Red Lights is a film filled with divisive questions. After the film’s Sundance premiere, many were either wrapping their heads around the grounded supernatural thriller’s final moments or completely scoffing at it. Whether one’s reaction is good or bad towards the questions writer/director Rodrigo Cortés is posing, he still gets a reaction out of you, as shown by the film’s early reviews.
For most of its running time, Cortés is not afraid of playing with audience’s expectations and perceptions of the events as they play out on screen. Unlike his previous film, Buried, most of Red Lights can’t be taken literally. The difference between ambiguity and having no answers for your film’s questions can get blurred easily, but, as Cortés told us, he wrote and crafted the film with all of his own answers in mind.
Here’s what Rodrigo Cortés had to say about the story’s exploration of duality, his flawed protagonists, and how to question everything we see in Red Lights:
There’s a few questions left open by the end. Do you yourself have answers for them?
Yeah, yeah, I have all the answers. I know exactly what happens the whole time, and I wrote it that way, so naturally I know the answers for everything that’s happening: Who’s leading who? What’s happening to what? I didn’t want to include that consciously in the answers, because, to me, the questions are more important than the answers. There are many things answered in the film, but, in the best case scenario, at the end of the film, you think about it a couple of days later. Where we’ve opened [so far] I’ve gotten letters saying how the film resists to leave their heads, which is definitely my goal.
There’s always a fine line between ambiguity and the sense that a director doesn’t have an answer for a question and is completely making the audience do all the work. For you, how far did you think you could take the ambiguity before reaching that point?
In this case, all the film is based on ambiguity and duality. The first thing I decided to do is try to explore the perceptions of the brain, in the sense of how someone perceives reality. Things are not that easy, since you may be seeing something you may not have [actually] seen. That’s ambiguous. On the other hand, you also try to create complex, believable characters, with complex psychology. When you’re with real psychologists, they are ambiguous, because they have to do with contradiction. Like, you want to find out what you are, but, at the same time, you’re scared of finding out who you are. You want two things at the same time, since that’s the way we behave. Everything is based on that.
I wanted the audience, for the whole time, to doubt what they are seeing. For instance, you have the film divided into parts. In the first part you learn all this exists, but you feel kind of safe, in the sense you’re perfectly understanding what’s going on, since you have this strong, mother character who gives you solutions you don’t have. Then she’s not around, so you’re stuck and aren’t sure of what’s happening. You can only get that with ambiguity. Everything in the film — and no matter how spectacular it is — is physical, touchable. You can choose both explanations, even if your opinion changes a couple of times. Even when you decide that this phenomenon does or doesn’t exist, the other possibility is also possible. That’s why everything is ambiguous.
Would you label Tom Buckley an unreliable narrator?
Well, the point of view changes. At the beginning we see the film from his point of view, but it becomes much more abstract and subjective. In the second part we enter a much darker territory, which is, again, abstract. It’s not that you can’t trust his point of view, but that you’re seeing things through his point of view, which is the point of view of an obsessed man. At the beginning of the film, he is a scientist and criticizes the people he sort of becomes. He doesn’t think the world behaves the way he computes it should be, so he begins to act out in a violent way and try to force things. He’s not reliable, because we learn he is fighting himself.
Buckley’s similar to your previous protagonist, Paul Conroy, in that way: how you let him act frustrated and be a real jerk.
I want them to believable. I want the world I try to create through a movie to be believable. In the same way with Buried my goal was when everybody left the theater they’d be five pounds lighter, because it wasn’t a film to be seen but to be experienced. In the same way, that’s what I’m trying to create here: a believable, touchable, tangible world which has specific rules. In order to get that world, it’s not useful to create plain characters, but believable characters. They don’t have to be heroes or good guys, but they have to live with contradictions. You should empathize them, since you shouldn’t just be able to empathize with a hero. You shouldn’t have to defend your protagonist, but try to explain him and the reasons of his behavior.
You mentioned what kind of experience you wanted Buried to be, and since Sundance, it’s clear Red Lights has been a divisive one. Is that split reaction, especially with the ending, something you see as a positive or negative sign?
Well, in a film like this one, I’m making certain choices which I have to accept. If you decide to stay in the safe zone, you’re going to have a very different behavior. You take certain risks or make challenging choices, and then you have to be very honest with yourself. You always have to keep your center and stay calm. When you release a movie, it’s a moment that has a lot to do with distortion. For a couple of moments it’s a hamburger, and everybody wants to say something for it, especially if it’s something high-toned. In a lot of cases, films aren’t discovered until a couple of years later. If you discover a film later — whether on TV or later in the theater — the experience is so clean: you either like it or you don’t, but you have a very clear view of what you saw. It doesn’t have anything to do with expectations, what you thought it should have been, or what you thought it was going to be.
Buried seems to becoming one of those films, where more people are discovering it outside of the theatrical release.
Yeah, when you released it in the states, it didn’t have a big career. It went out at just as a hundred copies, but two years later, it’s gotten a big career with DVD. You never know how things happen or what’s going to happen. Now we remember there was a unanimous reaction on Buried, but looking at the IMDB ratings, there’s a difference in those scores. It’s a very subjective experience of what people see and where people remember things that didn’t happen. The good thing when you have creative control is that, if there’s something people don’t like about your film, at least it’s your own fault.
Red Lights opens in theaters on July 13th.