When I first heard that Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver would be playing opposite each other in a film whose power struggle encompassed the paranormal, I knew I had to see it. Perhaps it was the thought of these two living screen legends going head to head in this dramatic thriller or my own odd experiences with things other-worldly, but I was ready to speed dial Madame Cleo for a prediction on whether we’d get the interview!
Luckily, the stars were in my favor and PPLA was invited to attend the advance screening and interview director Rodrigo Cortes (Buried) and star Cillian Murphy (Red Eye, Batman Begins).
Red Lights follows a pair of top paranormal researchers- Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her partner Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy). They are the foremost investigating team of paranormal phenomena and have made a career debunking fraudulent mind readers, ghost hunters, and faith healers and are up against their toughest challenge, discrediting world renowned blind pyschic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). They use a subtle detection system called ‘red lights’ which act as cues to the trickery behind many of these supposed supernatural occurrences.
Simon Silver is perhaps the only formidable adversary left to Dr. Matheson but a past encounter makes her hesitant to go after him, and she warns Buckley to back off this case. However, when Silver comes out of a thirty year retirement for a publicity tour that includes a show stop in their home city, Buckley becomes almost obsessed with disapproving Silver’s abilties. The film also stars Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Buckley’s star student/ love interest and newest member to the team.
The movie includes a few major plot twists (which I don’t want to spoil for you here,- some foreshadowed and others a bit out of left field) and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. As you watch the film, you can’t help but wonder at times if the film…well, makes any sense. Does the plot-line follow through? Are you missing something? Do these oddities stand-out on purpose? For me, this state of audience confusion was intentional. I wasn’t sure if the scenes were quite adding up and I loved it. My mind was constantly trying to stay one step ahead. I felt myself wondering what the characters true intentions were. Was Buckley having a psychotic break or were these things really happening?
You’ll have to watch it to see the truth…try not to get blind-sided! Here’s what Cortes & Murphy had to say to PPLA:
PPLA: At the heart of this film is the question of whether one believes in paranormal phenomenon. Do you believe?
CORTES: I’m not interested in believing. I am interested in understanding, which doesn’t mean that I don’t accept things that can’t be explained. If you ask me if I believe in supernatural forces, I’d say no, because I don’t think that nature can be trusted. Everything has to fall inside nature’s margins but if we consider paranormal as the search for an explanation, there are things that can not be explained yet.
MURPHY: I am naturally skeptical and rational about things but curious and open to things as well. What was fascinating about this script and this character, both researching and playing it, was the need that people have to believe. I found that fascinating, how people would set aside logic and reason because they needed to believe in something… because they’d lost somebody or they were ill..and then how that could be manipulated.
PPLA: How did you prepare for this role, to direct this film? One reporter mentioned that if you were playing a firefighter or making a film about firemen, you could hang out with firemen, but there is no way to prepare to play someone who deals with paranormal activities. How did you?
MURPHY: I hung around with fireman (laughs). I read a lot and I went to Vegas as well to see more of the show biz aspect of it. I think the De Niro character is sort of an amalgam of the Chris Angel kind of thing and those preacher type guys that claim to cure and hear, and then psychics too. I also hung around with a magician in Spain. The character goes on such a journey. At the beginning, he is so firmly in that skeptic camp. For me, the important thing was making the character believable and honest and somebody you would go on that journey with. What I liked about the movie was that from the beginning, Rodrigo gave equal credence to both camps. It wasn’t about pointing fingers or ridiculing either side. In that TV debate that’s in the movie between both sides- and I love that piece of the movie- neither camp is given greater credence. Both are given equal respect.
CORTES: I did my research for a year and a half, but I never saw anything really strange or paranormal myself. Maybe I should make something up for this question (laughs). Something really funny that I did find though was that at the end of the day, the skeptics and believers, both of them- no matter what they claimed to do- only accepted the things that confirmed their previous theories. They rejected everything else. Which means that most people only accept what is convenient for them to believe which is why most people’s beliefs don’t change. Not everything is explained in this film, which is something that we really wanted to get across. The movie should continue after it ends. That way when you go back and rewind it (or watch again) there are still certain things you really just don’t know exactly what happened. That’s something we were really looking forward to doing with this.
PPLA: Not to give too much away, but there is a foreshadowing scene in the beginning where De Niro’s character removes his sunglasses when exiting the plane. You hold on a closeup of this for a while…it stood out as odd and intentional. Did you want the audience to suspect he may not be blind?
CORTES: I wanted the audience to find it strange. There are some people that have said to me. ‘That is a terrible shot, a blind guy would never take off his glasses”. I say, ‘That’s right, a blind guy would never do that.’ (laughs)
PPLA: Rodrigo, when you wrote this script, did you have any specific actors in mind?
CORTES: Sigourney Weaver’s character is the only character that I wrote specifically for someone which is actually pretty risky because it doesn’t guarantee you a ‘yes’, but it can guarantee you a serious problem if she says ‘no’! Thank God she said ‘yes’! I wanted a very strong woman but someone who had a warmth inside under this tough layer. Someone broken inside, someone with intelligence and a sexy nature… I thought of her. (In regard to her obvious association with the Ghostbusters franchise) I never thought of Ghostbusters, not consciously.
PPLA: Cillian, the roles you play always tend to have a question mark around them. What attracts you to these dark or more mysterious characters?
MURPHY: I hope that I’ve done a lot of various roles over the years. My constant has been not to repeat and to always challenge. I’m just attracted to good stories and to good filmmakers and this was a gift of a role. There is ambiguity about the character throughout the movie, that’s his function in it. But also, you go on this amazing journey from the Tom we have at the beginning of the movie to the Tom we have at the end, and that to me…to be able to play that arc well… to try to make the audience go with him on this journey…well, I’m always intrigued by that. I never see any correlation or connection between characters I’ve played in the past. You always just have to embody each role as purely and honestly as you can.
PPLA: What was it like playing opposite and directing De Niro?
MURPHY: It was phenomenal. For any actor of my generation, we grew up watching his movies and they are seminal moments in my life. So then to actually be in a room working with him and Sigourney both…I mean they are both legends! I think they are aware of that legacy and are aware of the effect that they must have on actors of my generation. But they were both extraordinarily warm and lovely and friendly. The first scene that I shot was with me and De Niro, the scene where I go to visit him in the office with the salt and everything, and I have no dialogue. I could just watch this master create the scene with Rodrigo and it was amazing. I just had to look intimidated, so there was no acting required (laughs). It was really simple. You do pinch yourself. It’s very hard not resort to cliché when talking about people like De Niro and Sigourney Weaver because they are for us, they are legends, and their filmography speaks for itself. I came to acting sort of by accident. I remember watching De Niro and Sigourney Weaver movies before I ever thought of being an actor. I came to it late-ish nowadays, like twenty. I find it can be a little reductive if you talk about your influences on becoming an actor because everyone is of course different. But getting to watch these guys close up and watch them work was huge for me. Hopefully you observe and learn, but you have to just follow you own star (laughs)…as they say.
CORTES: It’s easier to work with him because he is better than others. He reaches every note you need him to reach. I had a meeting with him in Sicily, which is the perfect place to have a meeting with him actually, and in forty minutes we knew we were going to work with each other. He simply said, ‘okay now your people and mine need to find a way to make this work’. He’s just an actor. He’s a living legend, but you can not think of that. It’s not the most intelligent thing to do if you are trying to direct someone. You just forget about it (no pun intended) and focus on getting truthful moments from whoever you have in front of you. So if there is something you want to improve or explore, you simply tell him and he simply does it. He is an amazing actor and was so warm and friendly with everybody.
PPLA: At it’s core, what is this film about for you? I heard you toyed with several endings, why leave it somewhat ambiguous?
CORTES: It’s not about fantasy. It’s more about extra sensory perception but in a scientific way. Everything was very tangible and touchable. It’s about beliefs with a very scientific background and it has to do with some aspects of magic. I wanted to explore the mechanisms of perception, the human brain, in a way. How you can not trust to perceive reality because it basically is a lie. That’s what magicians play with and that’s what you as a filmmaker play with too. You want the audience to look at your left hand while in your right hand you steal a couple of words….At the end of the day, everything is just about telling stories. You have stories, you have characters, you have great actors, you have tools to make it work. I would be stupid if I just accepted things that I can’t understand as truth. In a way, it is the story of acceptance. Certain things happen in life and it is sometimes hard for oneself to accept those things. You have to be brave in order to look at yourself and accept something that is different. Paranormal is just a medium. It’s not that I wanted the film to have one giant message. The one that you feel when watching it, that’s the right one. Even sometimes when people tell me certain theories they have about the film, I find them interesting. If I wanted the audience to come away with one single idea, I would have put it in the film. I want them to be able to watch it many times. I don’t believe in closing things. Movies are not always about answers, they are also about questions. So if you find a big question mark, that’s right…because I put it there.
PPLA: With a lot of films like this that have a final twist, audiences go back and watch the movie again to try to find the clues. Was that your intention?
CORTES: You question certain things when you write but then you decide on something that is logical for your reasoning. I never wanted this to be a final twist film. When you have a giant final twist, the film usually just works toward that twist. To me, the film itself is very important. At the end, more than a final twist, is a message that talks to you about self discovery and acceptance. I never wanted it to be something that is a big surprise or makes you rewind the film. I simply found it logical and so that’s the way we did it. I don’t know if we did it right, but we did it this way (laughs). You see, in the first part of the film everybody learns that this kind of paranormal phenomena can not exist because there is always an explanation. Doctor Matheson is like a mother who gives you logical answers for any kind of question that you may have. But then she disappears, so you become an orphan and he (motioning to Cillian, his character) becomes an orphan too. Then you start to doubt everything and change your opinion several times. Throughout the film, there are details that tell you something might be wrong or that this doesn’t quite fit. It makes you suspect and the audience from this point on becomes searchers of ‘red lights’. They become ‘red lighters’. Every time we give the audience new information, they have to reevaluate what they think which is exactly what I wanted them to do.
PPLA: What do you have coming up next? Cillian, I hear you returned to theater after filming Red Lights?
MURPHY: I started out in theater. I did theater for the first four years of my career exclusively and I hadn’t done theater in about six years. I just went back. I did this one man show called Mr. Man directly after we did Red Lights. Initially we thought it would only run in Ireland but then we took it to NY and London. If you are enjoying it and it’s good, you can’t worry about the things that you are not available for (film or TV projects). You just have to concentrate at being good at what you are doing at that point. But for me, theater and film have always informed each other. In fact, theater, film or TV, any medium works as long as the story is good and the character is good. I don’t consider myself just a film actor or just a theater actor. I love that live connection with an audience. Film is about capturing moments and then a year or a year and a half later, you have the finished film. Whereas theater, you sort of sign this contract with an audience for that evening and it’s very special when it succeeds. That said, ever single moment on this film was just amazing. Working in Spain, the crew was just incredible. We worked so hard and so fast and I loved ever minute of it. I don’t like actors who complain, you are so lucky to be working. It was a joy.
Speaking of joy, I really enjoyed this film. In the press room, you hear chatter and I quickly realized my opinion might be in the minority. But the paranormal has never been a topic that everyone can digest and to dismiss it because it’s not wrapped up in a clear cut neat package, it befitting of skeptics- movie critics and ghostbusters alike!
The film got people talking and in the end, I think that’s what Cortes and Murphy wanted all along.
Red Lights opens July 13th, watch the trailer here.