Spinning Platters Interview: Cillian Murphy and Rodrigo Cortés on “Red Lights”

by Jason LeRoy on July 27, 2012

Cillian Murphy in RED LIGHTS

In the dramatic thriller Red Lights, Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver star as the world’s foremost investigators of paranormal phenomena. Professional skeptics, they have debunked dozens of fraudulent mind readers, ghost hunters, and faith healers by detecting “red lights”, subtle clues to the trickery behind each of these “supernatural” occurrences. But when a world-renowned psychic (Robert De Niro) suddenly resurfaces after a lengthy exile — and the death of his biggest critic — they begin to investigate him, despite increasingly bizarre and dangerous incidents the closer they get. Co-starring Elizabeth Olsen and Joely Richardson, Red Lights is the second English-language film by Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Cortés, who previously created the acclaimed Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried. Below, Spinning Platters talks with Murphy and Cortés about manipulating the human brain, Murphy’s reflections on 28 Days Later and Inception, and how profoundly unamused he is by my phone’s autocorrect.

This project had been gestating for quite some time. What was the earliest inspiration for the story?

Rodrigo Cortés: I guess I started with these two words: paranormal hoaxes. Because they describe two different worlds. You have the paranormal, which is what cannot be explained, magic. Then you have hoaxes, people lying, which is probably what they do best. It allowed me to explore the mechanisms of perception in the human brain, how our brains perceive reality, which is what magicians play with — filmmakers too, in a way. As for cinematic inspiration, I wanted the first part of the film to have the genetic code of a ’70s political thriller, with the sense of conspiracy and investigation that becomes darker and darker and almost destroys the investigators. And for the second part, which is much more subjective and abstract and dark, I wanted the sense of organic evil you find in films like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart.

Cillian, when you first read the script, what was your impression of your character and the kind of story Rodrigo wanted to tell?

Cillian Murphy: You read a lot of scripts, and unfortunately you can generally predict where they’re going to go. But with this one, I wasn’t able to do that. That was refreshing, to read something that was original and unconventional and took turns that I could not predict. The character really does go on such a fantastic journey from when we meet him at the beginning to when we leave him at the end. I had seen Rodrigo’s movies and I was just intrigued by the whole package. It was something I really, really wanted to do.

As you mention, it’s a very twisty story with plenty of character reveals along the way. How did you approach playing the character arc without acknowledging the bigger picture revealed by the end?

Murphy: I don’t think the character knows where he’s going to end up. So you play the moment, you play the truth, you play the scene, and you try to make it as honest as you can. You try not to telegraph anything. It’s a movie about self-acceptance for my character. It’s a movie about obsession, and you try to focus on that being the driving force for him. I trusted Rodrigo, and he would tell me where we were in the movie, how far we needed to go, how hard we needed to push it, and when we needed to come back. You just trust your instinct, you know?

The film plays a lot with visual and emotional contrasts.

Cortés: Everything’s about contrast, really. The only way to see light is if you have darkness, and the only way of noticing darkness is if you have light. Everything in this film has to do with ambivalence and duality in every sense. If you analyze the film, everything is split in two; even the structure, which is pretty unconventional. The movie is divided in two parts, almost in the middle, and every character has contradictions. They are both one thing and the other at the same time. Cillian’s character wants to know things about himself and wants to hide them at the same time. Sigourney’s character wants to disprove everything, but probably in some corner of her heart wants to believe that there could actually be something more.

Everything has to do with ambiguity, and you change your opinion many times as an audience member over the course of the film. Even when you see the most spectacular paranormal things, you’re aware of the way they could be hoaxes, while things that seem normal may have hidden supernatural elements. You play with the contrasts, but you try not to be too obvious. You get it through visuals, through pacing, through music, through sound, and of course through the performances.

Cillian, you’re perhaps best-known for roles in heightened genre films like this one, but you’ve also been acclaimed for your social realism work. Do you approach them differently as an actor, or do you just try finding the truth in each character?

Murphy: Yeah, I’ve been in a couple of what people would call a “genre movie” or a “sci-fi movie,” but I never intended to be. I never thought of them that way. With 28 Days Later, I thought we were making a movie about rage. I genuinely had never seen any zombie movies. I never considered Inception to be a science fiction movie; I always thought it was about a guy looking to find his wife. And similarly in Red Lights, although it has a paranormal context, there is no science fiction in it per se. You go after the character, you go after the truth, you go after the story, you go after the honesty.

I have to tell you that when I typed your name into my phone to name this interview recording, it autocorrected “Cillian” to “villain.” [delighted cackling]

Murphy: [stony silence]

And I was like, “No, don’t typecast him!” [nervous laughter]

Murphy: [stonier silence]

Right. So. Um, the characters in this film are researchers who explain and disprove paranormal phenomena. Are there any pop-cultural phenomena you wish you could disprove and make go away?

Murphy: [silence] No.

Cortés: Well, the so-called psychics on TV that pretend to see dead relatives or whatever — they play with people’s emotions and beliefs, but they’re actually pretty harmless. The ones that pretend to heal and play with people’s health are more dangerous. On the other hand, I didn’t try to make a denouncing film. And even when you think you know what it is, then your opinion changes, which is what I wanted. I wanted the audience to feel unsafe. I wanted to put everybody out of their safe zones so they didn’t know what to think, what to feel, what to expect, what’s going to happen next. The most compelling part to me is trying to make everyone change their opinions about how they see the film. I want them to question everything.

Red Lights opens in San Francisco on August 3.

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