Easy to shock and quick to scream, I usually avoid the horror genre altogether. But, when an Australian-made flick was accepted into Sundance and then snapped up by A24 – arguably the film studio of the moment thanks to Oscar-winner Everything Everywhere All At Once, Euphoria and Midsommar – after a bidding war, I strapped myself in.
Talk to Me is the debut feature film from twins Michael and Danny Philippou of Rackaracka. Fronted by a cast of talented young Aussies, the supernatural shocker brings waves of family tension, fluctuating teenage emotions and a poignant look at the way we escape ourselves – and, yes, terrifying horror scenes.
Mia (Sophie Wilde) finds herself addicted to the thrills of possession – through the gateway of an embalmed hand – in the wake of her mother’s death. Peer pressure comes to a head as Mia’s pulled from either side by the unflappably cool Hayley (Zoe Terakes, Nine Perfect Strangers; Wentworth) and best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen). Demonic spirits abound and the Philippou brothers’ talents fuse compelling narrative and horror scenes that cut straight to the core.
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“We’ve been knocking at this door, trying to get into the film industry, our whole life,” Michael tells Broadsheet. “To have a door open like this and have [the industry] be like ‘What do you want to do next?’ doesn’t feel real.”
Broadsheet spoke to the South Australian directorial team about the journey to A24 distribution, what went on behind the scenes of their debut feature – which just had a blockbuster opening weekend – and what’s in store next.
Congratulations to you both on Talk to Me. How are you feeling now it’s been released?
Danny: The whole ride has been incredible. The film was so much fun to make, we just had unlimited energy. We’d film all day, go home and edit all night, then do it again. We feel like we’re dreaming, but also hungry to get another one in the bag. I want to shoot this year, just make another movie.
Michael: It’s been surreal, ‘cos we didn’t know what the reception would be. So for it to be accepted into Sundance, and everything that followed, was crazy.
D: To have A24 in a room pitching themselves to us was like … oh my god. It was a joke on set all the time, like “oh, this is very A24”, “this is very Sundance”. We’d always make those jokes. “It’s not very A24 of you to be lingering on that shot like that.” So in a way we manifested it.
Talk to Me has a talented young cast. Did you have an idea of who you wanted for each character?
D: Not at all. When we saw the auditions, pretty much every time, it just felt right. Zoe [Terakes] brings such a commanding force, it was like, “It’s them, it has to be.” [Our lead Sophie Wilde was] heaven to work with. Unbelievable. So talented, so committed. There’s no emotion she can’t play – she can be terrified and terrifying. There were days where I asked her to come to set without having slept, and she just went all the way.
M: It was so fun to iron out their characters [in rehearsals]. Like with Zoe, it was creating Hayley to be non-binary. We really wanted the cast to fully encapsulate their roles. Rehearsal periods are the best, we’d throw curveballs at the actors – change the line on one and not tell the other – then they’d react in character. We also got all the actors to do each other’s possessions; everyone’s done it so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. ‘Cos there are some embarrassing possessions.
What changed in the way you approached Talk to Me compared to your Rackaracka content?
D: There’s no characters with the online stuff, and I never had the balls to express myself more personally. So it was a deeper process, it was more therapeutic and intimate. The stuff we were watching was very different to the stuff we were making. When people go, “What’s your favourite movies?”, we [say] Dutch dramas, Korean cinema – you wouldn’t expect that. So that’s the kind of thing we wanted to work towards – something that works as a horror but also as a drama.
What are you inspired by? Can you name-drop those foreign dramas?
D: From a character level, I love the show In Treatment, an HBO show from 2008. Those characters feel like real people. There’s a [Russian] movie called The Return from 2003 that I’m in love with. Just the mood and atmosphere – I felt dread while watching that.
M: Mine’s Memories of Murder by Bong Joon-ho, the way he can blend genre so seamlessly. He can go in and out of comedy, drama, thriller, and it’s all part of one film. It’s something special. That’s what we were trying to do [with Talk to Me], ‘cos life isn’t just one emotion either. It’s not just scary, or just funny. Life’s everything.
The party scene was such a welcome spot of lightness. Did you have any favourite scenes?
M: [Because the schedule was so tight], we didn’t have very long to shoot the possession-party montage. We were real one-and-done with it. We said, “Let us control the set for two hours”, and it was just yelling crazy direction. We had two cameras going and music, the actors were just riffing.
D: You could feel it. There was so much electricity in the room, it was so much fun.
M: And then our producer Samantha Jennings pulled us aside and went, “This is not how you run a film set.”
What was it like seeing all that classic casual Aussie chat on the big screen at Sundance?
D: Sick. You don’t see [suburban Australia] portrayed on film that much. It’s rare to hear how people really talk. Like, this is how my group of friends talk. At Sundance, we wondered if it was going to translate.
Congratulations on the ending, I didn’t see it coming. When I realised, I just breathed out.
D: There’s always this awesome sound in the audience when it plays, where people get it. Right at the end, you hear this sigh. It’s such a cool moment.
Being picked up by A24 is no small feat. Where to from now?
D: We’d love to make another film with them. We’ve got another film script pretty much ready to go, so who knows? If this goes well, would love to do a sequel [to Talk to Me]. I love the world, I love the characters, I love the hand.
M: We’re texting [A24] every day, but it’s still crazy that the company that we respect the most is wanting to work with us.
D: In a way, we have too many offers. So it’s about what makes sense. Trying to stay grounded, not get too excited. Just doing stuff that we’re going to be 100 per cent invested in.
Talk to Me is showing in cinemas around Australia now. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.