands and we shot with, but designer Bethany Ryan ended up doing her hand for the model. We tried a bunch of different hands, different shapes, different sizes. She ends up doing exactly what we needed. And it was the perfect grip.”
“Very elegant and also really spooky, which I think is a very fine balance.”
If you look at the image on the film’s poster, you can see the chalky white left hand bent at the wrist as if stretching, and the fingers extending as if reaching backward around a corner. It’s the exact blend of alluring and repellant.
“Okay, so there’s a scene towards the end, where the screen is all black, and Mia (Sophie Wilde) is walking toward a flame. How did you do that?”
“That sequence was hard to figure out the look of because we knew that we wanted her to be walking towards the flame, and we were like, ‘How're we going to pull it off?’ and what that looked like—that was a constant discussion. We had a giant studio and we put Sophie right at the back. And we literally just got a lens that would reflect the light in a really interesting way and lit it. So, she was just walking towards an actual candle flame that was right in the distance to the back of like a studio. We also had big black curtains on the sides there towards the end so there were no reflections anywhere. We got that, and that was on the final shoot day that we got that shot. Yeah, the final shot (of the film) was their final shot. All the main actors were in it, dressed in different costumes and as different characters, so they're all hidden in the frame.”
“Oh, that's so fun—for them to be at the next party, like reincarnated.”
“They wanted to be there. For the wrap shot as well. I'll forget everyone’s in there, and then spot them. It was so much fun.”
“That sounds like it was a great time, and also turned out beautifully. But it also turned out really scary… with the demons and ghosts and possession scenes... were they more intense on screen than in your head?”
When they nod so emphatically at this question is the first time they actually responded in unison.
Danny says, “The makeup department does so well. It was so visceral. There was a drowned woman that we used, and the second she was on set she was so horrifying.
Michael agrees, “She was the nicest girl—but she was terrifying.”
Danny adds, “And our foot-sucking demon! The whole time she was just like, ‘Man, my friends hear about this, and I’ll never hear the end of it.’”
Talk to Me is in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 28.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.