“We Had To Protect the Chemistry of the Cast Whilst Maintaining Social Distance”: DP Aaron McLisky on Talk to Me
Twin brothers (and YouTube filmmakers) Danny and Michael Philippou have crafted a ghost story for the influencer age with <i>Talk to Me</i>, their feature debut. When a mummified hand comes into the possession of a group of Australian teenagers, they record members of the group falling under a supernatural spell—channeling the dead when they clasp the hand and utter the requisite incantation: “talk to me.” However, if they allow the spirit to possess their body for more than 90 seconds, they effectively allow the entity to control their mind and body for eternity. With a crowd of teens recording the uncanny communion for social media clout, however, it’s hard to keep this time limit under control.
Aaron McLisky, the film’s cinematographer, tells Filmmaker about how he and the Philippou brothers connected over Instagram, shooting a complicated Oner and navigating a shoot during a COVID surge.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
McLisky: I’d heard about this script through various industry contacts and had been admiring the work of Causeway Films over the years. When the script landed in my inbox I knew it had to be something special. Not long after reading the script the directing brothers (Danny and Michael Phillipou) reached out over Instagram and we had a supercharged chat about the project. I like to believe from the first moment we knew our shared energy, inspirations and playfulness was the perfect partnership to tackle this challenging project.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
McLisky: I knew early on that this film needed to find an aesthetic that captured a world that the boys knew. The inspirations for the film had a consistent sense of authenticity but were never too earnest in approach. We wanted to elevate the visual style without drawing too much attention to itself or ignoring our characters’ interior journey. We spent most of pre-production workshopping scenes and shooting little previs sequences in my hotel room. With the brothers having extensive experience making their own films for YouTube this became our process for discovering the language of the film.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
McLisky: There were various photographic references and film sequences we looked at to develop the language of our film. To name a few we loved the compositions from Let Me In, the use of point of view in It Follows, the restraint and editing techniques of Saint Maud, the staging of Les Demons and the visceral horror of Jacob’s Ladder (1990). The almost encyclopedic film references were endless with the boys, we never had a moment without inspiration.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
McLisky: To be completely honest the biggest challenge we faced was the logistical implications of shooting during a sudden second wave of COVID that was happening in Australia at the time we were scheduled to begin pre-production. We knew that any scenes with larger numbers of extras would be virtually impossible and that we had to protect the chemistry of the cast whilst maintaining social distance. This film was nearly delayed but we owe a lot to the ingenuity and perseverance of [producer] Sam Jennings who with the help of our production team managed to create a bubble system that allowed us to carry on and manage any exposures and mitigate the shutdowns we might encounter.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
McLisky: We used the ALEXA Mini LF with Zeiss Supreme Primes. We decided on this package to give us a modern look, but also by pairing the large format lenses with the larger sensor it gave us rich and visceral closeups whilst providing the flexibility to work with minimal lighting having a very sensitive sensor.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
McLisky: I approached this film with a very naturalistic approach, however certain scenes had unmotivated sources to heighten supernatural elements. I worked very closely with our incredible production designer Bethany Ryan to create domestic environments that matched our characters’ inner emotional state. We contrasted inviting warm tungsten interiors with cold LED architectural lighting to help illustrate the psychological breakdown of our lead character.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
McLisky: The most challenging scene was probably our hospital corridor Oner. We discussed at length how this shot was going to witness multiple timeframes by using in camera techniques to quite literally watch the world fall away from our lead character. We choreographed the shot in preparation but due to scheduling challenges we never had a chance to rehearse. On the evening of that sequence we had already shot half a day of scenes that left us only a few hours to get this entire sequence right. I would be lying if we didn’t do some overtime but if it wasn’t for such an extreme team effort and the militant Stedicam operation by Jonathan Baker we would not have made that shot work.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
McLisky: We had a very robust LUT that I developed with my colorist Marty Pepper from KOJO. We had pushed the LUT one stop to protect darker scenes and we used a Kodak film stock emulation to inform our contrast ranges and color reproduction. The process of coloring the film was more or less about finding a happy level with darkness. With a horror film we agonized over the right level of detail in the shadows so not to lose critical information but keep people in the dark when it mattered.
Film Title: Talk To Me
Camera: Alexa Mini LF
Lenses: Zeiss Supreme Primes
Lighting: Mainly wireless LED units with larger HMI and Tungsten units for daytime locations
Processing: Custom LUT applied to LOG Arri Raw files
Colour Grading: Graded at KOJO films in Adelaide