Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Smart scares, leavened with wit and humor: Rodrigo Cortés' RED LIGHTS; Interview with filmmaker and his star

Ever since seeing the first full-length film from Rodrigo Cortés (the writer/director is shown below), The Contestant (Concursante, click and scroll down) -- premiered in the USA as part of the FSLC's 2007 Spanish Cinema Now series -- I've been waiting for a follow-up to this sensationally good, genuinely original and funny/smart/emotionally involving movie. His next film -- Buried -- though interesting for a number of reasons, didn't provide that follow-up (the filmmaker explains why, in one short sentence, during my interview with him, below). Now comes RED LIGHTS, his newest work: The follow-up at last is here.

One of the more sophisticated and intelligent movies in the paranormal (or fake paranormal) genre that I have seen, the film begins with a wonderful pre-credit sequence that ends with a great line of dialog, setting us up for some of the wit and fun that ensues. Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver, two photos below, and what a treasure this actress remains!) and her assistant Tom Buckley (the ever versatile Cillian Murphy) are on their way to a supposedly haunted house to do their job: debunking phony ghosts and what-ever other would-be para-normal activity is going on.

This first segment (the seance is shown above) is delightful: a little scary, but mostly Señor Cortés uses it for "play." He sets it all up around Weaver's character and by the end of it, she is shown as smart, strong and immensely likeable. Murphy, on the other hand, remains a bit of a cipher. For its first, maybe third to half-way point, the movie maintains a wonderful sense of menace -- but menace outwitted, overcome. The film's first hour is consistently riveting, keeping us pleasurably off-balance yet always alert and interested.

Then, slowly, that menace begins to grow, building into something triumphant. This is quite unsettling, and it's a move that many filmmakers don't manage very well. Cortés handles it expertly. For awhile at least. It is not unusual in films of this genre that the build-up often outdoes the explanation/finale. For some of you, this will be the case with Red Lights. Even I, who mostly loved the film, found the ending a bit disappointing, if still surprising. So be warned. Yet the movie remains so good, in so many ways -- well acted, written and directed -- that I call it a don't-miss. If you fail to see in in theaters (it's getting a pretty limited run), be sure to stick it on your DVD-or-later list.

In the sterling cast, appear a very well-, if briefly-used Robert DeNiro (above, with Joely Richardson, who plays his assistant) as the supposedly greatest "paranormalist" in existence (he's blind, and his detractors have a way of dying off); and the delightful Toby Jones (below), as one of Ms Weaver's professional colleagues at the university, who seems to get all the funding.

On the basis of this film and Concursante, I would say that Cortés' movies, while not overtly political, go right to the heart of how we live now. We're a populace always looking for the easy out, and our "keepers" are more than willing to provide this. Consequently the university where our two profs teach is willing to spend much more money on a department (Jones') that sets out to prove the existence of the paranormal, rather than on the department (Weaver's) that debunks this.

Also in the cast is Concursante's leading man, Argentine heartthrob Leonardo Sbaraglia (above), as another, noticeably less clever charlatan; and American up-and-comer Elizabeth Olsen (below), who is equally good here, with less screen time, than in either Silent House or Martha Marcy May Marlene.

In the pivotal role, there's Mr. Murphy, below, who again proves himself so very skilled at assuming yet another odd role -- Red EyeBreakfast on Pluto, In Time -- and bringing it fully to life. This time the actor plays a character who is learning what's going on at approximately the same time as the audience is learning it too, and the effect is surprising, stunning.

Red Lights, 113 minutes, from Millennium Entertainment, opens this Friday in New York City at the AMC Empire 25, and in the Los Angeles area, too -- but at what theater? At this point in time, I cannot locate one. Click hereget rid of the trailer, then click on CITIES AND THEATERS to see all other currently scheduled playdates and cities.


TrustMovies sat in on a roundtable with half a dozen other movie journalists, as we spoke with writer/director Rodrigo Cortés (below, right) and his star Cillian Murphy (below, left). Cortés proved to have an excellent command of English, nicely accented via his Spanish heritage. Murphy -- with those incredibly large, luminous blue eyes and the highest cheekbones this side of the Andes -- being Irish, spoke English quite well, too.  Both men were relaxed and easy, answering any and all questions, the first of which had to do with their own experiences regarding the paranormal. Both declared themselves virgins to any kind of supernatural experience.

Cillian Murphy: I am a rationalist and skeptical, I’m afraid. I am open and curious, But I wouldn't personally subscribe to any belief in the paranormal or put my faith in anyone claiming to have supernatural powers. But you can see why it is so right for drama, and such a compelling subject.

 Rodrigo Cortés: I am exemplary boring. But I wanted to explore two things in this film: the idea and possibility of the paranormal --magic which cannot be explained -- and then the idea of the hoax: lying, which is very physical, touchable. I am more interested in understanding than in believing. And it is about the understanding rather than the believing that is important to the film.

How did you become attached to this project?

CM: In the usual way, via the script. What I loved about the script was that I could not tell at all where it was going. Unfortunately, with so many scripts these days, you can easily predict where they are going.

Had you also seen Rodrigo's Concursante? 

CM: You mean The Contestant? Yes. That, and Buried, together with this script, hooked me. For me it was never just a “twist” movie, because it is so much more than that. You have to just play the character as you find him and take him on that arc. It’s a story of self–acceptance and obsession.

Do you feel you are influenced by Alejandro Amenábar?

RC: Not really. I have never worked with him. But I think that, because we are around the same age, we probably have the same influences from other directors like Scorsese and Kubrick and so on.

What was it like to work with DeNiro? 

CM: He and Sigourney were very giving and generous with their time and their efforts. I think people like that tend to recognize the effect that they and their status have on people like me. I mean, they are living legends. They could not have been nicer and more supportive. Consequently, you just do the work and do the acting. And then you go home that night and say, Wow--I just did a scene with Robert De Niro!

Does the movie have a basis in fact? 
RC: Well, everything you see in the film is based, not on actual facts in the usual sense, but on things that have actually happened regarding the paranormal (or hoaxes about the paranormal) from the 1970s through the present time.

Do you have a fascination for certain types of characters?
CM: I just am drawn to good stories, that’s all. Every project seems unique for me. I don’t see any connecting threads.

Has your growing fame become difficult?

CM: Not at all. I think that If you behave normally, then people will treat you normally.

It seems to me you’re a very versatile actor. So I wonder if it’s a matter of your choosing roles for their versatility, or it is merely luck.

CM: The constants for me is that you have to be really brave And also that you don’t repeat yourself. If I read something and then say, I wonder if I could do that. Then I’ll want to try it.

Do you like to let your actors improvise? 

RC: You work a lot on what you do an you reflect a lot. But you have to be alert, too. Movies are a learning process. If an actor tells you, Iwould prefer to switch it this way, you say, OK: Let's try that. At the end of the day it is kind of collaboration. Ninety percent of actors may not know about storytelling, or about structure. But they do know about language. That’s what they work with. That’s their material. So you’d better listen to them.

CM: It’s exactly what he said. It’s all about making dialog sound truthful.

Do you have any inclination to direct?

CM:  Not for awhile. What will happen, a friend told me, is that you will get a script that means so much to you, that’s when you’ll have to do it. So far, that has not happened. In any case, they say it take 20 years to make a good actor, and I’ve only been doing it for 15. So I have a ways to go there.

If you both had one supernatural power to posses, what would that be?

RC: The ability to cut my nails properly.

CM: That was what I was going to say! No, there's nothing I'd want, really. I’m just fine with the five senses we already have.


After the roundtable, yours truly got a few minutes for a one-on-one with Rodrigo, whom I had not seen for nearly five years. We first met at a luncheon for Spanish Cinema Now, where we talked at length about his then new film Concursante. Since then, he's made Buried and Red Lights, as well as writing a script for the film Apartment 143, which we haven't seen over here as yet.  He also looks totally different from when I last saw him. I could have passed him in the street and not recognized the man.

Rodrigo, your life must have changed pretty staggeringly since the first time I met you – when Concursante was first shown in the USA at Lincoln Center, what? 4-1/2 years ago, right?

Yes – about 4 or 5 years ago. But no. I don’t think my life has changed that much because it has been years of just working. When I look around (he laughs, shaking his head), I see exactly the same things, because I just worked and worked and worked.  For instance: the day after I finished the promotional push for Buried was the day I started work on Red Lights


Yes, I really started work on this film exhausted. But in the meantime I had written a screenplay for and produced another film called Apartment 143.

Ah, yes: but that one you didn’t direct….

No, I just wrote and produced. So I didn’t have time to change anything in my life. I was… exactly where I was. Everything has to do with perceptions -- meaning, I think, my perceptions of how I imagined his life must have changed -- but perceptions are not reality.

It’s funny. I would have thought that more would have changed for you.  (I look at him more closely) One thing that has changed is your look. This new look is much, on one level, better for what you are doing and what you are. The look you had before  -- it was very unprepossessing.  This look makes you look stronger, bigger, all kind of things; You used to have that long hair and beard and all.

(He laughs) Yes.

Who is, what is, Cindy Cowan Entertainment. I’ve never heard of that name or seen it until this movie.

She is an American producer, and she joined us at a certain point in the financing. Actually, about 90 percent of the film’s financing comes from Spain, and 80 percent of the film was shot in Spain.

Ah! I thought that as I was watching, particualry the schoolroom scene. 

The other 20% was shot in Toronto.

Yes, where just about everything is shot these days. Now this movie, for me, felt like the real follow-up to ConcursanteIn this film, you are really working with a terrifically high quality set of actors, international actors like Leonardo Sbaraglia, whom you also used in Concursante, and Cillian, Signourney and DeNiro. And Toby Jones!

It is odd. You don’t know how these things happen. Everything starts, you hope, with the wrtiting. That’s the only tool you actually have. In a way I have been protected by my actors. So that nobody has been able to challenge certain ideas, which means that, in a way, that certain executives would would have loved to change them… (he laughs)

Did you have problems like that on this movie?

No. No, no no -- because actually I have creative control of this. Which is not always something you can afford.


I also had it on Buried, and on Concursante.  I have been very lucky so far. I can only do things if I thoroughly believe in them. I need to put all my energy there—my blood and muscles and bones and skin…

Have you been able to totally support yourself through your moviemaking over the last few years?  I mean,  you’re not like Magic Mike, a stripper on the side. Or anything like that…  (We laugh)

No. But I never did stop working all the time... I didn't do anything but working. There were no free times.

Do you have anything in the works now.

No, I am not thinking on my next obsessive idea yet. When I finished Concursante, I started writing Red Lights, actually, right away.  Even before Buried.

Oh, that may be why I see a connection between these two films.

Also, I did not write Buried.

Of course! That’s right: You didn't.

No: Chris Sparling is a very brilliant writer from Providence.

Rhode Island?

Yes. So when I finished Red Lights, which was a very difficult to pull together project because it has a certain level of budget, well, that is when the script of Buried appeared. And that began to obsess me: to try to do something like that had never been done before. Really challenging. And then, when I finished that, I went back to Red Lights, which was then easier to bring together, I guess, because of the reaction to Buried. And probably because of Sigourney and De Niro and Cillian.

Did they all sign on easily and quickly?

Yeah it was very quickly. With actors it is usually quickly -- or it never happens. Which is another possibility: the actors’ response to the material. I felt really privileged, really flattered by their response. It was a kind of compliment.

It is a compliment, but it is also deserved.

I don’t know. It is nothing you can take for granted.  When you write the script, you don't know.

This has opened in Spain, right. How did it do there?

Very well. And now it also opened in the U.K., and then pretty much in the rest of the world. About 60 countries, I think.

The publicist tells us we have time for one last question.

Let me think – Oh I know what: When you write, you write in Spanish first?


Do you translate them yourself or..

Oh, no. My English is not that good.

I think your English is very good.

Well. But when I write in Spanish, I write differently if I know it is going to be spoken in English or Spanish. Because there are different ways of thinking and of expressing. And the philosophy is different.  When I write in Spanish to be spoken later in English, it is what I call my “American Spanish.”

So Concurantae, you wrote in Spanish knowing it would be spoken in Spanish. But Red Lights you wrote in a different Spanish because you knew it would be spoken in English.

Exactly. Because it is a different kind of writing in terms of the lines. Then later I can work with the translator. 

And this work for films in Spanish or in English?

Yes, I haven’t yet tried anything in Japanese….

After Concursante, which I thought was a very political film, I was wanting something more political from you. And with Buried, while the subject of the film could be seen as political, the movie wasn’t. And now Red Lights doesn’t seem, on its surface, to be, either. But in some ways, it is.  The whole thing thing about the university paying to prove the paranormal exists but having no money to pay for debunking it. That, in its way, strikes me as a political statement about the society in which we live and work.

I like very much political thrillers, and in Red Lights you can find the genetic code for DNA of a political thriller -- in terms of atmosphere and so on. But I am not interested in political truths in ideological terms. Because political truths tend to last only a couple of years.  They are not real truths. I like things in allegorical terms. To talk about universal thigns. Like when you read Richard Matheson, for instance: I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Duel, Hell House.  They seem to have very small premises, but you feel they are talking about human nature.  But not putting them on the nose. Small premises not done like big deals. But the way they root inside you and they flourish you in multi-layered levels. That’s what I try to achieve in a way.

And I think your movie does just that. So thank you, Rodrigo, for your time -- and your films. 

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