Voted Clint’s top film of 2011, and lauded by critics and audiences everywhere as one of the season’s most splendid film experiences, Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” tells of a young orphan who, living under a railway station, finds a couple of unlikely new friends. Comic Sacha Baron Cohen plays the station inspector hellbent on capturing young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and tossing him to the orphanage.
We’re more used to seeing your very irreverent and subversive side. So what was…?
Hey, there you are.
So what was this different direction like for you as an authority figure and as a sexually inhibited guy this time around?
Who said I was sexually inhibited in this? I have a bath with the dog. What happened beneath the bubbles is our business. What was the question again? It was very, very long. I heard Sacha Baron Cohen.
Yeah, we’re more used to seeing your very irreverent and subversive side.
So what was this different direction like for you as an authority figure and as a sexually inhibited guy?
Well, there is actually, there is a bit of romance between myself and Emily’s character, which is actually the first romantic plot I’ve had that’s not been with a black prostitute or a man. So it was actually my first. We didn’t actually have a kissing scene, but there was a bit of romance in there. So that was a little bit different. And as for the rest, playing an authority figure, well, he’s a bumbling authority figure. And he’s dark, but he does have some beauty and softness underneath him. So a bit like my other characters. You know, he’s a mix of things. Does that answer it? Not really.
Do you want me to do more dirty? All right. I’ll be talking more about the bath if you want.
There is so much film history in Hugo, and I was just curious is it really burning on the cast. Was this in the sort of curated things you want to do to watch specific things to look at some and prepare for this film?
Well, he always does that with cast, you know, when it’s set in a specific period, and I had a whole box set of many of his films to watch. And hours of it, really, which was hugely useful for me not only to understand his language of cinema, but also how he multi-tasked to an extraordinary degree. When you’re watching the films, you see a great performer. But then, of course, when reading the footnotes, you realize that he wrote, choreographed, directed, edited, designed, starred in with his wife co-starring. I think he must have got about four hours sleep a night because he then having worked in his glass studio, he then went to the musical in Paris to saw people in half, and do all these kinds of fun things like that. So, yeah, Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch.
There’s so much more to tell of your character, the inspector. Did you guys talk about it or envision a sequel?
I mean yes. I mean certainly when I sort of approach the character of the station inspector, I wanted to know why was he so obsessed with chasing children? Was he actually, you know, a class villain or was there reason for his malice? And, I sat down with John and Martin and we started talking about perhaps he was World War I veteran, and maybe he was injured. So we came up with the idea of the leg brace. Originally, it was a false leg, which the audience wouldn’t have realized until it was going to be the first chase. Then I was going to turn a corner and then my leg was going to fly off and go into camera in 3D.
And that was going to be the first big 3D moment. Unfortunately, practically I was made aware that I would have had to kind of strap up my leg for four months in order to do that. So we kind of abandoned that, and I started wearing a leg brace instead. But yes, there was that whole, you know, we were trying to examine the kind of roots of evil. You know, this station inspector who is doing incredibly unpleasant things. Why was he doing that? We kind of realized that maybe he himself was an orphan, and was put away in a work house and that’s the kind of any structure that he knew. And that’s what he is kind of trying to impose on these young children. So as for the future, is there a sequel? Is that what you’re asking? I’m sure there is.
Can you confirm or deny reports that you stayed in character even when the cameras weren’t rolling?
I mean I saw Sir Ben do it, and he’s won an Oscar. So I thought I’ve got to stay in character.
When you decided to embark on this journey of acting, do feel that is a magical journey? And can you talk about the 3D?
It felt like here’s the logical extension of filmmaking that if Miller was alive that he definitely would have been using 3D. That was the interesting thing because of the whole debate in cinema at the moment whether 3D is a gimmick or not. Scorsese really showed that it was a logical development of the filmmaking process. And that was fascinating for us really.
Scorsese is a real team-player, apparently?
I think that’s the key about Scorsese that he’s totally collaborative, which I was surprised about. Because I expected him to be some incredible author, which he is an author. But part of his power and part of the reason why his films are that successful and that enduring is the fact that he’s ready to collaborate fully with all his actors. And, in fact, everyone. So any idea that I came up with he was ready to listen to, and surprisingly–because I came up with some really absurd ideas–he was ready to try them out. You know, to having a bath with a dog. And one day Asa hurt his hands. He got stepped on, and he had take the day off. We had nothing to do the next day.
I was looking at some old chaplain that Scorese had given me, some unseen chaplain. And I thought maybe there is a scene of something to do with the train. Maybe his leg got caught in the train. I don’t know if it’s in the final cuts or not. He said, “All right, let’s try it.” I said, “Are you sure. It’s going to involved hundreds of extras and a moving train.” He said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So he was just totally ready at each point to try out any idea however ludicrous the suggestion was, which was wearing for producer and the finances of the movie. But for me, it was great. It was basically like doing improvisation or sketch comedy except you have 500 extras around, and award winning designers and producers and actors. So it was a lot of fun for me.
I think it’s laudable to present something that’s complex and as intricate as this story is for a family audience. But maybe my kids were more fidgety than most, but I did find myself wondering about the length. And I wonder if somebody could address that because when you break through the 90-minute barrier and, in fact, break through the two-hour barrier. And I’m trying to imagine sitting there with a room full of 8-year-olds, whether that’s a bit of an endurance test.
I’ll say this and I have worked with Scorsese, it seems to me that Marty makes films for himself. He is an artist, a true artist and he makes the movie that he wants to see. So my first line in the movie had the word malfeasance in it, which I barely understood. And I said, “Aren’t you worried that some of the children won’t understand this let alone the grown ups?” He said, “No, it’s the right word to use there.” And he’s one of the last remaining artists that is out there. And I think we should respect that. The movie is not focus grouped, and it’s not tailored for a 7-year-old in Iowa or Berlin or anywhere to appreciate it. Marty has made a work of art in the same way that Miller did. So I think that is a beautiful thing and it’s an incredible achievement for a filmmaker still to be able to do that. Thanks to Graham for being able to fund that.