Be afraid: The wild ride of YouTubers turned filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou
They are a story for the digital age: the hyperactive Philippou twins, who at nine filmed wrestling matches and sword fights that trashed their Pooraka home, now have a global movie opening today in Australia.
Words: Penelope Debelle
They broke cameras and went through ceilings and walls, but Danny and Michael Philippou never stopped filming, and they watched all the videos they could get their hands on.
They moved online with a successful YouTube channel, RackaRacka, which broadcast their increasingly inventive fake fails, hijinks and spoofs to the world. Their antics were picked up by US talk shows and in 2014 they posted a $200 Harry Potter versus Star Wars duel that was watched 11 million times and won them a trip to the US.
In 2019, they outdid themselves by filling a modified car to the roof with water and driving to a SipnSave bottle shop in Adelaide while water sloshed out of the sides and they breathed through snorkels.
The question was always whether they could transition beyond the parodies and jackass stunts to more solid ground. Their first full-length feature, Talk to Me, a classy little horror movie co-written by Danny, filmed in Adelaide and directed by both brothers, is the answer to that for these CityMag 40 Under 40 alumni.
At the start of this year, Talk to Me was selected for Sundance, where its reception put their own doubts to rest. It was later picked up by production company A24 (which was behind the multiple-Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once) and is now about to be released into cinemas in not just Australia, but in every international territory you could think of, including the US, the UK, Japan, Portugal, Indonesia and Germany.
Filmmakers Michael and Danny Philippou are CityMag 40 Under 40 alumni of 2023. Photo: Michael Lipapis
Danny, whose hair is dyed pinkish blonde, says sitting through the first public screening at Sundance in January was one of the most stressful things the pair had ever done. He was particularly nervous because their Hollywood horror movie idol, director Ari Aster (Hereditary,Midsommar) was in the audience. They sat at the back, cringing with dread at how a Sundance audience would react.
“The agents had seen it and one of them invited Ari and when the film ended, I got up to walk over to apologise to him,” Danny says. “I was going to say, ‘I am so sorry you got dragged to this… and then he got up and said, ‘Man, that was really special’. And I was like, ‘What? Really?’, and we started hearing all the feedback.”
Danny says a weird hype had built up around their film, which closed last year’s Adelaide Film Festival, but he and Michael were worried it would not live up to Hollywood expectations.
What they wanted was an audience of horror movie fans who would settle in for a story of a young woman, Mia (played by newcomer Sophie Wilde, who is exceptional), who clasps an embalmed hand to conjure up spirits. It’s a party trick until she sees her dead mother on the other side and her life spirals out of control.
The Philippou brothers on the set of Talk to Me. Photo: Supplied
While Danny did the writing, he and Michael jointly directed the feature which was supported by the Adelaide Film Festival, the South Australian Film Corporation and production company Causeway Films. They had learnt a lot about filming through trial and error, and worked on the set of the 2014 horror hit that put Adelaide on the map internationally, The Babadook.
“I was driving around (The Babadook lead actor) Essie Davis when I was 19 and I was on my Ps, so we saw how things were run” Michael says. “If we hadn’t had that experience and went from YouTube to film, I think it would have been a big slap in the face, but we knew what we were getting into.”
On set, they were a united voice with a shared vision. While Danny wrote the script with Bill Hinzman, Michael focused on the smaller details and they would text each other, make notes and show each other ideas. Danny would do a rough cut and Michael would refine it, while in post-production Michael was more involved with sound design and music, which includes an opening scene of Mia belting out Sia’s “Chandelier” in the car.
“It was good that we had the same vision, because it was a big risk,” Michael says. “There was a lot of money involved and we had to be on the same side.”
Before signing on with Causeway to shoot in Adelaide, they were in talks with a US production company offering a bigger budget. They backed themselves and walked away to preserve their vision, which was to make an Australian film instead of an American one, with lesser-known actors including Alexandra Jensen (The Messenger) as the best friend Jade and Zoe Terakes (Wentworth) as one of the ringleaders. Miranda Otto plays a concerned mother.
“I just felt so safe shooting it here – it’s homey and safe and it feels like no one is there to take advantage of you or take anything away from you,” Danny says. “Everyone is working together and it feels like such a relief.”
Hollywood is the wild west. It’s crazy – a dog-eat-dog world
Choosing Causeway also meant working closely with experienced producer Samantha Jennings (Cargo), who had a history with Adelaide and who they knew from The Babadook. Danny says they could call Jennings any time of the day or night and basically don’t ever want to make a movie without her.
“We just love and respect Sam so much, and respect her creative input, her notes, and her understanding of cinema,” Danny says. “She was there every step of the way, reminding us about things that were in the script, because there is so much going on to keep an eye on. She’d keep us grounded.”
Part of the buzz around the film is because the brothers resisted the cheap tricks of jump scares, blood and gore, instead relying more on plot. Talk To Me has its moments of utter horror, but the Philippous made a film whose ideas were genuinely unsettling. They wanted something that scared them.
“It’s an old-school example, but The Exorcist works as drama and as a horror film, and the horror feels so real even though it’s crazy; she’s possessed by the devil,” Danny says. “It never felt like splatter. It felt grounded in reality.”
The brothers’ world has changed dramatically since the drive-through underwater stunt got them in trouble with police, who failed to see the funny side. They went to court and fought hard to avoid a conviction, which could have stopped them from going Sundance before Talk to Me was even made.
On the eve of the film’s release, they have turned down Hollywood offers that years ago they would have dreamt of. They are adamant they want to continue making films in Australia, which means resisting offers from the big studios and being swallowed into a system they do not trust.
“Hollywood is the wild west. It’s crazy – a dog-eat-dog world,” Danny says. “Here in Australia, you don’t have that; it’s a different culture. Everyone is at face value; you can trust it more.”
They have too many ideas of their own to pursue to sign on for projects that would distract them from the path they are on.
“Like now, I’ve got a text from someone that we really look up to and they’re a really big company but I had to text and say, ‘I’m so sorry but we don’t want to do this’,” Danny says. “Like right now we have a script we want to finish called Bring Her Back, so that’s almost ready to go and that’s more exciting to me right now.”
They have signed on for one outside job, a remake of Street Fighter, based on the video game they love. There has never been a successful spin-off film, they say, including the 1994 version made on the Gold Coast starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue.
“We love Street Fighter and the idea of doing a film version is exciting to us,” Danny says. “I mean, we are excited to be doing a studio film with a budget – that is amazing.”
Adelaide is still home, of sorts, although they only spent about two weeks of last year here. They were visiting their father, who has been sick with cancer, and who they hoped would get medical clearance to fly to Los Angeles for the international premiere of Talk To Me.
“He is still in and out of hospital a little bit but he’s in a way better place,” Danny says. “I always love seeing him and going home.”
They are committed to filming in Australia and say they bring it up as a condition in every conversation about potential work.
“I just want to bring everything back here, even if it’s only to do post [production],” Michael says. “It’s like, we have an awesome crew, there are so many talented people here, there is so much upside to shooting in Australia.”