Martin Scorsese is a bit of a living, breathing encyclopedia of cinema and his latest film Hugo is, among other things, a loving paean to the pioneers of the medium. So it should be no surprise that the director used films from an earlier era to help demonstrate to his cast exactly what he was going for.
Sir Ben Kingsley plays Georges Méliès, the former magician who, around the turn of the century, became one of the most important innovators of early moviemaking with special effects-heavy delights like A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. Hugo is set in the 1930s, not long after the advent of sound cinema, and Méliès’ inventive spirit has long been broken when the titular hero discovers him selling toys at a train station. At this point, the former filmmaker wrongly believed that all of his films had been destroyed. “But thank goodness there are a lot, hundreds, of his films still available,” says Kingsley. “And of course, Marty sent me a box-set of his work to watch immediately.”
Scorsese also made sure that Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, watched Méliès’ oeuvre as well as silent comedies from the likes of Harold Lloyd, and co-star Chloe Moretz was more than familiar with the director’s “homework.” “You speak to him for, like, five minutes about a movie,” says Moretz, “and he’ll send you a big box of everything that director has ever done. He gave me a lot of silent films and then Funny Face, Roman Holiday…Audrey Hepburn’s stuff because we were basing my character on her.”
“The way that he directs is to help you understand the world that you are in,” says Emily Mortimer, who also worked with Scorsese on Shutter Island. “He’s very un-micromanaging as a director. You just go watch these films and somehow by osmosis understand the world of the movie and what he’s going for.” Mortimer cites René Clair’s 1930 film Under the Roofs of Paris as the one that helped her the most as it encapsulated the blend of fantasy and realism Scorsese was striving for. “You can’t quite put your finger on what it tells you about how you should perform your part,” says Mortimer, “but I know that it helped me tremendously. That’s why he’s Scorsese.”