OSCAR: 'Hugo' Helmer Martin Scorsese Ponders 3D Future And How 'Taxi Driver' Would Have Benefited

Martin Scorsese long ago established himself as one of the pillars of contemporary films, an auteur steeped in the history and culture of cinema who makes movies that are usually brutal, visceral and, quite often, Oscar-nominated too. His 2006 release, The Departed, finally brought him his best director Oscar, after five previous nominations left him just short, and the film also won best picture and two more awards that night. But anyone who thinks they have Scorsese pegged will be in for a shock with his latest, Hugo. It’s a children’s story, based on the best-selling novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” and it’s the filmmaker’s first foray into 3D. Less surprising is that Hugo revolves around the early days of cinema, with pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) playing a prominent role. And it’s figuring regularly in Oscar buzz. So, Hugo isn’t entirely out of character for Scorsese.  The director took a few minutes recently to talk to me about the influence of his young daughter on his latest film, his new-found embrace of 3-D technology, and what his Oscar wins in 2007 meant for his family.

AWARDSLINE: What were you looking for that made Hugo fit so well as your first family film?
MARTIN SCORSESE: The book by Brian Selznick is so compelling and beautifully done, particularly the illustrations. But the story, the mystery of it, really became interesting and I felt an affinity with the 12-year old boy, his isolation and ultimately his trying to find a reason for his life and its tragedies. Ultimately all of that gets resolved through the invention of cinema.

AWARDSLINE: You’d found a personal frame of reference? There are also themes of film preservation, a passion of yours, and the origins of cinema.
SCORSESE: That seemed to be like a natural. But really, it was mainly the young children that first got me involved with it. And the fact that it resolves itself with Melies and early cinema was something that kept drawing me back. Well, apparently it must have been that but I didn’t quite realize it until I was shooting and  friends in my life would say ‘This is very much you.’ [Laughs] While I didn’t think of that, all my close friends felt it was totally natural.

AWARDSLINE: How long had you wanted to work in 3D?
SCORSESE: Since I saw my first 3D film back in 1953, House of Wax.

AWARDSLINE: As you watched 3D develop through the years, it’s gone from something that jumps out at you to an immersive feel. How have you felt about the evolution?
SCORSESE: I have always been fascinated by it. Even before I saw 3D films, I remember getting a packet of 10 postcards that were stereoscopic from the late 19th century and looking at them through a little device. Then there’s the wonderful View-Master which had beautiful stereo images. Not only did it immerse you in the picture, but was like a story.  I was fascinated by depth and I placed such moments carefully in Hugo. There are a number of things that do pop out at you, but we tried to have our cake and eat it too. Ideally you don’t realize the effect occurred. By the time it’s over, you’re onto something else. It was about placing you inside this boy’s world; the memory of a child. If you think back at your childhood, you think about where you grew up and if you ever go back there, it’s different. It has a different feel to it from what a child sees and perceives. I thought that would be amazing in 3D plus the fact that he lives in the walls of a train station with the mechanisms of the clocks – which always fascinated me.  I remember a little glass ball of a clock that my grandfather had. He gave it to me. I was always fascinated because on the back of it, you can actually see magnified; the workings of a clock and since I was a child I was fascinated by that.

AWARDSLINE: The technology certainly allowed you to see the inner workings of the clocks that are prevalent in the film.
SCORSESE: I go back to that old clock my grandfather had and I still have in the house now and I was fascinated by that. I’m not mechanically inclined but I’m fascinated by the mechanisms, and what they suggest. The stories that come out of them. The measurement of time itself. Movies being the illusion of motion, and then it is seen and it is an experience that disappears–into time. And in many cases, it has strong, profound, powerful reactions that can change your life. It certainly did mine.

AWARDSLINE: There’s a wonderful moment where an audience watching a moving picture for the first time scatters as a train rushes through the camera. In your life and career, what film innovation compares to that?
SCORSESE: Well, two things really. It was the use of 3D back in ’53. Obviously, there are two or three films better than all the others – House of Wax, Phantom of the Rue Morgue and Hitchcock’s use of it in Dial M for Murder.

AWARDSLINE: What was the other?
SCORSESE: I’m going back to theatrical experiences for this one. It was the first use of wide screen and the Cinemascope image on a wide screen at the New York Roxy theater which was really very thrilling. But the 3D I preferred, because in the first use of Cinemascope, it was rather static, but the 3D was not for some reason, particularly in House of Wax. I was always fascinated by these technical innovations and never thought I would get to make one.  It was only 2 years ago that I was talking to some filmmakers in Cairo of all places, saying 3D is going to be amazing, but that it has to be in the script. I said, I’ll never get to make one but that’s the nature of where everything is going anyway. Ever since storytelling started, whether it was rock paintings or campfires, or the Shaman, it’s been about telling stories with motion, color, sound and depth, which leaves you what? Holograms.

AWARDSLINE: And just two years after saying you wouldn’t make one, we’re talking about your first 3D film. What changed for you?
SCORSESE: Well, the story of Hugo. The climate of what Jim Cameron did with Avatar and 3D seemed right and the subject matter was just perfect for it. And it was time to take a chance with it.

AWARDSLINE: How did you feel after watching Avatar?
SCORSESE: There was extraordinary visual storytelling in that picture. Cameron is a great innovator and leader in cinema. It made it (3D) very welcoming. If you suggest 3D, from that point on, it was taken seriously.  But I just think 3D is open to any kind of storytelling. It shouldn’t be limited to fantasy or sci-fi. Look at (Werner) Herzog’s use of it (in Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Wim Wenders with Pina. It should be considered a serious narrative element and tool, especially when telling a story with depth as narrative.

AWARDSLINE: Which of your movies might have most benefited from being shot in 3D?
SCORSESE: That’s an interesting question. Let’s see…Aviator, maybe? Maybe Taxi Driver… because of the intimidation of the main character , his presence is everywhere, a frightening kind of presence.

AWARDSLINE: What was the hardest part about getting use to shooting with this format? There must have been a learning curve, figuring out how to frame shots to take advantage of that dimension.
SCORSESE: The high depth was very helpful and beautiful to work with. The rigs we had at the time were big, and that was problematic, though we were luckily shooting in a studio so we could keep it on a crane and move it around. Now, the rigs are smaller and more flexible. As I lined up each shot, we had to rethink how to tell a story with pictures.  And so each shot was a separate surprise, a separate journey, even though I designed a lot of the 3D effects in the movie way before shooting started. I just didn’t want to waste the depth, even if it was a medium shot of a person speaking . This was something that [cinematographer Robert] Richardson, myself, my AD Chris Surgent, my second unit director Rob Legato. We all worked on it heavily, every day, adding to the frame, try things, making mistakes. Pull back, go forward, try something we weren’t supposed to do. This was the key.

AWARDSLINE: Is it that much more challenging than shooting a 2D film?
SCORSESE: Eliminating the idea of the heavier equipment which is now getting smaller and flexible, I don’t think there’s very much of a difference. It shouldn’t frighten the filmmaker, it shouldn’t be an obstacle or an impediment. Break through it. Think differently about it. Don’t let people tell you what can and cannot be done. I shot the film in the way I’m used to shooting. It’s designed with editing, it’s a montage at times, but imagine somebody doing one long take in two hours in 3D, where the element of space really becomes part of the very fabric of the narrative, as we tried to accomplish here in our editing? It’s so unlimited. So yes, there are certain technical issues to deal with as you go ahead and work on a picture, but those are choices you make and you work it through. I wouldn’t be intimidated by it. You should really try and be bold.

AWARDSLINE: Recently, 3D has been knocked as an excuse for studios to charge higher ticket prices. Now we’re seeing more filmmakers like you, Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott shooting in it. Would you prefer to shoot all your movies in 3D going forward?
SCORSESE: Quite honestly, I would.  I don’t think there’s a subject matter that can’t absorb 3D; that can’t tolerate the addition of depth as a storytelling technique. We view everyday life with depth.  I think certain subject matters aren’t meant for 3D but you have to go back to Technicolor; when it was used in 1935 with Becky Sharp. For about 10-15 years, Technicolor was relegated to musicals, comedies and westerns. It wasn’t intended for the serious genres, but now everything is in color.  And so it’s just a different mindset. Granted once the technology advances and you can eliminates glasses that are hindrances to some moviegoers, so why not? It’s just a natural progression.

AWARDSLINE: This is a family film with a sophisticated message. What concessions did you make so that kids would be engaged in Hugo?
SCORSESE: I have a young daughter who’s going to be 12 in a few weeks.  By living with her everyday, I began to see things differently. So I was always checking on how a child would perceive this, every frame, including the station inspector, all these tricks, his sense of authority which is subverted by his, at times, his ridiculousness. It was always about ‘what would a child think about this scene? How would they see it?’ That’s why we had to heighten the look of the picture and the train station.  We designed the picture to call back to a very special kind of dream-like palace that René Clair used or designed in 1930, to give a feeling of a fairy tale world, but yet to speak to a reality. The station inspector [Sacha Baron Cohen] might be funny at times, but he still has the authority to put children in the orphanage. So I always tried to see it through a child’s eyes.

AWARDSLINE: Your films always factor in the discussion during Oscar season. You’ve been nominated five times as director before you won with The Departed. What was the most gratifying part of getting the Oscar?
SCORSESE: I made Departed as an attempt at a gangster thriller. It was really remarkable that of all the films I made, that picture was singled out. And I think I was most happy for my family. Everybody always gets up and thanks their family, but the reality is that they were so excited, including a few of my aunts. One of my aunts just passed away, she was the last of my father and my mother’s world. She was excited. She was in tears. It meant a great deal to them.  It’s not that (the award) doesn’t mean a great deal for me, but it fulfilled a long journey that many were on with me. And it was very sweet.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve tried to adapt the Shusaku Endo novel Silence, about 17th Century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan. It isn’t commercial, it has been hard to finance, but it looks like you’ll finally get your chance to make it. Why has it been so important to you?
SCORSESE: My initial interests in life were very strongly formed by what I took seriously at that time, and 45-50 years ago I was steeped in the Roman Catholic religion. As you get older, ideas go and come. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me. Yes,  the Cinema and the people in my life and  my family are most important, but ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? That’s one of the reasons why I made the George Harrison documentary. Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession, it has to be done and now is the time to do it. It’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.

AWARDSLINE: Are the questions you’re asking here similar to the questions that drew you to Last Temptation of Christ?
SCORSESE: Yes, but this is a different line of questioning.

AWARDSLINE: We Catholics are always struggling for answers.
SCORSESE: There are no answers. We all know that. You try to live in the grace that you can. But there are no answers, but the point is, you keep looking. Because people tell you science tells us everything. Science doesn’t! They just have discovered these Neutrinos that go faster than the speed of light. And there is this idea that once we got to a point in the mid-20th century and now the 21st century where everything is known in a sense, right? Well, we don’t! We don’t really know everything. I mean, yes, we don’t know what happened in the Big Bang, but we understand the idea of progress. But have we really progressed? We’ve progressed on the outside, but what about inside? What about the soul and the heart? Without trying to sound pompous and ridiculous, I can tell you this is where my interest is.

AWARDSLINE: When a director with your accomplishments keeps challenging his beliefs and asking questions like this, does that show you’ve still got the capacity for growth?
SCORSESE: I hope! [laughs] I hope! That’s what I’m trying for!

    1. Agree. It’s so unnecessary – our brains are trained to perceive depth in a 2-D image, we don’t need to be spoonfed the experience. 3-D is an expensive gimmick. Instead of being an immersive experience, it prevents immersion in the film because of the damn glasses. No matter how good the movie is, people are always conscious of the barrier between them and the world on-screen. Instead of a full screen, peripheral experience, the experience is constrained to where you look directly and by the visible edge of the 3-D glasses frame. Also, at least 10% of people experience motion-sickness or nausea as a result of watching 3-D. The science of how 3-D works doesn’t sound good physiologically – it involves one eye turning inward, independently of the other – something that our eyes were not designed to do. Even Avatar, the often-cited pinnacle of 3-D was just as good in 2-D. Most films have been through the cheap 3-D conversion process are actually better in 2-D.

      1. I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but I forget I have the glasses on almost immediately and I think most do as well, so one of us is projecting there :). Also the way your eyes focus on 3D is completely natural, it just mimics the way your eyes slightly cross as things get closer. That’s how we tell distance, and it’s purely natural.

    2. What about Zombies! Surely they have changed cinema as much as 3D. How about Casino re-imagined with zombies!

    3. I avoid 3D. It’s the single biggest reason I haven’t yet seen Hugo. It’s pointless, it adds nothing, it makes films muddy and gloomy. It’s annoying having to wear glasses over glasses, and it tends to make me nauseous. Little hint for theater owners: nauseous people don’t buy as much ten dollar popcorn.

  1. Taxi Driver in 3-D- Sorry but I just get that. While good 3-D is an interesting visual experience Id rather see movies in 2-D. My guess is that 3-D will not be the game changer the studios want it to be. Moviegoers are already paying to see films in 2d more than 3d when they have the choice.

    1. HUGO’s grosses indicate that 75% of its boxoffice was from the 3D version. Other 3D projects are also starting to show higher percentages as well. For many studios, 3D may be the insurance policy between profit or loss. It will, as always, depend on content. When scope came in, some of those films bombed – but the studios kept on making films in the format nonetheless. So, that argument really makes no sense. Some 3D projects will do better than others (economics being a big factor here) and its all in what the public really wants to see. I’m sticking with Mr. Scorcese all the way on this one.

  2. I would love to have the opportunity to spend an hour or two in conversation with Mr. Scorsese. What an interesting guy!

  3. ‘Throughout the marketing effort distributor Paramount Pictures consistently emphasized the benefits of seeing Hugo in 3D, which paid off with a 75 percent 3D share’

  4. Yup, you’re right. ‘Throughout the marketing effort distributor Paramount Pictures consistently emphasized the benefits of seeing Hugo in 3D, which paid off with a 75 percent 3D share’

  5. Marty said something incredibly stupid there at the end. Science doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. It’s religion that explains everything with magic. And neutrinos were not proven to travel faster than light. That was one experiment that is in serious dispute and probably wrong. And even if true, what does that have to do with Marty preferring the “heart and soul”?

    Sorry to see a smart man devolve into fluffy thinking. Ah, artists.

    1. So, did you miss the part where he said: “The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends?” He didn’t even mention the importance or necessity of religion. He simply said that he believes there are pursuits that speak to something dormant within us, that is not a solely religious (or as you smugly observe, ‘magic’) – many scientists speak highly of the importance of sprituality in their own work.

      Ah, so rather unwitiingly you provided not an intelligent critique of the “fluffy thinking” of “artists” but a veritable masterclass in the lack of reading comprehension.

  6. Question why didn’t Paramount release Hugo 2D as well? For not every cinema in the united states doesn’t have 3d. Hugo would’ve benefitted more with a 2d copy instead of 3d. It’s like Paramount is cutting out another sizable share of audience.
    As for classics like Goodfellas,Taxi Driver,and Raging Bull don’t alter them at all. Goodfellas I like but in 3d? I doubt it it would work.
    I read some of the earlier comments about Hugo on weekend box office. I wonder why Paramount limited the number of cinemas 1,300 for example unless Paramount is trying to have Hugo put under oscar consideration. But I don’t mind Scorcese taking risks with new technology with 3d for example. Now that’s what makes a bold filmmaker in my opioin.

      1. Not really. I wanted to see the film but it was only playing in 3D here (a State Capitol). I only have normal vision in one eye and cannot watch 3D properly.

  7. Thank you Mr. Scorcese for remembering Andre de Toth and ‘House of Wax’..my first 3D film also. I knew Mr de Toth and he was a master director. Kudos to you both.

  8. I just saw “Hugo” this afternoon. What a lovely movie, what a spectacular piece of filmmaking.

    BUT I just don’t know who the target audience is. Children are likely to be bored. There were no families in today’s matinee–maybe about 100 people at most, all over 30.

    “Hugo” is for folks who love movies and movie history. I wonder if that will be enough.

  9. The shot from the ceiling after the shootout in Taxi Driver would be good in 3D, also the fingers flying off the guy’s hand when Travis shoots him. Could also give more depth and separation to Albert Brooks’s hair.

  10. Too much is made of the equipment , the technology improving etc. It’s the viewing experience that is lacking, the ever present thick frame of the glasses just on the edge of vision, the distortion as a viewer changes the position of their head, etc. I, for one, have never felt “in the movie” with 3D – instead I’m constantly reminded that I’m watching a movie made with 3D – and it’s very distracting.

  11. I’m amazed that someone like Scorsese would try and make the comparison between the introduction of color and 3D. The technicolor process was unbelievably bulky and hard to deal with, from the extra lighting needed to the problems in making prints. To say that there was a reluctance to accept color in the same way as 3D is a total misreading of film history in my opinion.

  12. I have so far avoided 3D. But I’m going to try it out.

    I’d love to see a Sci-Fi movie with a lot of space flight and space battles in 3D. A 3D space opera.

  13. Scorsese was not saying he’d like to remake one of his older movies in 3-D or that he was planning on putting out a 3-D version of one of his classics. He was just reacting to a question about which of his movies might have benefited from 3-D the most.

  14. I thought Hugo was an excellent compilation of those sorts of things that can be done very well with the current 3D technogy, and and also some of those things that the current technology isn’t exactly quite fully capable of yet.

    Ironically, I thought that the shots that might be called “classic Scorsese” (i.e. elaborate tracking shots) were the weakest passages in the film. Maybe a highter fps playack speed would be needed to make that sort of 3D footage work in a film like this? Or maybe that’s just me.

    On the other hand, the basic (sometimes almost static) 3D scenes were lush and nuanced and just freakin’ gorgeous, I thought. The close-ups of the actors’ faces had an intimate quality that was quietly spectacular.

    Since the medium/close-up shots and visual detail and textures were so good in this film, I was glad that the movie seemed to include a bit of one of George Melies’ most stactic films – “The Untameable Whiskers”. Just as George Melies had to make his fantasy films using hardware that was still being invented, Scorsese has made a film about Melies using hardware that hasn’t been completely invented, either. And I think that’s really kinda cool.

    1. It was a visually stunning film, I would have been shocked at anything less from the Maestro. However, the script was flat. I mean, really, really flat. There was almost no tension in the story, very little worked to propel the story forward, the jeopardy from SBC’s character was minimal, the mystery was like a glass of flat champagne–there could have been magic there, but something happened that let all the bubbles out. John Logan for this one? Bad choice, unfortunately. As well, it simply didn’t work as a childrens’ movie, it was far too much the film history seminar and, ironically, not enough old fashioned thrills, chills, and adventure. I enjoyed the movie, I’m glad it was made, because it was so visually creative, and a tale with real emotion in it. but all in all, no. They forgot the most important thing–being certain that they had fully translated the wonder and energy of the book to the script.

      Finally, from a business perspective, I find the calculation on this one absolutely inconceivable. There’s no way, in a new era of more responsible film making, that this should have cost so much money. GK, et al., were blinded by the stars in their eyes.

  15. What relevance do those questions have to do with the substantive issues; namely his artistic endeavours and his interest in 3d storytelling? None.

    And what is the ultimate point of your comment? That Twilight’s commericial success means it is a masterpiece? This is not a new development that the public rushes out to mindless entertainment.

  16. While I was off for Thanksgiving I had an oppertunity to experince 3d at Best Buy with one of thier television. I did catch problems with the 3d glasses like the movie trailor to the tranformer got blurred for example. Does this happen with the cinema experince I wonder? Anyway the glasses did work but the 3d experince is lacking something.
    So even I question how long this gimmick is going to last.
    Paramount should consider re-releasing Hugo in 2d to recoup thier lost shares. Still Breaking Dawn Pt1 outgrossed it 2 to 1.

    1. What kind of TV? And what was the content? They both make a huge difference. I find passive 3DTVs like LG and Vizio to provide a better all around experience. And if the demo wasn’t blu-ray 3D quality it distracts from the experience.

  17. All you 3d haters sound like crotchety old men complaining about color. Young people like 3d and the technology is getting better all of the time. We see in 3d, so it’s not exactly an alien concept.

    1. Whatever, Dufus! Seeing 3-D projected onto a flat screen is not the same as perceiving the real world in 3 dimensions. Take a survey of your friends and see how many of them complain about 3-D being a problem regardless of how young or old they are.

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