In 'Hugo,' Scorsese Salutes A Movie Magician

Nov 18, 2011
Originally published on November 18, 2011 6:02 pm

In his 2007 children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, author Brian Selznick tells the story of an orphan named Hugo who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and spends his time winding the clocks.

Now, director Martin Scorsese is coming out with a film adaptation of that book. The film, Hugo, is Scorsese's first 3-D project, and while it marks a creative departure for the man behind The Departed, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, it still deals with familiar territory. That's because while tracking the story of the young Hugo, the book also tells the story of the early days of filmmaking and the genius of real-life French filmmaker Georges Melies, who is played in the film by Ben Kingsley.

Melies was a magician before he started making movies around 1900. Brian Selznick tells NPR's Melissa Block that his book was inspired in part by Melies' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, in which a rocket zooms toward a moon with a human face on it.

"All of a sudden, with a cut of the camera, the rocket goes right into the eye of the man on the moon," Selznick says. "He's got the rocket in his eye, and white goo is kind of coming down where the rocket hit the moon, and he's sticking his tongue out."

That kind of imagery also fascinated Scorsese, who tells Block about his memories of watching Melies' work.

"I was fascinated by the sleight-of-hand concept," Scorsese recalls. "[Melies] saw the potential in these moving images, and these images that came up on the screen ... absolutely took me to another planet."

Melies had a hand in every aspect of his films, Scorsese says, from painting the sets to the costumes to writing the stories to figuring out how to make his ideas work on film. One — perhaps apocryphal — anecdote has Melies discovering the potential of cinematic tricks while shooting the exterior of the Paris Opera. The camera jammed just as a bus was going by, so Melies stopped shooting to fix the problem, then started rolling again. The interruption made it look like the bus simply disappeared from the frame.

"And he said, 'Well, I think I can do that in a studio,' " Scorsese says. "He invented what we do now — blue screen, green screen — he invented all of that."

A Child's 'Sense Of Magic'

"If you ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around," Selznick's Melies tells a young Hugo. "This is where they're made."

Scorsese says Hugo is all about dreams, and as overworked as that idea may be in the movie business, it's particularly appropriate when it comes to a film based on a children's book.

"For children there's always a sense of magic," he says. "There's always a sense of something beyond the natural when you see the images move that way."

And he would know. Scorsese says he has fond memories of visiting friends who owned home movie projectors when he was a boy. "They projected some black-and-white cartoons. It was absolutely extraordinary to see that."

So making a film in 3-D was a natural next step, and one that allowed Scorsese to add depth to scenes of Hugo climbing on the train station's gigantic clock mechanisms.

"It sounds like a cliche, but the idea is that you're in the world with them," he says of his decision to film in 3-D. "When you start telling stories, you want sound, color, a big screen, so to speak, and depth. People have always wanted that, and so for me this was a great opportunity."

There was still a learning curve to using the new technology, but despite all that, Scorsese describes Hugo as one of the most rewarding experiences he's ever had making a film. It also may have helped that the characters in Hugo don't have a lot in common with the characters Scorsese usually works with, who "may not be the nicest people to be around."

"But you know, Taxi Driver in 3-D would have been interesting," he says. Just imagine a 3-D version of Robert De Niro asking a mirror, "You talkin' to me?"

"He'd be talkin' to ya," Scorsese says. "That would be amazing."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Fans of the children's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" are anticipating the release of the movie next week, titled "Hugo." It's directed by Martin Scorsese, his first film in 3D and quite a creative departure for the man behind "Taxi Driver, "Goodfellas," and "The Departed."

The story is set in 1931. Hugo is an orphan who lives in the walls of a Paris train station, winding the clocks. But it's also a story about the earliest days of filmmaking and the genius of the real-life French filmmaker George Melies, who's played in the film by Ben Kingsley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUGO")

BLOCK: Georges Melies was a magician before he started making movies at the turn of the century and he made hundreds of them.

BRIAN SELZNICK: With magicians and girls turning into butterflies, and animals appearing and disappearing, and the devil dancing around.

BLOCK: That's Brian Selznick, the author and illustrator of the book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." The story took off when Selznick first saw a George Melies movie from 1902, "A Trip to the Moon." We see a rocket zooming toward the moon, which has a human face.

SELZNICK: And then, all of a sudden, with a cut of the camera, the rocket goes right into the eye of the man on the moon. And he makes this face like...

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND EFFECTS)

SELZNICK: And he's got this rocket in his eye, and like goo is kind of - white goo is kind of coming down where the rocket hit the moon, and he's sticking his tongue out.

MARTIN SCORSESE: These images that came up on the screen were absolutely - took me to another planet.

BLOCK: That's Martin Scorsese, the director of the movie "Hugo," thinking back to his first movie memories as a kid in New York City's Little Italy.

SCORSESE: I don't know what planet it was, but I was out of where I'd been...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: ...the building I lived in and the street I lived on, you know? That's all I know. And I think there's something very special, it's hard to describe, about a physical and a psychological and emotional satisfaction of putting these pictures together and seeing these things move. And that's just a very primal satisfaction. I don't know what it is but that's what I saw and that's what I related to.

BLOCK: It's amazing to see the early, very early George Melies movies that you include - you have footage of them in your movie, in "Hugo."

SCORSESE: Yes.

BLOCK: And these are fantastical worlds that he created. Describe what he did, what some of those movies were.

SCORSESE: Well, he basically painted all the sets and the costumes and he wrote the stories himself. And all of this came from his idea of how to create illusions on film. The story goes - I'm not sure, it may be apocryphal. But the story goes that he discovered the idea of the tricks with cinema that one could do with the camera by, one day, shooting an exterior of the Paris Opera House.

And there was traffic in the frame, you know, in front of the Opera House. And there was a big bus that was going by or whatever - a truck. And the camera jammed and he had to stop shooting, of course. And then when he got the camera rolling again he continued shooting. So when he saw the rushes, it appeared that the bus or the truck disappeared.

BLOCK: Aha.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: So he figured out how it was done. And he said, Well, I think I can do that in the studio.

BLOCK: And an editor was born right there.

SCORSESE: Yeah, right - oh, he edited everything. Yeah. But then he invented what we do now with blue screen, green screen. He invented all of that.

BLOCK: Martin Scorsese, you in the movie - in "Hugo" - you recreate the glass studio that George Melies shot these incredible underwater scenes for a movie called "Kingdom of the Fairies."

SCORSESE: Right.

BLOCK: Mermaids and lobsters and I think Neptune with a trident. How did you do that? What was the fun of that for you in recreating that scene?

SCORSESE: Well, first there are many, many Melies films available. And so, I really - I had to figure out which scenes I was going to try to recreate and what sections of which films. You know? Meaning what - like a trapdoor, how does a trapdoor work? Do we do the man with the exploding head? We thought of doing that. That became too complicated. All of this sort of thing. But then I decided on this one sequence, and I, again, I must tell you it felt like being back in the 19th century.

BLOCK: Really.

SCORSESE: The actors who were playing the parts in the film - the mermaids and the lobstermen, the lobster guards - they played their part off camera, too. They did not speak to me. The ladies are posing a certain way, they stayed that way...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: ...but with a wonderful little smile usually, because they were serious. They were doing because the light was going to go. And by the way, the light was going. It's all natural light.

BLOCK: We hear, I think it's in that same scene in the glass studio. We hear the filmmaker, George Melies, in the movie, say to a young boy: If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around. This is where they're made.

SCORSESE: Yeah. Yeah. That's from Brian's book and it's very sweet. It's very sweet and yeah. You know, this idea of movies and dreams I think has been overworked to a certain extent. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: ...it does feel like when Hugo in the film tells Isabel his father described the film as like seeing your dreams in the middle of the day. Where your mind goes during the day, if you could translate that into any kind of artistic form or endeavor and it succeeds - to a certain extent - that's a wonderful thing.

But it's beyond dreams. It's not just dreams. But for children there's always a sense of magic. There's always a sense of something beyond the natural when you see those images move that way. I'll never forget it when projectors - there were a few people I knew who had home movies at the time. I remember going to somebody's house somewhere in Brooklyn and they had a projector. And they projected some black and white cartoons. It was absolutely extraordinary for a five-year-old or a six-year-old to see that.

BLOCK: I bet.

SCORSESE: 'Cause you could see the - you could see the projector and you could see the light. And you could see inside the projector and you could see where these little - I love it, even when you look at the film and you could see the images moving on the film itself. So that is like a dream. And then you could create that dream.

BLOCK: Now, this is the first movie that you've shot in 3D. And we see in these scenes where Hugo is climbing up in these gigantic...

SCORSESE: Oh, the clocks. Yeah.

BLOCK: ...clock mechanisms in the train station and he's just suspended in this incredible space. How did 3D open up filmmaking to you in a new way? What did it add?

SCORSESE: Well, I've always been excited by 3D. It's the impulse that we all have when you start telling stories, you want first - you want sound, color, a big screen - so to speak, and depth. People have always wanted that. And so, for me this was a great opportunity to try to make a film in 3D.

And the thing about it was that the 3D made me feel that we were in - it sounds like a cliché. But the idea is that you're in the world with them. But most of all, what I discovered was the close-ups or the medium shots of the kids, they were saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: Being around children a lot, I'm embracing and kissing them and, you know, hugging them and that sort of thing. And I wanted the audience to have that same feeling of kind of warmth and a closeness to them. But I have to tell that every time we set up a shot, it was like starting from Point 1 again about making movies. We were...

BLOCK: Oh, really?

SCORSESE: Yes...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: The learning curve was steep?

SCORSESE: Oh, everything was different, everything. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: ...working with that aspect and children who were wonderful actors, but you only had them four hours a day, and dogs and Sacha Baron Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: You know, at a point in time it took some time to get all of this working together.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Be careful what you wish for.

SCORSESE: Well, that's OK. That's part of the craziness of it. It was still one of the most rewarding experiences. Enjoyable, I should say, that I've ever had making a picture. And also, maybe obviously the kind of movies I made before; sometimes the themes and the characters you're dealing with may not be the nicest people to be around.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Choosing between Travis Bickle and Hugo, maybe?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: Yeah, maybe. Yeah. There's a bit of a difference. But so - but, you know, "Taxi Driver" in 3D would have been interesting, wouldn't it?

BLOCK: I guess...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCORSESE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: I don't know if I could handle it, frankly.

SCORSESE: Oh, yeah. Well, he'd be talking to you, you know? So that would be it. I mean that would be amazing. You see, you could take him out. You know, he's talking in front of that mirror, why not?

BLOCK: Martin Scorsese, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

SCORSESE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Director Martin Scorsese, his film "Hugo," adapted from Brian Selznick's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" opens next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.