After wowing critics and audiences at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with his high concept English language debut “Buried” (you know, the thriller starring Ryan Reynolds that takes place in a sealed coffin), Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes returned to Park City earlier this year to show he was no one trick pony with another exceedingly ambitious indie, “Red Lights.”
The supernatural creepfest stars Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver as two scientific debunkers of paranormal hoaxes who meet their match when a blind, world-renowned psychic (Robert De Niro) resurfaces to prove their theories wrong. Like “Buried,” “Red Lights” is a breath of fresh air for those seeking original, thought provoking entertainment. It hits select theaters this Friday via Millenium Films.
Cortes sat down with Indiewire in Manhattan last month to explain the genesis of the story, and how he navigated the pressure of delivering after his breakout.
“Buried” wasn’t your first film, but it was the first to put you on the map with North American audiences. What kind of pressure did you feel in following it up?
You try not to think about it because you’re there anyway. I wrote this story before “Buried,” so it was simply a matter of taking it from where I left it. On the other hand, after a unique film you’re dead. I’m not saying even good or bad, I’m saying unique. In “Buried,” something happens in a box for an hour-and-a-half, which is unique of course. You cannot focus on all these things. You cannot believe in pressure. Just focus on trying to create contradicting characters full of complexity, hopefully, and try to create the most compelling story. And you try to be challenging in certain ways.
You’re known for writing the majority of your own work, but you didn’t pen the script for “Buried.” Did you take on those directing duties to craft a calling card for the English-speaking audience? The concept was sure bound to attract attention.
I reacted in an obsessive way to that script. I remember when they sent me it, they said there was no way anyone’s was ever going to make it, but do you want to read it anyways? They told me it was about a guy in a box for an hour-and-a-half and I said, “I’m interested.” That happened in a second because it was so challenging and probably the worst idea ever, so I needed to read it. And when I did, I found out that it was actually a brilliant script so I didn’t understand why there was not a bunch of sweaty directors around trying to steal the script. They simply thought it wasn’t produceable. I didn’t feel that, I felt like, enthusiasm, so I needed to do something literally never done. I cannot explain it rationally. I simply feel very attracted to things that go beyond the conventional.
The challenge must have no doubt appealed to you.
Exactly, as a audience member. I also want to feel the challenge as a director. If I don’t feel that, it probably means it’s not a good idea to make it. You need to feel a little bit scared in a certain way to be sure you’re growing.
Given that you were dreaming up “Red Lights” before making “Buried,” was it originally envisioned as a Spanish-language feature?
No, never. I only ever imagined shooting this film as an American one. I don’t think that this story would make sense in England for instance, or France or Italy. In Europe we are too cynical in a way. It’s like a null society and we don’t react fast to certain things. So from the very first moment, this is the way I imagined it.
The film in a sly way mocks the evangelicals in America. Was that partly your aim?
The character of Silver [played by Robert De Niro] is not based on any character because he’s kind of like a mix of many different things. In a way, he behaves like a stage magician, but there’s nothing stagey in it. He never tells them, “I’m here to entertain you.” Actually what he says is, “Why did you come to see me?” “Should I entertain you?” He has that mixed with this televangelist thing along with the behavior of politicians in a way. And I actually studied politicians from the Depression Era in order to create this disturbing, cold psychology. Something I found out when I did my research for a year-and-a-half studying both sides — the side of the skeptics and the side of the believers — is that no matter what they claim to do, they usually behave in a very similar way; accepting only what confirmed their previous theories and rejecting what proved them at risk. Which means we usually believe what is more convenient for us to believe.But what initially inspired the story? It’s quite original!
It started with these two words—paranormal hoaxes—that sounded fascinating to me. And it took me awhile to figure out exactly why, and then I understood it was fascinating because it was a kind of oxymoron. There were two opposite concepts colliding, clashing each other. You have the paranormal, which is the magic, what cannot be explained, which is a perfect, very compelling background for a story which allows you to use the elements of the genre; and you have the hoaxes, which is people lying, which is what they do best. And I wanted to do something very physical and tangible with the genetic code of a political thriller of the 70’s. So this way, with these two concepts, I was allowed to explore the mechanisms of perceptions, of the human brain.
Am I wrong in reading that the film kind of took place in a different kind of present day? “Red Lights” certainly doesn’t take place in our present reality — we have no serious cultural fascination with the paranormal.
You are totally right, actually. In a way, the film feels likes it takes place in the 70’s or 80’s. You see laptops, you see phones, but I wanted to have this genetic code of certain political thrillers from the 70’s. It would be much more cynical and different if it actually happened nowadays. That’s also a reason why it’s not set in any specific place.
You’re managed to make pretty outlandish genre picture on indie budgets. Are you eager to work with a studio?
Yeah, I don’t believe in indie or studio as labels. As an audience member, what I want is to hear strong voices and clear personalities and to feel challenged; not to feel reaffirmed on my own decisions or whatever. So for instance, when I did “Buried,” I never felt I was doing an experimental film meant to be shown in museums or something like that. I always thought I was doing “Indiana Jones” in a box or “North by Northwest” in a box. But when you have the control, you can afford to take certain decisions. The thing is that you still don’t have any guarantee of success. So when you do what you want to do and when you don’t want what other people want you to do, you still have the same guarantees of success. Taking that into consideration, you should only do things you strongly believe in.
Again to me, it’s never about where you shoot. It’s about what and about how. I mean that. This is not a pro-Hollywood or anti-Hollywood position. I learned to love cinema via the studio movies and of course Scorsese films, Spielberg films, and Hitchcock. All of them did studio pictures with very strong voices. It’s about finding this margin of expressing and exploring the things that touch your sensitive points.
Do you see yourself returning to Spain anytime soon to make a film in Spanish?
Yeah, yeah I do. It depends on the story, on the characters. It’s about serving a certain story and vision of characters. It’s not that I ran away from somewhere.
So what do you have planned next? I’m curious.
Well I tend to not talk about things that don’t exist, because they don’t exist. But again, I tried to find this idea that literally obsesses me. There are a couple of things that are floating in my head. Once one of them becomes an obsession, I’ll be there like a steamroller.
What obsesses you?
I’m attracted very strongly to character-driven pieces. I need stories to be challenging in a certain way. I’m interested in very physical scenes — in the sense that I react strongly to films that are not only meant to be seen, but also experienced. It’s never about the genre. It’s very subjective, because it has to touch certain sensitive points.