Karina Wilson caught up with director Rodrigo Cortés and star Cillian Murphy to talk about stage psychics and their new parapsychology movie (out this Friday) Red Lights...
“What can you really know? What can you really trust? What are your doubts? What are your certainties? What do you call truth? When you look at the sky, what do you see? Shadows? Reflections? Distant echoes? You see the moon as it was more than a second ago. You see the sun as it was shining eight minutes ago. But what do you really see? Can you trust your eyes? Can you trust me?” – Simon Silver in Red Lights
Psychics have been packing ‘em in since the glory days of the Spiritualist movement, when crowds thronged into tents and meeting halls to marvel at mediums who could talk to the dead. Spirit rapping, levitation, floating lights and disembodied voices were all part of a show that was part barnstorming entertainment, part religious experience. This must have seemed marvelous indeed to audiences of the time - electric light and the internal combustion engine were decades in the future – and they had the added bonus, in an era of high mortality rates, of knowing their dearly departed were safe and well.
Audiences in 2012 should be more sophisticated, thanks to our awareness of how special effects work in movies and TV, how magicians use misdirection and manipulation rather than actual magic, and how, when subjected to scientific tests, those claiming mindreading abilities have been debunked time and time again. Yet the stage psychics are still packing ‘em in, with international tours and syndicated TV shows – despite the accusations and lawsuits, John Edward has a sold-out gig in Las Vegas next week. It seems that, evidence of fraud notwithstanding, there’s a huge audience out there that still wants to believe.
Rodrigo Cortés’ follow-up to Buried, Red Lights, examines the esoteric culture of professional psychics. His protagonists, psychologist Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and physicist Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are paranormal investigators, who’ve made it their mission to hunt the charlatans down and prove that in this, the only world, what you see is what you get. They teach Parapsychology 101 to a wide-eyed class of students, dismissing séances and horoscopes as orchestrated hokum. After taking down a couple of obvious fakers, the skeptical twosome find themselves pitted against Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), the greatest psychic in the world who, it’s hinted, once killed a man to protect his trade secrets. Finally, it seems, they’ve met their match.
Cortés spent eighteen months researching this milieu. “I looked at both sides of the discussion, the side of the scientists and skeptics, as well as the side of the believers and parapsychologists. I went through tons of information, images and videos. I attended séances, and channeling sessions and talked to many so-called paragnosts, or gifted psychics, who use scientific terms to legitimize their work.” And his conclusion? “I’m not a scientist but what I can tell you… of what I studied, 99% or so had a natural explanation or it was about interpretation or simply fake but there’s 1% that rejects being explained.”
Cortés uses that 1% to drive his supernatural thriller. Matheson and Buckley debunk other paranormal phenomena with ease (when shown an undoctored photo of a levitating man, Buckley instantly identifies the technique: “Trampoline”), but with Silver, they hit a brick wall. If it seems like it’s impossible to prove Silver’s a fake, does that mean he’s genuine? Or could he simply be a master illusionist who has out-manipulated his detractors? The charismatic Silver isn’t based on a single psychic (although Uri Geller springs to mind) but on a rogues’ gallery of “politicians and healers and preachers”. The casting was vital, according to Cortés - “I knew it would take a giant to play Silver the way I envisioned him” – and De Niro was top of his wish list.
Other casting proved just as important. Cortés says he created the complex role of Matheson with Weaver specifically in mind (“which was pretty risky because I didn’t know her. Writing something for her doesn’t guarantee a yes but it guarantees a real problem if she says no.”). Weaver is the go-to gal when film-makers want an authoritative female scientist, thanks to her turns in Ghostbusters, Gorillas In The Mist and Avatar, and Cortés says he also sees Weaver as “a strong woman with a sexy nature, but very, very tough… with a real heart deep inside. There’s a perception of something broken inside her.” Although Matheson is all cool efficiency in her professional life, there is indeed something broken once she goes home. Her son has been lying in a coma for many years and she cannot bring herself to switch off his life support because of her lack of belief in the great beyond. Doubt gnaws at her maternal instincts. Is she doing the right thing by her son? “She doesn’t believe yet you feel that maybe she would love to. She rejects these things in a rational way… but maybe she would love to find at last something that allowed her to believe, that would make her feel better.”
Tom Buckley, therefore, is her proxy son as well as her colleague. He’s heir to her knowledge and techniques but wants to take them a step further by exposing Silver. Murphy’s essential duality – his milkmaid looks that belie the psychopath under the skin – meant Cortés felt he could embody Buckley’s journey. “At the beginning, Tom is like an innocent Boy Scout… he lives comfortably in the shadow of Matheson, but then he has to inherit the film and his character becomes darker and more disturbing.”
Murphy describes the role as “a gift of a part for me”. Although he readily admits “I’m boringly rational and very skeptical of this stuff”, he was attracted to Buckley’s passion and the way he becomes consumed by his task. Buckley undergoes a remarkable transition during the course of the narrative, and Murphy had to handle that shift within his performance. At the beginning, Tom has to engage a probably-skeptical audience. Murphy says he has “to have the natural human responses that you would have to these things. Over the course of the film he changes gradually and it becomes about obsession. It’s important that when we meet Tom at the beginning he’s just this normal guy, so you connect with him and hopefully invest with him and stay with him over the course of the journey.” Shooting in Barcelona was intense, “there was a huge amount of set ups during the day. Rodrigo and his crew worked really fast and I was in a lot of the scenes so I enjoyed that immersion in the part.” In particular, he recalls the first time he stepped on set with De Niro, “where I come in and there’s the big line of salt in his lair. I have no dialogue and that was my first scene with him so the character just has to be intimidated and overwhelmed. There was no acting involved.”
Like Buried, Red Lights is a thriller ripped from the headlines. The Marks family – a group of nine psychics from Fort Lauderdale – faced a 61-count indictment last summer for swindling $40 million from their clients. Whatever you personally believe about parapsychological phenomena, this movie will help you understand why people are so willing to hand over their cash to the hucksters. De Niro owning the stage (and his silent, enraptured audience) as Simon Silver chimes absolutely with this brand of big bucks chicanery. Cortés says that similar manipulation is at the core of his storytelling. “Filmmaking is in large part about managing point of view to make people feel and believe what you want them to… stage magicians play with the same tools as filmmakers. In creating movie reality, you make people swear they saw things they never saw. You misdirect them in order to surprise them. You make them look at your left hand so that you can steal their wallet with your right.”