Rodrigo Cortes’ film Red Lights (review) divided audiences at Sundance. Some viewers really dug it. Cortes could tell I was not a fan, even though my questions were objective and diplomatic. It was cool though, he welcomed my discussion anyway.
Red Lights is named for the giveaway clues that something doesn’t belong. Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver play scientific debunkers of paranormal hoaxes, faced with their match (Robert DeNiro), who either can circumvent all their countermeasures, or he really has psychic powers.
In his introduction to the premiere screening, Cortes told the audience not to expect anything. Now that you may have heard, we present my discussion with Cortes from the Sundance Film Festival. Q: Your introduction said don’t have any expectations. Are you being modest or do you have concerns?
RC: No, no, no. I was not being modest and I didn’t have any specific concern. It’s actually my way of proceeding usually. I try to keep my expectations neutral about things because this way you can react in real time with whatever reality brings to you. If you have a very petrified map about things you expect from things, then you have to constantly compare things themselves with your idea about what those things should be in your head. In real life, that’s not the best way to perceive reality. What I was trying to tell the audience is that if they wanted to have a clean experience of whatever they were going to see, no matter if they liked it or hated it, they better see the film not only with their minds but also with their bones, with their muscles, just to try to be guided by the energy of the film, whatever it brought them to, and once they arrived to the end, then they can say, “Okay, I enjoyed this ride” or “I found this ride totally unsatisfying” or “I wish I never rode this horse.” But not making it compete with a previous idea of a nonexistent film.
Q: But you can’t say that before every showing in every theater in America.
RC: Of course. Certainly. Actually, it was basically a funny way of starting, saying, “Okay, don’t expect anything.” From that moment on, the movie is going to defend itself. Premieres are different though. There’s a very weird energy in premieres that can make you leave or that can kill you or that can get you even. When you see a film three years later, you have a DVD or you see them on the TV, you see a film. That’s it. Films usually when they are released have not a clean perspective, but that’s film. That’s part of the game. You can’t help that. It happens to me constantly. I see a film, I love it. I see it two years later and say, “Okay, it was not that good. I thought it was much better than it really was.” And sometimes, you see a film, if you don’t like it or you miss it, then a couple of years later you say, “Okay, what was I thinking? This movie’s really good. I simply thought it was going to be another film.” Or you see it and you confirm what you thought on the first view. All these things can happen but when you see them in this clear way which is impossible at the beginning, they don’t compete with themselves. You can’t help that that happens in a world premiere and that can help you many times. Sometimes things happen, even if they are over exaggerated or whatever, and they create a kind of energy which the snowball starts to roll and it feeds off this previous energy, and sometimes it doesn’t go that well or whatever. You have to be very supportive with that and try to enjoy the process because that’s what reality is about. Life is about that.
Q: I find myself discussing that a lot as my opinions on certain films change. To me that seems like a valid signpost of where I am in life if I relate to a movie more or less than I used to. Are people too hung up on preserving their first impression for the rest of the life of a movie?
RC: Yeah, you’re right. But on the other hand, this is just talking the talk in a way because then reality is what reality is. So it’s better that you just serve reality and try to enjoy the ride because there are a lot of surprises in front of you and that’s another reason for keeping your expectations neutral. You never know how things are going to go. What happens one day can change the direction of something. It’s pretty cruel in a way but that’s part of our business.
Q: Why is the paranormal big again?
RC: I don’t know, I think in a way it’s always been big.
Q: They always say that about trends. Certainly it’s come back with Paranormal Activity.
RC: It’s a kind of fashion in a way and it’s also about wanting to believe there’s something beyond, because that will give meaning to the films we do in a way. So sometimes actually believing in this is to believe in what’s more convenient for us to believe. Maybe now more people need to fill that sorrow than in other moments. I don’t know but I was not so interested in paranormal stuff in itself but about how it affected us and our beliefs. Or about also to make an instance of perception. I wanted to do something with a scientific basis in a way because everything has to do with the mechanisms of perception, with the function of our brain, how our brain is not a tool you can trust in order to perceive reality. Because it lies. It’s an imperfect tool and it lies to you. That’s what I wanted, everything to be so physical and touchable. I love for instance the beginning of Poltergeist when everything’s physical, when you sit a girl on the floor and she slides on it. I personally as a spectator prefer that to the ghost hand coming out of a TV set or blue spirits trespassing walls. It’s like if you would get angry now and everything starts to tremble around and glasses start to explode. Maybe it’s a projection of your psychic energy but maybe it’s an earthquake.
Q: Like when the theater explodes when Cillian Murphy turns on the switch.
RC: There are two different possibilities in that very moment. You have to choose one and you certainly choose one, but the other one is valid too. You think this is real, in another moment you are certain this is not real, these are just fake, this is just fake. In another moment you start to doubt again and you have to become in a way a searcher of Red Lights, trying to find the discordant notes and not all the answers are given. My personal perspective, I love when you have to keep on working, especially if you want to keep on working. If you pretend that and it doesn’t happen, in a minute you become the most pretentious director ever and that means that you failed. You intended something that didn’t happen and it failed. But there are different kinds of movies. Some of them you start to forget them when the end credits start rolling. The day afterwards, you seem to not remember anything about it. And when they tell you, “Didn’t you like how it ended?” And you say, “I wish I knew. I don’t remember. Oh yeah, there was a lawyer, oh yeah right, he dies. Yeah, yeah, I liked that.” With other films you find that they still live inside you and that you can’t help thinking of them and that you want to discuss your own perspective about the film. You have friends and you go on talking about it and you say, “I feel this guy knew how to fly.” “No, I don’t think he knew how to fly. I think he was just pulled by strings and whatever.” “Yeah, but at the beginning, how do you explain this?” “Yeah, you’re right but on the other hand…” Well, that’s a place I would love to put the audience in. I don’t know if I did. I will learn soon, but I wish I got that.
Q: Are you happy to hear there’s a divided reaction to the film?
RC: Yeah, I’m happy to hear that always and I’m ready for that always. It was funny though in a way. I saw all my films and my short films many times with different audiences, different days, different times. I show other people’s films too and sometimes you see a film at four o’clock and people laugh in the right moments. You see that at eight o’clock and for some reason people don’t laugh but you win the audience award which you cannot explain. It was funny to see how different the reactions from the first day were to the reactions from the second day. But debate is always part of the game and I would love not people to love or to hate something, I would love them to be willing to talk about it, telling how much they love it or how much they hate it, wanting to talk about it and sharing their own fears.
Q: Buried was well reviewed and well liked. Why didn’t it get a bigger release?
RC: It was very big around the world. It didn’t work in the states. It made more than $20 million. It’s difficult to explain things after they happen because it’s easy, but it’s convenient. You would only have the answers if you knew how to predict that. It was released in platform. They thought it would grow and grow because of people’s opinion but people didn’t go to the movies. They didn’t want to see the film. Maybe it has to do because you don’t go to the movies for the movies themselves but for what you expect from them. If they tell you this is about a guy in a box for an hour and a half, probably many people don’t want to see it. Because the idea they will have in their mind is that they are going to see something still and agonic and terrible and probably extremely experimental. They don’t think they are going to be on an adventure, they’re not going to think they’re going to see Indiana Jones in a box, so maybe that’s not the easier way to sell a film. On the other hand it would be better for Europe or Asia and the things that did work very well in the UK, in Spain, in Italy, even in Argentina it was number one, you can understand that. I would say there is another thing which is almost cultural which is that we killed our hero. I think there is a cultural thing in the states that people in a way feel they have the right to feel rewarded at the end of a film if they paid 12 bucks. So it’s okay, you made this guy suffer so much, he deserves to be saved. You cannot make me suffer for an hour and a half and then leave me feeling miserable.
Q: I don’t know about that. You’ve got to expect that in a dark movie.
RC: I don’t know, as I told you it’s just theories so you never know. I know a lot of people when they left the room, they were really enjoying the film and at the end they hated it. They gave it an F. They felt betrayed. They felt so betrayed by the film which is something, it’s not that in Europe people are more sophisticated. Believe me, we are not. We are not at all. We love happy endings as much as you do and we love stories as much as you do. It’s only I think that there’s a little more room for certain options in the sense that you accept that there are other possibilities, that happiness is not a right but an option, another option in life.
Q: What’s are you writing and directing next?
RC: My next project is sleeping definitely. I’ve been working for three years from Monday through Sunday, I’m not exaggerating a minute, 15, 18 hours a day. Finished the film 15 days ago. The reels are still dropping. I’m extremely exhausted. I wish I could have a couple of days I could get up late in the morning and for the very first moment in a while, I feel like there is again room in my head to think on something. I don’t know yet what, so when I leave all the snow behind, that’ll be the time to start thinking again.