When legendary cinematic storyteller Martin Scorsese read Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, he found the tale profoundly resonant. “It was particularly the vulnerability of a child alone that was striking. Hugo’s living in the walls of this giant engine of a sort—the train station—on his own, and he’s trying to make that connection with his father, whom he has lost”…the father who instilled a love of clockworks and mechanical pieces, and who introduced him to the mystical adventures of the cinema.
Scorsese continues, “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 film, including cameras, projectors and automatons, make it possible for Hugo to reconnect with his father. And mechanical objects make it possible for the filmmaker Georges Méliès to reconnect with his past, and with himself.”
Inspired to bring Selznick’s compelling black and white illustrations to life, Scorsese jumped into a 3-D visualization of Hugo’s world, “We really went for a blend of realism and a heightened, imagined world. …Even though it’s Paris 1931, it’s a heightened version of that time and place…a balance of realism and myth.” As he often has, Scorsese turned to Production Designer Dante Ferretti and Set Decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo SDSA to create these wondrous scenes, for which they earned this year's Academy Award for Outstanding Art Direction.
In depth research began immediately. Lo Schiavo met with the author a couple of times to ensure that she could convey “…What he wanted to show through his novel. We took care about that first,” she says in her charming Italian accent. “And then, of course, Martin showed everyone a lot of movies…silent movies and other old movies and also a lot of little movies from Méliès....I remember in Paris, we went to watch some of Méliès’ movies that were very, very precious, they were very rare. And the people at the French cinema academy were very helpful. There was a lot of research, as usual with Marty. We started with all the books, with various illustrations from the beginning of the century, and then of the train stations, of course…and all the details about shops, about life in the time…about Paris in the time…and also Marty showed us some more French movies that were very useful for us, and for me, particularly for all the details.” What Lo Schiavo delicately describes as “some” films were about 180 of Méliès’ films, along with a range of French films, from the early work of the Lumière brothers to the films of René Clair and Carol Reed, avant-garde cinema from the 1920s and ‘30s. “...And that’s it, the start,” Lo Schiavo smiles.
The film opens with an enormous train station, reminiscent of but beyond the Gare Montparnasse of the time, which encompassed two stages at Shepperton Studios outside London. This overwhelmingly immersive environment allowed filming of all the movement, bustle and multiple stories and chases in 3D. And the voluminous space had to be filled with shops, cafes, chandeliers, lamp posts, seating, heaters, posters and art…all of which were presented with actual period pieces plus many, many special reproductions designed by Lo Schiavo, enhanced to imbue a sense of magic.
“Marty wanted an atmosphere of magic,” she laughingly shares. “He was very clear about that with me. He said, ‘Francesca, you have to go for magic.’ So everything was larger for two reasons, one for the 3D and one for the magic.” Known for her rich, deeply layered sets, and with Scorsese’s penchant for detail, she notes, “We didn’t do anything different for 3D, except even more layers and more pieces!” That’s not an exaggeration, Lo Schiavo had hundreds of toys made and more than 200 hundred special lamps for the station…clockworks and gears were garnered from innumerable timepiece collectors…the bookstore and academy library required 40,000 books…and then there were the enviable trips to the Paris flea markets…more than 50 trips, thousands of pieces…
Méliès’ Toy Shop – Magic and confections
“The fictionalizing is discreet in our film,” states Ben Kingsley, who plays Georges Méliès. “It was believed by many that Georges died around about the time of the First World War, but he actually isolated himself in his shop. It’s been re-created wonderfully…the nudge of history is delicate and charming. The set is breathtakingly beautiful…the toys in my shop are exquisite.”
Méliès, the former illusionist and filmmaker has become a disillusioned and melancholy shopkeeper. Lo Schiavo notes, “Martin asked me to do this as very special. We made from scratch many toys, and we also have toys that were quite unusual. They were toys from the period, but we added a little bit of magic. We changed each toy a little bit, we gave it a different feeling.” The 3D required even more layering of toys and confections. “You see, the camera goes very fast, so that was my concern. We had to make a lot of details, a lot of depth, because otherwise you would lose the atmosphere.”
When asked why a Nestle’s Chocolate poster was hanging in a toy shop, she explained, “Because at that time, the toy shops in Paris sold a lot of chocolate and candies…not cakes, but chocolates and other confectionaries.” The poster is, of course, accurate to the period, as were the numerous and stunning posters throughout the station and on some building exteriors. “Marty is a big poster collector. So he knows everything about posters! I found a lot of posters from the period, but they were ultimately chosen by Marty.”
Bookstore – M. Labisse, Specialiste de Livres
89-year-old Christopher Lee, who plays Monsieur Labisse, proprietor of the train station’s wondrous bookstore, recalls traveling in France in 1931, “I remember very well those shops, cafés 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.”
Isabelle [Chloe Grace Moretz] tells Hugo that Monsieur Labisse says giving a book to someone is “…sending a book to a good home”.
In creating the staired two-story set, which is filled with volumes and volumes of books, and shot from above, within, without and through the shop windows, Lo Schiavo recalls, “Everyone who collected books knew about us, about my search for thousands of books, so we dealt with many collectors. It was interesting for me because I met a lot of people who are involved in the book world. We also had some made in plaster, and I put a lot of marble busts and sculptures and framed prints in the shop…it was meant to be as a library feeling...and, again, very special.”
Vignettes: Café, Newsstand, Flower stall and Inspector’s office
As she sits on the promenade in front of her cafe, proprietress Madame Emilie [Frances de la Tour] tells the Station Inspector [Sacha Baron Cohen], whom she is advising on love, “Demitasse, like everything else, must happen at the appropriate moment.” It suggests the very French flavor that Lo Schiavo manages to infuse into the café, which again is shot from every angle, through both sides of windows, mirrors reflecting the busy goings on, a bar counter, a band playing, café tables inside and out, a chase scene…with perilously tiered cakes and pastries! There is a constant interplay with Monsieur Frick [Richard Griffiths] who runs the newsstand nearby.
And with the sweet flower seller, Lisette [Emily Mortimer], whose flower stall was filled with an abundance of fresh flowers Lo Schiavo had trucked in everyday, often from Provence. “The painting above the flower stall was from a beautiful poster I found in a book and showed to Martin. He immediately approved, so we had it reproduced very large. The flower-barrow I researched and then had made.”
For the menacing station inspector’s office, Lo Schiavo chuckles, “Sacha Baron Cohen really developed his character and had a strong vision of what would be in the Inspector’s office, so I consulted with him often!”
Scorsese points out, “In our impression of Paris at that time…these vignettes…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.”
Hugo’s room above the station and his previous home with his father
There are derelict clocks and empty wine bottles strewn about when Hugo’s uncle brings him to the station attic-like space where he is to live and work. As time passes, jars full of gears, clockworks, and mechanical bits and pieces appear, lined up on a makeshift table and shelves, and we see a bed of sorts tucked into the lantern-lit corner. Alone, Hugo cares for all of the clocks in the station and works to repair his beloved automaton. He tells Isabelle, “…Broken machines always make me sad, because they can’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
For the huge main station clocks, one facing into the station, one overlooking the city of Paris, Lo Schaivo chose large teardrop-shaped bulbs. “Once again, we went for the big sizes and unique shapes because I was thinking that they were more appropriate for the story and because the feeling was to convey that it was real, but at the same time, it was a little bit out of the reality.”
For this and Hugo’s father’s home and workshop, she compiled, “...All the instruments, all the clocks, all the parts, all the collections! I searched for and found a lot of clocks and even a lot of clockworks, all sorts of parts of clocks, because some collectors keep pieces of old clocks that they don’t use anymore just in case. Another fascinating world! So I worked quite madly to collect all this stuff, with many trips from London to Paris and back.”
Georges Méliès tells Hugo, “...But then the war came. Youth and hope were at an end…The world had no time for magic tricks and movie shows…”
In contrast to the deeply layered other sets, the Méliès’ apartment had a sparseness, as if something was missing from their lives. Lo Schiavo shopped Paris for this set…everything in the apartment was French and period…and she aged some objects to seem gently worn, since they had lost all their money years before. She used subtle stripes and more stripes, from wallpaper to draperies and bed coverings, plus heavily spindled chairs, all as if they were barring out the world. There was even the symbolic bird cage…very French and tasteful, of course.
Méliès’ glass studio
Georges Méliès is often referred to as the Father of Narrative Filmmaking, with many crediting him with the birth of the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. Scorsese points out, “What’s amazing about Méliès, 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.”
Méliès’ original glass studio in Montreuil was painstakingly rebuilt on the backlot of Shepperton Studios, constructed from existing designs, measurements and photos of the original building.
French film scholar Rene Tabard [played by Michael Stuhlbarg] recalled visiting the studio as a boy, “It was like something out of a dream. The whole building was made of glass. In reality, this was to let in all the sunlight necessary for filming, but to my eyes it was nothing short of an enchanted castle…a palace made of glass…”
Méliès told him, “If you’ve ever considered where your dreams came from, look around you. This is where they are made.”
The HUGO team actually re-produced some of Méliès’ early films in the replicant studio, complete with the sets, fabrics, costumes, paints and cameras of the time. Lo Schiavo says doing the replication was a delight… she particularly loved gathering the fabrics for this homage to both the man and the art.
Méliès’ ‘masterpiece,’ LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (A TRIP TO THE MOON), was filmed in 1902 and was introduced to the public again in 1931 by Tabard and Méliès. For this scene, Lo Schiavo had the iconic image of the rocket hitting the eye of the moon enlarged to fill the huge curtains of the French Film Academy stage. The curtains open a slit to reveal a beaming Georges Méliès who invites the audience… all audiences…“Come and dream with me.”