With 'Talk to Me,' directors leap from phone screens to the big screen

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, May 22, 2024

With 'Talk to Me,' directors leap from phone screens to the big screen
The twin brothers Michael Philippou, left, and Danny Philippou in New York, July 11, 2023. The Australian duo, who first gained popularity on YouTube, has taken their dark imagination and facility for shock and awe to the big screen, with the supernatural horror film “Talk to Me.” (Olivia Crumm/The New York Times)

by Andy Crump

NEW YORK, NY.- Ronald McDonald on a killing spree in a chicken joint. Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker going head-to-head with wands and light sabers. Cookie Monster eviscerating the Power Rangers.

These pop culture video battles, where slapstick and gallows humor meet raw carnage, have helped twin brothers Danny and Michael Philippou amass more than 6.7 million subscribers on their YouTube channel, RackaRacka, which has more than 1 billion video views.

Now the Australian duo has taken their dark imagination and facility for shock and awe to the big screen, with the supernatural horror film “Talk to Me” (in theaters).

“Our audience wants explosive, energetic stuff,” Danny said, during a video interview, about their YouTube efforts. The Philippous’ kinetic style mashes genre cinema with beloved intellectual property, douses the combination with accelerant and lights a match; it’s the product of their personalities as much as YouTube’s milieu. “We’ve realized in the past that if we have a slow opening on a video, retention is hard to keep,” Michael said.

“Talk to Me,” which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by the distributor A24 for a wide release, reconfigures the brothers’ storytelling priorities. The film involves the embalmed hand of a dead spirit medium, bored teenagers in Australian suburbs and a macabre TikTok challenge variant: Hold the hand and get possessed by a random ghost, while onlookers record the experience on their phones for social media approval. Mia (Sophie Wilde), the movie’s protagonist, takes the process too far and unleashes hell on her friends and family.

Pivoting from YouTube to feature filmmaking sounds like a huge risk for a brand as big as RackaRacka, but for some creators who have had success on the platform, that is part of the point. Julia Alexander, the director of strategy for the media consulting firm Parrot Analytics, said of YouTubers, “When you see them move into creating different types of films and TV shows, it’s not that they’re saying, ‘We’re finally growing up.’ They’re saying, ‘We want to be able to do something that is not necessarily going to be rewarded or accepted on YouTube.’”

That’s what “Talk to Me” meant for the Philippous: an opportunity to flex new creative muscles, without playing to expectations. And self-expression was Danny’s impetus for writing the film’s script with Bill Hinzman. “I never felt like I could get vulnerable with my audience,” Danny said about YouTube. “So I thought that I’d write something that was more personal, and deeper to who I was.”

His sentiment emerges in several ways throughout the film. For one, the brothers funneled their personal history with mental illness into the script; their mother wrestles with depression, their grandmother took her own life, and the toll of these behavioral health struggles weighs on Danny and Michael today. (Mia inherits their concerns in kind.) For another, the slower, more measured pace of a feature gave them new creative freedom.

“I can film a shot of someone in a bed getting closer to someone, and have that feel like a big, breathtaking scene,” Danny said, “and not have to rely on explosions and blood and violence — and live in the moment with the character.”

The twins’ normal madcap sensibility isn’t absent from the film, though. They simply learned to adjust it on set. “They really liked everything to be constantly moving,” said Samantha Jennings, one of the film’s producers. “Obviously with a feature film, it became much more planned and composed.” A montage sequence, where Mia and her friends take turn after turn under the hand’s influence, recalls their YouTube shorts: unhinged, exuberant, brisk.

“It felt like a RackaRacka shoot,” Danny said, fondly. “We were screaming directions and the camera’s getting thrown around the place.”

Jennings saw a generational dynamic in the Philippous’ jump to features. “I have teenagers, and they watch YouTube more than they go to the cinema,” she said. Bringing YouTube’s appeal to a movie, shot in the Philippous’ filmmaking language specifically, felt refreshing to Jennings. “It’s exciting, because it feels much more relevant to a younger audience.”

That’s what “Talk to Me” offers Millennial and Gen Z moviegoers. What it offers the Philippous is a step forward in their careers, where they have more control over what they make and how they make it. But this raises an essential question: Will those moviegoers follow Danny and Michael to theaters?

The film’s $10 million opening weekend says yes. The brothers think so, too. “A lot of RackaRacka fans have seen it, and they’re excited and they’re supportive,” Danny said. “So I think there’ll be crossover.”

And the brothers’ keenness on following “Talk to Me” with future features is clear. “I know we want to make cinematic experiences, and always be in theaters,” Danny said. “That would be amazing for us.”

Michael handily summed up the wish he and Danny share: “We don’t want to be chasing the algorithm our whole lives.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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