Sometimes people become so set in their ways and ideas, they fear the unknown and the contrasting beliefs that other people offer to present to them. But when these thoughts lead to obsession and turn into rivalries that become life-threatening, they must reconsider what they’re taking a stance on in order to protect themselves. This is a main motivating factor in the upcoming horror thriller ‘Red Lights,’ which is set to hit select theaters on July 13. Spanish writer-director Rodrigo Cortes wasn’t afraid to explore the supernatural and its dark, powerful effects on people’s beliefs in his new drama.
‘Red Lights’ follows veteran paranormal researchers Dr. Margaret Matheson (played by Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (portrayed by Cillian Murphy) as they debunk fraudulent claims of psychic phenomena. Matheson can detect fraud by what she calls red lights, the subtle tricks behind every staged supernatural occurrence. But when legendary blind psychic Simon Silver (played by Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement, his once-fearless rival Margaret warns Tom to back off, fearing retaliation from her old adversary.
Tom is determined to discredit Simon, and elicits help from his star student, Sally Owen (portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen). The two use every tool at their disposal to uncover the truth behind the charismatic mind reader. But Tom eventually must question his own core beliefs in his quest to discredit Simon.
Cortes generously took the time to speak with us over the phone recently to discuss the process of writing and directing ‘Red Lights.’ Among other things, the scribe and helmer discussed where he came up with the idea for the horror thriller, the casting process of the main actors and how penning the screenplay helped him in his directorial duties.
ShockYa (SY): You both wrote the screenplay for, and directed, ‘Red Lights.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the story?
Rodrigo Cortes (RC): I didn’t start working from any specific element, or anything like that. I started to become fascinated with paranormal hoaxes. In a way, this was a concept that was contradictory. You have the paranormal, which can not be explained, and you have the hoaxes, in which people are lying, in which we probably do best.
I worked on two levels, with this truth and hopefully compelling story, and also with the hoaxes. I wanted to do something that was physical and tangible. This is the origin of everything.
SY: Do you feel that writing the script for ‘Red Lights’ helped you in your directorial duties once you began shooting the film?
RC: Yes. You feel like you’re the first director in line when you write your own material. When you’re able to generate your own material, you’re the first in line.
To me, writing, directing and editing are all different phases of one creative or narrative process. In a way, I never write in abstract terms. I imagine the film in its final form and shape. When I write, I start imagining the reactions, and even the music and the sounds. In a way, they’re three stages.
But in a way, when you direct, you just try to serve the script. You don’t care who wrote it.
SY: There are several high-profile actors in ‘Red Lights,’ including Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver. What was the casting process like for the main actors?
RC: When you read the script, you don’t take for granted you’re going to have these names. When you finish it, you try to get the best and most accurate actors.
But in this case, I had two processes. For instance, I never write for anybody. But in this case, for whatever reason, when I was writing Matheson, I found myself writing for Sigourney Weaver. I imagined this character with her face and reactions and expressions. That’s risky, because it doesn’t guarantee a yes. It would have been a problem if she said no. Thank God she said yes.
With De Niro, that’s exactly the same thing. I try not to limit myself, not because I think everything’s possible, but because life tends to limit you enough without any help.
If you do a list of factors, for instance, from one to 10, logic tells you you’re going to get seven or eight. But you still ascend to number one, just in case. For this film, for some reason, every number one on every list yes, which is pretty amazing. But this is the way it happened. They told me they responded very strongly to the script and the characters and their lines.
SY: What was your working relationship with the actors like once you began shooting?
RC: It was different, because they have different approaches to performing and their methods and psychologies. I try to discuss lots about the world the movie’s set in, in general terms, to make sure we have a background.
Then I try to direct the actors from the writing. That’s always where I think the direction starts, in the writing. If things aren’t explained or are ambivalent or ambiguous, you can’t immediately get what the character needs. If that happens, which you find out when you start discussing with the actor, then it’s better if you don’t try to rationalize things too much.
Sometimes too much talk is actually worse, because you put too much thoughts on things that should be organic. But they have very different approaches to performance.
SY: ‘Red Lights’ was filmed in your native Spain, in Barcelona. Why do you enjoy shooting your films in Barcelona?
RC: Actually, I won’t say I enjoy shooting anywhere. Enjoyment is not the word I would use to describe the process of a shoot, which is basically going to war.
I finance everything with less money. This is just a $15 million movie, but people think this is a $40 or $50 million movie. You can only be efficient with that money if you have total control over the process, especially creative control. One way of doing that is getting certain subsidies that could close the financing. But it’s not better or worse.
Shooting is exactly the same anywhere. But again, if you try to have the control, and get every dollar and cent’s worth, you get total control. This is the way we could shoot eight weeks in Spain, and two weeks in Toronto.
SY: Besides ‘Red Light,’ another recent horror movie you wrote was ‘Apartment 143.’ What is it about the horror genres that you enjoy?
RC: Well, it’s not that I’m crazy about this work, it just has the same source. ‘Apartment 143′ came out of the research I had to do for ‘Red Lights.’ I had to do a year-and-a-half of research on the paranormal phenomenon.
I literally had to go through tons of material of stills and footage and files and books. I did thousands of interviews. So I have a thousand books full of notes. Not all of them could fill ‘Red Lights,’ of course. There’s never room for all your research. But I needed to use it somehow.
I wrote pretty fast, a much more straightforward film (with ‘Apartment 143′). Instead of studying the side of the debunkers, it studies the side of the parapsychologist with a very different language. The only similarity is the scientific approach.
SY: Like you said, you wrote the script for ‘Apartment 143’ after researching skeptical science, parascience, the supernatural and the metapsychic for ‘Red Lights.’ You asked Carles Torren, who you’re friends with, to direct ‘Apartment 143’ after you wrote the script. Why did you ask Carles to direct it?
RC: Well, I’m never interested in repeating myself, I find it boring. I prefer to be a little bit scared, and feel like I don’t have total control. So every time we have rehearsal, it’s something new.
For two films that are very different, they have a certain connection. I thought since it was a very low budget film with a powerful idea, I thought it was a great chance to give the opportunity to a new director. He’s a young director, full of energy, that wanted to put all of his energy there.
SY: The last movie you directed before ‘Red Lights’ was the 2010 mystery thriller ‘Buried.’ Were there any similarities or differences between shooting the two movies?
RC: It’s hard for me to tell. Many times you see things better from the outside than the inside. They’re very different films. But on the other hand, I don’t find there are many differences. When you see, for instance, the career of a veteran director, you see older movies that have similarities.
In terms of ‘Red Lights,’ I didn’t see it as being bigger than ‘Buried,’ and I didn’t see ‘Buried’ as being smaller than ‘Red Lights.’ I remember when I was doing ‘Buried,’ I never felt as though I was doing an experimental film. Sizes of stories never has to do with cubic inches, it has to do with the stories themselves.
At the end of the day, you have actors, you have characters, you have situations that should come out from the characters and motivations. You try to create truthful moments. I don’t see any real difference in the size.
SY: Besides feature films, you have also written and directed several short films, including ‘Dirt Devil’ and ’15 Days.’ Do you take the same approach to directing short films as well?
RC: Yes, it’s exactly the same, because you have a story to tell, and you have to find the right tools to tell them. Every feature and short film is different. It’s not that short films and feature films are different; it’s that every film is different.
You need the same tools, and you need to find the right way to use them in order to find the right reaction from the audience. Every time you have to start from zero.
SY: Do you have any upcoming writing and/or directing projects that you can discuss?
RC: Well, I’m working on a variety of films, but I always prefer not to talk about them. But what I can tell you is that I need to be obsessed. There are many films that I’m happy to spend two hours with. But there aren’t many that I’m happy to spend two years with.
You need to put so much energy and a big part of your life there. You have to be happy to put your time and energy. I will only do something if I hear a voice inside telling me to do something.
Written by: Karen Benardello