Talking with Colin and Cameron Cairnes about Late Night with the Devil, Their Low Budget High Concept Cinematic Phenomenon

This interview has been edited for as much clarity as possible. It is important to note that Cameron and Colin have such a natural rapport they begin and end each other’s sentences. It is difficult to even delineate which brother said what. All responses will just be noted as CC. Although a lot of the self-deprecating comments come from Colin.

The official synopsis for Late Night with the Devil is deceptively modest: “A live television broadcast in 1977 goes horribly wrong, unleashing evil into the nation’s living rooms.” The Melbourne shot horror-comedy-satire has so much going on under the hood that it invites multiple viewings just to pick up on all the glorious references the Cairnes brothers are throwing at the audience. For international audiences they will understand the “sweeps week” pressure and the American cultural context.

For Australian viewers of a certain age, they will see one thing first and foremost… the career of the American/Australian legend Mr. Don Lane. A giant on Australian television screens for decades. A over six-foot and never losing his American accent – Bronx born Lane was a titan and more than a little complex and often controversial. Yet he was embraced with open arms by devoted fans.

People who run the screen funding bodies in Australia, pay attention. Genius work from people such as Colin and Cameron shouldn’t have to sit on a shelf for over five years before it can get made with overseas investment. Remember Peter Weir made The Cars That Ate Paris in 1974, a year before his Australian Gothic Picnic at Hanging Rock introduced him to the world. Horror and exploitation films were part of the Australian New Wave.

We can ask where Australian cinema would be without people like Gillian Armstrong, Ray Lawrence, Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins, and Robert Connolly… but equally where is it without Mark Hartley, Tracy Moffatt, Richard Franklin, Jamie Blanks, Russell Mulcahy, and the great Doctor George Miller?

Nadine Whitney got the chance to speak to Colin and Cameron about how they managed to put Late Night with the Devil together and give character actor David Dastmalchian his first leading role.

Late Night with the Devil opened April 11, 2024.

Congratulations on teaching Americans about Don Lane despite the fact he had a career in the States before relocating to Australia.

Colin and Cameron Cairnes: If Don was with us today, I’m sure he would yes appreciate all the free publicity we are giving him and what we’re doing for him.

I saw the film last year at Melbourne International Film Festival and was going in just having the synopsis and the fact you wrote and directed it, and knowing David Dastmalchian was the star. When I saw it, I realised it was basically The Don Lane Show but with a found footage style horror twist. I found it hilarious in places. Now it is in American cinemas and doing great business critically. Yet they don’t have the full context to understand the specificity of some of the references.

CC: Early on in the process like up to pre-production and even once we had the team assembled, we weren’t that game to share Don. We thought they would just know Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Dick Cavett, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel.

We weren’t sure how they would take to Don but once they encountered him, David Dastmalchian in particular, when we he saw some of those episodes that we shared fell in love with Don. I think Don was a much bigger influence in how he played Jack Delroy than any of those other much more famous hosts.

I was reading last night an extraordinary interview between David and Trent Reznor (for Interview Magazine) where he extolled the virtues of Don Lane and how important Late Night with the Devil was to both David and Trent.

CC: Yes, we were quite surprised when we saw that that interview when it came out a couple of days ago.

For this old “goth” it was a matter of two worlds colliding. David was talking about the process of choosing to play Jack Delroy and how he was just amazed at what you’d sent him. How you photoshopped his head onto “Jack” and how much effort you’d put into making him feel like he was the right person for a leading role.

How organised were you to get the film rolling?

CC: We did a lot of organisation and preparation. I think that’s the job really because when you when you get to set you just want to have fun. You just want to play knowing all the right elements there and see what happens.

So, it is all it’s all about ensuring that can happen. It’s about the preparation, it’s about assembling a great team and collaborators and making sure we’re on the same page and heading towards the same goal. Sharing all our research with heads of department of makeup and costume and production design, and yeah just getting everyone to feel like they’re living in that world. Giving people the space the freedom to bring their own skills and ideas to it.

It’s also just us immersing ourselves and spreading all that great stuff. The Don Lane episodes and the Cavett and Carson. Sharing that with people and making sure that they get the sensibility, the visual influences and style.

You have all those references in the film plus other things. The vaguely middle eastern medium Christou (a mixture of a bunch of spiritualists and psychic charlatans). You reference the legitimisation of parapsychology and parascience in the 1970s. Anton LaVey and “Michelle Remembers” which really pushed the ‘Satanic Panic’ into full swing. And, of course, James Randi who appeared multiple times on television to challenge claims of the paranormal and all kinds of pseudoscience. Don Lane famously battled Randi over Doris Stokes.

Every time I watch Late Night With the Devil I see something else you’ve included. It is such a clever script. So, which one of you is going to claim it as the main genius?

CC: (Colin and Cameron laughing) It was a labour of love for many years. We are fortunate to have some friends who are also good writers who helped a lot. In particular the great Joel Anderson writer director of Lake Mungo.

Is Joel ever going to direct again?

CC: We sure hope so. Somebody should give him a lot of money so he can make a new film right now.

Joel is the first person we will send a script to once we’ve got a full first draft. That was the case with this film also. He was quite instrumental in helping us solve some story problems and there are even lines of dialogue he can take credit for. Joel is amazing, he’s just got an incredible brain. The script was first conceived years ago and we looked at an early draft recently and it’s so bad.

Sometimes we work fast. We have an idea, we come up with an outline, and four months later we’ve got a half decent script. But this one took a lot of work and research for the story and create an interesting protagonist. It was David’s performance which cracked the code for the character Jack Delroy. Then it started to get really interesting. We knew it was important to us that he had a couple of layers, and then David comes along and suddenly he’s got twenty-six layers that we hadn’t imagined.

David’s performance is phenomenal, and I don’t know precisely how complicit Jack really is in what happens. He is complicit and he is pushing what happens but he’s also not controlling it. The audience is never sure. His work is a balancing act in uncertainty.

CC: It is. The uncertainty is in the writing and you’re hoping that’s being suggested. But it’s not until you so get up and move it around that you realise, “Okay, yeah, this actor is actually Jack Delroy.” He’s ideal. He’s understood and found nuances that you didn’t realise were there. Let’s be honest here, just through the sheer magic of his performance. David’s the kind of performer who completely inhabits the contradictions of a character. He can sell the showman side of Jack but also go into the darker grief stricken and morally dubious side of him. It’s all there and it’s such a rich performance.

Let’s talk a bit about connective tissue because your previous film Scare Campaign shared the cynicism about the “entertainment industry” and that world and pushing people into uncomfortable situations and it turning around back on them.

CC: It’s something that is a really interesting theme. You know Scare Campaign? In talking to you about it you must be the third person who seen it, so thank you! (Colin laughing). I met a Spanish guy at Sitges Film Festival, who has a website who claims Scare Campaign is his favourite movie of all time. So, we are huge in Basque country!

We were developing them at the same time and to be honest, we weren’t sure which one was going to happen — which one would get up first. It ended up being Scare Campaign. I think the script was better at the time because it was more regular and because it is a lot more plot and action driven than Late Night with the Devil was. They were both just a product of whatever is going on in our heads, and in the world I think, at that time.

It’s still going on with ‘punking’ people for entertainment and filming people without their consent. People just do it with their phones and post it online.

CC: At the time that was just starting to happen, and all that horrible stuff was happening in the Middle East with people filming all sorts of gruesome brutal stuff and I think that played into Scare Campaign, and I guess Late Night with the Devil is a broader look at the lengths people will go to in using people for entertainment fodder in the ‘gentler’ 1970s.

The film has an incredible period aesthetic you captured so well. You even have David (Jack) in a perfect Don Lane suit.

CC: The Don beige! That beige or bone. We wanted to create a convincing facsimile of the period as possible. There are probably some liberties here and there or maybe even a few oversights on our part, but we did work really hard with all our wonderful collaborators.

Otello Stolfo the production designer is a legend. He was designing TV sets in the 70s and on Countdown for years. He used to have a budget per week of like 200 bucks or something and he had to build sets for Skyhooks and various bands. So, he was the perfect man the job. It wouldn’t matter what sort of film you’re doing but Late Night with the Devil is a natural match for such a talent. 

Our DOP Matt Temple also understood what we needed. He does a lot of television, so he knew how to really employ the small budget handheld camera work.

It was an enterprise with people who got what we set out to achieve and utilised their skills and knowledge to bring the best authentic sheen to the film. We were so lucky to have a live jazz band and we probably haven’t given enough credit to our composers like Roscoe Irwin and Glenn Richards. Roscoe is a well-known jazz arranger, composer, and player who could turn around all those great themes and set up the recording sessions with some of Melbourne’s best musicians.

All of it just blends to the texture of the richness of that live television world. There were days on set where we actually had the band live playing for us and the ‘viewers at home’ — adding so much to the to the 70s vibe and the characters in it. We let them play with the form and amplify each element. It’s great when the actors have real-time live feedback. They can actually react to snare hits and that sort of thing.

During Delroy’s opening monologue we said to Andy Swan the drummer in the band, “If think a joke has really landed do the snare style ‘boom-tish’” — the live television aural language was actually live on our set.

All of that just made me feel I was watching something perfectly versed in the retro late night television world. Gus McConnell is a blend of a ‘barrel boy’ Bert Newton and David Letterman’s Paul Shaffer character doing the band leader schtick and acting as a comedic sidekick. Plus he is the live audience hype man and handler. Making audiences all over the world relate to the format but it’s really such a Trojan horse for Australia. Gus also represents a Pete Smith styled announcer (a couple of Pete Smith digs might go unnoticed).

CC: So much of the script comes from those people. We stole a line Bert used all the time from the spinning wheel section. Where he says we had a lady do this and she kept going around for hours. It’s all part of that golden age of live television for Australia where anything could happen on camera and things could go wrong and it was so chaotic no one could predict what would happen.

How many Americans are in the cast apart from David?

CC: One. There is Christopher Kirby, but he’s been in Australia for twenty years. He plays Phil the floor manager.

You have Michael Ironside so doing the voiceover at the top of the film setting the period and giving the audience the background on Jack Delroy and the history of “Night Owls with Jack Delroy.”

CC: Ah, but Ironside is Canadian!

Then the percentage comes down to 1.5 American actors. Which is a testament to the brilliant performances by Ingrid Torelli as Lilly, Laura Gordon as June Ross-Mitchell, Rhys Auteri as Gus McConnell, Josh Quong Tart as Leo Fiske. And of course, Ian Bliss as James Randi… I mean Carmichael Haig.

Congratulations Colin and Cameron for making such a smart and effective horror comedy. It really is like stepping back in time. Not only would Don Lane get a kick out of it, I think it’s also a tribute to people like Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon, and even Russell Mulcahy.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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