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Do you believe in psychic phenomena? It’s an oft-pondered
question that’s at the heart of RED LIGHTS (on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow from
Millennium Entertainment), the second thriller feature by Spanish-born director
Rodrigo Cortés. Fango spoke to the filmmaker about his LIGHTS collaborators,
his other 2012 paranormal film, APARTMENT 143 (which he scripted), and his
breakout film BURIED.
RED LIGHTS stars Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver as Tom
Buckley and Margaret Matheson, paranormal researchers who actually spend a good
deal of their time exposing fake and fraudulent psychics and occult phenomena.
They may have met their match in Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a world-famous
mind-reader who is ending a lengthy retirement to step back into the spotlight.
It’s an expansive story that’s quite a switch from BURIED, in which the entire
running time is spent trapped with Ryan Reynolds (playing a U.S. truck driver
kidnapped in Iraq) inside a coffinlike box…
FANGORIA: What kind of adjustments did you have to make as a
director from BURIED to the much bigger RED LIGHTS?
RODRIGO CORTÉS: Actually, it’s the same approach. When I did
BURIED, I never felt I was doing a small film or an experimental one. To me, it
was like a super-production that happened inside a box. You use the same
tools—you just direct—and of course there are certain differences, but they are
not major. It’s only that on RED LIGHTS, I had more actors and more locations.
Instead of going every day to the same set, I changed from one to another. But
at the end of the day, I was still telling a story, so there were no major
FANG: Are the paranormal, and paranormal debunkers, themes
you’ve been interested in for a long time?
CORTÉS: More than the theme itself, what interested me is how
those phenomena affect people. I’m more interested in the way beliefs are
created, the places they come from.
FANG: How did you settle on Cillian Murphy for the lead?
CORTÉS: For the character of Tom, I needed someone with two
faces, in a way. At the beginning of the film, Tom is very innocent, in a way.
He’s like a Boy Scout with a very innocent gaze, like a young deer. And then
things change, and he becomes much more dark and enigmatic. Cillian has both
qualities, and he describes this very long arc in an amazing way.
FANG: How about Elizabeth Olsen as Sally, the student who
becomes involved with Tom? Did you cast her before her star ascended?
CORTÉS: I actually didn’t know her; none of her films had
yet been released. I just auditioned about 30 actresses, and she was the best
one. She was amazing. When she did the audition, she was reading my lines, but
it was like they were her lines. It felt like everything was happening inside
her head at that very moment, in an organic, natural way. She brought so much
life to the character, and I needed Sally to have that. This is someone you
want to be close to Tom through his dark journey. Then, when she was already
cast, was when everything happened with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and all that
stuff, so it was perfect timing.
FANG: Your 2nd-unit director on RED LIGHTS was Nacho Cerdá,
who’s well-known for his own horror films, including THE ABANDONED and the
shorts AFTERMATH and GENESIS. How did you come to collaborate with him?
CORTÉS: He has worked many times with my DP on RED LIGHTS,
Xavi Giménez, and I thought he was the perfect choice. On one hand, I gave him
a list of things I wanted him to shoot, but on the other, I also gave him the
freedom to do anything he felt would be useful, so he could give me some material
that came through his eyes—which he did. For instance, in the theater sequence
where everything starts to tremble, he shot reactions of the people or things
falling. Or if you remember that moment where the Russian psychic is screaming,
and moving objects with her mind—that footage. Sometimes, when I had three
cameras in big scenes, I gave him one of those so he could get some of the
FANG: You spun off some of your paranormal research for RED
LIGHTS into into the screenplay for the found-footage paranormal-investigation
movie APARTMENT 143 (a.k.a. EMERGO), which came out earlier this year.
CORTÉS: When you do a year and a half of research, you have
tons and tons of material—I had about 10 notebooks’ worth—and of course, not
all of that can be used in one single film. And I felt that I had so much
research that, in a way, I pushed myself to do something with it. It’s not that
there were certain scenes I didn’t use in RED LIGHTS or something like that,
but rathat that that research could have been used for 10 different films, and
I needed to do at least one more. But APARTMENT 143 is so, so different; it’s
like the other side of the coin. We have just one case that happens in three
days and three nights in one apartment. It’s a very low-budget film. And we
don’t have debunkers, just a multidisciplinary team of metapsychic
FANG: How was it seeing your material directed by a
different filmmaker, Carles Torrens?
CORTÉS: It’s actually very rewarding in many ways, and I was
very involved in the film, even in the postproduction. But no matter how
involved you are, everything’s filtered through another vision, another way of
interpreting your stuff and making it go to a different place. And in that
sense, you’re surprised. When you direct your own script, there’s not so much
of a margin for surprise, because you know yourself. For instance, I never
admire the things I do, because they look very natural to me since they came
out of my own brain. It’s only when you see things other people that you
wonder, “How the hell did they do that?” So when you see your own material
directed by a talented filmmaker, it’s very rewarding in that sense.
FANG: You did an amazing job sustaining tension for 90
minutes in a confined space in BURIED. What was the biggest challenge on that
CORTÉS: Probably just believing it was possible, because
before we did it, everybody thought we were totally crazy. So making that jump
over common sense was the most difficult part. In a way, the hardest thing you
have to do in a case like this is stop thinking about it, because if you use
logic, logic tells you it’s impossible. I decided to just go with no
limitations, no thinking about the space, and shoot it as if it was, I don’t
know, a chase in the streets of New York—with no limitations at all. First I
figured out what I wanted to do, and then I found out the way to do it. If I
had gone the opposite way, first thinking about what I could do, then the movie
would been much more limited.
FANG: Did you do any research into similar real-life
CORTÉS: No, I didn’t. I wanted to create a Hitchcockian
film, and to me the political part, for instance, was not important. Iraq was
the MacGuffin in a way, to use the Hitchcockian term. I was interested in the
emotional side, working with the actor to create very truthful, powerful
feelings, and establishing an entire world inside that box with perfect control
of timing, pace, narrative and, again, emotions. So I didn’t want to do any
research. To me, it was the story of this guy, and I wanted to make the best
possible version of that.
FANG: Ryan Reynolds was an interesting casting choice; he
was mostly known for comedy at the time. How did you settle on him for the
CORTÉS: Well, I had always admired him, actually. He’s an
amazing actor. I remember seeing THE NINES, a film directed by John August, in
which he does three roles. It’s a very small but amazing film, and I was in
shock when I saw it. I had never seen that control of timing. And though it may
sound paradoxical, being so good with comedy made him perfect for BURIED,
because I needed this perfect control of nuance that you only find in comedy. I
remember when I spoke with Chris Sparling, the writer of BURIED, for the first
time, I told him, “You don’t know it, but you have written a comedy.” Of
course, it isn’t a comedy, or if it was it would’ve been written by Kafka! But
it has the skeleton, the structure of a comedy. In terms of pace and structure,
it has the same elements. And with Ryan, you have someone with perfect control
of timing, this way of holding a line delivery for two seconds in a very
specific way so it creates a new effect. He had to show these endless emotions,
from fear to hunger to hope to joy to despair, and not many actors can do that
the way Ryan did. I was sure from the very first moment that he was the right
FANG: What are you working on now? Do you have any other
projects in the works?
CORTÉS: I’m looking for that idea that becomes a voice
inside my head that I have to listen to. I’ve been working nonstop for three
years on those three projects—BURIED, APARTMENT 143 and RED LIGHTS—from Monday
to Sunday, 15-18 hours a day. So my next project should be sleeping [laughs]
for four days in a row. I’m reading scripts, I’m reading novels, I just want to
make something that really means something to me. Many stories I would spend
happily two hours with, but there are not so many I would spend two years with.
See Fango #315 for more from Cortés on RED LIGHTS, and our
interview with star Cillian Murphy here.
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