Two brothers who started making online content now have a feature at Sundance. Here's how they did it.
The great thing about horror is its flexibility and the way it so easily melds with other genres and ideas that might sound disparate at first.
Take, for instance, what will likely be one of Sundance 2023's strongest genre films. In Talk to Me, Aussie teens come into possession of a strange hand figurine covered in graffiti. It's creepy enough on its own, but then we learn that a few simple words allow the figurine to conjure spirits and possess whoever holds the hand.
As audience members, of course, we're thinking, "Get rid of that thing." But of course these teens start using the hand essentially as a party drug, taking turns getting "high" on possession and filming each other's contorted faces, weird vocalizations, and gross-out behavior for laughs. Until, inevitably, things go awry.
The Sundance program warns the film "contains extreme violence and gore," which never phases me, but I will say there was one point in the film I screamed bloody murder at what was happening on screen. And that's all most of us want from a horror film, really.
Writer/directors Danny and Michael Philippou got their start on YouTube. You've probably seen some of their highly viral RackaRacka content at some point. It's funny, colorful, fast, loud—all things YouTube viewers love. You can chart the brothers' growth as filmmakers through their channel, watching the stories, shots, editing, and VFX get more sophisticated over the years. Eventually they landed spots on The Babdook crew, and things took off from there. Talk to Me is their debut feature.
We spoke with the brothers via Zoom ahead of the fest to learn more about their fast-and-loose filmmaking style and how YouTube was their film school.
Editor's note: this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: So I know that this was based on a real-life experience of someone essentially having a bad trip. I'm really interested in how you developed that idea further with Daley Pearson and where possession came into it.
Danny Philippou: Daley Pearson had a short film idea that he came to us with and he'd written. He ended up writing a little six-page script that sort of had these roles, and these kids that were experimenting with something and they were using it to get a rush and a trip. And there were certain experiences from our childhood or people that we know that I was able to inject into that and then do my pass of the script.
And then once I started writing, I just couldn't stop. And we had a draft of the film within two weeks because I was just writing pages, and experiences, and scenes, and ideas, and characters, and I just kept writing, and writing, and writing. So he had that intro of that short film idea and then, yeah, it was such an awesome idea. I just ran with it.
No Film School: What was the short initially about? Was it just the "trip" scene, and you just grew it from there?
Danny Philippou: Yeah, it was a bit of a horror/comedy thing of kids that were using a board, a Ouija board, to get possessed. And having fun with the spirits was roughly what that short film was about. And then there were just so many cool nuggets in there. And the idea as a whole was, I thought, really strong. So yeah, it was such an awesome starting point.
Michael Philippou: Well, and that's kind of what you do—what kids would do now, anyway. If this thing was real, that's what you'd do. Film it and do a ... use as a party drug or something like that. That's what the generation is now. It's not to stay away from things like that, it's to embrace it and film it and get attention from it, ultimately.
No Film School: What did that collaborative process look like for you?
Danny Philippou: Well, we sort of established the relationship of our online work, as I'll sort of have the rough idea or the script, and I'll be behind the camera, so I'd shoot it. Mike was in front of the camera, and he does stunt work, and he does the acting. And then I'll do a rough cut. Mike will do a fine cut. I will do VFX and a color grade, and Mike would do sound effects and music.
And so in post-production, Mike was able to lead and head that side of it, the sound design and the music. And then I was really hands-on with the pre-production. And on set, I was the main voice to the actors, and Mike would be looking after the small details and would be also helping catch the things that I'd be missing.
Michael Philippou: Yeah, I'd be giving suggestions. So Danny would be the main voice, and then I'll just speak to him about other ideas and takes and then other things that are happening outside of the main action as well.
No Film School: You mentioned your YouTube work, so I'm very interested in how that acted as a film school for you all. How did you take that experience into your first feature?
Danny Philippou: Everything that we did, that's the best film school, was just literally going out and doing it. And ever since we were 9 years old, we've been doing it. And as kids, any idea that we have was just getting a bunch of friends together and shooting it and then doing it and seeing what works and what doesn't.
Yeah, the Racka stuff, it was always like, "Oh, we've got a location" or "We've got an idea for a stunt," or "We've got the idea of this makeup effect." And then we'd base videos around certain things that we're wanting to experiment with and achieve. So that was the best film school ever. We learned so, so much and got so many connections and worked with so many crew members and so many ... it was awesome to help build our skills.
Michael Philippou: We started out since we were kids. Like, we made our own show. Look, I've got the DVDs here. So this is season one of a show we used to make.
No Film School: That's awesome.
Michael Philippou: We used to make TV shows and things like that with our friends. We always just want to create things and then it's so funny to look back on it now, but you see the transformation ... And things get better as the years go on. So it's just about making stuff, and I'm staying active with making stuff and creating. So my advice would be to someone wanting to start is, "Just start." Don't wait until you're a hundred percent ready because you're never going to be a hundred percent ready. Just go out and start making stuff. Because that's, yeah, the best experience you can get.
No Film School: I remember when I was young, I would shoot on my dad's camcorder. What was your evolution of gear as you were learning?
Michael Philippou: Well, our dad had this big old camera when we were really little kids that we went around with. It was probably this big or something. We're these kids filming with it. Then we broke that eventually and then he got us another camcorder. So he went through the series of the tapes, and then that turned to disks, and then that turned to digital. But with the tapes ... when it was tapes, and we couldn't do sound effects of music, we'd usually, if we're doing a fake fight scene, we'd have someone punching and someone behind the camera hitting the wall, doing that in the background to try and—
Danny Philippou: And the music.
Michael Philippou: Danny would be like, "Ahh!" Doing a horror scene, Danny would be like—
Danny Philippou: Yeah. I know. We couldn't do music, so I would always do the music with my mouth behind the camera. And yeah, that's how we did the score back in the day.
No Film School: What is the biggest thing that you learned from making this first feature?
Danny Philippou: It was about the collaboration and finding how it's an audition process with cast, but also with crew as well. Those heads of departments to find people that are super strong and passionate in their fields. It was just learning that collaboration process, which was so magical and amazing and we were so lucky to have such a strong team. So it was... Yeah. And then learning that we want certain parts of us, I think Michael can attest to this as well, that it's... With our music, we'd love to have a composer on before we start shooting, just so they can start getting into the head of the film and sending us music so we can use that to be inspired by and even shoot scenes around. So I think that that's something that we learned for next time that we really want to do is have a composer be on board.
Michael Philippou: Because we're so specific with things like sound and music and editing, everything that could be, maybe, frustrating as well to people that we're working with. So having more time to do that kind of stuff. Because music's usually at the end, people do it at the end, but it's such a core and massive part of the movie that it carries a lot of film as well. When it does come in—and I'm not talking about big crazy scores all the time to cover things up, but for it to work alongside the material, workshopping that early and coming up with a sound and ideas beforehand, I think will just help.
So I'm looking forward to our next movie and kind of ingraining that a little bit. And I've been learning a bit of more musical stuff. I'm learning the piano right now so I can speak the language more as opposed to going ... Because when I'm working with anyone, I'm like, "Oh, not that." I have notes in my head, but I can't even say what they are. I don't know. A, B, C, E, E minor, D major. I don't know that stuff. I'm just like "No, longer or lower," things like that. I'm looking forward to exploring that more and working collaboratively with the composer for the next one.
No Film School: What are you most excited about in horror as a genre right now?
Danny Philippou: Oh, just the magnitude of it and how much material is coming out. And I love that there's an overwhelming amount because I love horror films. I'm obsessed of horror films. So the most exciting thing is how popular they are and how they're always in theaters still. It's like it's always Christmas. It feels like I... Yeah, I love that it's just so prominent right now. That's the most exciting thing to me is that who knows what classics are going to be made over the next 10 years that are going to carry over for the next 50. Yeah, the idea of it's so exciting.
No Film School: Did you always know that your first film was going to be a horror film?
Danny Philippou: No, we were developing a whole bunch of stuff, and then this was the one that really got traction. It was the one that I sat down to write properly. And when we want to get into film now, it was... Yeah, it was just the idea that had the most traction and had the most life. But there's other genres that we definitely want to jump into for the next—
Michael Philippou: Yeah, it was less wanting to do horror first. I think it was more that we wanted to create something that was three-dimensional, and layered, and strong, like a good, strong script with characters and stuff. I hope we achieved that. That was the plan. That was the idea for our first movie. We wanted it to be more than just what the YouTube stuff was.
No Film School: Do you have anything else that you would tell someone who wants to get started making movies?
Danny Philippou: Yeah, there's so many ways to express yourself. Even if you don't have a group of friends that you can do stuff with, you can still shoot stuff by yourself on your phone as we were able to do. And even if it's stop motion, or if it's writing something that people can get into and start expressing themselves. Learning is doing, instead of reading about it, I think the best way to do it is to just do it. And then you'll learn your own way of what does work and what doesn't work. So yeah, my advice is always just to do, do, do. Just get started. You have to.
Michael Philippou: You want to make that initial stuff and fail like that. And then that stuff, even stuff that we've done when we were before YouTube or whatever, or even during YouTube, that completely flopped and failed and it's cringey to look at, it's that stuff is a lesson that you take forward for the next thing. And that sort of helps mold you as a filmmaker. So the best advice, really, is to just start making stuff and then just start with whatever you've got, whatever you've got, just start making.
Danny Philippou: Whatever possible. Yeah.
No Film School: What are you working on next?
Danny Philippou: Oh, there's so many things. There's three horror films that we're developing right now. One of them is potentially a sequel to Talk To Me, but there's a bunch of other ideas that we're running with. And Michael's writing an action film right now. There are just multiple things.
Michael Philippou: We have an action [film]. We have a coming-of-age film. We got a comedy. We've got a few TV show ideas. We've got a game. We've got a comic. We've got lots of different ideas that we want to do. It's like, what one's going to make sense?
Danny Philippou: Whatever feels like it's getting the most traction or whatever's the most inspiring is ... I always just sort of jump between projects. I'll be writing, writing, writing, writing, and then I'll hit a wall, and then I'll jump to the next project and run till I hit a wall again. So it's always just stopping when I hit a wall and then rotating that slate.
No Film School: I feel like a lot of people will hit that wall and just stop and quit and not come back to it.
Michael Philippou: But what's good about that, when you do hit a wall and you leave something for a while, when you do come back to it and you read it, you're like, "Ah, this was actually kind of getting somewhere," and then revisiting.
Danny Philippou: Yeah, the wall crumbled while you were away.
Michael Philippou: Another film school tip about just making stuff is, what do they say? "Don't ask for permission, just ask for forgiveness." That's what we used to do. If we wanted to film somewhere, you just run in there and start filming.
Danny Philippou: I don't think you should publicly give that opinion. I don't think you should give that as a—
Michael Philippou: You just got to go do it. Imagine the permissions you'd have to get ...
No Film School: I think people have actually told us that before. So you're in good company there, I think.