Editor’s note: These interviews were undertaken before the SAG-AFTRA union strikes.
LAST WEEK, AMERICAN indie film studio A24 released its latest arthouse horror, Talk To Me, to rave reviews and a projection-defying box office debut of USD$10 million (about AUD$14.9 million). It’s the studio’s second-biggest debut since 2018’s Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster, who is widely regarded as one of the modern masters of the genre.
But the creators of Talk To Me are not similarly lofty horror auteurs: They are Danny and Michael Philippou, the 30-year-old twin brothers from the suburbs of Adelaide who made their name as the raucous YouTube duo RackaRacka. With 6.75 million subscribers to date, they spent their twenties creating skits that ranged from the hilarious to the ridiculous, to the arguably obscene. For an idea of their tone, you need only scroll through their YouTube videos, whose titles include “Ronald McDonald Chicken Store Massacre”; “Most Epic Nerf War in History!”; and “Selling Riley Reid’s BATHWATER!” (yes, Riley Reid the adult actress).
And yet these are indeed the minds behind Talk to Me, a film that deftly harnesses the horror genre to speak to a universal truth of the teenage experience. At first glance, the film appears to be your standard psych-séance-horror with a hefty dose of gore. 17-year-old Mia (The Portable Door‘s Sophie Wilde) is grieving the loss of her mother, and is influenced by her peers (including Hayley, played by Wentworth’s Zoe Terakes) to get hooked on demonic possessions as a cathartic release offering a drug-like high.
On a deeper level, Talk to Me is about the ways young people cope with the agony of growing up, mental illness, and the realities of addiction. It’s a film that is equal parts hilarious, terrifying, and moving. That tone requires a remarkable amount of nuance from its creators—and nuance is the last thing you’d expect from the creators of “Ronald McDonald Playground Slaughter!”
But there’s a montage in the film that really exemplifies how their unique energy was, in fact, key to nailing that tone. The teens are all taking turns clasping an embalmed hand, and being possessed by the demonic spirits it channels. Here, the film steps into hyperdrive, exuding the energy of a laughter-high drug trip: It’s raucous and loud and erratic, overflowing with energy and vim.
“Two people who can produce that know what they’re doing,” Terakes tells me, and it’s true. After speaking to the twins, you realise such unexpected genius couldn’t have come from anywhere other than their collective imagination, which seems to know no bounds.
When I meet them during their Australian press tour ahead of the film’s local release, the twins are an inseparable ball of energy. They talk at a breakneck pace, interjecting each other constantly in the way siblings do, punctuating their sentences with peals of infectious laughter. But they’re also surprisingly heartfelt, generous with their praise and keen to call out the prowess of their collaborators, from their friend’s older sister who inspired them to channel their energies into filmmaking, to their producer Samantha Jennings (“she’s a godsend,” says Danny), to their cast (“growing with them is the best feeling ever,” says Michael). There’s not a whiff of ego in sight—“we’re literally just following the flow. We have no idea what we’re doing,” Danny chirps halfway through our chat.
Working with them, their actors tell me, was exhilarating and unexpected: Wilde affectionately describes them as “unhinged”; Terakes calls Danny a “freak” with equal fondness. So how exactly did the outlandish pair go from stomach-churning Ronald McDonald parodies to A24 auteurs lauded by their filmmaking heroes, from the aforementioned Aster to Steven Spielberg?
THE PHILIPPOUS ALWAYS had filmmaking aspirations, though they started with more juvenile attempts at entertainment. As children, “we were delinquents,” Danny says. “We were like, very full on, a lot of energy, very violent, and uh—borderline criminal,” he summarises. With a group of their mates around the same age of nine, they began making amateur backyard wrestling clips.
“We didn’t want to become YouTubers,” Michael explains. But the short films and skits that they were posting online were going viral nonetheless—even the likes of Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien were sharing their videos, “but no one knew who was making them”. A YouTuber friend suggested that they make their own channel so they could at least get some credit for their efforts, so at age 20, they did. “And then in the first year, we got a half a million, a million subscribers,” Michael continues.
“We were like, oh, what if we focus on this properly, you know? And then we got sucked in the world of YouTube.”
At first, the platform was merely a “side quest,” but as their following grew, they couldn’t deny the opportunity it provided for them to hone their filmmaking craft on a low-budget, non-committal level. “I tried different makeup techniques or stunt techniques. [We] just built ourselves up as filmmakers so that we were ready to take the step into movie-making when it was time,” Danny says.
“It’s just a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun to shoot…and YouTube was perfect for that… I don’t know where it came from. It’s just us as kids with too much ADHD.”
Given their rambunctious output, the brothers’ personal tastes are more highbrow than you’d expect. “We love foreign dramas…from our YouTube stuff, you wouldn’t guess that,” Michael acknowledges. When it comes to creating, their penchant for gory, twisted tales stemmed partly from an enjoyment of leaning into their childish whims, but also from a fear of sincerity.
Both brothers serve as directors on Talk to Me, but Danny is the writer among them. And while he has plenty of big ideas he’s keen to explore (he even has a rom-com in mind), he was hesitant to share them with the RackaRacka following. “I knew that I wasn’t confident enough to express myself on a drama level on YouTube, so the other stuff just felt natural,” he says, referring to their rowdier clips.
“It’s just a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun to shoot…and YouTube was perfect for that,” adds Michael. “I don’t know where it came from. It’s just us as kids with too much ADHD.”
But their hunger to create something deeper only grew. They both earned valuable experience on the set of Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook, another Australian horror that amassed worldwide critical acclaim—Michael was a production runner and Danny a lighting assistant. Not only did their time on set give them the opportunity to meet Causeway Film’s Kristina Ceyton and Samantha Jennings, who would become Talk to Me‘s champion producers; it also offered valuable insight into the importance of sticking to one’s creative guns.
“Seeing Jennifer Kent work…she would not sway from her vision,” Michael says. “There was inspiration we gained from that—like, chase your vision no matter what is being said, go at it wholeheartedly. And then at least it’ll be something that you wanted to make.”
THAT INSPIRATION would prove vital to the creation of Talk to Me when the opportunity eventually came knocking. Globally, they knew there was an appetite for the film and its themes—it’s undeniable that ‘elevated’ thrillers and horrors are having a moment, just look at the success of the likes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Aster’s Midsommar, and Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Danny credits their appeal to the way they act as a subtle delivery method for serious messages. “I think [horror] is a way of expressing things in a way that doesn’t feel preachy,” he says. “It connects to people… it’s a way into heavy themes without it feeling like a heavy movie.”
But even with that global appetite, they still had hurdles to overcome. It’s no secret that attention and funding for Australian films is hard to come by, especially for independent filmmakers. As viral YouTubers, the Philippous certainly had the attention part down. They were in talks with mainstream distributors and were gearing up to film in the States and find a big American name to attach as the lead role to ensure eyes on their guaranteed theatrical release. “But they started giving us the notes, and it didn’t align with us creatively,” Michael says. “You always hear those nightmares of, you know, directors getting screwed over by Hollywood. We just didn’t want that—we wanted it to be the movie that we wanted to make.”
So the brothers decided to trust their instincts and create the film locally. In 2020, they were announced as one of six recipients of a shared $6 million Screen Australia production funding budget—giving them much tighter purse strings than they would have had with a mainstream distributor.
When Australian actor Sophie Wilde auditioned for the supporting role of Hayley, they realised they had actually found their lead, Mia. “We lost budget by casting her because she wasn’t a ‘name,’ but it was so worth it,” Danny admits. “She’s so incredible and so talented… we got told that ‘she’s not a star,’ and then we were like, ‘we’ll show someone—she’s gonna be a star.” (Watch the film, and you’ll agree she certainly is.)
The result is a film that feels genuinely Australian, in a way that isn’t at all cringe-inducing. “Cultural cringe is a real thing… where you’re trying too hard to be something that you’re not,” says Michael.
“It just feels natural to write Australian, because all the characters are based on people that I know, roughly, and they’re all experiences that are personal,” Danny adds.
“Working on American jobs, you kind of constantly feel like you’re Google translating yourself…I think there’s something so Australian about this film, but not Australian in a way that feels colonial and gross.”
For their actors, the authenticity of the script was a major drawcard. “When I think of Australian cinema, so much of it’s the bush, the Australian landscape, which is obviously beautiful and needs to be explored. But it was interesting to see a script that was like… teens in suburbia,” Wilde says. “I’ve actually not seen this before, and never seen it executed in such an authentic way.”
“Working on American jobs, you kind of constantly feel like you’re Google translating yourself,” says Terakes. “I think there’s something so Australian about this film, but not Australian in a way that feels colonial and gross—Australian in a way that feels like what it means to be Australian now; which is extremely multicultural, and there’s a range of genders and everything in this film. And this is not Danny and Michael being like, oh, we have to do this,” they continue.
Talk to Me sold to a number of international distributors at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in July, before it first premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in October of the same year. The team were in shock when the film was accepted into Sundance Film Festival, where it had its international premiere. But that was just the beginning.
“I remember we were cringing so hard when the screening was on at Sundance, cause like Ari [Aster] was there, and all these people were there—and we just thought it was a pile of shit, the movie,” Danny recalls in a total deadpan tone. “I was like, I’m going to go apologise to Ari, I feel like the agents brought him here…And then he came up and he’s like, ‘that was really special.'”
After Aster, the praise kept rolling in. The day after the premiere, Danny got a message: “This is a strange cold text, but this is Jordan Peele”. Steven Spielberg and Stephen King noted their admiration, too. And then came the multi-studio bidding war, resulting in A24 winning the film in a deal in the “high seven figures”.
“It was like, one of the films of Sundance,” Terakes says. “It was buzzy,” Wilde agrees. “We would be at parties, and people would come up to us and be like, ‘You guys were in Talk to Me! We loved that film!'”
Now that the film has had its wider theatrical release across the world and smashed box office expectations, it’s been hailed by critics and fans alike as one of the best horrors of the year. The Guardian called it “Evil Dead for the Snapchat generation”. “They Sold Porn Star Bath Water And Just Made the Year’s Scariest Film,” hailed Rolling Stone. Forbes called it “incredible”.
“It’s un-processable,” admits Danny. “Our Sundance experience was just us crying, because it was so overwhelming… It felt so dreamlike and surreal.”
“It still feels like we’re on cloud nine, like we haven’t woken up yet,” Michael chimes in.
I’m not at all surprised when the brothers tell me they plan to keep up their breakneck pace, embracing the runner’s high they’ve become accustomed to. Danny already finished writing his second horror film, Bring Her Back, with Talk to Me co-writer Bill Hinzman, in November 2021. “Hoping to attach some producers after we finish shooting Talk To Me,” Danny wrote on Instagram at the time (I don’t think he’ll have any problems there).
In April, Deadline broke the news that the brothers have been tapped to direct a live-action adaptation of Street Fighter, based off the ’80s arcade game phenomenon. It’s a pretty sweet full circle moment, given their 2016 RackaRacka video: “Real Life Street Fighter”.
But all the hype aside, the Philippous are trying to remain level-headed.
“I think we’re just gonna stay true to ourselves and make stuff that we’re proud of,” says Michael. “Maybe they’ll be shit, maybe they won’t… I don’t know.”
“Even like, Bring Her Back is a little bit smaller than Talk To Me. Everyone’s like, the next one should be bigger!…but I’m really passionate about this, and it feels natural to me, and I want to express these things,” Danny adds.
“This is the dream for us. I can’t believe these things are even possibilities,” he continues. “So I just want to keep running, and making stuff and making stuff. To make a film every one to two years would be a dream for us. It’s just the most fun experience.”
Talk To Me is in Australian cinemas now.