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Inside The Creepy Twists Of 'Red Lights'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. Michel Martin is away. Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes earned his 15 minutes of fame - and then some - back in 2010 with his first English language film, "Buried." The suspense thriller gained huge critical acclaim at Sundance and received over 30 awards at film festivals across the country.

Now, Rodrigo Cortes is back with his second major U.S. release. It's called "Red Lights" and it, too, is a thriller. The film follows scientific investigators who live to thwart paranormal hoaxes. Sigourney Weaver plays a scientist and Robert Di Niro plays her nemesis.


ROBERT DE NIRO: (as Simon Silver) From the time of ancient Greece to the present day, philosophers and scholars have argued that man is essentially rational. I don't happen to agree. One observes and studies another person without having first studied oneself. How do we know whether our instruments are appropriately set? How do we know we are reliable? We have no proof. There's only one way of gaining access to the truth. That's not to expect anything. If our intentions are pure, we might end up creating monsters.

HINOJOSA: "Red Lights" is out in theaters tomorrow. Yes, Friday the 13th. And - yes - this suspenseful flick will have you jumping in your seat more than a few times.

Joining us now to talk more about "Red Lights" is writer and director of the film, Rodrigo Cortes. (Foreign language spoken), Rodrigo.

RODRIGO CORTES: (Foreign language spoken). Thank you for inviting me. Thank you.

HINOJOSA: OK. So your film, "Red Lights," is about two characters, two scientists who are dedicated to debunking paranormal and psychic activity and, in reading about your film, it turns out that there actually are people who do this for real. Actual jobs. They get paid to debunk paranormal activity?

CORTES: Well, they are not so well paid, actually, and they used to work on this because they want to actually. There's no department on a university that works on that, but it used to belong to a certain department, like the psychology department, for instance.

But, yeah, there are debunkers out there, some of them very well known, like for instance, James Randi.

HINOJOSA: What was it that you said? OK. I want to make a film about people debunking paranormal activity, but in the end, you're also raising some real questions about whether or not you do believe that paranormal activity is out there.

CORTES: Yeah. I guess I started with these tools - paranormal hoaxes that sounded fascinating to me because they are like two antagonic(ph) words in one. You have the paranormal, which is the magic, what cannot be explained, and you have the hoaxes, which is people lying, which is probably what we do best. And this allowed me to explore the mechanisms of perception of human brain, how our brain's not a tool you can trust to perceive reality because it basically lies.

I've been always interested in our mechanisms of perception and I believe that's what illusionists play with. And I'm very interested, also, therefore, in stage magic. Probably magic and filmmaking, in a way, are exactly the same thing. We are trying to do the same things. I try - everybody to look at my right hand while, with my left hand, I steal a couple of wallets.

HINOJOSA: So, Rodrigo, I want to play a clip here of Sigourney Weaver. In the film, she plays the role of Dr. Margaret Matheson, the scientist who basically spends her entire life disproving paranormal activity. In this scene, she's on a talk show, essentially defending her profession.


SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (as Margaret Matheson) What I'm saying is give me proof that a photon of light can pass through a human body and I will start to believe in invisibility. Until that happens, all we're talking about here is simple subjective beliefs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do you believe in, Dr. Matheson? Do you have a transcendent view of life?

WEAVER: (as Margaret Matheson) A what?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, you talk about beliefs. What do you believe in?

WEAVER: (as Margaret Matheson) Well, I don't really see what that has to do with anything.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, it's a very simple question that maybe you can answer. Just asking you, do you believe or don't you?

HINOJOSA: So, apart from the really scary "Jaws"-like music in the back in that particular clip, what about this entire notion of faith versus science? It's an old debate, but you know, so do faith and science mix? Can you have both or is it ultimately one or the other?

CORTES: No. I don't think it's a battle, actually. I'm trying to revive things in these two concepts just - if they were antagonic, it's probably a mistake. It's funny because I needed to do more than a year and a half of research, studying both sides of the paranormal debate. I mean, the side of the rationalists and the scientists and the skeptics and, on the side of the believers and so-called psychics and parapsychologists. And I found out something pretty interesting, which is that no matter what they claim to do they both behaved usually in a very similar way. They only accepted what confirmed their previous positions about things and they tended to reject everything that pulled them at risk, which means that we're used to believing what's more convenient for us to believe, which used to be what allows us not to change. There's not a real debate between science and faith. If the film proposes a certain debate, it would be between believing and understanding, which is a different thing.

HINOJOSA: So I believe that you actually really wanted to Sigourney Weaver to play this character. In fact, I heard that you had a dress made to fit her perfectly without even knowing if she'd take the film - to take the role in this film. So why Sigourney Weaver? Why was she so important for your film?

CORTES: It simply happened - I never write for anybody because it's too risky, for many reasons. But when I was creating this character of Dr. Matheson, I wanted a woman full of strength and with a very sharp sense of humor and still a very warm heart inside with something broken that you can perceive, and the face of Sigourney started to float in front of me from the very first moment. So before I could even notice, it was writing for her. But this is pretty risky because this doesn't guarantee you a yes, but it guarantees you certainly, a real problem if she says no.


CORTES: Because you're going to have a perfect dress and nobody to wear it.

HINOJOSA: So you are in fact pretty much a self-taught filmmaker. You actually never studied filmmaking formally. So how did you get started?

CORTES: Well, it doesn't mean that I didn't have teachers. There were teachers out there. There was Scorsese and Kubrick and Hitchcock and Spielberg and Billy Wilder, you name them. But in a way I always thought that the only way of deeply and really learning is being in the way of self-taught. And even if you go to a school or whatever, at the end of the day you have to be self-taught. Because you can do two things; you can accept whatever they tell you and apply it as if they were kind of rules or anything like that. Or you can have deep reflection on those things. Only this way you have a significant knowledge, a deep knowledge about things. So I actually always found this way of learning extremely useful.

HINOJOSA: But at the same time with a film like yours, there's all kinds of like, you know, effects that you have to know. So do you feel - I mean, I'm just wondering how you kind of feel something deeply about effects, but then how do you actually create that if you're missing that kind of technical level?

CORTES: Well, first, you have to know exactly what you want to achieve. That's where things should start from.

HINOJOSA: You mean like the emotions? So you actually want to know what you want.

CORTES: Exactly.


CORTES: The emotions and also the final result. Another thing is how to get there. Once you know exactly what the final result should be and why, then you are ready for the other phase. First, you have other people working with you, of course - this is a collaboration work, that help you to get to those places. And you learn little by little in the way. I mean, you don't start doing Harry Potter. You first do certain small effects, you start to understand the nature of that and once you understand this philosophy, then it just becomes more complex but very similar. Once you understand the principle, then you can go farther pretty easily.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa, and I'm speaking with Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes about his second English feature film, the paranormal thriller "Red Lights," starring Robert DeNiro and Sigourney Weaver.

So I have to say, Rodrigo, that some of the methods that these telepathic characters use in the film, you know, some of the hoaxes that you expose essentially, you know, they do hearken back to days like religious revivals, you know, these televangelists who catch you from falling. In huge theaters, you know, you'll hear someone's name being called in the audience and then his ailment but, you know, really all the while, you have somebody with an earpiece, you know, feeding this character information. So let's hear one of the clips from one of these scenes in your film "Red Lights."



WEAVER: (as Margaret Matheson) Neal, if you can't hear me, you're in trouble.

ACTOR #2: (as Neal) My head. My head.

ACTOR #1: (as character) Judi Cale.

#2: (as Neal) I can't feel it.

#1: (as character) I repeat, Judi Cale.

#2: (as Neal) Judi Cale? Judi Cale?

#1: (as character) To your right. She should be in the eighth row next to Scott.


ACTOR #3: (as character) They're using inhibitors. These guys know what they're doing.

ACTOR #4: (as character) Can't you do something?

#3: (as character) Yeah. I think so. Just a minute.

#2: (as Neal) Stand up right now in the name of God.

#3: (as character) Hallelujah. Leonardo believes again.

#2: (as Neal) Stand up...

HINOJOSA: So Rodrigo, are you making any statements here? Do you see some kind of a crossover between those religious healers and the paranormal impersonators that you portray in your film?

CORTES: Well, I want film to reverberate in different ways inside everybody. I mean, I never intended to do a prescriptive script. And actually, the opinion of the audience changes several times all along the film. But they're a couple of things that are obvious. Yeah, when you see these things for instance, you think stage magicians; that's harmless, and these people that's not claiming to have any real power and you just want to feel mesmerized and fascinated for couple of hours. But there's other people that play with people's health and play with their vulnerability when they are in a bad situation and that's awful. And actually there's a huge business, especially in the States behind that. So it's not that I want to do any kind of obvious statement but it's there. It's one of the layers that you can find in the film, yeah.

HINOJOSA: So in the end it seems - and I'm not going to give away - and frankly, it is a very suspenseful film, so we want people to stick around till the end. But in the end, it seems as if you're kind of saying that maybe you do believe in these paranormal activities and psychics and possibilities. So, you know, if you had to make a stand or take a stand, which one is it? Are you critical, it's all hoaxes or maybe there's a little bit of verdad, a little bit of truth to it all?

CORTES: Hmm. That's an interesting question. I'm personally, I'm not interested in believing as a concept, but in understanding and trying to understand. So for instance, if you ask me if I believe in supernatural, I will tell you no, I don't believe in supernatural because I don't think that nature can transcend itself. I don't think that nature can be transcended either. Even the unexplainable has to live inside those margins. But if you ask me about paranormal, for instance, I would consider paranormal like a group of phenomenon in the search of an explanation, well, there are a couple of things out there that cannot be explained yet because we don't have the tools yet.

If you think of radio frequencies for instance, they probably would have been considered paranormal three centuries ago. You simply need those tools.

HINOJOSA: So speaking about reality, the reviews of the films have been mixed. There's been a lot of comparison to your first English-language film, "Buried," which was sort of a darling back at Sundance in 2010. So how much attention do you as a filmmaker pay to the issue of reviews and who's talking about it and this and that?

CORTES: You're actually try not to pay attention and I actually try not to - even when I read very, very good reviews because they used to be smoke in a way. When you release a film for a couple of months it becomes a kind of hamburger and everybody has something to say and it has to be now and definitive and as high tone as possible. And in a way after doing a unique film like "Buried," when I say unique I don't stay good or bad, I say one-of-a-kind, in the sense that it's a guy inside a box for an hour and a half, you know that you're going to hear things afterwards.

it's like if you do for instance "Memento," you have a movie that goes backwards and then you do "Insomnia," and you can do two things: you can do another film backwards and everybody will tell you that you are repeating yourself or you can do it the conventional way and probably a couple of people will tell you that they prefer the other one. So you simply can focus on what you want to do trying to get it as close as what you have in your head as possible because opinions constantly change and in a way films become real films two years later.

HINOJOSA: What about being a Spanish film director who's, you know, breaking into Hollywood? Can you - does it help? Does it make it more difficult? Are you able to stay true to your, you know, roots, your raices, while at the same time trying to break into a place like Hollywood?

CORTES: Yeah. Well, the most difficult part actually is speaking English, oh, as you perfectly can see.


HINOJOSA: And you do a great job.

CORTES: Beyond that, you're pretty safe because actually, nobody actually cares where you are from. But you have to be very aware of one thing, especially if you intend to offer the industry and it's something that happens and nobody can help - it's not because of evil, it's only because it's natural, is that they also want you because of the things that you know how to do and because they like your voice or whatever. But then fear happens and everybody wants guarantees about everything, which is something impossible to achieve. So little by little they start telling you what you should do. So it's tricky but it's also part of the game and it constantly tests yourself. I wouldn't think that it's harder for you at the Spanish filmmaker, you simply are where you are from and I guess that the world has became a smaller world - sorry - a smaller place. So is easier to cross those lines now.

HINOJOSA: Well, good luck with your film, Rodrigo.

CORTES: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

HINOJOSA: That's writer, producer and director Rodrigo Cortes. His new film, "Red Lights," starring Sigourney Weaver and Robert DeNiro is in theaters tomorrow. He joined us from our studios in New York.

Gracias, Rodrigo.

CORTES: (Foreign language spoken)


HINOJOSA: And that's our program for today. Remember, to tell us more, please go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there too. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @ tellmemore/npr. I'm Maria Hinojosa and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.