CARL ELLSWORTH Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
August 6, 2005
In the suspense-filled thriller Red-Eye, a seemingly random encounter on a plane sets the stage for a test of wills between two resourceful individuals. When the level-headed but haunted Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) meets the charismatic Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) on a red-eye flight, she doesn't suspect anything out of the ordinary. But soon after takeoff, Rippner reveals his insidious agenda: he wants Lisa to use her position as manager at an upscale hotel to change the room assignment of a political figure, thereby facilitating an assassination attempt that is scheduled to take place. If she does not cooperate, Rippner will have her father murdered. Armed with her wits, Lisa becomes a reluctant hero who must find a way to stop Rippner, and a tense game of cat and mouse ensues 30,000 feet in the sky.
Directed by veteran horror auteur Wes Craven, Red-Eye is a smart, tightly-cut thriller fueled by two amazing lead performances--a critical element for a film in which much of the story unfolds through the simple set-up of two people sitting next to each other, talking. Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls, The Notebook) delivers a wholly believable and embraceable character that is distinct from her previous roles, while Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, 28 Days Later) conveys a perfect mix of intrigue and danger as one of this year's most notable villains.
In this interview, screenwriter Carl Ellsworth talks about the story of Red-Eye.
MEDIA: What did you think of Rachel and Cillian in the lead roles?
CARL: I have been telling people that they brought so much to it...really elevated the movie to beyond what could ever be written on the page in terms of just the the overall humanity of the two. Rachel just brings a certain "grounded, everyday girl in an extraordinary circumstance" type of feel to it. You see her, and you just are rooting for her. So I just couldn't be happier. And Cillian, as well, has such a great thing...his charisma and his performance. He's this guy I think audiences are intrigued by.
Did you experience some horrible flight that compelled you to write this story?
[laughs] No. I did have a flight one time where I did overhear a conversation that was happening behind me, that I don't really remember the details of, but I remember, "Gosh, that's kind of weird." But really the idea came about after a good friend of mine gave me a very early script of the movie Phone Booth. And at the time, I was really surprised at how a movie like that affected me. I'm a child of Star Wars and Die Hard, and I'm just as much a fan as anyone else of the summer blockbuster. But that was such a breath of fresh air. And so after that, I was like, "That would be really cool to write something like that, or to maybe even take that to another level." Really, Red-Eye was largely experimental. In Phone Booth, you have a person trapped in a phone booth, and you have a sniper somewhere up in a building. But there's a lot of space between them where lots of things can happen to keep our interest. And so I really asked myself, "Can you literally shrink that down even more? Is it possible to have a movie where your villain is literally sitting next to your hero for a certain amount of time?" And the action, if you will, and the intrigue comes out of the dialogue. And that was the basic premise.
Cillian said Red-Eye was about people under pressure. Is that a fair description of the story?
Yes, most definitely. Also, one of the things that I really wanted to get across, in the case of Rachel McAdams' character...I really was taken with the idea of, "What if your main character is a person who has a 9-to-5 job, she goes to work every day, she does her job, there are certain skills she has at the things that go along with doing her job that any of us would think nothing of..." And I really wanted to explore the possibility of, "What if one of these seemingly mundane things that we do every single day in our jobs ends up having to serve a more sinister purpose?" So I thought that that would make it all that more relatable to people. Like make people think, "Oh my gosh, what do I do every day that could be construed or warped in another way?"
Was the plane segment of the story always set at night?
Absolutely. It was always set on a night flight. I've taken a few of them and I would always observe that on these red-eye flights, it's very, very dark. You have the spotty lighting here and there, and I think it just makes it spookier, because not a whole lot of people are talking. And it is possible to have something going on. And that's another thing I wanted to get across--a hostage situation, if you will, [that] is happening in a far corner of this airplane and nobody else knows about it. Because really, when we get on a plane, we're so focused on what we need to do and ourselves that we don't pay a whole lot of attention to anybody around us.
Did you ever consider setting the entire story on the plane?
There was a version of it where we spend a little more time on the plane. But I always knew from the get-go that this is a movie where the inevitable conclusion must take place off the plane. The hero must take action to cause the plane either to land, or, at the gate, to resolve everything we've set up in the first two-thirds. So it just really arose out of the circumstances that I had set up.
Was it important to you to keep the movie grounded in reality, as opposed to being very fantastical?
I really set out to keep it grounded in as much reality as possible. And of course, that was good in some respects and presented challenges in other respects...And I didn't want the Rachel McAdams character to become MacGyver [and] suddenly build something. And in that respect, I think that she does what she can in this movie.
What was your reaction to Wes Craven coming aboard as director?
I didn't consider myself a horror fan. I had only seen, I think, the Scream movies. But when I found out that he was interested, and interested in doing something different, I certainly felt that, "Yes, it makes total sense for Wes Craven to do this" because there are certainly suspenseful elements--at times, horrific elements. Not necessarily blood and guts, but I certainly think that Rachel McAdams' character would think that there is a horror happening to her on this. There couldn't be a better person.
In your story, Rippner forces Lisa's hand by threatening her father. Why did you choose to make a parent the target, rather than the general standard of a spouse or child?
Yeah, it's an interesting question. I think for a while I toyed with "the spouse" or "the boyfriend," and it just hit me. Maybe it was sort of resonating in my life at the time. I'm very close to my parents. And that seemed to get us away, I guess, from some of the things that we have seen before. It seemed like it would be a slightly fresher take on that than the boyfriend or the husband in jeopardy. And also, I thought that everybody has a dad or mom.
The story never reveals who Rippner is working for. Did you always want to keep that element ambiguous?
Well, I'm a big fan of the shadowy, dark, faceless figures. I think it just worked out well. It just became not important to go into who and why these guys are doing what they're doing. I think the focus should always be on our two main characters and what's going on with them, and to resolve the situation that needs to be resolved. And everything else...theoretically, there's other people to deal with that. But that being said, there's a fine line being walked today in movies where--I don't know, call it a political correctness or something--to name villains almost is this sort of unspoken taboo. This movie...I think we don't necessarily need to know who the villains are. But it is a kind of ongoing, escalating problem for screenwriters these days.
And why was Lisa's father's background equally ambiguous?
It just became a matter of time. We wanted to keep it kind of lean and mean, and so any type of backstory he had was only important as it pertained to Rachel McAdams. We just wanted to convey that he is this loving, caring father, somewhat overprotective, given what's happened to her in the past. And we chose to kind of leave it there.