Rodrigo Cortes at a NY screening of "Red Lights" hosted by the Peggy Siegal Company
Jimi Celeste/Patrick McMullan
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.
"You need to feel a little bit scared in a certain way to be sure you’re growing."
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.