Please Let Michael and Danny Philippou Terrify You

With A24's Talk to Me, a couple of Australian YouTubers just made the scariest—and best—horror film of the year. They told us how they pulled it off.
Published: 7 August 2023

Initially, Talk to Me, the new supernatural horror movie from twins Danny and Michael Philippou, was scheduled to be an eight-week production. But when the first-time feature filmmakers opted for promising young Australian talents over proven stars, the budget shrank. The shoot? Reduced to five weeks. Which was fine, doable enough—until the day of the big montage scene. In it, a group of Australian teens takes turns clasping a magical embalmed hand, which in turn makes them possessed by the dead. The Philippous intended to film a demonic party game with the rapid cuts and laughing gas of a drug trip. One issue was that they ran out of time to take all the pictures they needed.

“We wanted 50 set-ups and the first [Assistant Director] said, ‘It is mathematically impossible to get all these shots,’” says Michael.

The 30-year-old twins, though, didn’t think so. “We were like, ‘We need to shoot this Racka style,’" says Danny.

For the previous 10 years, the Philippous had been making exuberant Internet candy under the YouTube handle RackaRacka. You’ve very likely stumbled across their work. The channel has 6.8 million subscribers, and its videos—in which they imagine, for instance, faceoffs between the characters in Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, or Ronald McDonald caught in a pizza delivery car chase—have netted over a billion views. Working as an all-hats DIY filmmaking duo, they learned to do it all—and quickly. Racka style.

So, the pair urged the assistant director to give them carte blanche over the set for a couple of hours. When they did, Danny says, “It was like a bomb hit the set: We had two cameras, and we were screaming orders and playing music.”

Suffice to say, they got the shots. Though, afterwards, a producer pulled them aside and said, in Danny’s words, "This is not how a feature film set is run.” The Philippous apologised and said they’d calm down moving forward. “But there's a certain magic in that chaos,” Danny says. “And I think you can feel that energy through the screen.”

Above all, Michael (L) and Danny (R) specialize in one thing: destruction. "Poor dad," says Danny. "We always fixed up what we destroyed. He was always nice about it, but poor dad. We really fucked his house up."

ESQUIRE: You two are twins and you work together. For the unfamiliar, how do you distinguish Danny versus Michael?

DANNY PHILIPPOU: I'm the nerd twin. Michael's the jock twin. He's physical and I'm geeky. I'm the weak twin.

MICHAEL PHILIPPOU: I like travelling. Danny likes staying at home. When we're filming, Danny makes me get hit by cars while he films it.

DP: But I'm the smarter twin—he's the dumber twin.

In a lot of your RackaRacka YouTube videos, you make a huge mess—just destroying everything. When I watch videos like that I always wonder what the clean up is like—

DP: The worst part. You have so much fun destroying everything and then it's like, "Cut!"

MP: And a lot of people filming with you are like, "I'm going to go now."

DP: That was an amazing part of [filming] Talk to Me. Being able to destroy things and then be like, "Later!" and bail out of there.

MP: Sometimes, when it's funded or we've got demo houses, we make more of a mess because it's going to get knocked down. Once at our dad's house, we filmed and let off this little bomb—and the metal casing went through the roof. And we're like, "Oh shit." So we patched up the roof, but we didn't realise it had gone through the tiles as well. It was raining and my poor dad was reading the newspaper and there were drips of water. We looked up and the whole roof was sagging.

DP: Poor dad. We always fixed up what we destroyed. He was always nice about it, but poor dad. We really fucked his house up.

When you watch [Talk To Me] with Australians, everyone just pisses themselves laughing. Taking the piss out of each other is an Australian thing.

You guys started making videos at nine years old. Looking back, is there one that's near and dear to your hearts, where you can remember yourselves getting the filmmaking bug?

DP: All of them! I remember we did this movie called Evil Flamingo. It was a series of movies. We used my sister's flamingo doll to pretend it's murdering a bunch of people. We were probably 10 or 11. We started doing practical effects. We would put it in black and white, use tomato sauce as blood, we'd put fake eyes on my friend, and the flamingo was pulling the eyes out of this guy's head. We were so young. I remember being so obsessed with practical effects. We used to do it out of necessity. We didn't have any editing software. That was actually Evil Flamingo 2.

What was the inspiration for the Evil Flamingo videos?

DP: Chucky. I wanted to do my own killer doll movies.

MP: I think Evil Flamingo 2 was one of the first times where we were like, "Let's make it engaging the whole time."

Were you guys known as the crazy filmmaker kids in school?

DP: We used to differ between filmmaker kids and just delinquents. We were pretty aggressive kids.

MP: We weren't allowed in the same class in primary school. So I'd gather all these kids from my class, and Danny would from his class, and we'd meet on the oval and fight.

DP: But our friend Timani's older sister, Nelly, really steered us towards a more creative, fun path. We would always debut all of our movies and TV shows for her. And we hadn't seen her in like ten years, because she moved away when we were nineteen. Then we saw her for the first time at the Sundance premiere of Talk to Me.

"All throughout the film, I was drawing from things that scare me personally," says Danny Philippou.

How have you iterated, based on the feedback you’d get from friends and the Internet, as you were constantly making things?

MP: We never wanted to do YouTube. We kind of fell into making YouTube videos, because we were making these fake fail videos that were going really viral—and going on Jimmy KimmelConan O'Brien—but no one knew who made them. A friend said, "You should make a YouTube channel just to say who's making them." So we made it and then there was one video that just took off. It was at 3,000 views, then we went to sleep and woke up and it was at 500,000. At the end of the day, it was 1.5 million, and we had 100,000 subscribers in that one day. And we're like, "What if we actually put effort into this?" From there, every video was an idea or sequence we always wanted to do. The more we created and it grew, we had the ability to do that with makeup artists, stunt performers, and VFX. It was a lot of fun, and that's why we did it for so many years.

DP: One of the reasons I stepped back from YouTube and wanted to do something outside of it was I couldn't be as vulnerable on the YouTube stuff. I couldn't be as personal. It was always specific content for a specific audience. The stuff we liked watching was very different than the stuff we liked making. That's why the film stuff was where we always wanted to be, and this felt like the right time to be like, Let's tackle this side of us we haven't shown yet. And that's with story and character.

MP: Before YouTube, I had a short film called Deluge that we'd shot. It was about a father and son in a suicide cult, and I was never going to upload that to RackaRacka. I was like, My audience is gonna fucking hate this. Stepping outside of that was the goal here.

What were you watching during that time?

DP: I remember my favourite TV show that I watched and rewatched was called In Treatment. It's an HBO show about a therapist just talking to his patients. I was so in love with that show.

MP: And then things like The Hunt and Memories of Murder—films that worked so well on a character level. It's got like a hundredth of the budget of a big Hollywood thing, but for some reason it's so much stronger. And it's just so well thought out in terms of character and story.

DP: In In Treatment, even just the buildup to a character throwing water on another character, it was like someone just got shot. Because you were invested that much into the character—something that small carried that much weight.

MP: Maybe we were drawn to that because we had done all the big fight stuff.

In Talk to Me, one thing I was struck by is how mean these kids are. All the Australian people I've met have been very friendly. Are Australian kids just really mean, then they're nice when they travel?

DP: [Laughs.] It depends on the friend group. In our friend group, the way we connect is by absolutely roasting each other.

MP: It's the most multicultural friend group. People from all over, all in the same network, and the way we connected is just by bagging the shit out of each other. And you grow closer because of that. Those people are still our best friends today. When I look at the film and you say they're really mean, I'm like, Are they? [Laughs.] I know they are. There are things that are so cruel from Hayley [played by Zoe Terakes], but some of the things Hayley says we laugh at.

DP: When you watch it with Australians, everyone just pisses themselves laughing. Taking the piss out of each other is an Australian thing.

During the film’s possession sequences, one of the characters has a sexual experience and makes out with a dog. Tell me about filming that.

MP: With that scene, we had everyone play through each other's possessions. Not kissing a dog, but going through the actions. And on set he's not kissing a real dog. It's all done through effects. But we've all had those [embarrassing] experiences growing up, and some are filmed and you feel bad for the people. It's not like back in the day where it can be talked about and forgotten. It's immortalised. Even just mistakes people have made. Which kind of sucks. Young people can't really grow safely or learn from experiences because it can always be shoved in their face.

Talk to Me deals with loss and grief. I read that you had a bad car accident when you were sixteen, Danny. What happened?

DP: I split my eye open and they thought I might've broken my spine. I was in the hospital afterwards and I couldn't stop shaking. The doctors would come in, turn on the heaters, and give me extra blankets. Then my sister came in, sat next to me, and held my hand. As she did that, the shaking just stopped. I was shaking not out of being cold, but out of being in shock. And the touch of my sister, someone I loved, brought me out of it. So human touch and the connections between people was always a really strong thing for me. Before we had the hand as a motif, it was just evident all the way through the film, and it just felt right to have the hand be the representation of it—this clingy, desperate hand needing connection.

Were you driving the car?

DP: No, I was in the car with three other friends, and I was sleeping in the back seat. They went through a red light and we got t-boned. I remember waking up and the car was spinning around. I was thinking my friends were dead, not understanding where I was. And I was so out of it that when I was asked my name, I was saying the street I lived on. The way Riley's face swells up in the movie was the way my face was swelling up. You could not recognise me. I was so deformed and disfigured.

Don’t let Michael (L) and Danny (R) Philippou’s faces fool you. "I’ve always been drawn to doing something dangerous, especially when it’s related to telling a story," says Michael.

In the movie, Mia [played by Sophie Wilde] feels guilt for being responsible for Riley's accident. Were those feelings drawn from that incident?

DP: Those feelings were drawn from our neighbours who we watched grow up. I remember their mom would ask me to drive them to school, and I was always terrified of doing that. I had this intrusive thought in my head of, What if I fucking crash the car and kill them right now and I have to go back and face their mom? All throughout the film, I was drawing from things that scare me personally.

And yet you guys both seem like daredevils. Michael is even a certified stuntman. So how did you push through that fear?

MA: I've always been drawn to doing something dangerous, especially when it's related to telling a story. If it's in my head, I'm just going to do it. I don't want anybody else to carry that risk. But it's something in me that's always just wanted to perform that stuff. Maybe it's the only time I feel present or something. And I'm scared when I agree to some stuff. We do these live events where I can get paralyzed or be killed, and beforehand I'm thinking about news articles if it goes wrong. But when you pull it off and you look back at the footage it's like, "Ohh, you survived that!" There's something about that that's so exhilarating.

DA: Even on a small scale, pushing through things is like that. Even the fear of doing a movie—in the daytime, I was so confident about it. But at night, all those doubts start to creep in, and you're like, I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. I've never made a movie before. I can't believe there's millions of dollars on the line. I'm just questioning and overthinking it. Then when the day comes, you just have to take the leap.

MA: It's like everything you want is at the edge of fear. And I feel like a lot of people don't pursue things because of how people will react initially, or they’re thinking about what will happen if they fail. But if you actually just push that aside and start, no matter where you end up, you're going to be so thankful that you did. The worst thing for me is saying, "What if…?" at the end of life. There's parts of my childhood where I'm like, "I wish I just did that." I think from an early age, I tried to just go for it.

Was there a specific moment where you learned that lesson?

MA: A few moments. It was something I saw from a friend who was getting bullied by three kids. He pushed a bully. Then at lunchtime, the three biggest, scariest kids in our grade came and beat the shit out of him until he was on the floor and bleeding. They beat the crap out of him until they were out of breath and then the bully said, "You had enough yet?" This kid got up and punched him in the face. And that defiance was so striking to me. There was a time when I was getting bullied and I used that as inspiration. I did this thing and got my ass kicked after, but I was proud that I stood up for myself and my friends.

From: Esquire Us

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