NEW YORK - Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's longtime editor, warmly greets a reporter outside their Manhattan offices ahead of a screening of Scorsese's new 3-D fairytale, “Hugo.”
Around the corner is Schoonmaker's editing bay, where she and Scorsese keep Turner Classic Movies running silently on a nearby screen while they work. Inside is a screening room where Scorsese often runs old films, familiar classics and newfound gems. At one time, they gathered with Elia Kazan every Saturday to watch one of his films. Large movie posters dot the halls: “The Third Man,” ”Black Narcissus.“ Directions to the bathroom are given as ”across from Marlon Brando.“
It is, in short, a cinephile's dream - a description that could also apply to the magical “Hugo.” The film, adapted from Brian Selznick's award-winning illustrated book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” is about a 12-year-old orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives in a 1930 Paris train station. But it's also - as so many of Scorsese's films are - a movie about movies.
It captures young Hugo's ecstatic discovery of cinema, echoing Scorsese's own experience as an asthmatic child in New York's Little Italy. Hugo's adventures ultimately lead him to the turn-of-the-century French filmmaker George Melies (Ben Kingsley), a special effects pioneer and early believer in the wonder of movies.
But just as Scorsese is looking back through film history, he's also looking ahead: “Hugo” is his first 3-D film. For a medium that has undergone a lot of criticism and doubt since James Cameron's groundbreaking “Avatar,” Scorsese's enthusiastic embrace of 3-D does a lot for its credibility.
“It was a big issue when Fellini did his first colour film, when Bergman did his first colour film, when Antonioni did 'Red Desert,”' recalled Scorsese in a recent interview and trip through the technological history of movies. “Everybody wanted to see how they did colour.”
2011 is shaping up to be the year many notable directors took up 3-D: Werner Herzog (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Twixt”), Wim Wenders (“Pena”) and Steven Spielberg (“Tin Tin”). But no one's entry to 3-D has quite the same import as that of Scorsese, long held as America's best.
An inevitable side-effect of even a slight brush with Scorsese is that your Netflix queue doubles in length. His encyclopedic knowledge of film constantly spawns detailed analysis: He'd much rather discuss a few thousand other films than his own. There are old favourites that frequently come up - Michael Powell, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir - and various dips into the rabbit hole.
Asked what films he shows his 12-year-old daughter (who helped inspire him to make “Hugo”), Scorsese lists more than 20 films, a virtual film school for adolescence.
Scorsese grew up in another age of 3-D films, and he consulted many of those from the 1950s: “House of Wax,” ”Kiss Me Kate,“ ”Dial M for Murder.“ To him, seeing in depth is natural, ”because we live with depth.“
“There's great potential for it,” the director says of 3-D. “It's a natural progression, especially with the fact that cinema is all around us. It's not only in a theatre. Obviously, the next thing you go to is holograms. You could have 'West Side Story' with the dancers dancing up the aisles, or a wonderful actor doing 'Hamlet.”'
To Scorsese, it's ultimately part of film evolution. He recalls the advent of sound, the early distrust for colour and the ushering in of wider screens with CinemaScope.
“The French critics - Truffaut, Godard, all of them - embraced every new technological advance from Hollywood as part of cinema: colour, sound, ultimately, and widescreen,” says Scorsese. “They embraced widescreen and I'm sure they would have done 3-D.”
In “Hugo,” the depth of the images comes through fullest in the expansive interior of the full-size train station, built on a soundstage in England's Shepperton Studios.
“Marty was pushing the boundaries all the time, saying, 'Let's go further, let's go further,”' says Schoonmaker, who has edited most of Scorsese's films since “Raging Bull.” ”It takes a lot of care and time to set up a 3-D shot properly and he was really committed to that. ... I don't mean the sensational aspects of 3-D, but the way the camera embraces the actors is what he wanted.“
Cinematographer Robert Richardson, also a longtime veteran of working with Scorsese, believes the director has been gradually taking “a more classical approach to the images,” doing slightly less camera movement and “allowing more things to take place within the frame.” Richardson says Scorsese was “tremendously invigorated” by working in 3-D.
“Every shot that we did was a discovery and an experiment,” says Scorsese. “I did feel like they were moving sculptures rather than seeing paintings.”
Though Scorsese is enthusiastic for 3-D and the future of movies, he has some ambivalence about how young people perceive the moving image in a more fractured, distracted culture.
“There's no real understanding - in this country, anyway - for most, of what a shot is,” he says. “The shot doesn't really exist anymore in a lot of the narratives that I see coming out of America. ... There's something that's more akin to animation. It's a jumble of images. It's a different way of perceiving the world. I don't know if I can say one is better than the other. I'm just saying I grew up on the other. Can I still do the other? I don't know. Can I do the new? Do I want to? I don't know. Maybe I am.”
Lately, the 68-year-old Scorsese has been moving with urgency, like he knows he'll never be able to make all the films he wants. Just since last year's “Shutter Island,” he's made a documentary about his personal love of Kazan (“A Letter to Elia”), a documentary on Fran Lebowitz (“Public Speaking”) and another one on George Harrison (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”).
In addition, he's continued as a producer of the HBO drama “Boardwalk Empire” and he's remained an ardent advocate of film preservation through the non-profit he created in 1990, the Film Foundation. It's a subject that also proves central to “Hugo.”
They're a diverse group of projects, the breadth of which Scorsese can only explain as all “aspects of parts of me.” If anything, Scorsese's recent work suggests an always expanding perspective of cinema, whether in subject or technology.
“Not every picture has to be made in 3-D,” he says. “Not every picture has to be made in colour, either. Not every one has to be made with dialogue. Why can't we keep an open mind?”