Coming after his “thinking outside of the box” film Buried, (in which Ryan Reynolds played a man trapped in box with a cell phone with a long battery), writer/director Rodrigo Cortes challenges filmgoers with Red Lights, a movie about the debate over psychics. In the movie, Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy play two investigators who make a career out of debunking fake psychics, calling out their earpieces and theatrics, etc. The two investigators meet their biggest challenge when they try to disprove blind Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a blind psychic who has become a legend no one has been able to debunk.
I sat down with Cortés and Murphy in a roundtable interview to discuss the film, its reception, what it was like to act against Robert De Niro, and more.
Red Lights is now playing in select theaters.
One of the biggest scenes in the film is your “showdown” with Robert De Niro in the third act. When I talked to Edward Norton for ‘Stone,’ he said that De Niro is an actor whom you have to get a reaction from – he doesn’t just give it to you. As someone who has worked with De Niro, what do you think about that?
Cillian Murphy: That scene was amazing. That is something I will never forget. To get to go toe-to-toe with Robert De Niro was unbelievable. Aside from the fact that he is a living legend and one of the greatest actors ever, when Rodrigo says “Action,” it became about two actors just trying to make a scene work, and trying to help each other. There’s a lot of dialogue, and a lot of cues. It wasn’t any different from working with any other actor, except that the person was Robert De Niro. I think that people like Sigourney and Robert must know what effect they have on younger actors. And because they are so aware of it, they were so sweet and warm to me during the shoot. I never felt intimidated. You are in awe of them, for sure, but you’re not intimidated. Rodrigo was great. I remember my first time meeting him, “Bob, this is Cill, Cill this is Bob, you may have seen some of his films, let’s go.” We just got down to work. It became instantly about the work, which is what we were there for. The man traveled to Spain because he wanted to be there. He wasn’t being paid, he wanted to be there, d’you know what I mean?
Rodrigo Cortés: That is one of my favorite scenes in the film. In a regular Hollywood film, there’d be this big duel, with things flying everywhere. We tried to capture that energy in dialogue and performance. It was so moving to me, to see that duel, and how they helped each other.
There’s a spiritual aspect to this film that is really deep and profound.
Cortés: Well,thank you. Others hate it, so thank you.
What has the response been like for the film?
Murphy: We have been Q&A’s for the tour, which is so affecting in many ways. People are very exercised about it. And this spiritual aspect, I can’t answer it personally. But the duty of the subjective interpretations … that’s the duty of the movie. I want to come out of a movie and argue about it.
Cortés: As an audience member, I don’t expect films to tease me, but to challenge me. I tried not to be prescriptive. People want to think of film in certain layers.
Could you talk about what you wanted to achieve with the tone of the film? It certainly has a 70s political thriller feel.
Cortés: We wanted something like Costa-Gavras, or Sidney Lumet, or Alan Pakula. Those films trust characters and performances so much. We get a very physical sense of fear. The tension on All the President’s Men is so real.
This is a very hopeful film. Is that something you were trying to get at with this film?
Murphy: It’s definitely there, isn’t it? Humans beings are always desperate for hope, and I think that plays into this story of self-acceptance that my character goes on. Acceptance, and obsession, which we all can identify with. I think that you hope that Tom is going to be okay, and you hope that whatever part of the journey he goes on next, everyone else is going to be okay.
How did your script assemble itself? Did you start with the twist concept?
Cortés: I wanted to make a movie of self-acceptance, not just about a final twist. People expect to see The Sixth Sense, but when you have a final twist and that’s all, the rest is not important. That is not what I intended to do. So I didn’t start with a twist, I started with a story. I did research for a year and a half, of skeptics and believers. I found out something really interesting, which is that no one on either side would accept what had been confirmed, so people believed what they want to believe, and what is more convenient for us. From then I started to craft characters with complex psychologies and contradictions, and then I started to make the plot. Then I decided little by little how it should end. When you finish your first draft, you know for the first time what you are trying to do with your film. I never work with a treatment, I hate treatments. They are so restrictive. You can describe something, but it is very different from when you hear your characters and see them.
With the success of ‘Buried’ did you have any problem pitching this concept, and getting this film made?
Cortés: It was easier, but it was also a problem. When you do a movie that happens inside a box … it’s like doing Memento. After you do a movie backwards, you can do it that way again, or you can try to do a conventional way and they are going to tell you, “But we prefer the other one because it was backwards.” Things were easier, and faster. We got fast responses from all of the actors we were working with on this play.
Did anything during the course of this film change your perspective on topic of psychics?
Murphy: I am so annoyingly rational [laughs]. In real life, I am so involved in this dimension, I don’t care about the other dimension. The research was fascinating because it was endless, and “Who is the reliable source?” In that case, I would always go with the scientist, because science is about results. When I did the movie Sunshine, which has cross-over themes, I was so on the side of scientists, because they are so smart.