There are many interesting things to discuss about Paramount Pictures’ Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” but the one that stands well above and beyond anything else is the fact that it’s the latest movie from Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese. By our count, it’s his 33rd movie (including docs) in the over forty years since making his first feature film.
The story follows Hugo Cabret, a young boy played by Asa Butterfield (The Boy In the Striped Pajamas), who has been living in the clockworks of the Paris train station after the death of his father who left him a broken automaton that Hugo hopes to fix. When he’s caught stealing parts from a crotchety local shopkeeper (Sir Ben Kingsley), his daughter Isabelle (Chloë Moretz) agrees to help Hugo solve the mystery of the automaton, while they try to stay one step ahead of the station inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who would be more than happy to ship Hugo off to the orphanage.
It’s quite a departure for the director whose earlier films are often remembered for their expletive-filled rants and bloody violence, but it also gave him a chance to experiment with the latest 3D technology in a way that hasn’t really been used before to really pull audiences into this fantastical world pulled from out of Selznick’s book.
ComingSoon.net covered the New York junket for the movie over the weekend, but for whatever reason, Scorsese himself barely participated – possibly recovering from all the partying he did on his 69th birthday? Since we didn’t get an opportunity to speak with Scorsese at the junket, we decided the two next best things would be his producer Graham King, and screenwriter John Logan, who had the unenviable task of being the intermediary between Selznick’s vision of the story and Scorsese’s.
First up, we have Graham King, a big burly British producer who could easily fit in as one of the characters from London Boulevard, a British crime drama he produced as the directorial debut of William Monaghan, screenwriter of The Departed. That was King’s third go-round with Scorsese following the Oscar-nominated Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but it was the one which finally saw Scorsese receiving a much-deserved Oscar (as well as King his own). Hugo is their fourth collaboration, which began when King discovered Selznick’s book and sent a manuscript to Scorsese to read.
(SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t read the book, there’s an important plot turn that reveals the identity of one of the characters that you may or may not want to know before watching the film. It’s more than slightly hinted at in both interviews.)
ComingSoon.net: You’ve had a lot of success working with Martin Scorsese over the years. What made you think of him when you got this book? I mean, people wouldn’t normally connect him with this kind of material.
Graham King: We always talk about projects that we want to do, and whether it’s with Marty or not, I always talk to him about my projects because there’s no one better to talk to and get a bead on a story. It’s funny because when we were making “The Departed,” he was talking about making a movie that he can show his kids or at least a movie that was something different for him. This book came out of nowhere. This girl from in my office, Grace, she came and threw this manuscript on my desk and she said, “You should take a look at this. It’s pretty interesting.” We always get together and say, “Oh, well this one’s looking to do this or this one wants to do that.” She knew that I had in the back of my mind I wanted to find something for Marty. When I looked at it and saw the illustrations and saw what the story was, I was like, “Wow, it’s like someone purposely just threw this on me and said, ‘This is for Martin Scorsese.'” I immediately called him and called his wife and sent them a copy of it. A week or 10 days later they called me and they said they loved it. We talked about getting someone to write a script, and Marty and I had worked with John Logan on “The Aviator,” and we loved John. I said, “Well, let’s try it. Let’s send it to John.” He loved it too. These are people that they’re not looking to go to work; they’re not begging to go to work. If they just find the right material, they’ll do it. John took to it in a second and said, “I’m going to write this.” He knew the story he wanted to write, so it kind of came together like that. We were going to make the movie after “The Departed,” and one thing led to another and it wasn’t the right time. Marty went off and did “Shutter Island,” and I had about four or five filmmakers that came to me during that time saying, “Well, if Marty’s not doing it, we’re interested in ‘Hugo Cabret.'” I just couldn’t do it. It’s no disrespect to these filmmakers, but just, I really wanted Marty to do this movie. There were so many obvious reasons for me on why he should do this film.
CS: I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Artist” yet, but I’m guessing you have. It’s amazing that there’s such interest in silent films right now. Have you felt that a lot of filmmakers now are having that interest reawakened by something?
King: Right, I think it’s pure coincidence. (Laughs) We’d love to build on that story and say that there’s talk in town about those kind of movies, but I think that’s pure coincidence. There’s been other times where I’ve had a biopic come out, and there’s been another biopic very similar. I didn’t know “The Artist” was getting made until it was finished. It wasn’t really on my radar. This is the movie I’m most proud of than any other movie. No disrespect obviously to “The Departed.” It was fantastic for winning the Oscar, but this movie, I think was truly a masterpiece.
CS: It’s definitely something very special, and Marty’s exploring so much new territory in this that we haven’t seen besides being the PG, it’s also 3D. Who was the first person who suggested “This has to be done in 3D”?
King: He did. Yeah, I remember when I was driving in LA and the phone rang, and it was him and he says, “I want to shoot this film in 3D.” I said, “Sure, let’s do it. Let’s try it.” At the time, 3D was such a fad; everyone was doing the 3D movies, this was like three, four years ago.
CS: So this was before “Avatar” came out or just around then?
King: Oh yeah, it was before “Avatar” came out. He said, “But, I want to shoot it in 3D. I’m not doing a conversion.” Again, I was delighted by that and he was explaining the 3D movies that he was referencing. We really had no idea what we were getting into because it was brand new; it had never been done before. To me, one of the fantastic things is Martin Scorsese, where he’s at in his career, like you say, doing something different, working with the most modern technology about a movie that involves the history of film. So you go from one end of the scale to the other. There was something really magical about that, shooting it as well.
CS: You built the entire Paris train station at Shepperton Studios. When you read the book obviously there’s a lot of illustrations, but to really create this world but keep an eye on budget, how do you negotiate how you’re going to make this work?
King: Well, if I’m that naïve to think that Marty or Dante’s going to cheat on anything, then I shouldn’t be in this business. This is my fourth movie and third with Dante. He did the same to me on “Aviator” when he built the Coconut Grove and the Mann’s Chinese Theater up in Montreal. Then “Gangs of New York,” building miles of New York in Rome. That’s what he does. I know through Marty that that’s what I’m getting involved in, but there’s something very special about that for me. Let’s forget the fact that it’s so authentic and the look on the screen, you’re making a real movie. You’re not sitting in a room watching CGI computers. CGI shot after CGI shot after CGI shot. It’s a throwback to the way they used to make films and building the train station, the concourse, the tunnels, the graveyard with the real road and then there’s Georges Méliès’ apartment across the street. It transforms you back into that time, and you can’t help as a human to get carried away with that when you see all the extras in their costumes and everything else. What was such a contrast on this, like I said, is that there would be 200 extras in the train station, our actors as the characters all in their costume, then you’d look beyond that and you’d see a whole row of technicians at work on their computers for the 3D. It really was the weirdest contrast. Me watching Marty direct the young Georges Méliès in the greenhouse was unbelievable. Everything goes into that for me. It’s not just about the movie. It’s about the process and the experience you go through.
CS: What’s amazing about those scenes is that literally no one’s ever seen how those old silent movies were made, so to actually see that recreated was amazing.
King: One of the things I get the most enjoyment out of is educating an audience by entertaining them, by telling the story. I screened the movie for 50 kids last weekend in LA, movie-going kids, not industry kids. They felt such felt such an education lesson, but in a way that they didn’t even realize they were getting. That’s one of the best things I can do as a producer, is to bring that to the big screen. So, anyone that loves movies should love this movie because it’s such a tribute to film, and it really shows you in the most authentic way, how film began, how cinema began.
CS: I’d love to see 12 year olds coming out of some silly family animated comedy or another and turn to their parents and go, “Well, that’s no Georges Méliès.” That would be quite a coup.
King: Right, right, absolutely. We live in such a world today of comic book movies and R-rated comedies and movies that one doesn’t really have to think a lot when they go to the cinema. We’ve gone the opposite way with that, and I think if people give this movie a shot and really discover what the movie is, I think they’ll really enjoy it. It’s just a question of…
CS: Getting them out to see the movie.
CS: I want to ask about the release decision, because it’s opening on Thanksgiving against so many high-profile family movies but you’re doing a slower rollout as you would with a prestige film vying for awards. So how was that decided?
King: If I put myself in the realistic world, do I want to fight against “Muppets?” No, but seriously. Do I want to fight against “Happy Feet,” “Twilight?” It’s all these big branded movies. We’re not a branded movie. I think this movie needs to be discovered and talked about on word of mouth and I always felt this movie, the success of this movie is in the longevity of its playing in the theater, not the first weekend. So I’m not looking to beat the “Muppets.” People are going to go and see those movies. However, it was important to me to get Thanksgiving because that’s a time families stay together. If you’re looking for a movie that you can take your grandmother to and take your kids to, and really enjoy an emotional story told by one of the best storytellers that’s ever lived, you go and see “Hugo.” There’s enough moviegoers out there that will discover that.
CS: I’ve been discovering that kids know the book because it’s taught and read in school.
King: The books? Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, we don’t have a major movie star in it as far as Leo or Brad or someone. Sacha’s a fantastic name and Sir Ben Kingsley and we have a great ensemble cast, but I think the audience is very fickle in that they might look at it as a period piece and shy away or whatever. I think for the 3D alone, it’s an experience like they’ve never experienced. If anyone says, “I’m sick of 3D. I’m sick of putting on the glasses,” and whatever, I really urge them to go and check out “Hugo” because they won’t feel that way.
CS: I’ve gotta say, Marty getting his hands on these 3D cameras has made this one of the best 3D movies I’ve seen other than “Avatar.”
King: Those sweeping shots and that great Sacha 3D moment, when he comes into the camera. There’s so many layers to this film. It’s so hard to do an interview and talk about the film in such a short period of time. The automaton, the clocks, the Georges Méliès story, the kid finding a home; there’s just so many layers.
CS: It seems like one of those movies that will have a long shelf life and be discovered by people for many years.
CS: You’ve worked with two of the most respected visionary filmmakers between Marty and Tim Burton and they always have great teams making their movies, so as a producer, is it very hands-off in terms with dealing with them behind the scenes? How do you get involved creatively with filmmakers like them?
King: No, it really depends. Certainly on “Hugo,” we’re all kind of family. Bob Richardson, Danté, Sandy Powell, Rob Legato, we’ve worked together on all of Marty’s movies, so you become kind of a family and you have that chemistry with them. As a producer, certainly on a Scorsese film, your producing role is something that may be different on another movie with another director. Marty’s among the best collaborators there is with actors, producers, everybody. He’s really hands on and he’s got the experience of a lifetime, as I say, the role of producer doesn’t become what it might become with a younger filmmaker or a different filmmaker.
CS: I really liked Bill Monaghan’s first movie as a director, “London Boulevard,” and you’ve also produced Angelina Jolie’s new movie, which I haven’t seen yet. I’m interested in that contrast between working with experienced visionaries and first-time directors.
King: Well, as I say, every director is different. Some directors are producers; some directors just want to be behind the monitor directing a movie. Every movie is a different story. Sometimes if you’re working with a first-time director, then you want to take as much of that producerial role as possible to help. It’s all about being a team and being a family and helping each other out.
CS: You’re doing another movie with Tim Burton (“Dark Shadows”) so what’s going on with the movie “Silence” which Marty talked about doing as far back as “The Departed”? Is that what you’re planning on doing next?
King: No, we haven’t really spoken about it. With Marty it’s like, let’s get through this. His head is obviously in the movie. As you know, he didn’t long ago finish this film, so it’s like “Let’s get through this one and then he’ll talk about what’s next.” This is my fourth with him, and there’s no one better to work with.
Next up, we have screenwriter John Logan, who received his first Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, followed four years later by another nomination for his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. In between, he wrote The Last Samurai for Ed Zwick and Tom Cruise, adapted Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, co-wrote the screenplay for Gore Verbinski’s animated Rango and adapted Shakespeare’s Coriolanus into a modern-day vehicle for Ralph Fiennes’
ComingSoon.net: I just spoke to Graham and I know the story how he got the book and how Marty had been talking about doing something for kids. At what point did you come along? Had you already read the book?
John Logan: No, they sent it to me very early on, and I just fell in love with it. I just thought there’s something about Brian Selznick’s book that is brilliant and universal and I was very moved by it.
CS: You’ve done a number of adaptations, so what is normally your relationship with the authors?
Logan: I actually haven’t done a bunch. I did “Sweeney Todd’ and “Coriolanus.”
CS: And the author of “Coriolanus” is dead obviously, so no collaboration there.
Logan: Yeah, dead, dead, yeah. Brian and I are really close friends, but I probably didn’t want to meet him until I’d written a draft. I didn’t want to talk to him. I wanted to do this – bring what I do as a dramatist to the core material. Then I met him, we got along great. Adaptations are an interesting beast because the reason you’re doing them is because there’s something in the primary source that’s inspiring, that makes you want to do it. All I want to do is preserve that feeling I got when I read “Hugo,” the feeling I got when I watched “Sweeney Todd” for the first time, you want to preserve that feeling, but it has to be totally different because you’re presenting it in a completely different artform with different demands. Even the theater and cinema are totally different much less a novel and cinema. You just have to remember you almost have to be a dramatist first, not a fan of literature, not a fan of musicals. You just have to really do what you do as a dramatist and as a filmmaker to make those thousand and one little mostly subconscious changes to make it a movie.
CS: Do you think about budget when you’re writing something? Obviously “Coriolanus” and “Hugo” are going to have very different budgets
Logan: The opposite, yeah. I never think about it. I never, ever think about budget because I find it very limiting and I find it thinking about prose when you’re trying to be a poet and I try not to do that. Eventually you do. Eventually you get into production and you have to deal with all the eccentricities of filming, obviously.
CS: But you’re creating this amazing setting for story, much of it taken from the book, including the inner workings of the station clock that Hugo is going to run around in, which is why I wondered how far in advance you have to think about that? At what point do you have to say, “Someone’s going to have to pay to build all the stuff I’ve written?”
Logan: Very late in the process, actually, surprisingly late in the process because what you don’t want to do is put handcuffs on yourself and say, “Oh, this would be too difficult to film, so I don’t want to write it,” because I’m not a filmmaker. I’m not a director and I’m not a set designer and I’m not a special effects coordinator. What I am is a writer, so I can bring my gifts to it, and that has to be a completely free-flowing imagination. We’re doing it now on “Skyfall.” There are things that we
logistically can’t do, so we find other ways to do them, but those are the challenges of being a dramatist that makes it exciting because it’s still an ongoing act of creation. It’s not just sort of like you handing the DVD to your mom and saying, “Here’s my movie.” To me, it’s a thrilling part of the process and always has been because that’s why I’m not a novelist. That’s why I’m a dramatist. Whether it’s in the theater or in the movies, you’re engaging with the realities of production.
CS: I imagine you’re one of those writers who is on a project from beginning to end and you’re on set for most of it. What’s it like collaborating with Marty? When you turn in your first draft, what are some of the things he brings back to you?
Logan: It’s great. I mean, my two collaborations with him have been different because “The Aviator” was pretty much a finished script when he got it, and then it became about refining it and finding those elements of the script and the story that spoke to him as a filmmaker and bringing those out and working really closely with Leo on that. Whereas “Hugo,” we started from the exact same point of like, “We have a book and we want to make a movie, so what is it?” With him, it was a lot of discussion about what is the movie? What did it feel like? I would say, “Here’s what I think it’s about and here’s what moves me about it.” Then, in sort of traditional fashion, I would go and write a draft and then he would read it and we’d talk about it and I’d do another draft. It’s always great with Marty because one of the things that makes him a great director is he’s a great maestro. He orchestrates. He knows how to talk to the violin section. He also knows how to talk to the brass, and he knows how to talk to writers. He knows how to bring out their best work.
CS: I was a big fan of “The Aviator,” and I’m still kind of mad Marty didn’t win an Oscar for that movie, rather than “The Departed.” Both this and that were very much out of his comfort zone. I feel like he’s done a lot of crime movies and he’s good with horror and tension but this, like “The Aviator,” is something different. So, was this a very different experience from that?
Logan: It was. Yeah, they were different experiences because we’re different people, and he’s done things, I’ve done things. So coming together on “Hugo” was fantastic because we have this shared vocabulary having worked together, of knowing how we communicate, so there’s no dissonance. There’s no dating. We’re already married. We’ve already had the first date. In a way, “Hugo” was easier for that reason, but they’re such different worlds, and the world that you’re dealing with always informs who you are when you’re working on it. “Hugo” is an allogeneic story. I find it a very emotional story and the core of it to me is the emotion, whereas the core of “The Aviator” was something else. I think we were all more sensitive to that boy’s pain and damage working on “Hugo.” Marty, to me, there’s something very moving and significant in the fact that he was so drawn to this book because in a way the character of Hugo and the character of Mélies are versions of Marty. They’re people who movies and cinema have inspired them and helped them lead their lives and make those decisions.
CS: Is that something very much in your mind while writing it, since you were writing it for him to direct? Those parallels between the characters are very interesting.
Logan: I assume they were, but because when you talk to him and some of his tentacles are spread so widely around cinema and movie history and his resonance, you can see them tingle through him. You can see it’s sort of vital to the way his synapses jump and the way his DNA is formed is moviemaking. To deal with a book and a story that dealt with that world was very exciting. It’s the same way when “The Aviator”–both movies are about filmmakers in a way–and seeing his personal response to his specific artform was very exciting. It would be like me writing about a writer. There’s a special connection and a special protectiveness I think you have toward your own art.
CS: I haven’t read the book but I understand you created some new characters and developed some others to have larger stories, so how do you diverge from the book knowing that there will be people who love the books who may or may not like those changes?
Logan: I think you have to take a big gulp when you begin and say, “People are going to hate this because it’s not exactly the book, and then there are going to be people who are going to love it because it’s not exactly the book.” What we have to be true to is the demands of moviemaking. That suggests certain things. We always felt that “Hugo” needed more of an adversary, so we built up the character of the Station inspector to be an antagonist to our protagonist, so we always knew we wanted to do that. Populating the world in the station, most of those characters are by themselves in this creation that I was just able to tease out different elements of them to make them sort of more complete and yet cinematically. Marty and I talked about “Rear Window,” that what Scottie sees from those windows are little snaps of life, and that’s how we wanted Hugo to move through this world, in the snaps of life that evolve. So there’s a love story here. You see this station inspector softening when he meets Lisette, so there’s a whole world going on that’s sort of parallel stories, but all of them. Ben Kingsley said something amazing today that never occurred to me before with the subconscious things you do in your work, but all those characters are very damaged and they all get healed in the course of the movie, which is why to me, maybe that’s why it’s such a redemptive movie.
CS: One of your earlier successes was “Gladiator,” which at the time was a genre we rarely saw anymore. That movie’s success literally relaunched the historic war epic genre, which now has gotten to the point of being oversaturated with movies like “300” and “Immortals” and others. How do you feel about that?
Logan: I know. It’s funny actually. People always say, “Do you watch those movies?” I’m like, “Yeah, but I think we did it.” But look, any time you can do anything in the arts and it inspires other people, it’s exciting, because that so rarely happens.
CS: Are you still very involved with theater?
Logan: Yeah, all the time. The funny thing is I consider myself a playwright even more than a screenwriter. I think with “Any Given Sunday,” I just sort of fell into the deep end of movies, but yeah, I’m working a lot. I’m working on a new play that we’re going to go into rehearsals next year in London, with Michael Grandage. I’m working on a couple of musicals with composers. I’m starting a new play, as a matter of fact, so that’s what I’m going to be doing as I segue out of Bond into “Just Kids” with Patti Smith. I’m going to be working on a new play. So, I’m very theatrically active.
Hugo opens nationwide in 2D and 3D theaters on Wednesday, November 23, but if it’s not in your area, look for it to open elsewhere in December. Also look for our video interview with Sir Ben Kingsley in the next day or so.