By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files: Red Lights

CILLIAN MURPHY AND RODRIGO CORTES ON THEIR PSYCHIC THRILLER 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.

 

#        #        #

 

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin