Are psychics frauds? Can paranormal activity be explained by science? These are ongoing debates that will probably never be resolved. The movie thriller “Red Lights” presents both sides, as one side tries to outwit the other: On one side are paranormal investigators Dr. Margaret Matheson (played by Sigourney Weaver) and her colleague Tom Buckley, who make it their mission to debunk psychics and prove that supernatural activity is rooted in science. On the other side is famous psychic Simon Silver (played by Robert De Niro), who comes out of retirement after essentially disappearing from the public eye for 30 years.
As Tom and Margaret hatch a plan to expose Simon as a con artist, Tom becomes involved with a student named Sally Owen (played by Elizabeth Olsen) at the university where he works. Sally helps Tom with his research but she begins get caught up in the dangerous game that unfolds before them. At the New York City press junket for “Red Lights,” I sat down with Rodrigo Cortés (who wrote, directed, produced and edited the movie) and Murphy to talk about what it was like to do a movie that explores the hotly debated topic of paranormal activity.
What was the inspiration behind “Red Lights”?
Cortés: Unfortunately, nothing that happened to me personally. I’m extremely boring. It started with two words: paranormal hoaxes. A concept that sounded fascinating to me because they are like two concepts in one clashing with each other.
You have the paranormal, which is magic, which cannot be explained and allows you to use this compelling background and use these general elements. And you have the hoaxes, which is people lying, which is physical and touchable. I wanted to have the fabric feeling of the ‘70s that allowed to exploring the mechanisms and perceptions of the human brain. I guess this is the source, and you start to develop things.
How did you become attached to “Red Lights”?
Murphy: The traditional way. I was sent the script. What I loved about the script immediately was that I could not predict where this film was going. Unfortunately, with a lot of scripts today you can predict what’s happening pretty quickly. So when you get something like that where the writing is good, you got to pursue. I had seen Rodrigo’s movies before and I was blown away by them, so it was like a whole package.
Did you see “Concursante”?
Murphy: “The Contestant”? Yes, I did. I love it, it’s a fine movie.
It was shown at Spanish Cinema Now.
Cortés: I remember now. You’re right.
Murphy: It was that, and also “Buried.” You can tell from both those films that it’s the real deal, and those are the directors you want to work with, the ones with a really clear vision and a really strong vision.
Without giving away any spoilers, what did you think when you found out about the twist in “Red Lights”?
Murphy: For me, it was never a twist movie. It’s much more than that. Also, you can’t play the end of the movie at the beginning. You can’t telegraph it. You play the character as we find him and hopefully take this character on this arc. For me, it’s very clear with Tom, it’s a story about self-acceptance and a story of self-obsession. Those two things that are driving him and I think people can identify with those things.
Rodrigo, how did the director Alejandro Amenabar influence your work?
Cortés: I actually never worked with him. I did a film clip to one of his songs for “Open Your Eyes.” I don’t even know him personally now, which is a pity. I really like him. I admire him as a storyteller. He’s a great director. I wouldn’t say he influenced me because we are the same age probably. I feel influenced by the same people that influenced him: Mr. [Steven] Spielberg and [Martin] Scorsese and all that company. I have a great admiration for him.
For a lot of movies about the paranormal, the people who worked on the movie have reported strange things happening on set. Did this happen with “Red Lights”?
Cortés: No. Many films are famous for inventing great stories. We should do the same. We just have one story that sounds interesting. I remember one day I was preparing for the following day’s shoot. I was at my office, and a seagull crashed into the window where I was writing, which is something that happens in the film, so it was an interesting coincidence. The day after, I told Cillian and he told me another seagull crashed against his window at the same time.
[Says jokingly] Robert De Niro was probably pulling a prank on you.
Cortés: [He laughs] Probably. He was in the street throwing seagulls at our windows.
Can you tell us about working with De Niro? He’s supposed to be a very giving actor. What was it like doing your last scene in the movie with him? Was there discussion at all or did you just go for it?
Murphy: You just have to go for it. I had done a few other scenes with him first prior to it and we got to know each other a little bit. You’re right about what you said about him being giving and generous and warm. I think people like him and Sigourney, they must recognize the effect of their legacy and their status would have on someone like me. They’re living legends and heroes.
He couldn’t have been nicer and more supportive of everything. When you get down to the work, you just realize it’s us. We’re here to tell the story and we’re here to play the characters, do the best we can, and help the other actors. Then afterwards you can go home and say, “Wow, I just did a scene with Robert De Niro!”
What’s your personal views on psychics and mediums? And do you think the mind can bend a spoon or cure a person?
Murphy: I’m skeptical, I’m afraid. I’m quite rational as a person. I hope I am, anyways. I’m open, I’m very curious about it and reading about it was fascinating, but I wouldn’t personally subscribe to it, I wouldn’t go to see any of these people or put my faith in someone claiming to have supernatural powers. You can see why it’s so ripe for drama and such a compelling subject.
Cortés: I doubt everything. I question everything. I try not to believe in anything. I am more interested in understanding than in believing. Believing in something is pretty passive and emotional, and I respect that, but I’m more interested in trying to understand the things that cannot even be explained. There are a bunch of them out there. You get more tools, and then you can interpret things. If we consider radio frequencies, they would have been considered paranormal three centuries ago. It’s more about understanding those waves than believing in radio frequencies.
How much research did you do about exposure paranormal hoaxes?
Cortés: A year and a half of reading and seeing and listening to everything you could imagine. Books, footage, stills, interviews with people from both sides and assistants to channeling sessions. One is scene is based on a very well-known case of a televangelist that was debunked by someone, I can’t remember their name. If I did, I don’t know what my lawyer would say. Everything that you see in the film is not based on actual fact in the usual sense, but it has a strong basis in things that happened from the ‘70s to nowadays.
Rodrigo, how much of a back story for this character did you share as a writer with Cillian or did you let him come up with his own back story? It seems like Sigourney’s character is very much a surrogate mother. What was it like creating that psychological makeup?
Cortés: First of all, I try to write well, which means that in a way the actors direct the stars there. If there lines are properly read or the story is properly set. When you get it, hopefully you find out when you start talking with the actors, you realize they’re on the same page as you. They perceive certain about the paths of the characters that are the ones that you’re feeling even if you haven’t put them in of use in external ways. I don’t know if this makes sense.
We never discussed, “OK this is what happened when you were 7.” It was more about, “When you were 7, you could have seen something like this or that.” Or you use allegories. “Imagine you were homosexual when you were 7, but you were raised in a community that didn’t accept that, and you erased it, you buried that.” Things like that. We spoke in terms of metaphors because what you are trying to get is real truthful emotions that have sense in psychological terms, no matter what the actual story could have been.
What do you think was the driving emotion for Tom Buckley character?
Murphy: It became clear to me that it was really about self-acceptance and obsession. They’re the twin engines of the character. Everyone can identify with those. That is what I used.
Can you talk about your upcoming films?
Murphy: I have a film called “Broken” coming out sometime this year or next year, which I’m really proud of. It was just at Cannes. It’s kind of like a reworking of the To Kill a Mockingbird story, but set in London. But in many ways it’s not. It’s really a story about familie, I suppose. Tim Roth is in it and this terrific girl named Eloise Laurence that they discovered for the movie. I play a teacher in it and it’s a really affecting, beautiful film.
Cillian, you seem to have a fascination with obsessiveness in characters. Are you drawn to psychological thrillers?
Murphy: I’m just drawn to good stories, is all. I have no any kind of strategy or plan or particular preference. Every project seems unique to me. I find it very hard to draw comparison between each film or see any connecting thread. For me, it’s just about what’s the next script you get from your agent and is it a good one or not? Is the character interesting or not? That’s the way I do it.
Has your fame been difficult for you?
Murphy: No, not at all. If you behave normally, people treat your normally, I think. I try to behave normally.
You’re very versatile as an actor. Is it because of you choosing your roles carefully or is it more about luck?
Murphy: The constant for me is that you have to be brave in the work that you take and you must not repeat yourself. They are the constants. If I read a script and I say “yeah, I can do that.” Then I probably won’t. It has to be something where I go, “I don’t know if I can do that.” Then that’s the one I’ll try and do. It’s mostly random except for those two constants.
Did you find yourself guiding your “Red Lights” Elizabeth Olsen since she’s such a relatively new actress?
Murphy: I suppose, but I would never give an actor or an actress any advice. Lizzie Olsen is such an incredible actress and you can see, first of all it was brilliant casting, but the way she acts is beyond her years. She’s going to have a huge career. It’s obvious. People figure it out. When you have the talent, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
What’s the one thing you two hear the most about either of your movies when you meet new people who are familiar with your work?
Cortés: “How is it to work with Robert De Niro?” That is the question I hear more. Two years ago it was, “How do you shoot a movie inside a box?” I spent a couple of years hearing those two questions.
Murphy: I get the “Inception” question a lot, and I’m like, “Guys, I don’t know!” But it’s great that a film gets to a point where audiences are still thinking about it two years later, then that’s a great thing.
Are you Chris Nolan’s go-to guy now for his movies?
Murphy: It’s been a great honor and a privilege to work with that man, and we all know how incredible he is, but you don’t petition for work. The work should be the calling card.
Are your kids old enough to understand you’re a movie star?
Murphy: An actor. They don’t care, they’re not really interested. I’m just a dad. They can’t see any of my films anyways.
As a writer/director, how often do you let your actors improvise?
Cortés: Letting is not the verb I would use. You work a lot when you do and you reflect a lot, so everything is set up until a certain level. You have to be alert because doing a movie is a living process,; it’s full of life.
If an actor tells you, “I would prefer to switch it some way. It sounds more natural.” I say, “Yeah, of course, Go ahead.” So long as we’re still saying the same thing. We are trying to get a certain level of truth, It’s not about a certain combination of set ups. So at the end of the day, it’s collaboration, but that doesn’t mean you tell them, “Say whatever they want.”
It happens in a very natural way: 90 percent of it is from the very beginning. They are people and they are used to do a smart thing. When you speak with an actor, it’s a funny thing, because they may or may not know about the structure or storytelling, but they know lines. That’s what they work with, that’s their material, so you better listen.
Was there any time when an actor came up with something for “Red Lights” that you think was an improvement of the original script?
Murphy: [He says jokingly] All the great lines are mine!
Cortés: No. He could answer better than I.
Murphy: When it’s a great script, there’s very little that you need to do. You sign on for the script, so to spend time trying to change that, then you should be honest. If it’s about making it sound truthful, and it can come from just shifting this or that, everybody is up for that.
Cillian, do you have any interest in directing or writing a film?
Murphy: I wouldn’t ever say no. Never say never, but it wouldn’t be for a while. You work with these amazing people and you want to surround yourself with the best directors because then you feel like you can give the best performance. A friend of mine told me that what will happen is you’ll find a script and the story will mean so much to you that you won’t want to let anyone else do it. And when that comes, then you’ll want to direct. But I haven’t got that script yet. They say it takes 30 years to make a good actor, and I’ve only been doing it for 16, so I’m only halfway there.
Rodrigo, can you talk about how “Red Lights” has a sense of menace at the beginning and it just grows until it seems triumphant? How do you achieve that tone? Does that make sense?
Cortés: That makes sense, I’m glad to hear it. It’s hard to know how you get it. Everything starts with having very clear ideas about what you’re trying to achieve with a story. When you know what you’re doing, you use every element to improve that experience. I like very touchable atmospheres, and I work very hard in order to achieve them. I try to make films touchable and physical and tangible. How do you do that?
When you know what you’re trying to get with something, you use your light to underline it and the music and the silences the way actors look at each other, the way they behave at a certain level and what their reactions should be. At the end you have a ton of details pointed to the same place. It has to do with that. That’s when you start to feel things because every small detail is helping the storytelling.
What super power would you like?
Cortés: I would like to be able to cut my nails properly …
Murphy: That’s what I was going to say! I don’t know. I’m just struggling through life. I think five senses are fine.
The Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley characters in “Red Lights” take an academic approach to their work. There’s ongoing debate about whether or not filmmakers should go to film school or actors should take acting lessons or go to drama school. What’s something you know that you’ve learned that you never would have been taught in school?
Cortés: I never actually attended school for film, so there’s the answer. That doesn’t mean I’m self-taught. There are many teachers out there — Scorsese, [Stanley] Kubrick — but you need to do a deeper reflection of things. You don’t simply assume a certain kind of knowledge and apply it, as if it were a kind of rule. You have to think of things and take conclusions. At the end of the day, you will only learn things when you’re self-taught.
Murphy: I don’t think one or the other is more preferable. I didn’t train [as an actor], but I did a lot of theater earlier on, and I learned from working with actors. You learn slowly.
What you think has made you a better actor from when you first started?
Murphy: I don’t know. You get a bit more confidence, a bit more technique. And as you get older, the roles change. That’s important. I don’t really know. I still feel I have a lot more to prove and more improving to do.
For more info: “Red Lights” website
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