The scene in the darkened seance room at the Magic Castle clubhouse for magicians quickly takes a drastic turn for the weird. Mysterious organ music hits a frenzied crescendo over the sounds of disembodied voices as a large black table rises off the ground. In the Victorian-decorated chamber, it seems to float in the air.
Fortunately, skeptical minds such as Red Lights director Rodrigo Cortés and star Cillian Murphy are present at the seance. They are pretty sure the table-lift was not the spirit of long-departed escape artist and fake-spiritualist debunker Harry Houdini.
"I waited until the table floated up, and I pulled back the tablecloth," Cortés admits with a smile afterward. "There was a light flash, and I saw it. There was a central cylinder pushing up the table."
"Wow," Murphy says. "You should be in Ghostbusters, man. Good deduction."
Turns out Cortés, 39, and Murphy, 36, do plenty of ghostbusting in Red Lights, the paranormal thriller that begins to roll out in theaters Friday.
Cortés studied the world of paranormal phenomena for a year and a half, from seances to psychics, when writing the screenplay about a skeptical psychologist (Sigourney Weaver) and her physicist assistant (Murphy), who debunk the paranormal world before investigating a renowned psychic (Robert De Niro).
The Spanish director found that the basic premise remains the same across the magical world.
"At the end of the day, it's a way of thinking," Cortés says. "You understand that most of the things you are seeing is diversion. So you start to separate the theater from the real thing."
Cortés did insist on strong theater from his leading men, which is why De Niro incorporated an extra burst of energy into his role as a charismatic, blind psychic, which is "part showman, part television evangelist and part politician."
"You need someone who is instantly magnetic so that the audience begins to understand that he really might have something," Cortés says. "With De Niro, you just feel that instantly."
Murphy says he had no experience with the paranormal or magic before taking on the part. Nor does he have any interest in it.
"I'm pedantically rational," he says. "I have no interest in reading my horoscope or going to a psychic. But it's very appealing to me, the mystery of it and how people need to believe."
The Irish actor did his own research for the part, learning how to turn a coin over the length of his knuckles ("You can learn anything from YouTube; I got quite good at it," he says) and how to seemingly levitate tables with his toes.
"I can do very small tables," he says. "Anything bigger and I'd need hydraulics, too."
As for the not-so-mysterious moving table at the Magic Castle, the two are willing to chalk it up as entertainment, even if Murphy concedes to having to stifle a laugh during even the most intense moments of the seance.
"I have to be careful. I'm terrible at moments when I'm meant to be serious," he says.
But as far as Cortés is concerned, it's all about the spectacle.
"As a filmmaker, I never have disappointment," he says. "I admire what these guys do. It's all a show."