"Talk to Me" directors on the film's most shocking scene

We talked to Danny and Michael Philippou about A24's new buzzy horror film and its theme of connection

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published August 5, 2023 12:59PM (EDT)

Talk to Me (A24)
Talk to Me (A24)

The following contains major spoilers for Australian horror movie "Talk to Me"

Sometimes a director — or in this case, a duo of twin directors — comes out of the gate with a debut feature-length project so good, it prompts others who have made names for themselves within the same genre to pause and take notes. Brothers Danny and Michael Philippou currently find themselves in that position, receiving praise from Jordan Peele ("Get Out," "Us," "Nope"), Ari Aster ("Hereditary," "Midsommar," "Beau is Afraid") and Kyle Edward Ball ("Skinamarink") for their buzzy new horror film, "Talk to Me." 

Set in their hometown of Adelaide, South Australia and screened for the first time in 2022 during a local film festival, their dark tale of connection via spiritual possession made the platinum path from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival to the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, into a bidding war that landed A24 as the winner for distribution in the U.S. A fresh modernization of well-trodden territory, it factors in the addiction to sharing our lives on social media to show what it would look like if — amidst a constant feed of cute animal clips and dance videos — evidence of teens letting spirits take their bodies for a spin were thrown into the mix. 

"In the credits, we put, 'No animals were hurt and no dogs were kissed.'"

With a cast primarily consisting of up-and-coming Australian actors, with well-known actress Miranda Otto ("Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," "The Lord of the Rings") playing one of just a few adult characters, the film takes a fairly simple concept (by horror standards) and does a whole lot with it. Sophie Wilde ("Tom Jones") as Mia, the center of the story, longs for connection after the death of her mother, and seeks it by adding herself to a family dynamic comprised of her friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), Jade's younger brother Riley (Joe Bird) and their dog Cookie. When Mia's morbid curiosity is piqued by videos passed around in her town showing teens at parties grabbing on to an embalmed severed hand — which we're told was once attached to a medium or satanist — then expressing two back-to-back invitations, "Talk to Me," and "I let you in," at which point a timer is set and everyone's phones come out to document their 90-second possession by any dead ghoulie that happens to pop in, she's eager to try it for herself. Once she does, we're pulled into the full ride of the film, seeing why the hand comes with a warning to not go past that 90 seconds, the many reasons for why young Riley should have absolutely not taken a turn, and the film's most shocking scene, which involves Jade's boyfriend Daniel (Otis Dhanji) engaging in an extended makeout session with poor Cookie while he's possessed by a horned-up spirit.

Talk to MeTalk to Me (A24)

In an interview with the directors (Danny Philippou also co-wrote the film) conducted over Zoom, they talk about that scene, as well as a few others that expertly mix emotion with terror. For two guys with a background in making comedic horror shorts on their YouTube channel RackaRacka, they're remarkably thoughtful and poignant in their handling of subject matter that goes beyond jump scares into something that lingers long after you watch.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to start by focusing on what I found to be the most shocking scene in the film, where the character Daniel has a pretty extended makeout session with his girlfriend's dog while possessed by a spirit. Can you talk about the filming of that scene and what that day was like?  

Danny Philippou: We just knew that each of the spirits the kids are connecting with are connecting with different emotions and parts of themselves that they're maybe hiding a little bit. 

Michael Philippou: Well, the actual shooting of it though . . . it was a plate shot. We had Otis (who plays Daniel) kissing a puppet head that we made up of a dog, and then we had a dog licking a Schmacko (Australian brand dog treat) from its owner and then merged the two with VFX. No real dog kissing!

Danny Philippou: So the actor was more comfortable, everyone acted out that possession. So all the different actors did that possession. We did that possession. Our producer did it. Our camera person did it. We all acted it out so there was nothing embarrassing for him, because everyone had done it. 

Well, that's a nice consideration.

Michael Philippou: In the credits, we put, "No animals were hurt and no dogs were kissed."

What sort of direction did you provide Otis Dhanji, the actor who plays Daniel when filming that scene?

Danny Philippou: Daniel doesn't have control of his own body and is having that humiliation, and having it be recorded, and no one is taking his feelings into consideration. With young people, sometimes their empathy hasn't fully formed yet and that in the moment, to them, is really funny, but to someone else it could be really life-altering and damaging to them and, yeah, I just wanted to capture that lack of maturity and lack of care for others a little bit.

"The hand came from this car accident I was in when I was 16."

Michael Philippou: Yeah, like your mistakes are forever immortalized on video, like you can't make mistakes and then they're spoken about and forgotten. It's there forever. With Otis it was just like chatting with him and seeing what made him comfortable on the day as well. I remember on the day we were all shooting there was a lot of laughing and stuff, because it's just ridiculous. He's kissing just like a puppet's head, and it's just controlled by the special effects guy. And he's just such a good actor and he had a lot of the more embarrassing stuff to do. His character gets dealt it. But he pulls it off so well that it's just such a convincing performance. 

The utilization of the puppet must have made things a lot easier, but what was it like working with the actual dog? Because I know that working with animals is traditionally difficult.

Danny Philippou: The dog was so loud!

Michael Philippou: They say don't shoot with children, don't shoot with animals; we had both. The dog, its natural breathing is very, very loud. I'll reenact it. [Breathes loudly.] So we're on the set and we're doing all of this amazing improv dialogue, and we can't cut things in and out because the dog's breathing is just getting in the way of everything. You can't match the natural audio tape because of the dog's breathing. So we had to be really strategic about it.

Danny Philippou: Even in the first scene where they're in the bedroom together, Cookie was supposed to be there for the entire scene, but we had Mia pick her up and take her off the bed. Not only because of audio, but because of continuity because the dog would start moving around.

Keeping with the theme of animals, I found it really emotional how the injured kangaroo scene towards the beginning tied into Mia's inability to put Riley out of his misery at the end, ultimately leading to her own death. What was your thinking around that decision? 

Danny Philippou: Yeah, it to be an echo and those screams to be a painful reminder. It was a thing she was struggling with and sort of reminded her of her mom in a lot of ways, and that the spirits are manipulating and drawing on that, and abusing those emotions that she was going through. 

Michael Philippou: On the thematic side, that kangaroo was a puppet that like 10 people were controlling. I was controlling its ears, there were like strings attached to it. So if you looked at the behind the scenes . . . it looks pretty ridiculous. 

On the concept of the hand itself, can you talk a bit about where that came from?

Danny Philippou: The hand came from this car accident I was in when I was 16. I'd cut my eye open and fractured my spine, so I was in the hospital afterwards and I couldn't stop shaking from the crash. The doctors came in and were giving me blankets and turning on heaters trying to warm me up. I just couldn't physically stop shaking. My sister came in and she held my hand, and the shaking just stopped as soon as she did, and it was like the touch of someone I love brought me out of the state of shock that I was in. And the power of that moment always stuck with me, so when we looked at the draft of the script, that very first pass, hands and human touch and connection was all the way through it thematically, so we thought it would be right as the object of horror. It represented all of the themes we were talking about. It was the physical representation of connection. 

I saw in an interview clip from earlier this summer you talking about the decision to limit the amount of screen time the spirits get so shots don't stay on them for too long, which is very effective. Why do you think that good horror is so often about what you don't see rather than what you do?

Danny Philippou: Yeah, you're leaving that stuff up to the imagination, and people can draw their own conclusions. That was another thing that we'd learned. When Mia goes to hell and sees where Riley is, that scene went on for 2:40 or something initially, and we cut it down to 15 seconds, because we felt like that was more powerful to let people imagine it rather than see it for themselves. And also, it would not have gotten past the censors. 

Michael Philippou: The main thing though was to have it grounded in Mia's point of view, so we never see who anyone else is connecting to, only what Mia's connecting to and what Mia is seeing. So that was important to us as well. There's a lot that we do show, but we always want those shocking moments grounded in character, and to come from character and not just be like gratuitous for gratuitous sake, but to have purpose in the story. 

On the topic of Riley, Not since a pre-teen Linda Blair has a young actor been put through the wringer of possession as Joe Bird as Riley is here. What was the on set handling process like when it came to directing such a young actor doing such horrific things?

Danny Philippou: It's so much funner on set and way more laid back than it looks, obviously, on screen so he really enjoyed and had fun with the makeup stuff and hitting his head on rubber foam, and was really excited to be able to do his own stunts. 

Michael Philippou: When we first started getting in to making stuff when we were kids, making the violence stuff was always the funnest . . . and he really enjoyed it as well. There was one day when he was doing the actual possession of Mia's mom that he kind of separated himself from everyone and got into the headspace. Every actor has their own way of getting ready for those scenes. If you're more seasoned, like Sophie is, you're able to sort of get in and out of it easier . . . Joe needed some time. There are these exercises we got from a drama couch for shaking off the character.

Danny Philippou: All of the other actors came and did it with him. We all did this thing to help shake him out of that headspace. 

If you were to get a sequel, what are some things you'd like to explore further or ideas to play around with?

Danny Philippou: Our mythology bible is so thick for the film and while we were writing the first film we couldn't help but write scenes for a second film. So yeah, if A24 offered us a sequel, we'd 100% jump at that. 

"Talk to Me" is currently in theaters. 

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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A24 Danny Philippou Horror Interview Michael Philippou Movies Talk To Me