'Every film's a test," says veteran director Martin Scorsese, whose new movie, "Hugo" -- based on the fantastical Brian Selznick novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" -- was something like a doctoral examination mixed with a full-body scan: It's his first film in 3-D, it's arguably his first for and/or about children, and it's one that made him rethink . . . well, everything.
"Everything. All the time," said the director of "Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas," "Raging Bull," "The Aviator," "The Departed" and dozens of other films that seem diametrically opposed to the dreamlike themes of his new film, which opens Wednesday. "But what I was trying to do is what I normally do, or what I think I should do. I didn't want to hear, 'You can't do that in 3-D.' Didn't want to hear it."
The resulting film is set in a make-believe Paris train station that resembles the real-life Gare du Nord except everyone has an English accent, and is patrolled by a heartless, handicapped policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen), habituated by a beautiful flower girl (Emily Mortimer) and serves as the unhappy home of a Dickensian young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives a surreptitious life while maintaining the station's clocks.
Although it brings Scorsese together with people and techniques he hasn't worked with before, it also touches on themes close to his heart: the birth of cinema, and its preservation. The cranky old toy shop owner who starts out as Hugo's nemesis turns out to be Georges Méliès -- one of the great innovators of early film, the director of the iconic "A Trip to the Moon," and the man who more or less invented special effects.
"Everything that anyone has done since then -- Ray Harryhausen, all the way up to Steven Spielberg and [George] Lucas, of course -- was somehow engaged by Méliès," Scorsese said. "In some cases, invented. So everything we do with computers now, everything is based on what he did. He did it first."
Méliès is played by Ben Kingsley, whose work with Scorsese on "Shutter Island" led to his casting in "Hugo." "He called me at my home here," Kingsley said from his house in Oxfordshire, England, "and talked about 'Hugo' and the character Georges and, of course, I said I'd be delighted."
Looking for archetypes
Although the actor claimed "I don't know how I work" in approaching a given part, he said the role of Méliès -- an all-but-forgotten genius of film, unhappily running his toy shop -- provided the kind of "primal" echoes the Oscar-winning actor said he looks for.
"I look for archetypes -- archetypes as opposed to a copy of a copy of a copy," he said. "That's where I can ring in to the world of a film with confidence. My clues were in the beautiful book and the wonderful script, which allowed me access to the man and his isolation and the suicide of the soul he went through." Méliès' escape from what Kingsley calls "the little prison" of his toy store has a "mythological resonance."
"Being guided back to life by the hand of a child," he said, "is an ancient story."
Despite that old bit of actorly advice attributed to W.C. Fields ("Never work with animals or children"), Kingsley said some of his "most treasured experiences" include working with children, particularly on "Silas Marner" (1985). Although he had few scenes with young Chloë Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass"), who plays the spirited Isabelle, he "loved working with Asa."
"Asa and I were going at it man to man," Kingsley said. "There were no concessions, no quarter given. I could crash into him with my dialogue."
For Scorsese, one of the unfamiliar limitations posed by the kids involved dealing with child labor laws. "They were very, very strict," he said. "That limited us even more. But Asa's so good. Chloë's so good. Doesn't matter if they're on the set for 20 minutes."
A revelatory experience
For 14-year-old Butterfield ("Nanny McPhee Returns," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"), the entire "Hugo" experience was a revelation: working in a computer-centric movie, working with the likes of Scorsese and a co-star with the stature of Kingsley, and getting involved with a subject (Méliès), about which he had no prior knowledge. "I hadn't known anything," the young actor said. "Now I sort of know everything about him."
But Kingsley, too, had a limited knowledge of Méliès' work, and what he did know was rooted in his own boyhood, and a long-ago screening of "A Trip to the Moon" -- the most iconic moment of which is a rocket ship hitting the Man in the Moon squarely in the eye.
"That was the only one I knew of his," Kingsley said. "I've always been interested in the infant days of movies and the development of cinema, and that image was familiar to me. When I was at school, I was a member of the film society and we showed very ancient films, and one of these was a restored version of 'A Trip to the Moon' -- which, even then, was probably 70 years old."
A filmmaker's trip to the poorhouse
It's fitting that Georges Méliès was a magician before entering the world of film, because he was the first to realize many of the magical properties of moving pictures -- stop-action, dissolves, time-lapse and, as exemplified in his best-known work, "La Voyage dans la Lune" (or "A Trip to the Moon"), hand-tinted color.
Méliès made more than 500 films between 1896 (one year after the Lumière brothers "invented" cinema) and 1914, when he was forced into bankruptcy. Thomas Edison, who had acquired and distributed "A Trip to the Moon" in the United States, never paid Méliès what he was owed (the Wizard of Menlo Park being adept at fiduciary sleight of hand). As portrayed in "Hugo," many of Méliès' films were seized by the French Army during World War I, and their cellulose was melted down to make boot heels.
"A Trip to the Moon," made in 1902, is one of the few dozen Méliès films that survive. It was based on books by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and is the first science-fiction film: A sextet of astronomers heads to the moon. The Man in the Moon watches their approach, and the bullet-shaped spacecraft hits him right in the eye (the film's single most famous image).
There's no sign of Alice Kramden, but among the many scenes that would inspire later films is one in which Phoebe, the goddess of the Moon, summons a snowfall that awakens the sleeping voyagers, much the way some other colorful travelers would be awakened, 37 years later, in "The Wizard of Oz" -- a film that, like so many, owes a huge debt to