Twins Danny and Michael Philippou turned down Hollywood so they could make their debut horror feature, Talk to Me, in Adelaide – then Hollywood came knocking. By Stephen A. Russell.
Directors Danny and Michael Philippou
In the surreal snow globe that is the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, 30-year-old twins Danny and Michael Philippou could hardly believe their luck as competing offers flooded in for their wickedly fun horror debut feature, Talk to Me.
“There’s 0.5 per cent chance of getting in there,” says Danny. I’m sitting with him and his equally fast-talking, six-minutes-younger brother, Michael, in a sleepy South Yarra cafe that’s at least 200 per cent livelier for their presence. “We didn’t know we had made the cut until quite late.”
Their film, which was released in Australia this week, secured a coveted spot in Sundance’s Midnight stream for genre fare during the opening weekend in January, after closing last year’s Adelaide Film Festival. The Sundance approaches included an offer from indie production and distribution outfit A24, a power player that went into this year’s Oscars with the biggest haul of nominations, led by 11 nods and seven wins for Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The brothers still can’t quite wrap their heads around it. “It was a joke on set and in the edit that we’d say to each other, ‘That’s not very A24 or Sundance of you to be lingering on that shot like that,’ ” Michael says. “We were completely out of it,” Danny continues. “Everyone was overwhelmed and crying. It was like the biggest dream … It was bizarre and we had serious impostor syndrome.”
They needn’t have. Jaws director Steven Spielberg and Get Out’s Jordan Peele both congratulated them on their darkly comic and startlingly gory film about a bunch of Adelaide teenagers messing around with a spooky stone hand that allows them to be possessed by the ungrateful dead. The trick is to commune for no more than 90 seconds – but of course, that rule is soon broken, to calamitous effect.
At Sundance, Beau Is Afraid and Hereditary director Ari Aster assured them A24 was great to work with, says Michael. “He’s amazing and said that they’re so filmmaker friendly and always supported his vision.” That sealed the deal for the brothers, who accepted a seven-figure sum. It’s an ironic turn, given they walked away from big Hollywood money early in pre-production.
There was serious interest from a major studio in Danny’s screenplay – co-written with Bill Hinzman, working up a concept by Bluey producer Daley Pearson – but it came with a catch. They would have to shoot in the United States with big-name American stars, or at the very least import them to Adelaide, and the film would be set in the US. Backed by Samantha Jennings of Causeway Films – the Australian production company behind celebrated horror movies The Babadook, Cargo and You Won’t Be Alone – they refused and reinvested their fees back into the film to make budget.
“We trust Sam with our lives,” Danny says. Michael adds that while it was difficult to walk away from financial security and a guaranteed theatrical release, they were committed to filming in Adelaide their way, with local talent. “You hear those horror stories about directors that get screwed by the Hollywood system,” he says. “So we decided to do it independently, to shoot in Australia with our unique voice, because our vision was so strong from the first word on the page. We’ve been doing it like that since the beginning, so why change now?”
Visually arresting, thanks to sharp cinematography by Aaron McLisky, and with an immersive and unnerving design, Talk to Me hangs on remarkable performances from relative newcomers. A luminous Sophie Wilde, who also appears in the Byron Bay-set drama series Eden, plays Mia, who is estranged from her father following the suicide of her mother a year before the film begins. Spending most of her time at her best mate Jade’s house (Frayed’s Alexandra Jensen), she bonds with Jade’s younger 14-year-old brother, Riley (Joe Bird, First Day), while Jade’s otherwise occupied with her boyfriend (Otis Dhanji).
“As soon as we saw Sophie audition, we knew she was special,” Michael says. “She’s a 10 out of 10 and it was an honour working with her every day. You saw it on set and in every cut in the edit. There were no bad takes.”
Bird auditioned twice during the lockdown-protracted casting process. “The first time he was 12, and then he was 14, which is two very different kids, and I didn’t even remember him,” Michael says. “Two years makes all the difference,” Danny adds. “He had really improved and was able to pull off the possession in front of us, which most of the kids couldn’t do.”
They can’t quite believe Miranda Otto agreed to play Jade and Riley’s mother, whose nightshift work allows the gang to sneak out to the party where they first encounter the cursed hand. “We were all very surprised,” chuckles Michael. “We were intimidated on set, like how do we direct Miranda Otto?” But she brought a “cool aunty energy” that also helped ground them at Sundance. “She’s very open and warm, which made it easy.”
For all the nightmarish visions the film conjures, much of Talk to Me’s journey to Utah feels like an impossible dream come true. The brothers grew up in northern Adelaide suburb Pooraka with their half-sister, Chrissie, who’s 10 years older, “a bit more chill, bit more normal and put together”, and sister Helene, two years older and “a bit crazy, like us”. Big wrestling fans who loved throwing down with each other, they weren’t allowed to be in the same class together and ran with a crowd of similarly unruly kids.
Their father’s heritage is Cypriot and their mother’s parents were Greek. When the twins were children their parents separated and they lived with their father, a kitchen renovator who, like Otto’s character, worked late. They were often left in the care of their Cypriot grandfather. “He never knew what we weren’t allowed to watch,” Michael says. “So we’d make him get us all this R-rated stuff. Some of it was anime, then Mum would see it and freak out, and he’d be like [affecting an exaggerated Cypriot accent], ‘It’s a cartoon, it’s a cartoon, it’s fine.’ ” He died when the twins were 13. “Then we went rogue,” grins Danny.
The films they watched included William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1973), which shares DNA with Talk to Me. “It’s incredible how much it still stands up today,” Michael says. “It’s so powerful, on a dramatic level, and I love how realistic the horror’s played. It doesn’t feel over-the-top. It’s a natural progression.”
Danny says the work of South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, particularly the detective drama Memories of Murder, is another seminal influence. “He merges tone so seamlessly between drama, thriller, horror and comedy all in one film, and I’ve always respected that. I remember the first script we ever tried to write, we were getting notes about it being all over the place.” Referencing Bong wasn’t enough. “We were told, ‘He’s a genre all of his own’, but that’s what we wanted to do. Life isn’t just one emotion. It’s funny and it’s scary all in one.”
Soon they were diverting their boundless energy into making their own movies, filming six episodes of Evil Flamingo, starring Helene’s toy flamingo, by the time they were 12. “We’d cover it in tomato sauce for the kills,” Danny says. These evolved into the Jackass-style hijinks of their infamously wild and wacky YouTube channel, RackaRacka (the name’s a derivative of Pooraka, where they still live when not travelling the world with Talk to Me). That caught the attention of Screen Australia, the South Australian Film Corporation and the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund.
Their first awareness of Sundance came via Nelly, the older sister of childhood friends. Much like Mia, she was an additional sister figure for the scrapping siblings. “We’d start trouble, piss people off and they’d chase us,” Michael recalls. “We’d run to Nelly and [her brother] Ben because they were big Samoan islanders who would scare them off.”
Nelly moved to the US but kept in touch with the Philippous, insisting she’d see them next at Sundance. “She educated us about it, so it was surreal that the first movie we made got in and then she was there,” Michael says. “She manifested it,” Danny adds.
With Talk to Me on the brink of international success, their thoughts have turned to the all-important second feature. “We have to make sure that we 100 per cent want to do it and not rush into something half-cooked,” Michael says. “We haven’t scratched the surface of what we could achieve with all these ideas in our head. With Racka, we executed many of the small ones, but the bigger ones? We’ve barely started.”
Australia has enjoyed a decade-long success in horror since Jennifer Kent wowed Sundance with her debut feature, The Babadook, a film on which both Philippou brothers worked. Michael was a production runner and it was Danny’s first paid gig in the business. “I was volunteering on so many films just to be on a set that it got to the point producer Julie Byrne told me I couldn’t keep doing everything for free, so she hired me on The Babadook and there I was, a 19-year-old on my Ps, driving Essie Davis around.”
Watching Kent work was transformative. “Jennifer was the first director I saw that really cared about every single shot,” Danny says. “I knew that movie couldn’t turn out bad and I learned so much from her vision, which I respect so much. We adopted her mentality with our film.”
Danny and Michael may be identical twins, but spend enough time in their company and you see how their vibe differs. Michael, an accredited stuntman, is more of a “jock”, according to the slimmer, writerly Danny. He once stood in for his daredevil brother when he was injured, prompting the crew to comment, “You’re looking a bit thin, Michael.”
Asked what they most admire in each other, Michael praised Danny for holding on to their shared dream when RackaRacka was temporarily withdrawn from YouTube. “The journey has been very difficult and there’s been lots of roadblocks,” he says. “After we got pushed off YouTube, I felt very defeated and had a give-up mentality, travelling until my money ran out. But Danny really pursued scriptwriting and got Talk to Me to happen.”
Danny concurs the process was stressful. “But to have two of us to have each other’s backs got us through. Without Mike’s commitment, especially with the music and sound, Talk to Me wouldn’t be half of what it is.”
They want to keep working here, despite doomsayers pointing out that few Australian films make their budget back. They assembled a gifted crew on Talk to Me – such as hair and make-up designer Rebecca Buratto – many of whom worked tirelessly on RackaRacka for nothing. “And now we can pay them and put them in lead department roles on a film and that’s the best,” Michael says. “We want to keep being able to do that, and they want to be there to support us.”
Danny says he will always write with Hinzman, whom the brothers met on a course at Adelaide’s MAPS Film School. “He’s an untapped goldmine of film wealth, he’s so inspiring. The initial 80 pages of Talk to Me were just notes and scenes and ideas, and he helped me put it all together. I couldn’t do without him.”
Their advice for would-be filmmakers? “Just start doing it,” Danny says. “Even if you’re bad right now, everything you do, you get better. Believe in yourself and stick with it.” Michael agrees. “Don’t get bottled into the roundabout way of life. If you want to chase something different, go for it and don’t listen to external voices. Just be true to yourself.”
After all, the Australian movie-making sensibility appears to have global appeal. “There’s a raw way of storytelling with a lot of Australian films, and our funding bodies aren’t giving that many huge notes, so people are allowed to express themselves authentically,” Danny says. “They’re giving our voices the freedom to speak.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Horror story".
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