Not too long ago, Martin Scorsese began working on a film version of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a graphic novel by Brian Selznick about a 12-year-old orphan named Hugo who lives inside the walls of a 1930s Paris train station. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) oils and maintains the station clocks while guarding a magnificent secret: a broken-down automaton and a notebook, left by his father (Jude Law), with incomplete instructions on how to bring it to life. An encounter with a bitter toy salesman and his goddaughter (Chloe Moretz) leads Hugo into the world of the real-life magician and grandfather of science-fiction filmmaking, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Scorsese talks about updating Melies’ celluoid fantasies a century later – in 3-D.
Q: Travis Bickle. Jake LaMotta. Hugo. What led you to make a children’s film?
A: The idea of a little boy living in the walls, sliding in and out of the innards of these clocks. It’s like people living in the ceiling of Grand Central Station, looking out through the painting of stars.
Q: So the main attraction was creating a fantasy aesthetic?
A: Well, “Hugo” is not really a fantasy film. It’s not a “Chronicles of Narnia” or a “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings” type of fantasy. I would define that kind of fantasy as having viscerality. You’re intended to perceive events having viscerality. You’re intended to perceive events or people as very, very real. A dragon appears outside a window, and you can imagine it coming into the room, with blue flames and beautiful green emeralds for eyes. With Hugo, the fantasy is very real, but it’s in your head and in your heart. It has to do with the mechanisms – whether it’s the clocks, the interiors, the locomotives, the trains, the automaton – with the inner workings of these objects. We experimented for days auditioning the right sounds for the automaton’s machinery and making all his workings transparent. He’s like a player piano. He has that magic. Is he alive? What is he thinking? That’s a fantasy.
Q: You shot a lot of the movie at Shepperton Studios outside London. In creating these sets, what aspects of the real Paris were you aiming for?
A: We built a train station, which is kind of an impression of Parisian train stations – the Gare du Nord, the Gare de Lyon, the old Gare Montparnasse, which no longer exists. We took that and aspects of French visual culture around the late ’20s, early ’30s, the Dadaists, the short films they made, Man Ray and Leger and Rene Clair’s comedies, “Under the Roofs of Paris” and “A Nous la Liberte” – and created a Paris that wasn’t really Paris. It was an American’s impression of Paris. As a joke, I kept asking, “How are we going to know it’s Paris?” Whatever the angle was, I’d say, “Put the Eiffel Tower in there!”
Q: Most of your films have been very funny, but adult funny, trenchant. Was it hard for you to just be more funny funny?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to explore it before. In “Goodfellas,” there are moments with physical humor that are quite funny. It’s dark humor, because if Joe Pesci is arguing with Henry Hill, and they just set fire to the place, and this fire is starting in the background, you know? But humor is going to depend on the context. If you tell me about a guy who goes in every week to rob a bank dressed as Gumby – that’s funny! The bottom line with “Hugo” is it’s a story about the boy and his relationship to his dead father. It’s more serious than funny.
Q: In the past, you’ve gone to great lengths to achieve a desired texture. In “Raging Bull,” someone held a hot bar of iron beneath the lens to make Jake LaMotta look particularly weary. In “The Age of Innocence,” when Archer first sees Ellen, you overcranked the camera and then dissolved each frame into the next to make things flutter and slow down. In what ways did you experiment on “Hugo”?
A: My instinct was if something wasn’t normally done with 3-D cameras, let’s see if we could do it. And that actually was almost every other shot. But the most enjoyable time was building an approximation of Georges Melies’ glass studio. We started replicating scenes from Melies’ films as best we could. We recreated the underwater set for “Kingdom of the Fairies.” With Melies’ films, especially the hand-colored ones, it’s like illuminated manuscripts come alive. We shot Melies shooting his films for five or six days. It was one of the best times I’ve had shooting a picture.
Q: What made you want to work with 3-D?
A: I’ve been a 3-D fan since I was 12, in 1953, and I saw every 3-D film at that time: “It Came From Outer Space,” “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” which is quite beautiful in 3-D. What I really responded to was the figures, the people in the frame. You have a lot of that in “Dial M for Murder.” In “Kiss Me Kate,” there’s a shot where Ann Miller moves toward the camera with a fan as she dances. You feel as if you’re onstage right next to her. It’s a different experience, completely. Different from theater, different from 2-D film. It just is.
Q: Did you feel a void during the 40 intervening years when there wasn’t any 3-D?
A: I did. I’m not kidding. David Cronenberg one time sent me a comic book in 3-D, because he knows.
Q: To see in 3-D, you had to wear those glasses that flip up and down.
A: There were a number of times where I got caught saying: “For God’s sakes, will they focus up? What is the problem with the focus?” And someone would have to remind me, “Marty, put your glasses on!”