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Capone seeks the truth about RED LIGHTS with director Rodrigo Cortés and star Cillian Murphy!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

A couple of years ago, we were fortunate enough here in Chicago to have director Rodrigo Cortés come through with his exercise in claustrophobia, the man-in-a-box thriller BURIED. He brought along the film's star, Ryan Reynolds, and we had one of my favorite post-screening Q&As in recent memory, marred only by the fact that it was too damn short. A couple of weeks ago, Cortés was back in Chicago, again with his latest film and its leading man, the great Irish actor Cillian Murphy, probably best known to American from his roles in Christopher Nolan's Batman films (Murphy played the Scarecrow), and from his work in Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE.

The film they were in town promoting was RED LIGHTS, written by Cortés as well, and its the story of a pair of paranormal phenomenon debunkers (Murphy and Sigourney Weaver), who pit their skills at exposing so-called psychics as frauds again the world's best-know psychic, played by Robert De Niro. And it was kind of fun to talk to two younger guys who get that working with De Niro is a dream come true; the weight of that experience was lost on neither.

And I believe that's all you need to know about RED LIGHTS before reading this interview or seeing the movie, which is making the move from VOD to the big screen presently. Please enjoy Rodrigo Cortés and Cillian Murphy (and please keep in mind, this interview was done quite a number of weeks before THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was released and Murphy's presence in the film was known)…

Capone: Hello. It’s good to see you again.

Rodrigo Cortés: Good to see you, yeah. I definitely remember you from the last time. We really had a great time here. He was very funny with Ryan actually.

Capone: The audience loved BURIED so much, so they were fully prepared to ask questions, as I’m sure they will be tonight.

RC: I don’t know, so far we're getting great responses in the Q&As. We always seem to have a lot of hands up.

Capone: That’s good. I remember last time they cut it really short for some reason and I don’t think I ever figured out why, but we will not let that happen tonight. As long as there are hands in the air, we'll keep going.

RC: We should have a long Q&A, so it’s up to you man.

Cillian Murphy: [Laughs] He loves talking.

[Everyone Laughs]

Capone: BURIED was so well received by the people that actually got to see it. Did you feel any pressure with this film that you had to do something equally crowd pleasing? I actually think RED LIGHTS is going to divide some people, especially with that ending.

RC: Frankly, no. You cannot think that way, because you are dead, especially with such a unique film. That’s the problem with unique films. I don’t mean good or bad; I mean unique. For instance, MEMENTO--your film is backwards. So then you have two choices, you do another film backwards, and everybody will tell you “It’s the same thing,” or you do it the conventional way and everybody will tell you, “This is too conventional.” That’s something you have to live in and move on as soon as possible and remember that you are trying to build a career, not a surprise.

Capone: Not become a gimmick filmmaker.

RC: Exactly. On the other hand as a filmmaker, I’m much more interested in challenging rather than pleasing. In a way, you try not to give the people what they want, but what they need in a way. So you try to compel them and you try to make sure the film does not end when it ends. You try for it to go on inside people’s minds when the screening ends.

Capone: I love that the film feels very much like a film made in the '70s, and especially in the second half, it has that heightened emotional tension that reminds me of a lot of Italian horror films from that same era. Was that something you were kind of looking toward?

RC: Especially the first part that you mentioned. I did the second part, we can talk about all of the references, but maybe they are there unconsciously. But yeah the film is divided into halves, very literally. As is every character in the film in a way. I mean everything is different. This film is about duality and ambiguity, including the structure itself, and if you want to surprise everybody and you don’t want them to know what’s going to happen next, you cannot use a usual structure, so they cannot use their unconscious templates.

So the first part has the genetic code of a political thriller of the '70s, you’re right, like Pakula's films, Lumet's films. I love atmospheres that can be touchable. I like films that are not just meant to be seen, but also experienced, so they are tangible and you have a very dense sense of atmosphere. You have this conspiracy that in a way kills the investigation. In this case, they are not journalists, they are scientists. But in the second part we lose our reference. We become orphans and we have to figure out again what the hell is going on around. All of our references of the first part are not valid anymore, and we start to doubt. We become searchers of RED LIGHTS [a term defined as any tell-tale sign that a fraud is underfoot] and we enter much darker and more subjective and more abstract territories.

Now we don’t have this objective point of view; we have this subjective point of view that comes out from his [points to Killian] perspective, from his point of view, which is much more unstable. I will name as conscious reference points films like ANGEL HEART by Alan Parker for its sense of organic and biological evil or things by David Lynch or even Cronenberg with a really scientific side, but this is the conscious part maybe. But other people have told me they've spotted Argento or DePalma, who takes from Argento too. [laughs]

Capone: I’ve always been a fan of the horror films where at some point during the story, scientists. POLTERGEIST is the obvious example, but even something more recent like THE ORPHANAGE. Scientists will bring in a psychic with them as part of their scientific investigation. For some reason, that always legitimized some of those films for me. So for you film, it’s kind of fun that the investigators are right there at the beginning. Was that one of your goals, to bring us a familiar story from a different perspective.

RC: You always try to do that in a way, and I was fascinated with these characters of debunkers, because in a way you have the same tools that you have in a typical genre film, but you have the other side of the coin, which has the same elements and all of the compelling backstage elements of genre film, but you have this very scientific approach, this very skeptical approach to everything that makes you think of them more like detectives. But yeah, many people tell me they never saw a film with this point of view of the debunkers, which I found fascinating, because it allowed me to explore the mechanisms of perception of the human brain, how our brains can’t trust the perceived reality, because it’s a liar.

Capone: Cillian, when you first read this part or heard about this part, what was there something about him in particular you just thought “Okay, I can build on that. I can work with that"? What was it about this character that you latched on to?

CM: First of all, when you read something, if you say “I can do that,” then you shouldn’t do it. You’ve got to read it and go “Wow, I wonder, could I…?"

Capone: It’s fear guiding you?

CM: It’s the challenge. It should always represent some sort of challenge, and you’ve got to be brave. It’s a very complex character, and the way Rodrigo spoke about it, it is not conventional in its structure, and he's a pretty unconventional character. For me, you read a lot of scripts and generally, unfortunately, you can predict where they are going pretty quickly, and this one I couldn’t. Again you always look for a character to go on some sort of journey, and this guy goes on a pretty deep and intense one.

I recognized after reading it and talking to Rodrigo that aside from it being set in that world of the paranormal and all of what surrounds that, ultimately it’s about character. It has to be for the actor and it being about self acceptance and about obsession. It’s really a story about those two things from Tom’s point of view. So that’s what you got after. And I had seen BURIED and I thought it was amazing and I had seen THE CONTESTANT [Crotés' Spanish film prior to BURIED] and I also thought that was amazing, so you could tell that you were in good hands. And I love working with writer-directors, because they’ve lived with the material for a long time before they shoot the thing. The whole package was very appealing to me.

Capone: And hopefully they wont be at odds with each other if they're the same person.

CM: The writer and director?

Capone: Yeah.

CM: [laughs] I think a lot of writer-directors I talk to are like “I fucking wrote that?”

[Everyone Laughs]

CM: So it seems to be a little bit of, again, a duality.

Capone: Was there something particular about his vision for this film that you liked? Did you shoot this digitally or did you shoot this on film?

RC: On 35mm.

Capone: And you can still tell. It looks so good.

RC: It needed to be organic and touchable. There’s a texture.

Capone: Was there something about his vision though that you really appreciated?

RC: Absolutely. I think we have very similar tastes in films and our sensibilities toward cinema, and the greatest feeling as an actor is when the director has a very clear vision and is confident in the world that he is about to create. Then as a performer, you feel completely safe within that to try stuff, to experiment, and to really take risks. If that is there, then you feel safe, and there’s a complete understanding of the vernacular of cinema, and for someone who has made just three films, that’s quite impressive. Do you know what I mean? Just instinctively and when you recognize, you go, “I’m in safe hands, so I can really push.” And he likes to push actors. I like that from the other directors that I’ve worked with; I like it when it’s an immersive experience. I like to go beyond yourself. Those are the roles I enjoy.

Capone: You have a lot of genre work in your filmography, including two of my favorite Danny Boyle films--I think SUNSHINE is one of the best science fiction films I've seen in the last 20 years--and obviously the BATMAN films. Are you always looking for something a little different in that arena, in particular? Are you this closet geek that’s always looking for a great genre film?

CM: It’s funny. I actually spoke to Sigourney a bit about this. I was like, “It looks like I’ve been in quite a few science fiction films,” and she was like, “Tell me about it.” [Laughs] It’s not a conscious thing whatsoever. Like when we were making 28 DAYS LATER, I really genuinely had never seen a zombie movie and I thought we were making a movie about rage, which in one way it is. Similarly with SUNSHINE, I thought it was a movie about science and religion, which it is. INCEPTION I never conceived that it was a science fiction film, and Chris would say that the only piece of science fiction in it is the thing that…

Capone: The device, yeah.

CM: And aside from that, you know. So I’m not generally… I mean, I loved STAR WARS and everything growing up, but I never read comic books or any of that stuff. But you follow good stories and good characters, and you end up in these because they are good hopefully, and the idea of creating a world is cool, and I can see why people are attracted to that, but it’s never been a conscious thing. Yeah, I recognize that I’ve been in a few. [Laughs]

Capone: And for better or worse, you were in the least science fictiony part of TRON: LEGACY.

CM: That's right. And that was purely because I loved the original movie and was like, “I’ve got to be in this.” But it was again like not ticking off another genre piece.

Capone: Not to get sidetracked on this, but you being in that movie as the character you were, that seemed like a setup to me that you were in that little scene and perhaps you would show up in a potential next film as the primary villain.

CM: Yeah… These things… I mean, maybe they have ideas, but I’m not aware of them.

Capone: To both of you, give me your best De Niro story. How did you find it directing him? How was it working with him? Go!

RC: It’s easier to work with him, because he’s better than others. That means he can reach every note and that he can play every string. He’s so likable actually, and at the beginning I wondered the same things, like maybe he’s going to be like the Marlon Brando type, and I’m going to try to give him direction and he’s going to tell me: "No, I’ll do my thing, so please leave me alone.” I didn’t get that at all. Instruction after instruction, he was always there in the morning like ready to shoot, “So tell me what to do.” He doesn’t talk much, which is true if you've heard that about him, and it's not because he’s rude or something like that. He's so kind, and talking is just not his thing. So he can express himself in many other ways. If he starts a sentence and you complete it, he will be more than happy, because that’s five words less to say.

Capone: What do you remember, Cillian?

CM: Obviously, you can’t underestimate how huge it is to have worked with him. We all know this; we all know what he is. So all of that was there, and I remember coming in for the first day of shooting with De Niro--I can’t call him “Bob,” because I just don’t know him that well--but I was so nervous and it was really early in the morning, and all of a sudden the three of us were on set, and Rodrigo was like “Okay, Bob, this is Cill. Cill, this is Bob. All right, let’s go.” Then he said to me, “You may have seen some of his films. Anyway, let’s go.”

And then we got into it, and the first scene was the scene where I go to see him with the line of salt and the red drapes, and so for a good portion of the day, we did this scene where I don’t speak, and I just got to watch this absolute screen legend work and see him make the scene with Rodrigo, and it was extraordinary. Then they would turn the camera around, and my character was meant to be like intimidated and terrified, so there was no acting required for that. [Laughs] I can’t overstate how warm and generous he was, and I know every actor says that about every other actor, but it’s true, you know? Because he knows the effect that he has on somebody like me. He would recognize that, so he wasso funny, we would go out for dinner, and we chatted and talked. I mean he doesn’t talk that much, but it’s so positive and generous.

Capone: I’ve heard people who have acted in scenes with him say that they’d just get so lost in watching him work that they forget they are in the scene and forget when it’s their turn to talk.

CM: [laughs] Well you can’t drop the ball. It’s like, “I’m fucking here for a reason, I hope.”

RC: But watching him work was fascinating and mesmerizing, they are very right, because he doesn’t have an obsession about getting a goal. He doesn’t push himself, he just is focused on being that moment, and you notice that, about having an honest, real solid presence, and he starts to play with words like they were clay. And then things happen that surprise even him. And if you are fast enough, you distill it and you edit it.

Capone: One of the most amusing things about this movie for me was that there are these two departments at this university, where one seems all about debunking and the other seems all about proving that paranormal and psychic phenomenon are true. Does something like that actually exist? That seems like a lot of money being thrown at things that are trying to cancel each other out.

RC: What actually doesn't exists is a Department of Parapsychology. They are part of the Psychology Department and actually Matheson[Sigourney Weaver] is a psychologist and her lecture has to do with signs to look for in debunking certain events. But actually I did research about this, so this is the way they work. In many universities, only in the States and in some England universities--in the rest of the world people don’t deal with these things--they are like sub-departments of another department. In the terms of this fight, it has to do with what many scientists do, especially in England and America, there are psychological parapsychologists with a scientific tradition, and they try to prove things with scientific methods. On the other hand, it’s very rooted in the science, this skeptical sense of things, not trying to seek doubt in all things, but trying to disprove them or deny them. So yeah, this fight is pretty usual, even in academies.

Capone: I don’t want to talk about some of the secrets of the film, but when you are editing or even shooting it, did you take out certain things that you thought maybe were too much of a tell or gave away too much?

RC: It’s hard to talk about it without giving all of the examples.

Capone: Maybe we should save that for tonight, because everyone there will have seen it already. So we can talk about it openly.

CM: There are great discussions about that.

RC: You try to misdirect in a way and you try to be an illusionist, which is what the film is about and in a way, RED LIGHTS is about filmmaking, because they play with the same tools. You’re trying to get people to look at your right hand while your left hand is trying to steal a couple of wallets. That’s the nature of your work, and sometimes you need to misdirect, you're right, because you don’t want every body to know what’s going to happen next, and actually what I wanted from them is to doubt their own perception.

Capone: I wonder if I watch it again tonight if I’m going to see all the red lights.

RC: That's what's going to happen Are you going to see it tonight again?

Capone: Yeah, I think I’m going to watch it again.

RC: That would be great. You're going to find several interesting things. The response is going to be very different for you. I don't know what the first one was; I never ask those things. But believe me, you are going to find many different red lights. Yesterday, two different journalists congratulated us, because of the changes we made to the film after Sundance. We didn’t do that; we didn't restructure or make changes.

Capone: This is the same version from Sundance?

RC: Yeah, there are three seconds less here and there.

Capone: Okay, so not whole scenes.

RC: No, it’s exactly the same structure.

Capone: I hope when someone said that you, you said “Thank you.”

RC: You don’t know what to say frankly. In a way you feel peace, because you know that this is a movie that has its own life and has to live inside people’s heads.

Capone: The relationship between Cillian's character and Sigourney’s character is so unusual. I can’t think of another film where I’ve seen like a male and a female of that age difference partnered together. For most of the film, we're thinking that this is some intense loyalty on your part, which it is to a degree. Can you just talk about creating that relationship?

RC: As a writer-director, I love to put things there that are not in words. They are not the things they say. In this movie, they talk a lot, but the things they say are pretty professional and the emotions are never the subject. So I wanted to create something strange that you felt in a way; it’s pretty mother-son in nature, but at the same time you perceive something almost platonic and even a couple of times you wonder if they're going to hug. So I like contradictory things that go beyond normal, because actually that’s how normality is. Real life is full of contradictions and certain things that are not so plain. So I wanted it to be subtle and I tried to put that in the writing, but he can probably tell you more about the way he developed it.

CM: Yeah, and I would agree with you. I remember reading it going, “I have never really seen a relationship like this in a film, and it’s lovely, because they just love each other.” Obviously she is a surrogate mother, and he is kind of a surrogate son, but she is a mentor. She's the leader, and they need each other in different ways. But when it’s played by Sigourney Weaver, she just has that natural warmth and that command and that grace and elegance. Luckily, we really clicked when we met each other. I did most of my stuff with Sigourney in the movie, and we spent a lot of time hanging out and got on great, and I think that that does actually transfers to film when you have that. Like you say, it’s the unconventional twist that the film does take in regard to her character that shocks you, and you're kind of left a little orphaned, as is Tom. That’s bold, particularly when you have somebody as extraordinary as Sigourney playing that character.

Capone: I just realized, we should do two different interviews: one for people who have seen the movie, and one for people who haven’t.

RC: [laughs] It’s so hard to talk about this film without…

Capone: Tonight will be so much easier.

CM: It will be fun.

Capone: I love doing the Q&As with movies that have big secrets, because you can actually talk about it.

RC: Yeah, the problem is when you put it on the net the day after.

Capone: Not me. I would never do that. I hold that stuff sacred. Anyway, I'll see you tonight.

RC: It’s always a pleasure.

CM: See you later. Thanks, man..

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • July 27, 2012, 6:55 p.m. CST


    by Darius Doherty

  • July 27, 2012, 6:56 p.m. CST

    way to go, Jack

    by Mennen

  • Or did you? And you knew all along! You sly fox...

  • July 27, 2012, 8:11 p.m. CST

    This guy should star in more movies. He should also be a Bond villain.

    by Xenodistortion

  • July 27, 2012, 9:23 p.m. CST


    by SuperXY

  • July 27, 2012, 9:24 p.m. CST


    by SuperXY

    If you know how his name is pronounced, that might be the coolest nickname ever.

  • July 27, 2012, 9:30 p.m. CST

    Can we have an Olympic Opening Ceremony talkback?

    by RedRockPest

    Danny Boyle's an Oscar winner you know. Thanks.

  • July 28, 2012, 12:26 a.m. CST

    Great interview!

    by Chris Moody

    Murphy is a great actor...and it is great to get insight into how he thinks.

  • July 28, 2012, 5:43 a.m. CST


    by Robbiemc9

    Quite interested to see this now. Cillen is so sexy with those big blue eyes and Sigouney is just the bomb. Sounds like an interesting relationship.

  • July 28, 2012, 12:13 p.m. CST

    Kill e an. Its Irish for.... eh.... Cillian

    by ThehandthatBites

  • July 28, 2012, 5:11 p.m. CST

    Death... by exile!

    by Mr. Pricklepants

    Sorry, couldn't resist!

  • July 30, 2012, 9:11 a.m. CST

    Unbelievably bad film, after such a promising beginning.

    by DraculaDillenger

    I found the resolution completely unsatisfying and what's more, just a ridiculous reveal in the vein of Sixth Sense. It didn't make much sense to me, or why it was even important that it had all occurred. Deniro's performance is certainly one of his worst; he's given to mostly shouting and waving his arms--he actually looks embarrassed/bored. Many central moments of the film take place via television excerpts, cutaways to quick news briefs and full-on interviews, so I was staggered by how poorly rendered the graphics were in these sequences. Unreal looking news programs, a laughable fake-Oprah type show (the audience I watched it with actually laughed aloud), and a clumsy attempt at staging a round-table interview that resembles no television program I've ever seen. Compared to Ted's intro, where you have grainy, smeary VHS-looking 1980's era news clips about the "talking bear", Red Lights numerous tv clips took me out of the film. It's worth noting that the film goes out of its way to suggest that the film takes place in maybe Michigan (I can't recall), but is so obviously shot in Toronto--the CN Tower is in frame for a major scene! A detail that might pass most American/International viewers, but something that spoke of the sloppiness of the whole film.