The cast of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo gathered in New York City over the weekend to discuss the landmark film and working with the acclaimed director. We absolutely loved the movie, adapted from Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Set in 1930s Paris, the plot follows a young orphan (played by Asa Butterfield) who discovers much more than he expected when he teams with Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the goddaughter of an ill-tempered toy shop owner (Papa Georges, played by Ben Kingsley), to uncover the mystery of an automaton left to him after his father’s untimely death.
The film’s second act veers into an homage to early cinema, and the cast divulged that Scorsese assigned plenty of material to help them get into character. Kingsley noted, “He always does that with his cast … I had a whole box set of [cinema pioneer Georges] Méliès' films. Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch.” Emily Mortimer, who plays flower stand owner Lisette, said she was told to watch Under the Roofs of Paris, “A beautiful French film made in the 1930s.” “That’s how he tends to direct,” she continued. “He doesn’t 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.”
And the members of the cast who hadn’t yet worked with Scorsese sang his praises in equal measure.
“Not only was it an amazing experience, it was an amazing education as well," Butterfield said, "because he gave me lots of 'homework,' as he called it. Old films by Georges [Méliès] and other old filmmakers, and things that inspired him to become a director. And the things Marty does on set are just so different from other directors. Rather than saying ‘do this’ and ‘do that,’ he lets the actors come up with their own ideas to bring to the table. And because me and Chloe are kids, we could come up with a truthful representation of how a child would react in certain situations, rather than, say, an adult thinking how a child could react.”
Moretz laughed, recalling, “Not only did I grow as an actor on this film with Scorsese, I grew in my knowledge of film history. I’ve always been a history buff … of course I walked on set knowing a little bit about it thinking, ‘Oh, I can have a conversation with him,’ and then you get to the conversation, and you’re like, ‘Ohhhkay, I’m not prepared for this.’"
Sacha Baron Cohen, the film’s villainous train station inspector, was surprised by Scorsese’s collaborative nature.
“I expected him to be some incredible auteur, which he is,” he noted. “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. So 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 to take the day off. And …I was looking at some old Chaplin Scorsese had given me. I said, ‘Maybe, you know, his leg gets caught in the train.’ He said, ‘All right, let’s try it.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure? It’s going to involve hundreds of extras and a moving train.’ [Baron Cohen mimics Scorsese shrugging, and impersonates his voice] ‘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 like improvisational 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!”
Kingsley also confirmed rumors that he stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “My shape was so defined as older Georges that it was very difficult for me to snap back into Ben … I was stuck with Georges,” Kingsley recalled. “So I thought I should exploit that and develop that and allow Asa and Chloe to – as younger actors – discover Georges even when the cameras weren’t rolling, and sometimes for lines off Marty encouraged me to be really ruthless … because I had to push Asa away, I had to reject him really vigorously. It doesn’t always work – I don’t always do that, but – particularly when I’m working with much younger actors – I think it really feeds the process. I was pretty grumpy most of the time.”
Baron Cohen chimed in, “I saw Sir Ben do it and he’s won an Oscar, so …”
Moretz also confronted a rumor: that her English accent was so spot-on, she tricked Scorsese into thinking she was British. “Yeah, when Marty flew Asa and I to New York to chemistry-read for the role, we walked into this screening room,” she recalled. “I was fully British from meeting Marty to the end of the audition … then I went back to my American accent. And the whole time he totally thought I was a British actress, because he had never seen any of my other movies. So by the time I was like [in American accent], ‘OK, thanks Marty, see ya!’ He was like, ‘Woah! You’re American?’ I was like, ‘I am.’ He was like ‘You fooled me, kid!’”
Author Selznick recalled the wonder of seeing his characters come to life through Scorsese’s casting, saying, “All of these people, except for Emily’s character, are drawn in the book. Emily was from John’s [John Logan, who adapted the screenplay] mind, and opens up Sacha’s character in this really beautiful way. But everyone else, I drew – and when I got the cast list and I saw who was being cast, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, they all look exactly like the people who I drew!’”
Producer, and longtime Scorsese collaborator, Graham King admitted that Selznick’s material seemed tailor-made for the director, saying, “We were actually going to make it after Departed, and one thing led to another and he went off and did Shutter Island and I had about five or six really great filmmakers come to me saying they wanted to make Hugo. But I just couldn’t take my mind out of – it had to be Scorsese for this.”
Hugo’s aesthetic is especially impressive – all of the locations (with the exception of one shoot in Paris), were sets, and their intricate design awed and aided the crew.
“When I visited the set for the first time, I walked through the entire graveyard … there are all these beautiful hand-sculpted graves," Selznick recalled. "At 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’ve gotten drunk, and then on the other end was a building that’d been bombed in World War I that was being held up by some timber. You walk 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.”
During Selznick's cameo in the film, he and Kingsley stood in the kitchen waiting to shoot, and were taken aback by the fact that all the cabinets were fully stocked, and the walls had period electrical outlets built into them. “It was a huge gift to us,” Kingsley said. “It constantly fed us. In between takes, I used to wander around the station, and the detail was extraordinary. You never left that world. It was so embracing and so sustaining – a huge gift to the actors. All to scale, not a lot of CGI, really, I mean, compared to what there might have been.”
Mortimer admitted that the magic of the film resonated from the very beginning, and she thought it was important to give her young son the experience of being on set. “I felt like … in years to come, he would be able to boast about having stood on that set, because it felt so special,” she explained.
Asked whether the film’s length and complicated narrative might lose some younger viewers, Baron Cohen eloquently cut to the heart of the matter, saying, “I’ve only worked with Scorsese once. It seems to me that Marty makes films for himself. He is an artist – a true artist. And he makes the movie that he wants to see. My first line in the movie had the word ‘malfeasance’ in it, which I barely understood, and I said, ‘Aren’t you worried that some of the children won’t understand this, let alone the grown-ups?’ And he said, ‘No. It’s the right word to use there.’ He’s one of the last remaining artists out there, and I think we should respect that. The movie is not focus-grouped and it’s not tailored for a 7-year-old in Iowa or Berlin or anywhere to appreciate. Marty’s made a work of art.”
Hugo opens nationwide today.