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Behind the Scenes of HUGO

By Meghan Lee

MOVIEGUIDE® had a chance to attend the press conference in New York for Martin Scorsese’s new movie, HUGO, his first family film. Speaking at the press conference

were the two child stars, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz, adult actors Sir Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, and Sacha Baron Cohen, Producer Graham King, Screenwriter John Logan, and Brian Selznick, the author

of the book on which the movie’s based, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. The family-friendly story is about an orphaned, abandoned boy in 1930s Paris who discovers the forgotten work of an early French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, and how it changes his life and the life of those around him.


Q:  Asa and Chloe, can you describe your characters, and what you felt was the biggest challenge making this movie?

Asa Butterfield:  Well Hugo, he is an orphan. He has had to grow up a lot faster than he should have had to. So I found it really hard to relate to all the hardships he has gone through in his life.  So, I almost had to come up with a false past for him that was similar to mine. The biggest challenge filming it was probably doing all of the crying scenes. They are very draining both physically and emotionally.

Chloe Grace Moretz:  I play Isabelle, and she is actually a lot like Hugo, because she doesn’t have a mum or a dad, but she has her Godfather and Godmother. And, it’s a special relationship between her and Ben [Kingsley] and Helen [McCrory, who plays Ben’s wife in the movie]. The hardest part about Isabelle was trying to conquer the accent. That was probably the most challenging thing.

Q:  Did you have a voice coach?

Chloe:  Yeah, my brother Trevor and I worked on creating the voice. We worked together on the whole thing.

Q:  There is so much movie history in HUGO, and I was just curious as to how Mr. Scorsese, if he prepared the cast by having you all watch specific films?

Sacha Baron Cohen:  He always does that with his cast when his movie is set in a specific time period. I had a whole box set of films that helped me to a huge degree. Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch.

Emily Mortimer:  I watched a movie called UNDER THE ROOFTOPS OF PARIS. It was a really beautiful French film made in the 1930s, at the time in which the movie was set. That is how he directs. He doesn’t just tell you what to do. He helps you understand the world of the movie by showing you other people’s movies…which is his inspiration anyway. And, that is very helpful. You only have to look to movies that were made years and years ago to find radical unconventional stories, to be inspired. There is so much there that we don’t know about…such an education.

Q:  In what way, did you as actors create or envision the back-story or the continuing story for your characters?

Sacha:  When I approached the character, I wanted to know why he was so obsessed with chasing children. Was he a classic villain or was there a reason for his malice? And, I sat down with Marty, and we starting talking about how perhaps he was a war veteran, and maybe he was injured. So, we came up with the idea of a leg brace. Originally, it was a false leg. The audience wouldn’t have realized until the first chase scene. It was going to be the first big 3D moment; my leg was going to fly off into the camera. Unfortunately, practically, I would have had to strap up my leg for four months in order to do that. So, we kind of abandoned that. I started wearing a leg brace instead. But, we were trying to examine the roots of evil. You know, this station inspector who was doing incredibly unpleasant things. Why was he doing that? And, you kind of realize that maybe he was an orphan, and lived in a work house and that was the only structure he knew. And so, that is what he is trying to impose on these children.

Chloe:  I didn’t even know we had a romance in the movie. I think it was more of a friendship. Best friends. We needed each other like a brother and sister.

Q:  Can you discus that relationship at all (Chloe, Asa)?

Chloe:  Yeah. It was special. The relationship was interesting because they both need each other for some reason. They both didn’t have parents, they both wanted to be loved, needed to be loved. You know, I think Hugo needed someone to talk to and someone to have close to him. And, I needed someone to have an adventure with.

Q:  I have a question for Sir Ben Kingsley and Sacha. Can you confirm or deny reports that you stayed in character even when the cameras were off?

Sir Ben Kingsley:  I think I tended to stay in character because so many of my scenes were with Asa. I wanted to feed that relationship because action to cut can be shockingly short. It’s hard to establish a deep rapport with your fellow actors. Also, my shape was so defined as older Georges [Méliès] that I tended to be stuck with Georges, so I decided to exploit that and allow both Asa and Chloe, as younger actors, to discover Georges even when the cameras were off. Marty encouraged me to be really ruthless with Asa. I had to reject him very vigorously with “go away.” And, the more vigorously I was able to reject him from my life, the more heroic it is when he enters my life. It doesn’t always work to stay in character the whole time, but sometimes it is beneficial. With much, much younger actors, I believe it feeds the process. I was pretty grumpy most of the time. Ha.

Sacha:  I saw Sir Ben do it. And, he has won an Oscar, so I might as well do the same.

Q:  John [Logan, the writer], since you are all in the business of dream making. So making this movie, writing this give you a different appreciation for filmmaking?

John Logan:  Absolutely. Both my movies with Marty dealt with movie making. Brian’s amazing novel talks about seeing movies as living dreams. He addresses movies in as a significant way in which we dream; as a way for all of us to dream. As a kid growing up, that’s what they were for me. I was asthmatic and so I couldn’t go out and play. Watching movies on TV allowed me to liberate every thought I had. When I read Brian’s book for the first time that was what really struck me. He was writing to the 8-year-old me. And, for me that was the journey of finding out how a damaged child finds a place in which to belong.

Author Brian Selznick:  I am related to David O. Selznick and so I grew up with my last name placed at the end of GONE WITH THE WIND and KING KONG. It’s very exciting and so I have always loved movies. But, it wasn’t until working on HUGO that I discovered [French filmmaker] René Clair [A NOUS LA LIBERTE]. I myself began a journey of an education in French filmmaking. Discovering all of this was definitely one of my favorite parts of making this book. When I got the call that Marty wanted to make this movie – once I got over the shock, which actually still hasn’t passed – I realized that Marty not only got all of these references, but that he would incorporate this love of French filmmaking into the film itself, bringing an entire history to the table.

Q:  It’s a magical film. When you all began this process, did you as actors feel as though it was a magical journey?

Author Brian Selznick:  I think one of the core values of its magic is its fearlessness of putting wounded characters on the screen. I think that is a very brave move. It’s not very fashionable. Not sugar coated. A wounded man who is almost totally retired from his life, and has almost committed suicide of the soul, an orphaned girl who lost her brother in the war, and a chap who lost his leg. Wounded, wounded, wounded, wounded. And, I think that is an incredibly bold move to make in the present context. That is where the magic comes from. As Sacha was saying, where does the wound come from? I mean if there is no wound, the healer has no function. The healer, in this instance, is the youngest person on the screen [Asa’s character, Hugo], who pulls all these threads together. You won’t have an audience sympathizing with you if nothing needs comforting. It won’t happen. So, I think all of us individually, paradoxically nourished that scar inside of us in order to make Asa the biggest magician on the screen, and to make all of the magic happen.

Emily:  I was just going to say that I was so very aware that there was something magical about the whole enterprise. So much so, that I made an effort to have my son on the set. I made sure that he stood there. I don’t really know why, but I felt that in years to come that he would be able to boast about the fact that he had stood on that set. It was so magical. And part of it, was that I knew the book already from my little boy. I knew how magical the book was, and then knowing that Scorsese was the one making it into a film, it was just so perfect.  There is something about Scorsese using the latest 3D technology to push the boundaries of filmmaking in 2011 to make a movie about the very first technology that put magic on the screen over a hundred years ago. It’s just so perfect and somehow you get a sense of every movie that was made over the years. While watching it, experiencing it, and making it, it always felt special, like something that only happens once in a lifetime.

Sacha:  It felt like it was the logical extension of filmmaking. As though, if Méliès were alive, he definitely would have been using 3D. That was the interesting thing, because of the whole debate in cinema of late, as to whether 3D is a gimmick or not. Scorsese really showed that it is a logical development of the filmmaking process.

Brian:  And in 1931, when sound was being added to film, sound was considered a gimmick for a lot of directors. So, Rene Clair used it in a lot of experimental ways to help move the narrative forward. So, here we have Marty doing that with today’s technology.

Q:  We have a couple of Scorsese veterans on stage here now, but I wonder for the newcomers, (Chloe, Asa, and Sacha) what was it like to have this collaboration with Mr. Scorsese? I know he is very collaborative; and, so I was wondering what suggestions you might have thought of that were included in the movie.

Asa:  Working with Marty was a completely new experience for me. Not only was it an experience, but it was an education as well because he gave me homework, as he called it. I watched old films by Georges Méliès, and others that had inspired him to become a director. And the things Marty does on set, it is just so different than other directors. For example, rather than saying do this or do that, he lets the actors come up with their own ideas to bring to the table. Because Chloe and I are kids, we were allowed to come up with a truthful representation for how a child would react in certain situations, rather than having an adult think up how a child would react. So, it was a great process, and I learned loads.

Chloe:  Not only did I grow as an actor, but also I grew in my knowledge of movie history. I have always been a history buff. Of course, I walked on the set thinking, “Oh, I can have a conversation with him.” Then, I get into the conversation, and I was like, “Okay, I’m not prepared for this.” It was a magical experience working with him. It was a magical experience working with all of these amazing individuals, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything.

Sacha:  The thing about Scorsese is that he is totally collaborative. Which, I was really surprised about. I expected him to be an incredible director. However, the power of his films and why they are so successful and enduring is in the fact that he is ready to collaborate fully with all of his actors. In fact, with everyone. So, any idea that I came up with, he was ready to listen to. And, I came up with some pretty absurd ideas, but he was ready to try them out.

Q:  This question is for Chloe:  I had heard that during the audition you fooled Marty into thinking you were British. Can you tell us about that?


Chloe:  When Marty flew Asa and I to New York to read for the role, we walked into this screening room, which was absolutely terrifying. But, we walked into the screening room and I was fully British from meeting Marty all the way through the audition. Then, I went back to my American accent, and the whole time he totally thought I was a British actress. He hadn’t seen any of my other movies and so by the time I was like “Okay, thanks Marty, see ya,” he was like, “Whoa! You’re American?” He said I had fooled him. But, it worked. I guess I tried to mimic Asa’s type of accent so that we were on the same playing field. Simple.

Q:  Asa, how did it feel to be playing a character that was a fill in for the young Scorsese himself?

Asa:   Becoming Hugo was an amazing experience. Before the audition, I looked up what it was like during the 1930s in Paris. Then, when I saw the set for the movie, there was really nothing that would take you out of the character. It was huge and so detailed. There wasn’t a coke bottle or anything that would take you out of that world. That really helped me to become the character. The backbone of the film is old cinema and therefore, Hugo, as a character, loved old cinema and did represent a younger version of Scorsese himself. It was amazing working that way, and seeing the real version of him at the same time. It was incredible.

Q:  Brian, how did it feel to have your story become the vehicle for Scorsese’s self-expression?

Brian:  I made this book, thinking that it could not be filmed. Toward the end of the book, the object of the book actually becomes a part of the plot. Also, a lot of the narrative of my book is told with images – very like a movie. While it is inspired by a love of film, it is about the magic of turning the page. So I never thought it would turn into a movie. Again, when I got the call that Scorsese wanted to make it, I thought, “Wow, maybe this actually can be a movie.” The second we heard his name, we all realized that he is the only one who could make it. It was as if I had sat for two and a half years at my desk – at that point thinking that I was writing a book that no one would read because it was a book about French silent movies for children. That isn’t a guaranteed bestseller. But, it was as if I did all of that for Marty. All of these people (except for Emily’s character) were drawn in the book. I had drawn every one of them. When I got the cast list, I kept thinking, “Oh my God, they all look exactly like the people I drew.” The person I was most nervous about meeting was Asa. Sir Ben was playing a real person. Yet Asa, I had completely made him up. And, there he was.

Q:  For [Producer] Graham King, how did you find the book and develop it?

King:  Before I found the book, Marty and I talked about how great it would be to make a movie for young kids. When this book showed up, it was like magic. It was the perfect story for Marty. One thing led to another, and he went off and did SHUTTER ISLAND. I had five or six people come up to me wanting to make HUGO. But, I just couldn’t let them. It had to be Scorsese for this. After SHUTTER ISLAND, we just decided to go for it. And, here we are. Magic.

Q:  Asa, What character traits of Hugo are kids going to relate to?

Asa:  Certainly the adventurous side. It kind of depends on the child’s age. The younger kids will get the adventurous side, while older kids will get the deeper more emotional side.

Q:  For Sir Ben, how did you get into character? How did you prepare for your role?

Ben:  I was able to watch so many of Georges’ films. I was able to see him acting with his lovely wife and realized how acrobatic he was, how fit he was. In a sense, I worked in reverse. I began by focusing on how glorious his life was, and then I had to find a way to express the loss of that glory. My preparation focused on how his body had to let go of that ability to be a performer and a dancer. I mentioned to Marty the possibility of how many tiny injuries he sustained during his acting career doing stunts. When you stop all of that is when the injuries flare up. It was a wounded body. So for Asa to have someone to rescue from a dark corner, my starting point was Georges’ defeat.

Emily:  I remember thinking this is quite difficult because she is such a sweet character. Lisette is such a sweet bright little person, that I found her character kind of daunting. On the first day, Marty and I talked about how he was seeing me in such a different role. When I worked with him on SHUTTER ISLAND, I was playing a crazy murderer. And, now I am here playing a sweet flower girl. Marty and I then decided that in every murderer there is a flower girl, and in every flower girl there is a murderer somewhere. And, that is what Scorsese allows you to do. He gives you license to find the darks and the lights in every character. Through the darkness of the torment, she has been through, you can gain insight into the sweetness and vulnerability of her character.

Q:  How many of the sets where actually built to scale and what were your most memorable interactions with them?

Ben:  It was a huge gift to the actors. It constantly fed us. Between takes, I used to wander around the train station. You never left that world. It was so engrossing and so sustaining. All to scale, it was incredible.

Q:  And Asa, with the clocks and everything you were taking care of?

Asa:  A lot of the clocks were actually in the train station. The hanging clock tower was real and full to scale. There was this big spinning thing, when I would stand up would often smack me in the head. But, working on the clocks was incredible because you could actually wind them and work them. As Ben said, it was a gift to the actors to be able to work that way.

Q:  I think it is laudable to present something that is as complex as this story is for a family audience. But, I was wondering if someone could comment on the length as it is for children and has gone over the two-hour mark.

Sacha:  Well, I will say this. It seems to me that Marty makes movies for himself. He is an artist…a true artist. He makes the movie he wants to see. He is one of the last remaining artists out there, and I think we should respect that. He’s not focus grouped. HUGO is not tailored for a 7-year-old in Iowa, Berlin, or anywhere. It’s to be appreciated as a work of art, and I think that is a beautiful thing. It’s an incredible achievement for a filmmaker to still be able to do that.

Brian:  The book I wrote was 530 pages and a lot of people had the same comment about the book. Are kids going to be able to sit through the book? But, I think that the story that Marty has captured on the screen is something that will carry kids through.