With Hugo, Martin Scorsese delivers his first children
The first thing that you notice about Martin Scorsese as he scurries down the 2nd floor hallway of London’s Dorchester Hotel – last Monday morning, to be precise – is just how small this giant of modern cinema is.
He’s surrounded by three women, and although each of them look decidedly more Gary Larson than Helmut Newton material, they tower over him. I’ve met Scorsese three times before, but, each time, he was already sitting comfortably when I came into the room. Here, his height is a little more obvious. Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese is 5′ 4″. Maybe that’s why his films are so big?
His latest, Hugo, is one of the New York director’s most ambitious. An adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated novel The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the story is set in Paris’ Gare du Nord train station in the early 1930s, with little orphan boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) secretly living behind the walls, maintaining the clocks, and avoiding the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, channeling The Child Catcher and Inspector Closeau). Hugo is also desperate to finish repairing the automaton his father (Jude Law) rescued just before his death. Hugo believes this writing robot will have a message for him from his late father, and to find out what it is, he’s willing to steal the parts he needs. Mainly from the station’s toy store, run by a sad and angry old man (Ben Kingsley) and his wide-eyed young daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz).
A kids’ film? From the director of Taxi Driver. And Mean Streets. And Raging Bull, Casino and The Departed. Surely some mistake? The fact that Scorsese has a daughter, Francesca, who turned 12 on November 16th (the day before her father turned 69) may have something to do with this surprising turn of events. “Francesca certainly helped me understand how the world would look through a child’s eyes,” nods Scorsese. “It’s something I don’t think I could quite have grasped, this world, before now. I had quite a bit of growing up to do before I felt ready to take on such a notoriously difficult genre, and bring something different to it.
“Crooks, scoundrels and psychopaths, those I understood most of my life, but children took a little longer to figure out.”
Scorsese lets out a laugh. But he ain’t wrong. Currently enjoying a 97% approval rating on rottentomatoes.com (the leading American film review aggregator), Hugo is also Scorsese’s first film shot in 3D. For Scorsese’s regular producer Graham King (Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed), the extra 15% cost 3D would put onto Hugo’s $100m-plus budget was worth it, given, as he saw it, the hook of an old school filmmaker taking on the newest of technologies.
For the man himself, shooting in 3D proved to be “an enjoyable headache”. Scorsese is aware of the fact that most cinema-goers find 3D a far-from-enjoyable headache, right?
“There’s definitely still work to be done on that side of screen,” he smiles, “but the possibilities that open up on the other side of the screen are intoxicating. We wanted to make 3D actually part of the storytelling, not just some fancy gimmick to throw pies at the audience. And Hugo lent itself to 3D completely. You’re in Paris, in the 1930s, you’re scurrying through the bowels of this train station, you’re looking out over the city from behind these clock faces. It just felt right…”
And for one of the first times since 3D began its concerted second coming, with Hugo, the stereoscopic invention does actually work wonders. Ostensibly a family film, Hugo is just as much an exploration of the power of cinema and the lost legacy of seminal French filmmaker Georges Méliès, a pioneer of early cinema.
Having shot over 500 films – the most famous of which was 1902’s 16-minute short A Trip To The Moon (featuring that iconic rocket-in-the-moon’s-eye image) – the First World War put a stop to this magician-turned-filmmaker’s fantastical adventures. By 1913, Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy, and, in a rage, he burnt his many studio props whilst his film stock was melted down by the French Army to make women’s shoe heels.
By the time we meet Méliès in Hugo, he’s a broken and bitter man, quietly running his toy store, presumed killed in action. Scorsese’s film may start off as though Jean-Pierre Jeunet was rewriting Harry Potter, but Méliès’ story is the true beating heart of Scorsese’s film. That’s when proceedings take a distinctly Cinema Paradiso turn.
“It’s all about trying to capture the magical wonder of his work,” says Scorsese, “and making people feel it in their bones. This incredible imagination, coupled with his skills as a magician, meant Méliès just kept coming up with these fantastical films that were pretty much like capturing dreams on celluloid. Justin Bieber Gay
“And his films haven’t really dated. You watch A Trip To The Moon or The Impossible Voyage, or any of the other films that were rescued, and you can still feel the same tingle that French audiences must have felt over 100 years ago.”
A dedicated cinephile, it’s possible that Scorsese was first drawn to The Invention Of Hugo Cabret by its author, Brian Selznick being a first cousin, twice removed, from the legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, the man behind such classics as Gone With The Wind and Rebecca. “Well, it certainly didn’t hurt,” laughs Scorsese. “All art is connected, in one way or another, especially great art. I think the love for cinema, and especially its beginnings, are evident on every page of Brian’s book, and that’s something I related to instantly.
“The fact that young kids are reading The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, and tasting the thrill of cinema’s birth, of just how magical making films can be, that warms my heart. Hopefully, they’ll get the same kind of kick out of my film too…”
Growing up poor and sickly in Queens and later, New York’s Lower East Side, the young Marty got a big kick out of films. At home, he was told to keep his opinions to himself. “I wasn’t allowed to express my feelings about anybody or anything,” he said recently. “These emotions and these questions that were being asking in my head and in my heart, a lot of this was being addressed in the films I saw.”
One movie to have an impact on the young Scorsese was the 1947, Robert Mitchum-led film noir Out Of The Past. Little Marty and his cousin were being brought by his Aunt Mary to the Forest Hills Theatre in Queens to see Bambi, but, getting there early, they had to sit through Mitchum’s private eye battle his demons. Little Marty wanted Bambi. His Aunt Mary told him, “Shut up, this is good”. And she was right, the imagery staying with Scorsese all his life.
It was On The Waterfront that changed everything though, Scorsese shocked to recognize his own extended family up on the screen. “It was literally as if the camera was in my apartment or on the street corner with us,” he says.
So, are there are any movies today that move Scorsese as much as On The Waterfront? Or Duel In The Sun? The Searchers? The Red Shoes? Video Chat Gay
“I get a thrill every time I sit down to any movie, to be honest,” says Scorsese. “You have to give yourself over to each new film, and let it take you somewhere. Now, all the way through history you’ll find wonderful films, and films that didn’t quite work. And there will always be more of the latter than the former. But I’m still happy to give each film a chance, because greatness can happen anywhere, at any time, and it’s such a joy when you find it.”
Hmm, nicely diplomatic answer. Scorsese didn’t name, or shame, any recent movies. Let’s talk about dreams instead.
One recurring dream Scorsese has been having of late involves his being on a movie set, as the producers pressure him to get the cameras rolling. Only trouble is, he doesn’t know what the movie is, or who his actors are, or who that very famous director standing just over there, watching him, is. His fear is that this very famous director – most likely, he reckons, one of his idols, such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Michael Powell, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles or Satyajit Ray – is there to take over the project, should Scorsese prove incapable.
“It’s just humbling to know that I still feel inadequate,” laughs the director. “That I still have fears of being upstaged, of being fired. I don’t think that ever goes away.”
Not even as the box-office starts to match the legend? Recent outings such as The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010) have given Scorsese some of his best box-office results ever, lifting him out of the double-whammy slump of Kundun (1997) and Gangs Of New York (2002).
And Hugo looks set to continue the upward trend. Despite being on just 1,277 screens in the US – about one third as many screens as other current biggies such as The Muppets and Arthur Christmas – Hugo is healthily battling alongside them for the no.1 spot.
Whereas the other auteurs of America’s 1970s wave of movie brats have largely crashed and burned (when was the last time anyone got truly excited about a new Coppola film?), Scorsese has not only survived, but is now sitting pretty alongside Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the two geeks in the pack who went on to inherit the earth (or, at least, the cinema-going part of it).
These days, Martin Scorsese makes films that make money. Is he as surprised as everyone else?
“I am,” he smiles. “Very. I’ve always gone after the projects that interested me most, and although I’ve always hoped an audience would come with me, that hasn’t always been the case. There were times, in fact, when I wasn’t really sure if I could continue to make films at all, at least when it came to working in the studio system.
“Look, I’m very thankful for the fact that I get to make movies like Hugo, movies that really need a studio, or two, behind them. I know how the business works, and, on the whole, I love this business. Mainly because it lets me make the movies that I want to make.”
Still, there must be a part of Martin Scorsese that misses the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll days of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, of exploring the dark recesses of the soul and nightclubs alongside Robert DeNiro, Paul Schrader and Robbie Robertson? Bobby’s settled into a life of largely panto roles and business ventures, but the fire in the belly must still be there. Even if it is buried deep in cavier.
The last time Scorsese and DeNiro worked together, they were playing parodies of themselves as animated fish in DreamWork’s 2004 shrill grotesque Shark Tale.
“We probably would have played comedy at one point, but as animated fish?” says Scorsese by way of explanation. “I mean, this is just too much. But the absurdity of it is beautiful. Also, the fact that the both of us had young children at the time, that was a way in for the studio to convince us it would be a good idea.
“It made me a big hit with Francesca at the time, so, that made it all worthwhile.”
And Marty and Bobby stepping back from the edge – a survival technique, or just a part of getting old?
“I don’t know,” ponders Scorsese. “For me, each film is an experiment. I’m really trying to do different things each time, and as much as possible. Even if they don’t always work.
“All my films stand as a challenge to me, so, I just see it as growth. You can’t keep making the same film. Although, some people would argue that that’s all I do…”
Hugo is in Irish cinemas now
words – Paul Byrne