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Martin Scorsese goes kinder, gentler with 'Hugo'

The director's experience as a parent drew him to take on the child-friendly 3-D film.

November 20, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Martin Scorsese at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Director Martin Scorsese at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

You think you know by now what you'll get in a Martin Scorsese movie. Someone will be gothically whacked. A person's tenuous grip on reality might slip away, possibly in a mental institution. Vengeance will be doled out — with guns, knives, fists or anything else that causes great bodily injury.

And a sweet orphan will search for a new family.

What looks at initial inspection like Hollywood's version of a shotgun marriage — the man behind "Goodfellas," "Raging Bull," "The Departed," "Shutter Island," "Cape Fear" and "Gangs of New York" directs the 3-D family film "Hugo" — makes sense if you look closer. In some ways, Scorsese's personal life and professional interests have guided him toward a gentle movie like this, even while audiences were cowering from his prior mayhem.

"It's just natural this time," says the director, who turned 69 on Thursday and is the parent, with book editor Helen Morris, of a 12-year-old daughter, Francesca, "in particular experiencing living life with not only parenting but a child being a partner with you and with your wife.

"There have been great films made about children, and some great films made from the point of view of children. But what does a child really understand or perceive?" Scorsese says, explaining what captivated him about the project.

Adapted by screenwriter John Logan (Scorsese's "The Aviator") from Brian Selznick's popular, richly illustrated children's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Scorsese's new movie is a Dickensian drama about a lonely boy's quest for happiness. The film also brings to life some of the Oscar-winning director's longtime obsessions: the history of cinema and film preservation. "Hugo" simultaneously stands on its own as a drama while also being a love letter to the creation of the medium.

Like the novel, "Hugo," opening Wednesday, is focused on the relationship between Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who tends to clocks in a 1930s Paris train station, and an ornery toy seller (Ben Kingsley). Hugo's father (Jude Law) has long since died, and the drowning of Hugo's alcoholic uncle (Ray Winstone) has left the young man fighting not only poverty and hunger but also a dictatorial station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), resolved to dispatch the urchin to an orphanage.

As he maintains the station's massive timepieces, Hugo labors to fix a child-sized mechanical man, or automaton, that, once repaired, might be able to transcribe a message from the boy's late father. The automaton carries other data in its wind-up memory, though, and those images at first threaten and then cement the relationship between Hugo and the toy seller, who turns out to be Georges Méliès, a pioneer in early cinema before his career, and many of his films, went up in flames. Selznick, who is distantly related to "Gone With the Wind" producer David O. Selznick, was inspired to write the book by seeing "A Trip to the Moon," the famous 1902 Méliès short.

The very things that make "Hugo" attention-grabbing are also part of its commercial challenge. Cinéastes who are drawn to Scorsese's mature movies might be reluctant to see a film about a 12-year-old boy. Parents, open-minded enough to take their kids to a Scorsese film, could see their younger children squirming when "Hugo," which runs about two hours, delves into the history of motion picture production. And the film faces formidable weekend competition in the PG-rated realm from "The Muppets," "Arthur Christmas" and the second weekend for "Happy Feet Two."

But audiences of all ages should be more than a bit intrigued to see what one of American movies' most celebrated directors can do with a family film, particularly with stereoscopic cameras. Like Méliès, who began his show business career as a magician, "Hugo" proves that Scorsese still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Change of direction

When producer Graham King, who collaborated with Scorsese on "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and the best picture-winning "The Departed," was brought Selznick's manuscript in 2007, he had a radical idea and sounded out the director. With abundant illustrations designed to mimic filmmaking storyboards, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" felt like a gestating movie, King thought.

King also understood that Scorsese, having just laid waste to a busload of Boston police officers and mobsters in "The Departed," was considering a change. "I knew Marty was looking to do something different — something with kids," he said.

The director, who hadn't made a PG-rated film since 1993's "The Age of Innocence," was chiefly interested in taking up "Shutter Island" at the time. Chris Wedge ("Ice Age") at one point was announced as "Hugo's" director, but production never commenced.

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