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!
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