By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Files: Red Lights


Although he doesn’t think of these as primarily genre films, Cillian Murphy has starred in a few:  the dark sci-fi vision Sunshine and the modern horror classic 28 Days Later (both for director Danny Boyle); Wes Craven’s terror-in-the-skies thriller Red Eye; and possibly the best comic book hero screen adaptations to date, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the epic finale The Dark Knight Rises. Now the Irish actor tackles the paranormal in the craftily plotted Red Lights, Millennium Entertainment’s new thriller by Spanish writer/director Rodrigo Cortes, who two years ago made a big splash with his English-language debut, Buried. Murphy plays Tom Buckley, a scientific investigator who assists the eminent Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) in her life’s work of exposing self-proclaimed psychics as the con artists they really are.

 Key to the scientists’ method is their focus on “red lights,” those telltale signs in the purported psychic’s surroundings that indicate something’s not kosher. But after a string of successes, the pair come up against Matheson’s old nemesis, the wealthy blind mentalist and media darling Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who has re-emerged from a long retirement for one last public tour. What follows is a showdown between the forces of good and evil, where mysterious, frightening, and potentially dangerous events occur. Are these manifestations of Silver’s extrasensory abilities, or are they stunts engineered by the best that money can hire?

 As the battle wages, the film develops a distinctly paranoid atmosphere, redolent of such 1970s conspiracy thrillers as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, two Cortes cites as influences. On a recent stopover in Chicago he and Murphy shared their thoughts on what makes Red Lights glow.

 Andrea Gronvall:  Red Lights is a movie of and for these times, because so much of the story is about lies, and the debunking of lies. Channel surf the television news programs, read the newspapers: over and over again—not just in America, but around the globe—the “man on the street” being interviewed is so angry because we’ve been lied to so often by politicians, by bankers and industrialists, by sports heroes, and so on. Even Oprah Winfrey got incensed after she showcased the author of what turned out to be a fictionalized memoir. So, Cillian, Tom is very interesting, because he combines the zeal of a scientific investigator with the outrage of the fed-up average citizen. Did you have any particular people or sources in mind as you fleshed out this character?

Cillian Murphy:  Well, first of all, I’m really glad that you had that interpretation of the movie because it’s dead right. And I think that the De Niro character is obviously a sort of magician/psychic/faith healer/televangelist, but there’s also the aspect of the politician, isn’t it, that we’ve been talking about?

Rodrigo Cortes: Yeah.

CM:  But, no, the character didn’t really need fleshing out from what was on the page because it was so strong; it was all there on the page when I read it. You bring to it whatever you can in terms of, I don’t know, your take on life and your energy as a human being. What jumped out at me about Tom were the themes of self-acceptance and obsession, because those I think are sort of the twin engines for him, and everybody can identify with that. When you take away the setting of this sort of paranormal world, or this sort of genre, and just talk about the characters—that, to me, is what I’m always interested in:  character. I’ve been in a few science fiction or genre movies, but I never thought I was, I always just thought about the characters.


AG:  Well, the characters are indeed what pull us into the movie’s world of paranormal activity and investigation; the actors do all the work of creating the chills that, in other films, CGI would provide.

Sigourney Weaver has a few scenes that are very striking, where her character has to come clean about her own beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, and why she has kept her comatose son on life support for so many years. That struggle with religion lends the story more gravitas than that found in most movies about the paranormal. If this is not too personal a question, Rodrigo, are you religious? Because there’s definitely a religious subtext to your film.


RC:  I wouldn’t describe myself as religious because I find religions to be useful in living a very emotional way. Which doesn’t mean that I’m a rationalist. I’m not interested in believing as a concept, but in understanding. Let me try to explain it this way: if you ask me, for instance, do you believe in the supernatural, I would tell you no, because I don’t feel that nature can be transcended, and I don’t feel nature can transcend itself. Even the unexplainable has to live in those margins, the margins of nature. If you ask me about the paranormal, if you describe paranormal as a group of phenomena is search of an explanation, I would tell you, well, there are things out there that cannot be explained—yet. Hopefully, one day we will have the tools to explain them.


But it’s not about being against, or for, religion. If you believe in God, that’s a belief. If you’re an atheist, that’s another belief, because you cannot prove that God doesn’t exist. And people are used to dealing with beliefs, and I’m not that interested in believing. For instance, even if you have a very solid presence of God, you should try to understand him, not to believe in him. That’s what I mean. It is a way of thinking, and a way of trying to digest reality, a way of trying to question everything, seeing everything as if it were completely new, so you have your own personal approach to things.


AGRed Lights is a cross between a supernatural thriller and a crime mystery about a suspected con man. When you’re writing such a complex story, what kind of safeguards do you rely on so that all the details stay in synch, and you’re not left with gaping plot holes or loose ends?


RC:  I never use treatments, because I know where I’m going, but still I want to find an organic way to get there. Listening to my characters and listening to the way they would react logically, sometimes you find a better way to get there than the one you planned. But once you finish your final draft, in a way you understand for the very first time what you really want to do with the film. And in the rewrites, you can do all these technical things, because now you have all the elements, you have the ending, you know exactly what you are going to do, so you can plan certain things, or see certain things, or close loose ends, or whatever. So, the second part is more technical, but it comes out of a process that involves a lot of reflection, but also a lot of organic life.


AG:  I know when your film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that there was some controversy over the ending. Without venturing anywhere near spoilers, I just want to say I don’t agree with the naysayers. There are clues throughout Red Lights that lead the viewer to the logic of the narrative’s conclusion. It’s all there if you’re paying attention.


RC:  I like to say that movie making is a kind of magic; it works by misdirection. You keep the audience looking at your left hand, so they don’t see what the right hand is up to.


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