Australian siblings and directing duo Colin and Cameron Cairnes have earned a following on the cult horror circuit with their first two features: the low-budget horror comedy 100 Bloody Acres (which won the Midnight X-treme award at the 2013 Sitges Film Festival) and 2016’s Scare Campaign, a gruesome twist on the slasher genre.
Their follow-up, Late Night With The Devil, is framed as a found-footage film about a 1977 live broadcast of a late-night talk show where the host — the Johnny Carson also-ran Jack Delroy (played by David Dastmalchian of Suicide Squad and Oppenheimer fame) — decides to go big for a Halloween night edition during sweeps week with a guest who claims to commune with the devil.
The Cairnes’ mash up themes of 1970s horror classics with the media satires of the era, such as Network and The King of Comedy, to create a thrill ride that won over Stephen King – “absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” the horror legend tweeted after the film’s SXSW premiere — as well as the genre-obsessed audience at fantasy festival Sitges, where Late Night With The Devil won the best screenplay honor.
In an interview with THR, the Cairnes brothers addressed the inspiration for their latest film, its timeliness and references to the 1970s.
How did two Aussie brothers become obsessed with 1970s American late-night television?
Cameron Cairnes Well, being an Australian growing up in the ’70s and ’80s you couldn’t avoid American culture, American TV shows, and American films. We were essentially raised on that, more than we were on local content. But we had our own late-night talk show host called Don Lane who was American. And a lot of incidents on that show did inform the writing of Late Night With The Devil. Don Lane was seriously curious about the supernatural. Any chance he would get he would invite psychics and magicians and, you know, spoon benders, those sorts of characters. He had the great ghost hunters the Warrens on two nights in a row investigating local hauntings in Melbourne. All this on what’s supposed to be a glitzy variety show.
Colin Cairnes If memory serves, we didn’t get Johnny Carson until quite a bit later. But those late-night guys were characters we knew from movies because they’d often pop up in films, you know, as cameos in the background. It was a bit exotic to us as well. Late-night talk shows felt very adult. Just the idea of staying up late as a kid and watching those sorts of shows always felt a bit taboo, a bit dangerous. So combining that with our other great late-night love, which was horror movies, felt like an interesting combination to play with.
It seems you’re referencing a lot of ’70s horror films. The Exorcist, obviously, but also the likes of Rosemary’s Baby. What were the movies playing in your mind as you were writing the script?
Cameron Cairnes The Exorcist was obviously at the forefront of our minds making this film, and I feel like it’s at the forefront of our characters’ minds as well. We never have them explicitly talk about it, but at the time of the show, that film would still be fresh in peoples’ minds. So obviously there are those horror film references. But there are a lot of other 70s cinema influences, like Network and The King of Comedy.
Colin Cairnes There’s Parallax View, directed by Warren Beatty which has this sequence where he goes and he’s sort of brainwashed in a montage, Deep State-like. I think that’s something going on in the background of our film, referencing all those paranoid thrillers of the 1970s.
Cameron Cairnes Another very key reference is in the opening, that documentary montage. There was a film, a documentary film, which I don’t know if it was so popular in the States, but in Australia growing up it was a real rite of passage to watch this film called The Killing of America (1981), which was basically video footage of all these assassins and serial killers.
Colin Cairnes The whole style of that opening prologue is based on that. It’s basically Killing of America. We even stole their font for the main title of the film. And it was great to get Michael Ironside to read the voiceover for that. He’s a hero of ours and someone who I think very much evokes that time. We just thought it’d be really cool if he would agree to do it. And next thing you know, it’s three in the morning in Melbourne, and he’s somewhere in upstate New York in a booth doing the read and telling us all these funny stories in between takes.
There was this BBC mockumentary called Ghostwatch, which pretented to be a real broadcast taken over by ghosts, that was broadcast life on BBC on Halloween night. Was that a touchstone here?
Cameron Cairnes We’re obviously aware of it, but we didn’t hear of it until after we’d written the script or at least the first couple of drafts. We came to it late. But it’s terrific and it obviously shares a bit of DNA with our film. But that certainly wasn’t there when we set out to write it. We had no idea it even existed because I think it was maybe broadcast in 1992 or something, it never came here to Australia.
Colin Cairnes Reading about it, thousands of people fell for it. The BBC would have had many letters of complaint. They never aired it again. When someone mentioned it to us, we found it in an internet archive and watched it. It’s hard to be influenced when you see it because you realize they were doing a life TV show. Also we also big Michael Parkinson fans [host of Ghostwatch]. He was huge in Australia as well. People have drawn comparisons, and that’s fine. It’s a really cool film. If Late Night can lead to a sort of rediscovery of Ghostwatch as well, that would be absolutely fine.
Were you aware of David Dastmalchian’s obsession with late-night talk show hosts when you cast him in the role of Jack Delroy?
Cameron Cairnes I actually came upon an article that he had written in Fangoria magazine, all about these regional horror hosts. So we already knew he loved that world. And he’s just an amazing actor. We thought it would be fun to take this guy who we know as this great character actor and get him to flex his muscles in a lead role. He brought so much to that role. It was all scripted, but a lot of the asides and quips were his own sensibility. He brought so much to that character that we could never have dreamed up ourselves. Very specific references. There’s a town near Chicago, Berwyn. Illinois, which gets a shout-out from David and, because Berwyn was, I think still is, famous for a late-night horror host called Svengoolie.
Colin Cairnes There’s probably a bunch of stuff he put in we’re yet to realize. The beauty of it was from day one the chemistry was just so tangible between David and Rhys Auteri, who plays his sidekick Gus. You could just let those guys riff. A couple of their little ad-libs found their way into the film. Certainly in the monologue. There are some spontaneous moments that we just had to use.
This is the first time most people will be seeing David Dastmalchian in a proper lead role. What do you think people will find in him or discover in him that they maybe don’t know his smaller roles in bigger films like Oppenheimer or Suicide Squad?
Colin Cairnes That’s a good question. He’s known for playing sort of smaller villainous roles but here I think people will get to see his range. I think that’s the beauty of this character. There’s so much going on with the persona he presents to the camera. There is the Jack Delroy that the audience has fallen in love with versus this guy who has a little bit of history, a bit of baggage and some stuff going on in his personal life that people aren’t aware of. David plays charming, he plays debonair, he plays urbane very, very well. And we know he can do the darker stuff. But I think he goes even deeper and darker in this film than he has in his other work. This guy can do it all. And he’s such a classy actor, you know? It feels like the role was written for him.
How did you go about recreating the period, not just the costumes and hair but also the real look of those ’70s-era talk shows?
Cameron Cairnes We were lucky. We had 20 days in a studio, essentially one location on what was basically a 360-degree set. We shot the film like it was a TV show with three cameras running the whole time. There was the temptation there to shoot on all old vintage tube cameras, but just with the effects, demands, and everything we ended up shooting digitally, but we shot using three cameras running all the time. For the set design, the inspiration was a lot of those game shows and talk shows from that period, but we were fortunate enough to have a production designer who worked in that era on local TV here, including a very popular music program called Countdown. It was all too easy for him I think to come up with that design. And that palette of browns and oranges and beige. It all felt very of the time, and we really embraced that.
Colin Cairnes We were tempted to shoot it on the old tube cameras, but I don’t know if we could have found three that still worked. So we shot it on some pretty serious gear. But our DP, Matt Temple, really embraced the idea of authenticity. So he actually sourced an original lighting grid from the era. He went to all the lighting houses and rental places around town and just asked them to dust off all their old gear. That’s how we lit it, with that harsh hot tungsten light, where you’re out there for 30 seconds and you’re sweating like a maniac. I think that helped a lot. We have a couple of dolly shots in the film and they were done on a ’70s-era Italian dolly, which has got a particular kind of wobble to it. I think that just adds another layer of authenticity.
Then, of course, all the costumes and the language as well. With the scripting we were very careful to make things sound authentic because you see a lot now, even with stuff set in the recent past, that writers tend to use a lot of contemporary jargon, maybe thinking it’s going to appeal to a younger audience. But we always felt that even with a younger audience, the more authentic it felt, the more palpable both the scares and the humor would be. We tried to make the languages era-appropriate. or inappropriate as the case may be.
It must have been a challenge writing ’70s-era late-night jokes.
Cameron Cairnes The monologue that opens the show was probably the hardest thing to craft in the writing. Just getting those jokes to sing and sound like they belonged in that decade. That, yeah, took a lot of graft.
Colin Cairnes We did kind of run the script a bit like a talk show writers room because we’re friendly with a lot of comics and comedy writers here in Australia. We asked them to come up with some gags and one or two ended up in the film. It was hard but it was also a lot of fun. Just researching that era was kind of cool. We wrote it during COVID and here in Melbourne, we were locked down for a long, long time. So we had a lot of time to research and immerse ourselves in that world.
What about the effects? There are loads of physical, in-camera effects in this, which feel crude but somehow more impactful than CGI.
Colin Cairnes Physical effects always feel more tangible. Everything these days is CGI and you come to accept it but when you see something that’s done practically in camera, you can feel it, you can see the actors responding to what they are seeing and you’re seeing it as well. There’s just a visceral nature to it. Sometimes it might look a bit crude, but audiences are okay with that. They can sense the hard work and craftsmanship that has gone into it, and it’s appreciated. It was important to us that as much as possible should be practical effects.
It’s also so fun on set. The actors and the crew are just building up to the moment when the gag happens. The tension is real and it’s stressful, but it’s a whole lot of fun when it comes off and it’s like “oh my god!” shock horror stuff on set. That’s pure joy. Of course, some things don’t go to plan and you often get just one or two goes at a gag. If it doesn’t quite come off, you may have to resort to some VFX to help out. We certainly did that on a couple of occasions. But, for the most part, our guys, again on a very, very tight budget and timeline, did a pretty amazing job.
You two won the screenplay honor at the Sitges fantasy festival. Were you worried about screening it there, to an audience of hardcore, critical horror fans?
Colin Cairnes Oh yeah. I mean there’s anxiety every time before a screening. And you get slightly different reactions from every audience. The responses so far have all been positive. But I think Sitges was the scariest because we were in the big room, with 1,200 people. And the film was subtitled in Spanish and Catalan, and I was wondering if our Jimmy Carter/Billy Carter references were going to translate that well. But the reactions post-film were wonderful. The pure horror fans enjoyed those elements in the film, where in London, where we screened it a few days later, people seemed to enjoy the satire and humorous elements, the irony in the material seemed to play a little stronger.
Watching the movie, I had to think about Ti West’s X, which also shot in Australia, and is another 1970s-inspired horror movie. What is it about that period that’s so appealing for this type of film?
Cameron Cairnes I think the films from that period felt a lot more dangerous. They felt, I don’t know, cruder, as if they weren’t being made by professionals. And they felt a lot more scary for that reason. For me, the greatest horror film ever made is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which Ti West was obviously influenced by for X. I just think those films transport me back to a more dangerous time. Maybe that’s what we were trying to evoke a little in Late Night With The Devil.
Colin Cairnes Politically as well. If you think about Watergate, Nixon, the oil crisis and all that stuff that we allude to in the opening in that prologue. It’s not a million miles from what we’re experiencing today, with the crisis in the Middle East, the distrust in politicians. That whole era of paranoia, of who can you trust, which was certainly there to a degree in the 1970s and I think is with us in a big way now. I don’t know the degree to which it really plays into the themes of our film but it just seemed like an interesting, rich world in which to play, a world where everyone’s just a little bit on edge.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter