When io9 saw Talk to Me at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, we knew it would become a breakout horror hit, especially once A24 became its distributor. This week, the film—which is both clever and alarmingly frightening—finally opens wide, and audiences can see what all the buzz is about.
Talk to Me follows a group of high schoolers, including the troubled Mia (Sophie Wilde), who come across a mysterious embalmed hand with the power to connect the living and the dead. The teens think being possessed is a scream, and eagerly gather for parties where they take turns filming each other under the influence. What could possibly go wrong, you ask? So much goes wrong for the characters in Talk to Me—but horror fans are going to love watching it happen.
io9 got a chance to talk to the energetic Australian siblings who directed Talk to Me, Danny and Michael Philippou, ahead of its release. What follows is a slightly condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: Talk to Me is your feature debut, but you’ve been running a hugely popular YouTube channel for a decade. Was making the leap to movies always the goal, and why did you decide to make your first film a horror film?
Michael Philippou: Ever since we started, it was the main goal. It’s what we always wanted to get into. We’ve been doing YouTube videos for a decade, but we were making stuff for a decade before that as well. The end goal was always getting into feature films and television.
Danny Philippou: Obsessed with it. The ultimate dream that I always had was, like, walking into a cinema and seeing my poster up on the wall. And it actually happened! Going into AMC a couple of months ago to watch another film, and then seeing the poster for the first time was so incredible.
Michael Phillippou: As for horror films, there were lots of things that we were writing, but Talk to Me is the first one that really caught fire and gained momentum fast. So it wasn’t a conscious decision to be like, “We’re going to do a horror film first.” It’s just the one that had the most momentum.
io9: Talk to Me is a unique horror film for a lot of reasons, but one that stood out to me is that while there’s a final girl character—she’s not a typical horror-movie “hero.” She does things that make the audience squirm. What were the reasons you wanted to center your movie around a character that’s sort of unlikable?
Danny Philippou: I guess it’s depending on who is watching, and how they’re relating to the characters. I think Mia is likable...
Michael Philippou: ...It depends on the person.
Danny Philippou: There’s a clinginess to her. She’s attaching herself onto this family and she’s afraid of losing this connection. So she’s overreacting to situations, because of the situation she’s in at the start of the film with her mom being taken away. I think she’s a young person not fully formed in her brain and making decisions that feel selfish at times.
Michael Philippou: She makes some horrible decisions, but I think you can empathize with, or understand why, even if you don’t agree with what she’s doing.
Danny Philippou: It depends on the audience member though. I would empathize with someone that’s in a really bad place and they’re not making the right decisions because of that. But a lot of people are like, “What the fuck are you doing?” So I get both sides of the coin for sure.
io9: Plus, it helps the movie that whenever she makes one of those horrible decisions, it makes the overall tension go so much higher. It really adds to that sense of dread. Another unique element in Talk to Me is the cursed hand, which is something so specific there must be a story behind its origins. What inspired that?
Danny Philippou: [I was in a very serious] car accident when I was 16—I was in the hospital after all this chaos, and I just couldn’t physically stop shaking. The doctors would come in and put the heaters on and try to give me extra blankets, but I couldn’t stop shaking. And then my sister came in to visit me; she held my hand and the shaking just suddenly stopped. I wasn’t cold, I was shaking because I was in shock—and the touch of someone that I loved, that I cared about, brought me out of it. So the power of human touch and the connection between people has always been such a big thing for me personally. [The hand] wasn’t something that we had in the first draft of the script;[originally] it was just a haunted object. But throughout the film, if you watch it back, hands are the biggest motif. There’s so many shots of hands, and there’s so much [in the movie] about the connections between humans that it just lent itself to be that main prop, and made so much sense. We found that in the second draft, and it was amazing because it felt like it’d been there all along.
io9: Were there a series of prototype models of the hand? How did you come up with the final design?
Michael Philippou: There were so many different molds of the hand. We only received the final hand on the day that it was supposed to be in the scene.
Danny Philippou: It even started off with, like, a base on the hand that it was attached to, stuff like that. We had to experiment and figure things out.
Michael Philippou: You just go, “Oh, it doesn’t work for this reason or that reason.” We found it eventually, but it wasn’t easy.
Danny Philippou: It had to be mobile so the characters could move it around, and do the actual enveloping and awkward things... it was a constant experimentation.
io9: The gore in this movie is memorable, but it’s also used really effectively—not just as a jump scare. What was the planning like when you were deciding how to pace those scenes and where to place them in the movie?
Michael Philippou: It was always a constant discussion because we wanted the film to work as a drama film and then also as a horror film. So of course you want to have those shocking moments, but we didn’t want to linger on them for the sake of lingering on them. We wanted them all to be grounded in character. And so, it is graphic—when there is violence, we don’t shy away from it—but I think it shows the stakes. [It shows you that] the world [in Talk to Me] is unforgiving.
Danny Philippou: But there was a lot of stuff in the edit and even in the scripting process that we toned down; we didn’t want it to be a splatter film. We wanted it to be rooted in character, and for [the gore scenes] to serve the plot.
io9: Without getting into spoilers, Talk to Me gives us a pretty unusual version of an “afterlife”—there’s a purgatory situation but also a glimpse of something much scarier. Did you guys plot out a complete scheme of what life after death looked like through the lens of the movie?
Danny Phillipou: Yeah. We’ve got the thickest mythology bible where we break down every single spirit that’s connected to every one of the kids, and why they’re connecting with them. And what happens in the afterlife—the usage of the hand, the history behind it. We really ironed it out. Also, the “rules” in the film that the kids have made up—are they the rules, or are they rules these kids have [mistakenly] latched on to? We didn’t want to over-explain everything—[we wanted to] just show hints of things, and have the kids be in over their heads.
io9: The kids in Talk to Me learn about the hand through social media, and the theme of social media and the constant use of phones runs throughout the movie. Was that just an essential part of getting the movie’s teenager point of view right, or was there a deeper comment being made there?
Michael Philippou: It is just the world we live in now. We wanted to make a film that’s current and modern and that’s just the world—everyone is on their phones, everyone carries their phone with them. It’s like an extension of yourself, and like everything it has positives and negatives. It is a [small part of what] we’re talking about, but it’s not a major theme.
Danny Philippou: It’s just the reality of how far people will go for attention ... there is something dark about that thirst for attention. Suicide rates, depression rates for teenagers in the social media generation are higher than they were before. So there’s something there—but it wasn’t something that we were like, “We’re 100% exploring and commenting on this.” It was just expressing the world that we grew up in and how we were feeling at the time.
io9: You mentioned that you had Talk to Me’s mythology all worked out. Do you have other ideas set in the film’s world? Is there a chance we’ll see a sequel?
Danny Philippou: Even while writing the first film, I was writing scenes for the second film; it’s exciting to feel like there’s a bigger world and more story to tell, which there is. So if someone were to give us funding for a second film, I would jump on that. I’d love that so much. It would be amazing.
io9: A few months ago, it was announced that you were working on a Street Fighter movie. Can you tease anything about that?
Michael Philippou: We’re still just developing it, looking at the things like where Street Fighter comes from, the films and the characters that it’s based on—we’re looking at that stuff and finding a story that we’d like to tell. We’re big fans of the games, and the idea of doing justice to the games is exciting to us.
Danny Philippou: We’re not going to be writing the film, [but we’re working on] finding something that we’d be really comfortable with presenting to a writer, and then seeing if we loved the script.
Talk to Me hits theaters July 28.
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