Talk to Me’s Danny and Michael Philippou on Horror as a Rite of Passage

July 28, 2023

VVS Films


By Marriska Fernandes


Australian YouTubers-turned-film directors Danny and Michael Philippou share a profound love for horror. In fact, the identical twins grew up watching horror flicks they knew they shouldn’t be seeing. They believe that it’s a part of growing up: “You need to really get scared by something. It’s like a rite of passage,” they said in an interview this week at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.

This deep desire to scare and scar led them to make their directorial debut with Talk to Me, which played at Fantasia earlier this week where it received acclaim by fans and critics alike.

The film, which opens in theatres today shows that the hours sneaking in horror movies was time well spent. It is well-executed, carrying out the vision and plot of the filmmakers who prove that their experience on film sets like The Babadook gave them the tools to follow through with their vision.

Simple, chilling, and gory, the horror stays with a viewer long after watching it – and that’s the intention with which they made their film. Danny, who co-wrote the film alongside Bill Hinzman, said that the idea of a hand as a conduit was written in the second draft, but it was human touch and connection that was at the heart of the story.

We spoke with the Philippou brothers about the origins of the story, their horror influences and what they wanted to avoid from the get-go.

You wanted your stories to have a strong emotional core and to work on multiple levels. You achieved this, but it’s a tough feat in this genre. What did you figure was the key to achieving the emotional core?

Having the script work with beats and then also just strong performances. We were so blessed to find Sophie [Wilde] and all the cast; [We] feel like there were no weak links in the cast. We’re used to trying to squeeze performances out of our parents or our friends, so having people committed to their craft was amazing to see on set every day especially when you have talented performers all bouncing off each other.


I love how the conduit is the hand – something unique to horror. Tell me about that decision. Did you plan a folklore backstory to it?

Yeah, our mythology bible for the hand is very, very thick. We break down every single spirit that connected with the kids, every person that’s ever had the hand, where the hand came from, what the actual rules are. Also, we were able to hint at the mythology brought to the kids so as to be in over their heads and out of their depth. We found the hands in the second draft of the script. Human touch and connection was a big theme throughout the first draft of the script that [we] felt like that horror object had been there the whole time. It was a physical representation of all the things that we were talking about.


Why was horror the best vehicle to tell this story?

Horror is just such a fun way to talk about dark themes and not have [them] feel too heavy, helping balance that, and present things without feeling preachy or too on the nose. It was the first genre that we got addicted to as kids. We have a love of horror films and [were] obsessed with watching things that we weren’t allowed to watch. A friend’s dad’s friend used to take us when we were kids to the theaters to watch all the movies you shouldn’t be watching. [We] remember watching, in 2003, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and running out of the cinema because [we] got so scared and being scarred by it. That’s part of growing up; you need to get really scared by something. It’s a rite of passage…

Sophie Wilde stars in Talk to Me | VVS Films

That’s hilarious. What were your influences when it comes to being filmmakers with horror?

The Exorcist was a big one, and Let the Right One In. Those horror films are always so grounded and rooted in characters. The situations never felt too elevated or too over the top. They always felt grounded. We knew we wanted our horror to try that  grounding too. We’re inspired by other films, like The Return, Memories of Murder, and The Vanishing. But there are so many different elements that inspire different parts.


Because there are some horror films that fall prey to the weaker tactics of jumpscares, what is one thing that you wanted to avoid from the get go?

Having the jumpscares all be rooted in character. There are jumpscares, but [they are] always a situation, not just a phone ringing. We always wanted everything to be rooted in character. Also, having something that worked as a drama and a horror—it’s just like having strong characters. We want to create an atmosphere and never have to rely on jumpscares.


Is there any particular thing that we see on screen that looks easy but was actually almost impossible to pull off?

That’s a really good question. Some of the one shots felt like they were impossible. Even the opening of the film, we had to build that to do that shot.  And to see that come together felt like the whole film was building up to be able to execute that opening scene.

Also, it’s more for time [that things seemed impossible], like getting things in the timeframe, because it ended up having to be a really quick shoot. So we’re really up against it every day. The scene at the train station, we got that right with three seconds left. And because once you take into overtime, you start paying a lot of money for not much time. We’re always trying to wrangle the time…there were days that we had to shoot eight pages of the film in a single day and multiple locations. So it was so stressful, but man, it was so much fun.

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What is the key to making a good horror movie?

It is strong characters. [We] have to really be invested in the characters to be scared. If you don’t care about the character and what they’re going through, then the horror is kind of separated from it a little bit. But like if you care about the characters, and you understand the consequences, and how it’s going to change the world around them, [We] feel like it’d be a lot more inside and engaged with the story. So we wanted to create characters that were believable. And even if you don’t agree with the decisions that they’re making, you  can empathize with them in a way. It’s a little bit of horror film logic.


What are you trying to explore with your own work of art as filmmakers?

With this film, [we were] expressing things that were scaring [us] personally. And we’re talking a little bit about mental illness and depression and anything that was scary at the time of writing it, [w] just put it on the page and every one of those horror scenes is frightening. [We] would like people to know that if they see our names on something, we’ve put 100% of ourselves into it and have given it everything that we’ve got. The same with YouTube. It was never just like a paycheck or something like that If we’re gonna put our names onto a movie, it’s because we’re 100% invested in putting our souls into it. That’s the way that we’ve always worked like ever since we were kids.


Talk to Me opens in theatres on July 28.