Red Lights

Red Lights

Robert De Niro, Joely Richardson and Toby Jones in RED LIGHTS, a film by Rodrigo Cortes. Picture courtesy Millennium Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Red Lights

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  • Gustavo Lopez Manas
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* Most external filmography links go to The Internet Movie Database.

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Red Lights (2012)

Opened: 07/13/2012 Limited

AMC Empire 2507/13/2012 - 07/19/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

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Genre: Spanish/American Thriller

Rated: R for for language and some violence.


A pair of top paranormal researchers face their greatest challenge when they set out to discredit a powerful and mysterious psychic in Red Lights, a taut and original psychological thriller from award-winning writer and director Rodrigo Cortes (Buried).

Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her partner, Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are the world's foremost investigators of paranormal phenomena. Professional skeptics, they have debunked dozens of fraudulent mind readers, ghost hunters, faith healers and the like by detecting what Matheson calls "red lights," subtle clues to the trickery behind each of these "supernatural" occurrences.

But when the legendary blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement after 30 years, his once-fearless adversary Matheson warns Buckley to back off. Suspecting that the charismatic, spoon-bending mind reader was involved in the mysterious death of his most vociferous critic three decades earlier, she considers him far too dangerous to confront.

Buckley remains determined to discredit the hugely popular and seemingly genuine Silver, however, believing that doing so would cement his reputation and guarantee funding for Matheson's and his research for years to come. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with his mission, Buckley enlists the aid of his star student, Sally (Elizabeth Olsen). Together, they employ a dazzling array of high-tech tools to unlock the secrets of Silver's abilities. But the closer they get, the more formidable Silver becomes--and the more Buckley begins to question his core beliefs. Science and the supernatural collide to play on audience perceptions as the researchers' quest for the truth builds to a mind-blowing conclusion.

Red Lights stars Academy Award® winner Robert De Niro (Limitless, Raging Bull), Academy award nominee Sigourney Weaver (Avatar, Gorillas in the Mist), Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, The Dark Knight), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, Silent House), Toby Jones (The Hunger Games, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Joely Richardson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, "Nip Tuck").

The film is written, directed and edited by Rodrigo Cortes (Buried). It is produced by Cortes and Adrian Guerra (Apartment 143). Director of photography is Xavi Gimenez (The Machinist). Original music is by Victor Reyes (Buried). Production design is by Anton Laguna (Cell 211). Executive producers are Cindy Cowan (Fifty Dead Men Walking) and Lisa Wilson (Get Carter).

About the Production

"There are two kinds of people out there with a special gift--the ones who really think they have some kind of power and the other guys, who think we can't figure them out. They're both wrong." -- Dr. Margaret Matheson

Director and screenwriter Rodrigo Cortes blurs the thin line between perception and reality as two skeptical scientists seek to expose the trickery behind seemingly unexplainable events in his third feature film, Red Lights. In 2010, Cortes galvanized the film world with his unconventional thriller Buried, which became a surprise triumph at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to worldwide box-office success. The acclaim the Spanish-born writer and director received enabled him to start work almost immediately on Red Lights, a project he says had been gestating for some time.

"It gave me the chance to combine two concepts that might seem antithetical," says Cortes. "This is a genre film with the soul of a political thriller. I was inspired in part by movies like All the President's Men, but instead of journalists, we have scientific investigators. It starts with the idea of exposing these hoaxes, then starts to explore the mechanisms of perception in the human brain."

Cortes was also influenced by what he calls the "subterranean logic" of the novels of the American author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Perhaps best known for writing The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come and I Am Legend, all of which have been made into feature films, Matheson is also responsible for the legendary "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" episode of "The Twilight Zone."

"One of the most important things I wanted to capture was the idea that the human brain is not necessarily a tool we can trust," the director says. "We see what we want to see. Our beliefs are determined by our hopes, needs, dreams and desires. In other words, we believe what we want to believe."

Cortes' heroes, Margaret Matheson, played by Sigourney Weaver, and Tom Buckley, played by Cillian Murphy, believe that the world is filled with hucksters and frauds who exploit the hopes and fears of their followers for personal notoriety and financial gain. The pair are experts in detecting the telltale "red lights"--signs of the stagecraft used to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible believers.

Cortes devoted more than a year and a half to the study of paranormal phenomena. "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," he says. "I went through tons of information, images and videos. I attended seances and channeling sessions and talked to many so-called paragnosts, or gifted psychics, who use scientific terms to legitimize their work. What I discovered was that in some ways the two sides are very similar: they each accept only the information that confirms their preconceived ideas and reject everything else. People are prone to believing what is convenient to believe. We start with our beliefs and create the architecture around them."

Though the film is fictional, many of the characters and events are based on Cortes' research. "The character of Silver, for example, is not based on any one specific psychic. I used things that I learned about renowned psychics, including Uri Geller, but I also studied politicians and healers and preachers. I also wanted the movie to feel very scientific. A lot of the high-tech equipment used in the film exists in real life."

When it came to casting the film's lead characters, the director set his sights high, envisioning Sigourney Weaver as the tenacious researcher Margaret Matheson and Robert De Niro in the role of Simon Silver, the elusive psychic superstar who returns to the limelight after three decades in exile.

"There is a great deal of emotion in the piece that is not verbalized," Cortes' observes. "It takes a highly skilled actor to communicate through silence. Sigourney and Robert each had immediate and strong reactions to the material. I met with both of them within a two-week period and they told me they really wanted to be involved."

Cortes says that while he was developing the character of Matheson, he always pictured Weaver in the role. "The character felt very strong, but definitely not male," he remembers. "She has this power and a very sarcastic sense of humor, as well as a sexy nature. You don't see that in young women, because it has to do with experience and wisdom. You feel you can trust what this woman tells you. At the same time, she has something broken inside. It's rare to find all of these elements in one actress, but we found them in Sigourney.

"I wrote every line with her in mind," he continues. "It was like making the perfect dress for someone. If she had said no, it would have been a real problem. I would have had a perfect dress that wouldn't fit most people."

De Niro lends his own natural gravitas and superstar charisma to Silver. "I knew it would take a giant to play Silver the way I envisioned him," says Cortes. "He is the greatest psychic ever, but I didn't have a lot of time to establish that, so I needed a powerful presence. De Niro brings tremendous nuance to the character, speaking softly, but with a lot of power behind every word. And he does it in such an organic way.

"As an actor, he is never focused on getting to a goal. He's just focused on being, so every emotion feels totally real. He works calmly, and then magic happens, and if you are fast enough, you steal it."

Cortes cast Irish actor Cillian Murphy as Tom Buckley, Matheson's protege, because he saw a dichotomy in the actor that embodied Buckley's journey. "At the beginning, Tom is like an innocent Boy Scout," the director explains. "He lives comfortably in the shadow of Matheson, but then he has to inherit the film and his character becomes darker and more disturbing. We enter much more subjective and abstract territories. Cillian has a very intuitive approach to performance and had both sides that the character needed."

At Buckley's side for the second half of his journey is Sally Owen, his prize student, played by rising star Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen has made her mark in Hollywood with remarkable speed, starring in three critically acclaimed films in 2011 (Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, Silent House, and Peace, Love and Misunderstanding). But those films had not yet been released when Cortes cast her.

"I didn't know anything about her or her work," says the director. "I auditioned many actresses and she was just the best. Even though I wrote the lines, it seemed like she was inventing them as she went along. You cannot catch Elizabeth lying; she works from authentic emotions. She brought so much light to the character, which is needed as Tom's mood grows darker and darker."

Throughout ten and a half weeks of shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, Cortes maintained a breakneck schedule in order to achieve the complex visual montages that define the film. "Red Lights is stylized but sweaty," he remarks. "The film is full of visual and emotional contrasts that make the growing threat both terrifying and absolutely authentic."

The visual style deliberately underscores the idea of duality that drives the film, says Cortes. "It is about certainty and uncertainty. As you watch, the audience, like the characters in the film, will think they are standing on solid ground, and then suddenly the earth will open up under their feet. The characters are trapped in a complex and contradictory labyrinth in search of themselves as much as anything outside."

Cortes says his intent is to place the viewers in the characters' shoes so that they will call into question everything they see. "Filmmaking is in large part about managing point of view to make people feel and believe what you want them to," he explains. "Reality doesn't matter; real time doesn't matter. You can stretch time or compress it. It doesn't have to be real--it just has to feel real. You have to create a reality that works for the screen and the rules of real life don't apply."

For Cortes the trickery employed by the charlatans in the film is a perfect metaphor for filmmaking. "It's about stage magicians playing with the same tools as filmmakers," he says. "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 you can steal their wallet with your right."