Hugo: Scorsese’s Love Letter to Cinema

“I wanted to make a movie that my youngest daughter Francesca, who’s 12, could see with her friends,” says legendary director Martin Scorsese about “Hugo,” his new children’s adventure. 

“Hugo” tells the astonishing story of a  bright and resourceful orphan (Asa Butterfield) whose quest to unlock a secret left to him by his father (played by Jude Law) transforms him and all those around him, revealing a safe and loving place he can call home.

Growing up in New York City’s ‘Little Italy’ in the 1940s and 1950s, the  young Scorsese was a sickly boy who established deep connection with the movies–not just the experience of viewing pictures, but also a closeness to his father, who sat with him in the darkened theater, fostering the future filmmaker’s nascent love of the art form. 

When Brian Selznick’s novel landed on Scorsese’s desk by the British mogul-producer Graham King (who had previously collaborated with Scorsese on three films), the filmmaker found the tale profoundly resonant. Scorsese recalls: “I was given the book about four years ago, and I sat down and read it straight through.  There was an immediate connection to the story of the boy, his loneliness, his association with the cinema, with the machinery of creativity.  The mechanical objects in the story, including cameras, projectors, and automatons, make it possible for Hugo to reconnect with his past, and with his true self.”

Scorsese says he shared the book with his youngest daughter (he has two older daughters from previous marriages), an experience which confirmed his belief that the story held a magical quality:  “In reading books to Francesca, my wife and I re-experienced the work.  It’s like rediscovering the work of art again, but through the eyes of a child.  In the case of ‘Hugo,’ it was the child’s vulnerability that was striking.  Hugo is an orphan living within the walls of a giant train station—on his own–and he’s trying to make that connection with his father, whom he has lost in a tragic accident.”

Author Selznick recalls seeing “A Trip to the Moon,” the mesmerizing 1902 film by pioneering Georges Méliès.  The rocket that flew into the eye of the man in the moon lodged itself firmly in his imagination.  He wanted to write a story about a kid who meets Méliès, but he didn’t know what the plot would be.  He went on to write and illustrated over 20 other books.  Then, in 2003, he picked up Gaby Wood’s book “Edison’s Eve,” a history of automatons, and one chapter was about Méliès.”

Méliès’ automatons (mechanical figures, powered by inner clockwork, which perform functions on their own) were donated to a museum once the filmmaker passed away—they were stored in the attic, pretty much forgotten, ruined by the rain, and eventually, thrown away. 

Published in 2007, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret (A Novel in Words and Pictures) won the Caldecott Medal (awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children to the artist of “the most distinguished American picture book for children”) and The New York Times’ Best Illustrated Book of 2007.  It became a number one New York Times Bestseller, and a Finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.          

Scorsese suggested hiring John Logan, who had also written “The Aviator,” to transform Selznick’s words and illustrations into a shapely screenplay.  As with most literary adaptations, changes were needed from page to screen.   The book had to become a more streamlined, shorter movie.  Says the director: “The drawings were extremely helpful, because they reminded Scorsese of movie storyboards.  They presented a road map for me to follow.  The saga opens with a description similar to Brian’s first drawings in the book.” 

All of Scorsese’s films bear a specific sensibility, a signature, and, though it is his first feature about a boy, “Hugo” is no different.  The beautiful imagery and fantastic performances are all there, but the main difference is that “Hugo” is not made for an adult audience—it is for all members of the family.

Scorsese elaborates: “As moviegoers, we don’t have the advantage of literature, in which you can become aware of Hugo’s inner thoughts and feelings.  But here, we have his extraordinary face and his actions, and we have 3D.  The story needed to be changed, so some elements were dropped from the book.  But certain images—particularly in 3D—cover a lot of territory in which the book resonates.”

Scorsese strove to honor the author’s work: “Selznick and his book were always an inspiration.  We had copies of the book with us all the time on the set.  But our film has its own look and feel, very different from the book, which is in black and white.  We went for a blend of realism and a heightened, imagined world.” 

When it came time to casting the tale’s rich roles, Scorsese decided to go with British actors, “for the most part to be consistent, and I use the device that the English accent is from the world that they’re in. Even though it’s Paris 1931, it’s a heightened version of that time and place.”


Finding a boy to play Hugo, who’s around 12, was the biggest challenge, because he is the centerpiece of the film, appearing n a majority of the scenes.  With the vet casting director Ellen Lewis, hundreds of young actors were brought in.  Asa Butterfield auditioned for the part early on, as Scorsese remembers, “He read two scenes, and I was convinced immediately.  Before making the final decision, I looked at one of his films, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.’  Vera Farmiga was in the film with him, and I worked with Vera in ‘The Departed.’  She said Asa was very good, and she was right.”  

For the role of Isabelle—god-daughter to ‘Papa Georges Melies’ and ‘Mama Jeanne’—American actress Chloë Grace Moretz adopted a disguise.  Scorsese recalls her audition:  “I saw many young actresses from England.  Then Chloë came in, and she spoke with a British accent, and I thought she was from England as well.  At that stage, we started reading actors in pairs for Hugo and Isabelle, and Asa and Chloë looked right together, and they sounded right together.  They play off of each other well, while maintaining their very distinctive personalities.”

As for the story’s historical setting, Scorsese says: “We don’t put up a title card that says ‘1931, because what the children are, what they need, what they’re looking for, how they behave, is contemporary, quite universal, it’s not something of a time and place.  It’s something that is natural, and therefore it doesn’t matter what time this film takes place.  Our children simply behave like children.”

For the role of the visionary French director Georges Méliès, or‘Papa Georges,’ Scorsese cast Ben Kingsley:  “I’ve always wanted to work with Ben, and finally I got these two pictures, ‘Shutter Island’—we had a really good working relationship on that picture.  He’s an extraordinary actor, really one of the greatest, which I don’t even need to say, just look at his body of work, from ‘Gandhi’ to ‘Sexy Beast.’  His range, his versatility.  When we looked at the photos of the real Georges Méliès, there was no doubt in my mind that the look would be perfect for Ben.”

Scorsese was amazed at the performer’s exacting technique:  “Ben worked out a way of moving, with a sense of defeat, of loss, of failure. This, after the man had been so alive, making 500 films, three films a week, doing magic shows in the evening, and having to shoot during the daytime.  He created a whole new art form and suddenly, he loses all of his money, has to burn everything and winds up sitting behind the counter of a toy store in a very quiet part of the Gare Montparnasse.”

“I had a DVD set of Méliès films, and there’s an image of Méliès on the cover,” Scorsese says.  “One day on the set, two of the kids in the movie went by, both about 12-years-old.  One saw the DVD box and said, ‘Oh, there’s Ben Kingsley,’ I responded, ‘No, that’s really Méliès.’  ‘You mean he existed, he’s real?’  I said, ‘Oh, yes.’“

For the role of Monsieur Labisse, who runs a book shop in the train station, Scorsese finally had the opportunity to work with a truly legendary performer, Christopher Lee, who’s been a favorite of mine for 50 or 60 years.”  The 89-year-old Lee recalls traveling in France in 1931:  “I remember very well those shops, café’s and restaurants. So to me, in a way, it’s like stepping into my past.  My character is sort of a guardian angel, and I help open the world to these children through literature.” 

Lee was thrilled to finally be able to cross Martin Scorsese off of his list:  “Not to flatter Martin, but I said to him, ‘I have more credits probably than anyone in the industry alive today.  But I always felt that my career would not be absolutely complete unless I did a film with you, because I’ve worked with John Huston, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and many, many others, but never with you.’  Along comes this story, and obviously there is something for me!” 

The director elaborates, “The characters that John Logan placed in this little world of the train station, in our impression of Paris at that time, I call them the ‘vignettes;’ they inhabit this world.  They work there everyday.  All these characters were meant to weave in and out of the picture, with everybody trying to connect with each other, the way Hugo is trying to connect with his past.” Scorsese approached the vignettes with a light touch, and shot them almost like a silent film.  The characters quietly, almost wordlessly, move in and out of frame as they relate to each other.  Just watching them, scenarios arise, which add to the atmosphere and the feel of the train station.

“What’s amazing about Méliès,” offers Scorsese, “is that he explored and invented pretty much everything that we’re doing now.  It is in a direct line, all the way from the sci-fi and fantasy films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, up to the work of Harryhausen, Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron.  It’s all there.  Méliès did what we do now with computer, green screen and digital, only he did it in his camera at his studio.”   His ‘masterpiece,’ the 14-minute “Le voyage dans la lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”), was filmed in 1902. He went on to write, direct, act in, produce and design more than 500 films by 1914, with subjects ranging from ‘reality’ (re-creations of current events) to fantasy/sci-fi (from “Kingdom of the Fairies” to “The Impossible Voyage”), with playing times from one to 40 minutes in length. Méliès is often referred to as the ‘Father of Narrative Filmmaking,’ and many historians credit him with the birth of the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres.

Because of an unfortunate incident with Thomas Alva Edison (who acquired a print of Méliès’ 1896 “The House of Devil,” duplicated and exhibited it in the U.S. with great success, without giving any profits to Méliès), the filmmaker began to film two prints simultaneously, one for European and one for American exhibition.  Recently, a film historian combined both prints of “The Infernal Cake Walk” and found the resulting image to be a crude precursor to 3D cinema.   Advances in the art of cinema later left Méliès behind, and with the outbreak of World War I, he saw his appeal waning.  He eventually abandoned his studio, burned his costumes and sets, and sold the copies of his films to be melted down for chemical use.

Scorsese remarks, “When I first read the book, I didn’t realize that the older gentleman in the toy store was going to turn out to be Georges Méliès.  It’s a true story.  He was broke, and did wind up in a toy store at the Gare Montparnasse for 16 years.”

To re-create the world of Paris in the early 1930s, as filtered through Hugo, a fictional character, Scorsese aimed to create, as he put it, “a balance of realism and myth.”  He brought researcher Marianne Bower onboard, to lend authenticity, supported by photographs, documents and films of the period.  She narrowed her search to isolate the time period, from1925 to 1931.

As a course of study for the creative departments, members of Team Hugo watched about 180 of Méliès’ films, about 13 hours, along with films of René Clair and Carol Reed, avant-garde cinema from the 1920s and 1930s.  They watched films of the Lumière brothers, and silent films from the 1920s to study period tinting and toning.  Reference was not limited to ‘moving pictures,’ as they also studied still photography of Hungarian photographer Gyula K. Halász, who memorialized Paris between the Wars) for the period look of the Parisian streets and the appearance and behavior of the background actors. 

While there was some on-location shooting, the majority of filming was done at England’s Shepperton Studios, where the notable production designer Dante Ferretti supervised the construction of Hugo’s world, which included a life-size train station with all of its shops, Méliès’ entire apartment building, his glass studio building, a bombed-out structure next door, a fully stocked corner wine shop and an enormous graveyard marked by huge monuments and stone crypts.

The movie’s centerpiece, the station, was an amalgamation of design elements and structures lifted from multiple train stations of the period—some still in existence, which proved helpful; sadly, Gare Montparnasse was destroyed and rebuilt anew in 1969.  Scorsese observes, “Our station is a combination of several different train stations in Paris at that time.  Also, our Paris is really a heightened Paris, our impression of Paris at the time.”        

The interview takes place just days before Scorsese’s 69th birthday, on November 17.  The director is very much aware of the pressures of time and the limitations of aging. Asked how many movies he intends to direct, he says: “I don’t know. I try to make each one of them count. That’s all. But I realize now there’s urgency to work faster and do everything.”

Looking back on his career, Scorsese gets pensive: “Sometimes I wish I had read more books than watch movies, because now it’s tougher to catch up.  But, on the other hand, if I read more, I would not have made ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Taxi Driver,’ or ‘Raging Bull.’”

(Editor’s note: the above films form a trilogy of sorts, starting Robert De Niro at his very best, and considered by historians to be Scorsese’s quintessential masterpieces).