The Cast Of 'Hugo' Talk The Influence Of 'Under The Roofs Of Paris,' World War I & Working With Martin Scorsese

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by Oliver Lyttelton
November 24, 2011 9:49 AM
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As Graham King told us a few days back, casting a Martin Scorsese film is far from the hardest part of the process. With the director's legendary status now cemented by a long-overdue Best Director Oscar for "The Departed" a few years ago, top actors are delighted to line up, even if it's for a brief cameo, in a Scorsese-helmed project. The filmmaker's latest, "Hugo," is no exception. Its young leads, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz, are among the most widely-praised child actors of recent years, and the supporting cast ranges from Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley to comic whirlwind Sacha Baron Cohen, with Jude Law, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, Helen McCrory and Michael Stuhlbarg among the litany of other stars cropping up at some point.

The film hit theaters yesterday, and last weekend The Playlist was present at the New York press conference, where many of the cast were gathered together, along with writer John Logan, original novelist Brian Selznick and producer Graham King, to discuss the director's excellent 3D family adventure (read our review here). Read on for some key highlights from Logan, King, Selznick, Butterfield, Moretz, Baron Cohen, Kingsley and Mortimer.

When Moretz read for Scorsese, she convinced the director that she was British.
You and I know from the likes of "(500) Days of Summer," "Kick-Ass" and "Let Me In" that fourteen-year-old star Chloe Moretz is as American as apple pie (she's a Georgia native, as it happens). But those films had clearly passed Scorsese by, and Moretz told of how she managed to fool the great director during her screen test. "When Marty flew Asa and I to New York to chemistry read for the role we walked into this screening room, which was absolutely terrifying," she said. "But we walked into this screening room, and I was fully British from like meeting Marty to the end of the audition to where I went back to my American accent.  The whole time he totally thought that I was a British actress because he had never seen any of my other movies. He had never seen 'Kick-Ass' or anything like that. So by the time that I left, [in her natural accent] 'Okay, thanks, Marty. See you.' He was like, 'Whoa. So you’re American? You fooled me, kid.' I was like, 'I did fool you. But it worked. It worked.' I guess I just tried to mimic Asa’s type accent. So that way we were on the same kind of playing field."

The film might be family fare, but many of the characters in it are haunted by the specter of the First World War.
While "Hugo" might skew younger than anything that Scorsese's ever made, but that's not to say that its without its darkness. Set in the Paris of the early 1930s, the shadow of World War One, nearly twenty years earlier, hangs heavy, even over some of the lighter characters. Emily Mortimer, who plays flower girl Lisette, found her way into the role through her pain. "Lisette is such a sweet, bright little person that at first it was sort of daunting," the actress said. "But I think...that moment where she talks about her brother having been killed in the First World War was a real clue. It comes as sort of a surprise, but it’s suddenly so revealing about the backdrop to the whole film, which is that everybody has gone through this war. And either indirectly or directly been sort of devastated by it, and they’re all coping in their various ways. And the way that my character is coping with the devastation and the awesome grief is by sort of running home a little faster and being very neat and orderly about it."

The backstory doesn't necessarily have to be on-screen either; Baron Cohen, who plays the comic antagonist of the station inspector, reveals that he and Scorsese helped to give the character texture with the help of the war. "I wanted to know why was he so obsessed with chasing children? Was he just, you know, a villain or was there reason for his malice?  And, I sat down with John and Martin and we started talking about perhaps he was a World War I veteran, and maybe he was injured.  So we came up with the idea of the leg brace.  Originally, it was a false leg, which the audience wouldn’t have realized until it was going to be the first chase.  Then I was going to turn a corner and then my leg was going to fly off and go into camera in 3D. And that was going to be the first big 3D moment. Unfortunately, practically I was made aware that I would have had to kind of strap up my leg for four months in order to do that. So we kind of abandoned that, and I started wearing a leg brace instead."

As Sir Ben Kingsley says, it's the pain the character have suffered -- loss of a father, a brother -- that unites them; heady stuff for a kid's movie. "I think the core value of [the film's] magic is its fearlessness in putting wounded characters on the screen. That’s a very brave move. It’s not very fashionable. It’s not sugar coated. A wounded man who is totally retired from his life. He almost committed suicide of the spirit, an orphan, a girl who lost her brother in the Battle of the Somme in 1914, a dreadful way to lose a brother, and a chap who lost his leg. Wounded, wounded, wounded, wounded, wounded. And I think that’s an incredibly bold move to make in the present context. That’s where the magic comes from. Because if there is no wound, the healer has no function and the healer is the youngest person on the screen who pulls all these threads together. But you won’t have an audience empathizing with you if nothing needs comforting. It won’t happen. So I think all of this individually paradoxically nourished that scar inside us in order to make the magic happen."

Ever the method-man, Kingsley stayed in character throughout the film, to help embellish his complex relationship with Asa Butterfield's title character.

Working with Scorsese for the second time in a row, after his wonderfully, deliberately hammy psychiatrist in "Shutter Island," Sir Ben Kingsley returns for a very different part, but one that's seen him get the lion's share of the praise in reviews to date. Working with younger actors didn't mean that the actor softened his fearless approach, however.

"I tended to stay in character because so many of many of my major scenes were with Asa," Sir Ben said. "And in order to feed that relationship because action and cut can be shockingly short, that space you have to establish a deep rapport with your fellow actors. Also, my shape was so defined as older George. I just stayed [in character] because I was stuck with George. So I thought I should exploit that, and allow Asa and Chloe as younger actors discover George even when the cameras weren’t rolling. And sometimes, Marty encouraged me to be really ruthless with you, didn’t he? Because I have to push Asa away. I have to reject him really vigorously. Go away. And the more vigorous I am against Asa’s entering my life, the more heroic his entrance is. So, it really helps a lot to in a sense stay in character. It doesn’t always work. I don’t always do that, but particularly when I’m working with much, much younger actors I think it really feeds the process. I was pretty grumpy most of the time."

René Clair's 1930 musical-comedy "Under the Roofs of Paris" was perhaps the biggest influence on the film.
It's become a cliche to say it, but "Hugo" is very much Scorsese's love-letter to early cinema, and there's a ton of cinematic references, as ever, throughout. But perhaps foremost among them is René Clair's 1930 musical "Under The Roofs of Paris," which wasn't just a touchstone for the film, but also for Brian Selznick's source novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Selznick said "It wasn't until I started working on Hugo that I discovered René Clair, and actually 'Under The Roofs Of Paris' was one of the most important movies I watched making the book years earlier. [Some of] the drawing that I did were taken directly from film stills from 'Under the Roofs of Paris.' " Hugo’s father (the character played in the adaptation by Jude Law) is one of the actors from "Under the Roofs of Paris."

And the film proved helpful for the actors as well. Emily Mortimer says that the film proved an insight into her character, as well as forming part of the filmic education that comes with being a member of a Scorsese ensemble. "That movie was just so beautiful. It was all about sort of working class people in Paris in the 1930s.  And what was so striking was how real those faces were, and how there was something incredibly mysterious and subtle about the movie, but magical. But also they just looked like real people.  And, that for some reason was very helpful. And the whole thing of what he does with this movie, and what he does when he’s sort of educating you through the process of being in one of his movies is by showing you that you only have to look to the movies that were made years and years ago to be able to find incredibly kind of radical unconventional stories and to be inspired. There’s so much there to be mined that we don’t know about, and it’s really incredible. It’s such an education"

For all the 3D wizardry, the film's greatest special effect might be Dante Ferretti's gargantuan practical sets.

Green screen might be able to give the illusion of actors being anywhere, but there's nothing like the real thing, and it's fitting for a film so steeped in movie lore that "Hugo" features some of the biggest sets ever created for a motion picture. As producer Graham King says, "We did two weeks in Paris, which was the cinema and the film library. Everything else was a set. It was all built to scale. That's what Dante [Ferretti, the production designer] and Marty do. Dante is just a magician himself at creating this world. I actually went to the studios and he had a couple of walls up. And I went two weeks later and there was the concourse of the train station. He just puts it up. He creates that whole world exactly and he makes it so it’s so much easier for the actors to be in a world like that."

As Brian Selznick said, Ferretti had essentially recreated whole chunks of 1930's Paris. "When I visited the set for the first time, I was taken to the entrance of the graveyard, walked through where posters were peeling off of the wall and vines were dying up it. I walked through the entire graveyard, which is where that all these beautiful hand sculpted graves were made by hand for this film. You walk through the entire graveyard. You come to the exit of the graveyard. You come to a full sized cobblestone street with buildings; an entire block of buildings was there, a fully stocked wine shop on one end where you probably could have gotten drunk.  And then on the other end was a building that had been bombed in World War I that was being held up by some timber. You walked 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.'"

But such detail in the design doesn't just wow the audience, it also helps the actors to stay rooted in their roles. As Butterfield, who plays the title character says, "When I finally got the part, and I saw the set that Dante Ferretti designed, and it was incredible. It was very Parisian and it was huge. So looking around there was nothing that could take you out of the character. You couldn’t see a Coke bottle or litter or anything. It was completely spotless, and that was amazing doing that, and that would really help you to become the character."

"Hugo" is in cinemas now.

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