From AFL footballer to Owl High Priest: Adam White’s unusual journey into horror films

<span>Former AFL footballer Adam White playing for Carlton in 2000 and dressed as an Owl High Priest in Late Night with the Devil. </span><span>Composite: Tony Lewis/ALLSPORT/Getty Images/ Jim Cruse</span>
Former AFL footballer Adam White playing for Carlton in 2000 and dressed as an Owl High Priest in Late Night with the Devil. Composite: Tony Lewis/ALLSPORT/Getty Images/ Jim Cruse

It’s 8am on an icy cold July morning. I’m standing in a red gum forest in regional Victoria with a small group of men. We’re all wearing bird masks and white robes. In front of us, a man is dressed in a giant owl costume. He slowly raises his arms and lets out a loud squawking noise. We all squawk back. A cacophony of bird screeches echoes through the trees. A couple of early morning hikers appear, take one look at this pack of human-sized birds, and bolt back the way they came.

Related: Horror film Late Night With the Devil takes $666,666 on Sunday in the US

“Cut!” We’re filming a scene for the critically-acclaimed Australian horror movie Late Night with the Devil. The bloke in the giant owl costume is Adam White, the former Australian rules footballer who played 44 games for Carlton between 1995-2001. He’s co-producer of the film, but right now he’s the Owl High Priest, because he’s the only one big enough to fit in the costume.

It’s quite the change of career direction. How on earth did Adam White go from AFL footballer to Owl High Priest and horror movie producer?

Flashback to 1995. White was a gangly teenager recruited by Carlton. Two years later he debuted against North Melbourne at the MCG, and kicked a goal. But that’s not the moment which sticks out in his memory. “I remember running through the banner and someone had already broken through and I didn’t see the sticky tape,” he says. “I got clotheslined.”

Maybe it was a moment of foreshadowing for his footy career. Later that year he memorably collided with a field umpire and was knocked unconscious. He played in the famous 1999 preliminary final when Carlton beat Essendon by a point, but was dropped for the grand final. Then a very unlucky run of injuries – stress fractures, torn groin, a knee injury and a twice-broken foot – left him more banged up than James Caan in Misery. Eventually, at the age of 26, Carlton gave him the sack.

Many young footballers have no idea what to do when they leave the game, but White had a plan.

While he was training at Carlton, the players would do an early morning weights session and another session in the late afternoon. In between he’d go to the Nova Cinema and watch movies. Then while he was injured, he’d raid the local video store in Wantirna, taking full advantage of the offer of five weekly movies for $10. So when his footy career finished, he decided to become a filmmaker.

White studied animation at Tafe, got an internship at an animation company, and landed a job at Working Dog as an editor on Thank God You’re Here. Around that time, he met the filmmaking brothers, Colin and Cameron Cairnes. When they showed him an early draft of Late Night with the Devil, a film about a Halloween special on a US talk show which goes horribly wrong, White and co-producer Mat Govoni offered to get involved. “Somehow we bluffed Colin and Cameron into allowing us to produce it,” White says.

Late Night With The Devil began shooting in 2022. On set, White was the ultimate utility player, playing more positions than Stephen Silvagni. As well as producing, he was visual effects supervisor, graphic designer, set photographer, live vision switcher and, of course, Owl High Priest.

The hard work paid off. In 2023 Late Night with the Devil debuted at South by Southwest, and played film festivals across the world. It was well received; the Observer gave it four stars and found it “diabolically funny”, while it even got the stamp of approval from Stephen King, who tweeted: “It’s absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.” In the horror world, that’s pretty much the equivalent of winning a Brownlow, a Norm Smith and a premiership.

Jump cut to the present day. Late Night With Devil has earned $11m at the US box office, and last week broke the record for an opening weekend on horror streaming service Shudder. White and Govoni could not be any more proud.

White says the biggest similarity between a great footy team and making a great film are the “one percenters”. “We always looked at every shot, every line, every moment and thought is it good enough? How can we make it better?” he says. “And just the constant endeavour of the whole crew to make a great film.”

White is not the first former footy player to move into an unusual career – Leigh Colbert became a pilot, Kane Cornes was a fireman and Warwick Capper tried everything from meter-maid to adult movie star – but White is the only former player who has crossed over into horror movies.

“As an ex-elite athlete turned independent filmmaker, Adam has two good reasons to be a self-important wanker, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says ColinCairnes. “He’s the most self-deprecating, hard working person you’ll ever meet, which is great because it gives us the space we need to be self-important wankers.”

So what would 26-year-old White think as he walked out of Carlton football club, if you told him that almost 25 years later he would co-produce one of the most popular horror movies in the world? “Amazing. What a future to look forward to.” Even if it means dressing up as a giant owl.

  • Late Night with the Devil is currently playing at cinemas around Australia.