For his second English language feature following the claustrophobic thriller Buried, Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes has decided to delve into the world where science, parapsychology, and psychic ability meets in the film Red Lights. Working from his own screenplay, Cortes tells the story of a pair of psychic investigators and debunkers (Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy) as they attempt to unlock the mystery of Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro), the world’s most famous psychic. After disappearing for over a decade, the enigmatic and charming blind man who was never proven to be a fraud now finds himself dogged by a young man who will stop at nothing to pull back the curtain of secrecy around him even if it means putting everyone close to him in harm’s way.
While Cortes has never been a stranger to thrillers or heady concepts, neither is his star Murphy, who often finds himself playing psychologically challenging roles in most of his films. His character here stands alongside several other performances in his career, like Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s recent cycle of Batman films and his roles as reluctant protagonists in his work with Danny Boyle in films like 21 Days Later and Sunshine. Few modern actors have been associate with roles this psychologically interesting, and his part in Red Lights offers similarly a lot for the still young Irish actor to chew on.
Recently during a promotional stop in Toronto, we got a chance to sit down with Cortes and Murphy about their work together, the nature of believing in psychic abilities, and the psychology behind making a twisty thriller of the mind.
Dork Shelf: Rodrigo, what made you want to make a film about psychic abilities, and by extension of that would you consider yourself to be someone who identifies as a believer or as a skeptic?
Rodrigo Cortes: I was always interested and I was always fascinated by this topic, especially when you think about the history and the science behind trying to measure the immeasurable in laboratory conditions. But again, I’m not really interested in this topic so much as a fact, but as a way to fixate on the psychology behind the topic and the way it affects our own beliefs, which is what I wanted to talk about more than anything.
Personally, I will define myself as a skeptic in the most literal sense. I don’t deny, but I question. Everything that I know about everything I question first, and I’m not interested in things necessarily in concept, but in trying to understand those concepts.
DS: The academic tone of the psychic tests in this movie definitely sets it apart from other films on the topic of psychic abilities. Was that something that required a lot of research on your part?
RC: Yeah, and mostly because I knew I wanted to have a very scientific approach to the material, and in order to get that tangible and palpable atmosphere of that world you need to do that because it’s a world with thousands of little details that you need to see in every choice you make on screen. So, it took me about a year and a half to study both sides rationally, and I actually found out something very interesting. Both skeptic and so-called psychics would behave in a very similar way. They normally only accepted what reinforced their previously believed positions and they tended to reject anything else, which made both sides seem like real believers. What’s more convenient for us to believe?
DS: Cillian, you seem to take on a lot of roles that are very psychologically interesting. Is that something that interests you or that you look for in a role or is it just a happy accident?
Cillian Murphy: I never really thought of it that way, but I guess you’re right. (laughs) I never really look back into the past films or draw any lines between them, so there must be something there to do with taste. I like films that are really intelligent and kind of have an interesting story to tell that never pander to the audience; things that presuppose a level of intelligence within the audience. I guess that’s definitely one of the constants, but I never really thought that much about it before.
Have you ever met, like, a super intelligent person before? It’s almost like a burden to them and they have a completely different outlook on life, and once or twice I feel like I’ve played people that are way smarter than I am and you feel that you recognize it as a burden, and that’s quite exciting to play as an actor.
DS: You also have to act very academically in this one, which is something that’s hard to convey to an audience when you’re making a genre film like this one. Do you have to approach those aspects of the film differently than the rest of the material?
CM: Yeah, you do, but you have to do your due diligence and you do all your research and have all your own materials because you have to be respectful to these people by knowing the world that they exist in. But ultimately for me, it always comes down to the emotions of a character and what drives them and what their needs are. That’s the stuff that is less intellectual, but that’s the stuff that I’m really interested in.
DS: Together did you guys ever have any difference of opinion through your research on how your role should be played in the film?
RC: Frankly, no, but mostly because it doesn’t have so much to do with the research, but with the truth that goes into every decision on both ends. You try to play the subtext and not the text. You have the word on the paper, but you also have these character with complex psychologies making decisions, and often we’re going to find ourselves contradicted. Sometimes when we want to do something we find ourselves at odds with the words and what’s ultimately the real human truth. Once you find the truth, like Cillian was talking about, it’s very easy to come to the right decisions, which is what happens from the beginning.
DS: Did you ever have any specific input with regard to your character despite the fact that the script has a very specific final goal in mind?
CM: Yeah, and in those situations you have to have complete and utter trust in the director that they will tell you you’re doing the right thing, and I definitely had that with Rodrigo completely. We shot the film all out of sequence, but it’s a huge benefit to have the man who is also the writer there at all times, as well. You just have to trust in them and give as much as you can, and it’s definitely a collaborative effort. Obviously I would have ideas and he would have ideas, but ultimately you’re there both because of the story.
DS: When you set out to make a movie like this and you’ve looked into something that certain people would just outright dismiss as “magic,” were you ever afraid of giving away certain secrets and how certain things are done both the realms of phony psychics and true academic debunkers or did you leave it up to the audience to decide what was truly real in both areas?
RC: That’s exactly what I tried to do. What my real position on everything is, isn’t up on film. The film plays pretty fair because I wanted to misguide the audience so they would actually have to change their opinions a couple of times throughout the course of the film. The film in a way ends with a big question mark in a way that at the end of thriller you might know who the killer is, but you don’t know why it was that way. You have to think a lot about it. I’ve always been interested in the films that challenge me and that aren’t necessarily trying to please me and that don’t end when they end, but they will go on in your mind because you still want to keep doing some work. It’s like a process of digestion or something like that. You want to find yourself still thinking of the film a few days later. That’s why I think we’re getting such strong responses to the film so far. That’s what you want to get from them. You never want a pre-scripted solution or reaction from anyone.