What better way to spend the most magical time of year than by seeing a particularly magical and inspiring movie? No, this isn’t a review – that you can find right here – but there’s really no way to talk about Hugo without being swept right back up by that incredible adventure.
Based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo tells the tale of a young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who keeps the clocks running in a 1930s Paris train station by day and tries to finish his deceased father’s work by night, restoring an old automaton. In attempt to find the pieces to fix the elaborate machine, Hugo targets Georges Méliès’ (Sir Ben Kingsley) train station toy stand. And yes, that’s Georges Méliès as in the iconic filmmaker of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Méliès catches Hugo in the act and after finding some stolen goods and Hugo’s notebook of automaton instructions, rather than merely reprimand him, Méliès is so distressed by his findings he takes and threatens to burn Hugo’s notebook. However, with the help of Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), Hugo not only comes closer to fixing the automaton, but fixing Méliès, too.
In honor of Hugo’s November 23rd release, a large portion of the gang assembled for a press conference. Producer Graham King, screenwriter John Logan, the station inspector Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisette the flower shop owner Emily Mortimer, Moretz, Butterfield, Kingsley and novelist Brian Selznick all came out to talk about working with Scorsese, dabbling in film history while making a film and so much more. Check out some of the highlights in the transcription below.
Sacha, we’re used to seeing your very irreverent and subversive side, so what was this different direction like for you as an authority figure and as a sexually inhibited guy?
Sacha Baron Cohen: [Laughs] Was that for me or for me or for Asa? Who said I was sexually inhibited in this? I have a bath with a dog. What happened beneath the bubbles is our business. There’s a bit of romance between myself and Emily’s character, which is actually the first romantic plot I’ve had that’s not been with a black prostitute or a man. So it’s actually my first. We didn’t actually have a kissing scene, but there was a bit of romance in there. so that was a little bit different. And as for the rest, playing an authority figure, well, he’s a bumbling authority figure and he’s dark, but he does have some beauty and softness underneath him, so a bit like my other characters. You know, he’s a mix of things. Does that answer it? Not really. Do you want me to do more dirty? All right. I can talk more about the bath if you want.
Asa and Chloe, could you describe your characters and what you felt was the biggest challenge making this movie?
Asa Butterfield: Well, Hugo, he’s an orphan and because he’s had to grow up far faster than anyone else his age should have, I found it quite hard to relate to him because of all the hardships he’s gone through in his life. So I had to come up with a false past for him that was similar to mine and relate to him in that way. And, of course, the book that Brian wrote, helped me a lot when relating to him. The biggest challenge filming it, probably dealing with the crying scenes. They were probably the hardest bit there, draining mentally and physically.
Chloe Moretz: I play Isabelle and she’s actually a lot like Hugo in a way because she doesn’t have a mom or a dad, but she has her godfather and her godmother, which is a kind of special relationship between her and Ben and her and Helen [McCrory]. And I’d probably say the hardest part about Isabelle was trying to conquer the accent.
Do you have a voice coach?
Moretz: Yeah, my brother Trevor and I kind of created the voice and we worked together on the whole thing really.
There’s so much film history in Hugo; did Mr. Scorsese curate things he wanted you to watch to prepare for this film?
Baron Cohen: Well, he always does that with his cast, you know, when it’s set in a specific period, and I had a whole box set of Méliès’ films to watch. Hours of it, really, which was hugely useful for me not only to understand his language of cinema, but also how he multi-tasked to an extraordinary degree. When you’re watching the films, you see a great performer, but then, of course, when reading the footnotes, you realize that he wrote, choreographed, directed, edited, designed, starred in with his wife co-starring. I think he must have got about four hours sleep a night because he then having worked in his glass studio, he then went to the musical in Paris to saw people in half, and do all fun kinds of things like that. So, yeah, Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch.
Emily Mortimer: I watched a film – I think he give to everyone – Under the Rooftops of Paris. It was a really beautiful French film made in the 1930s at the time that the movie is set.
Mortimer: Exactly and that’s how he tends to direct. He doesn’t sort of tell you what to do and guide you through every step of the performance. He just shows you other people’s movies. He did that on Shutter Island as well. So it’s more like he just helps you to understand the world of the film by showing you other people’s films, which is his inspiration anyway. And that movie was just so beautiful. It was all about just sort of working class people in Paris in the 1930s and what was so striking was how real those faces were. There was something incredibly mysterious and subtle about the movie and magical, but also they just looked like real people. And, that for some reason, was very helpful. The whole thing of what he does with this movie and what he does when he’s sort of educating you through the process of being in one of his movies is by showing you that you only have to look to the movies that were made years and years ago to be able to find incredibly kind of radical unconventional stories and to be inspired. There’s so much there to be mined that we don’t know about and it’s really incredible. It’s such an education.
For the actors, Martin gave you guys a great story and he established a bit of the back story, but did you guys think more in detail about the back story and also even the future story? Did you guys talk about it or envision a sequel?
Baron Cohen: I mean, yes. Certainly when I approached the character of the station inspector, I wanted to know why was he so obsessed with chasing children and was he actually a classic villain or was there reason for his malice? I sat down with John and Marty and we started talking about perhaps he was World War I veteran and maybe he was injured. So we came up with the idea of the leg brace. Originally, it was a false leg, which the audience wouldn’t have realized until it was going to be the first chase, then I was going to turn a corner and then my leg was going to fly off and go into camera in 3D and that was going to be the first big 3D moment. [Laughs] Unfortunately, practically I was made aware that I would have had to kind of strap up my leg for four months in order to do that, so we kind of abandoned that and I started wearing a leg brace instead. But yes, we were trying to examine the roots of evil. This station inspector who is doing incredibly unpleasant things; why was he doing that? We kind of realized that maybe he himself was an orphan and was put away in a workhouse and that’s the only structure he knew and that’s what he’s trying to impose on these young children. So as for the future, is there a sequel? Is that what you’re asking? I’m sure there is. [Laughs]
Moretz: I didn’t exactly know we had a romance in the movie. [Laughs] I think it was more of a best friend type thing. We know we needed each other like a brother and sister, I think.
Can you discuss that relationship at all?
Moretz: Yeah, it was special. The relationship was interesting because they both needed each other for some reason. They both had something that they didn’t have is parents, and they both wanted to be loved and they needed love. I think Hugo needed someone to talk to, and someone to have close to him. And I needed someone to have an adventure with.
For Sir Ben and Sacha, can you confirm or deny reports that you stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling?
Sir Ben Kingsley I tended to stay in character because so many of many of my major scenes were with Asa and in order to feed that relationship because ‘action’ and ‘cut’ can be shockingly short, that space you have to establish a deep rapport with your fellow actors. Also, my shape was so defined as older George it was very difficult for me to snap back into Ben because, I mean, it just didn’t happen. I was stuck with George. I thought I should exploit that and allow Asa and Chloe as younger actors to discover George even when the cameras weren’t rolling. And sometimes for lines off, Marty encouraged me to be really ruthless with you, didn’t he? Because I have to push Asa away, I have to reject him really vigorously. Go away. And the more vigorous I am against Asa’s entering my life, the more heroic his entrance is. So, it really helps a lot to, in a sense, stay in character. It doesn’t always work. I don’t always do that, but particularly when I’m working with much, much younger actors I think it really feeds the process. I was pretty grumpy most of the time.
Baron Cohen: And as for me, I mean I saw Sir Ben do it, and he’s won an Oscar, so I thought I’ve got to stay in character.
Since you’re all in the business of dream making, did making this film, writing this, and everything that you had to do, everything you had to absorb, did it give you a different appreciation of filmmaking and what you do?
John Logan: Yeah, absolutely it did and, you know, both my movies with Marty, The Aviator and Hugo, dealt with moviemaking as part of the texture of the piece. In Brian Selznick’s amazing novel, he talks about movies as dreams, as ways to dream, as ways for all of us to dream. When I was a kid growing up, that’s what they were for me because I was very asthmatic, I couldn’t go out and play, I had a dark room and watching movies on TV allowed me to liberate every thought I’d ever had. And when I read Brian’s book for the first time, that’s really what struck me more than anything was it was touching the 8-year-old me. And so, for me it was always about how does that damaged child find the place that he belongs?
Brian Selznick: And I’m distantly related to David O’Selznick who produced Gone With the Wind and King Kong, so I grew up seeing my last name at the beginning and end of all those movies, which was always very exciting. And so I’ve always loved movies, but it wasn’t until I started working on Hugo that I discovered René Clair, and actually, Under the Roofs of Paris was one of the most important movies I watched making the book years earlier and there’s drawings that I did that are taken directly from film stills from Under the Roofs of Paris. Hugo’s father is one of the actors from Under the Roofs of Paris. That then led me to Jean Vigo, who then led me Francois Truffaut. For myself, I had this amazing education in theater in French film history and it was really incredible, and it definitely was one of my favorite parts of making the book was discovering this entire part of cinema. So when I got the call that Marty wanted to make this movie after the initial shock passed, which actually still hasn’t entirely passed, knowing that he would then, of course, have gotten all of the references that I made in the book to these movies. And then be able to use these references for the film themselves and bring God knows what else to it, the entire history of cinema to it, is amazing.
This is such a magical film. When you decided to embark on this journey of acting, do you feel that is a magical journey?
Kingsley I think the core value of its magic is its fearlessness in putting wounded characters on the screen. That’s a very brave move. It’s not very fashionable. It’s not sugar coated. A wounded man who is totally retired from his life, almost committed suicide of the spirit, orphan, orphan, a girl who lost her brother in the Battle of the Somme in 1914, dreadful way to lose a brother, and a chap who lost his leg. Wounded, wounded, wounded, wounded, wounded. And I think that’s an incredibly bold move to make in the present context. That’s where the magic comes from. As Sacha was saying, where’s the wound? Because if there’s no wound, the healer has no function and the healer is the youngest person on the screen who pulls all these threads together. But you won’t have an audience empathizing with you if nothing needs comforting. It won’t happen. So I think all of us, individually, paradoxically nourished that scar inside us in order to make the magic, in order to make him the greatest magician on the screen and make all the magic happen.
Mortimer: I was so very aware that there was something magical about the whole enterprise and so much so that I really wanted my son to be on this set. I made sure that he was and that stood there because I felt like somehow, I didn’t really know why, but in years to come he would be able to boast about having stood on that set because it felt so special. And part of it was that I knew the book already from my little boy who goes to a school in Brooklyn for which it’s practically required reading this book on the syllabus. Everybody is so obsessed by it and rightly so, and I knew how magical the book was, and then knowing that Martin Scorsese was the person that was going to be making that into a film, it was just such a perfect coincidence of everything. I was saying yesterday that there’s something about Scorsese using the latest 3D technology to push the boundaries of filmmaking in 2012 or 2011 or whatever; to make a film about the very first technology ever used to put magic on the screen over 100 years ago is just so perfect. And somehow you get a sense of every film that was made in between Méliès and Scorsese. While watching it or while experiencing it or while even standing on the set making it, it did feel special and like something that only happens once in a lifetime.
Baron Cohen It felt like it was the logical extension of filmmaking, that if Méliès was alive that he definitely would have been using 3D. That was the interesting thing because the whole debate in cinema at the moment, whether 3D is a gimmick or not, Scorsese really showed that it was a logical development of the filmmaking process and that was fascinating for us really.
Selznick In 1931, when Under the Roofs of Paris was made, sound was still thought of as gimmick for a lot of directors and René Clair didn’t want to use sound, so he used it in really weird, experimental ways to help move the narrative forward. So here we have Marty doing that with today’s technology.
How was it working with Marty?
Butterfield: Working with Marty was a completely new experience for me. Not only was it an amazing experience, it was an amazing education as well because he gave me lots of homework, as he called it, and old films both by George and other old filmmakers and things that inspired him to become a director. So it was amazing working in that way. And the things Marty does on set are just so different from other directors. For example, rather than saying do this and do that, he lets the actors come up with their own ideas to bring to the thing. And because me and Chloe are kids and we could come up with like a truthful representation of how a child would react in certain situations rather than say an adult’s thinking of how a child would act, so it was really helpful working with him. I learned loads.
Moretz: Not only did I grow as an actor on this film with Scorsese, I grew in my knowledge of film history, which I’ve always been a history buff. Of course, I walked on the set knowing a little bit about it thinking, ‘Oh, I can have a conversation with him,’ and then you get into the conversation and he’s like, ‘Oh! Dah-dah-dah-dah,’ and you’re like, “Okay, I’m not prepared for this.” [Laughs] But, yeah, it was a magical experience working with him, and a magical movie with all these awesome, amazing actors and I really wouldn’t give anything in the world to take it back.
Baron Cohen: I think that’s the key about Scorsese, that he’s totally collaborative, which I was surprised about because I expected him to be some incredible auteur, which he is an auteur, but part of his power and part of the reason why his films are that successful and that enduring is the fact that he’s ready to collaborate fully with all his actors. Any idea that I came up with, he was ready to listen to, and surprisingly – because I came up with some really absurd ideas – he was ready to try them out. One day, Asa hurt his hand. It got stepped on and he had take the day off. We had nothing to do the next day and I said, ‘Well, listen,’ I was looking at some old Chaplin that Scorsese had given me, some unseen Chaplin, and I thought maybe there’s a scene, something to do with the train. Maybe his leg gets caught in the train. I don’t know if it’s in the final cut or not. He said, ‘All right, let’s try it.’ I go, ‘You sure? It’s gonna involve hundreds of extras and a moving train.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So he was just totally ready at each point to try out any idea however ludicrous the suggestion was, which was worrying for the producer and the financiers of the movie, but for me, it was great. It was basically like doing improvisation or sketch comedy except you have 500 extras around and award winning designers and producers and actors, so it was a lot of fun for me.
Chloe, I heard during the audition for Hugo you fooled Martin Scorsese into thinking you were British.
Moretz When Marty flew Asa and I to New York to chemistry read for the role, we walked into this screening room, which was absolutely terrifying, but we walked into this screening room and I was fully British from meeting Marty to the end of the audition, then I went back to my American accent. The whole time he totally thought I was a British actress because he had never seen any of my other movies. He had never seen Kick Ass or anything like that. So by the time that I left, [in an American accent] “Okay, thanks, Marty. See you.” He was like, “Whoa!” He was like, “So you’re American?” I was like, “I am,” and he was like, “You fooled me, kid.” was like, “I did fool you.” But it worked. I guess I just tried to mimic Asa’s type accent, so that way we were on the same kind of playing field.
How many of these sets were actually built to scale and what are your most memorable moments interacting with them?
Graham King: I think all the sets other than the location – we did two weeks in Paris, which was the cinema and the film library – everything was the set. It was all built to scale. That’s what Dante [Ferretti] and Marty do. Dante is just a magician himself at creating this world. He creates that whole world which I think makes it so much easier for the actors to be in a world like that.
Selznick When I visited the set for the first time, I was taken to the entrance of the graveyard, walked through where posters were peeling off of the wall and vines were dying. I walked up through the entire graveyard, which is there, all these beautiful hand sculpted graves like from Père Lachaise were made by hand for this film. You walk through the entire graveyard, you come to the exit of the graveyard, you come to a full sized cobblestone street with buildings; the entire block of buildings was there, a fully stocked wine shop on one end where you probably could have gotten drunk and then on the other end was a building that had been bombed in World War I that was being held up by some timber. You walked inside the building, down an actual Parisian apartment building hallway, up a staircase, which I was told was designed after the staircase in The 400 Blows and then up into a full scale Méliès apartment. And I had the great thrill of being put into the last scene of the movie. I got a line. I’m sure you’re excited to meet me now because of that. But Sir Ben was incredibly generous with me. I suddenly found myself next to Sir Ben saying my line to Sir Ben and we spent a lot of the day filming the last tracking shot in the kitchen, waiting for the action and to do the three-minute tracking shot again. The camera never goes into the kitchen, but we would open the cabinet doors and it was fully stocked with food. We were talking about what we could cook and inside the wall where the cameras could certainly never see, were period light switches.
Kingsley: It’s a huge gift to us. It constantly fed us. Between takes I used to wander around the station, and the detail was extraordinary. You never left that world, did you? It was so embracing and so sustaining, a huge gift to the actors, all to scale, not a lot of CGI really, compared to what there might have been, very little.
Butterfield: A lot of the clocks were actually in the train station, so they sort of took them down and you had to go inside them. And some of them they just sort of blew up the insides so you could walk around. The hanging clock tower, which me and Chloe spent quite a lot of scenes in, there was this big spinning thing which a lot of the time I would stand up and it would smack me on the side of the head. [Laughs] The working clocks were incredible because they were real. You could actually wind them and they had weights on. It was just incredible. As Sir Ben said, it was a gift to the actors to work that way.