This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFRA strike.
If there was a game that allowed the dead to enter your body for thirty seconds, would you do it? If you said no, I wouldn’t blame you. Now, add the layer of losing somebody close to you. If you lost a family member or best friend and that game gave you a glimmer of hope to speak to them again, would you reconsider? That scenario will make you think a bit.
Twin brother filmmakers Danny & Michael Philippou know their ways around social media methodology. Before Talk To Me, they started the RackaRacka YouTube channel that highlighted a myriad of stunts, pranks, and concepts that all led to this moment. Talk To Me is not your conventional possession film and, to some, not a prototypical A24 branded film. The duo and co-writer Bill Hinzman came together to create a personal tale in the depictions of the in-between of how grief feels and the mayhem of viral challenges.
Mia’s (Sophie Wilde) tragic loss of her mother has her searching for answers. This leads her and her friends to find a game involving a ceramic hand with unknown origins and mysterious writing all over it. When you grab it and say two phrases, the dead can influence our world and inhabit the person within its reach. If this sounds like a bad idea, well, it is. However, there is an undercurrent of sadness and metaphoric language on how we seek to connect expertly woven throughout the sudden brutality of the aftermath.
DraftKings Network: Many horror watchers immediately recognize a particular cadence of a possession film. A family might move to an old house, or a person might discover a strange artifact. They start doing weird, devilish things. When things get too crazy, a priest or team of priests gets called in, and we have the big battle of good and evil.
There’s the social media aspect within Talk To Me, as you both have been involved in that world. The viral nature of the game feels like a virus infecting young people searching to feel something. Do you think possession would be a viral phenomenon?
Danny Philippou: If possession was possible, I feel everyone would do it, film it, and upload it. It just makes so much sense. If you look up Ouija board or possession on TikTok, there are endless videos. People love to go to haunted places. We wanted to do a modern spin on what that would be now. We all have this thirst for attention – positive or negative, especially with young people. You’d do anything to get the eyeballs on you. We wanted to put those aspects into this genre.
Of course, there’s the shocking entry point of the film, but an emotional center concerning Talk To Me’s main character, Mia. She just lost her mother, doesn’t believe her father about what happened, creates distance from him, and hangs around with another family. It feels like Mia’s drifting until she finds this game that she gets hooked on like a drug. The only thing she wants to connect with is this scary unknown.
Michael Philippou: Even the phrases of the hand are relaying my experiences at that moment. “Talk to me,” like I’m lonely. I want to talk to someone; I want to connect with someone. Mia’s attaching herself to this other family. You can even feel it in that opening scene with Jade saying, “why you’re here right now?” There’s an aspect of clinging on. She’s escaping this natural connection at home with her dad to this other family.
Danny: Then it’s like, “I let you in. I’m going to let you into our body whether or not you’re bad for me.” Whether you’re drugs, alcohol, or sex, Mia’s letting that into her life to help her feel something. She walks around numb. It's hard once someone has been ripped from you at a young age. I remember our grandfather was hands-on and helped raise us. Our parents were never really home. We came home on Christmas day to find that he had passed away in our house because he used to live with us and look after us. There’s this weird hole that this gets left in this thing just gets ripped out of your life.
Michael: You look for things to fill that place. I connect with Mia because you can tell how close she was to her mother. That touch of a loved one that slowly gets stripped away throughout the film gets stripped away from her is heartbreaking. She does things in the film that aren’t necessarily right, but you see where it’s coming from.
I wanted to talk about the game quickly. Some rules have been laid out, but I like how you both left things ambiguous. We don’t know the origin of the hand and why particular phrases are written on it. It’s through the telephone game that the characters experience where we understand their level of interpretation. Did you want to leave that level of mystery intact?
Michael: It’s the rules the kids have come up with in that they think they understand what they’re dealing with. It’s just their interpretation of what they’ve been told and experienced. It’s not necessarily the rules – we know where the hand originated. It’s like saying, “You take this drug, and you’ll be fine. I took this drug, and I was fine.” But then someone else has a bit of a negative headspace. Or someone else’s brain is just wildly wired differently and will have a different reaction to that drug,
Danny: I think it’s just opening up to different people’s experiences that will be different based on the person. We’ve got such a big Bible of where the hand came from and the mythology of it. Even down to the writing on the hand, the spirits coming from it, and what the history of that was like. We have this whole thing plotted out. I just wanted to sort of plant little seeds and hints at it and have the kids be in over their heads and not go into that expert explaining everything.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this in a “universe-building” cinema world. But could there be plans to expand the Talk To Me story?
Danny: Oh my God! Even when writing the first film, we wrote scenes for a second film; I’d love to expand on that. It’d be pretty amazing because even Raleigh grabbing his eyes has meaning. It was just subtle hints at it. If you look at it, each spirit is drawn there for a particular reason for each character.
We want to expand on the universe. But for those specific things, you have to weigh how much to say and how much to let people figure out. I think that’s exciting for us as well. Especially for repeat viewings, people to pick up things they don’t necessarily see the first time.
The third act builds with the violent crescendo involving Riley’s character. You don’t expect that, but looking back, things were going too well. The worlds of the recklessness of this ritual and an almost innocent party colliding led to the bottom falling out.
Michael: With Riley, his friends are growing up quicker than he is. He feels the need to keep up. Riley wants to be seen and accepted by this group. That means doing things it’s not necessarily ready for – even with Mia trying to adopt this big sister role and wanting to be the “cool big sister” and connect to Riley on that level. The ending and that third act were always something that we had – even from the first draft. It was always about building to that ending in our climax. The conclusion didn’t come until the second or third draft or something. All the stuff about that turn from the protagonist to being a little bit of an antagonist was always part of the plan.
Mia very much feels like a ghost in her own life. I think that’s why the ways where you can interpret the ending works well. At that point, grief has led Mia to destroy a lot of goodwill and people striving for this possible connection with her dead mother.
Danny: Think about Mia’s conversation with Max. She’s got these two paths that she can take. There’s Max, whom she’s there with and hugging, and she’s finally reconnected with her dad. Then there’s our exterior force that gets the better of her. It was too late, a little bit, you know, for the former. In the film's beginning, some moments show, “If you just embrace the genuine connection, this stuff won’t happen.” That’s what we like in films where you relate to the character. You don’t agree with what she’s doing, but you understand it. Those complex characters are some that I always seem to connect with.