Martin Scorsese: ‘My love letter to silent movies’

The Bolton News: Time for drama: Asa Butterfield as Hugo (right) and Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès Time for drama: Asa Butterfield as Hugo (right) and Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès

Martin Scorsese talks to Steve Pratt about falling in love with the film the Magic Box in 1952, and its lasting impact on his career.

ASK Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese a question and you get an answer. A very long answer. A full and frank response to the inquiry delivered in his customary rat-atat style. The New York-born film-maker responsible for such movies as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfella, Casino, The Age Of Innocence and The Last Temptation Of Christ is passionate about film and his work. Hence the replies.

He was in London this week for the premiere of his latest film Hugo, something of a departure as it’s his first 3D picture and the U-certificate shows it’s more family-orientated than some of his violent, foul-mouthed movies. It’s the story of a boy who gets sucked into the world of the early days of cinema and has a meeting with film pioneer Georges Melies.

Scorsese’s own love affair with the big screen began as a child. “For me, movies for a long period of time were a refuge in a way. Because of having asthma I was not allowed – it was 1944/45 – to do any sports and go near anything green or animals,” he explains.

“So I was taken to the movie theatre pretty often. I saw many films in the Forties. I became enamoured of the Western genre because what I couldn’t go near or be near, there it was up on the screen. I started making my own little drawings, like panels, almost a comic strip.”

The film that created the biggest impression on him was the British movie The Magic Box, about the early days of moving pictures. It told him that he could do it himself – get the drawings to move. “My father took me to see that in 1952, I was nine or ten years old. The thing in that film is not just the moving image, but the obsession and the passion of the people at that time creating that. “With William Friese- Green, one of the inventors played by Robert Donat, it was the sweetness of the character and yet a man so obsessed that his whole personal life was destroyed.

“There’s something about that film, the love and the passion he had for the potential of this new machinery coming at a time – pre-World War One – of major change.

“And so something happened when I saw that picture. It has that wonderful scene in it too with the train coming through the station, the Lumiere brothers scene. It’s a film filled with cameos by all the great British stage and screen of the time. Richard Attenborough takes these ladies and a few friends to the carnival, he says I’ll show you this new thing – cinema.

He knows that people will duck when they see the train coming towards them.”

Scorsese demonstrates the scene, saying he’s the camera and we’re the audience. “He’s looking up and the pictures are flickering on their faces and as the train comes closer to him everyone around him screams and moves away and he’s just sitting there smiling.

“I went home and started drawing more pictures that moved. But it was something about the beauty of his obsession with the potential of the mechanism itself and creation of the celluloid, which is all different now with digital but is still telling stories with the moving image.”

IN a way Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to silent movies. He considers there’s an obligation to preserve the past and inform the new generation of the great artistic achievements of the past. “A school of thought might be that you don’t have to see anything of the past to express yourself artistically, to write a novel or write a play or make films,” continues the director. “But if you make it available, one studies and becomes aware of the work that came before and if you want, reject it. I do think it’s important to make younger people aware of what came before in every aspect of every art form.

“And it’s exciting too. Very often, if I’m working with young people with students or mentoring, I get a lot out of it.”

While the argument continues among filmmakers and distributors about the rise of 3D, Scorsese is a firm fan. Hugo is his first 3D film and he’d like to work in the process again.

“I happen to be a great admirer of it because when I first saw those Viewmasters and various stereoscopic images I was taken into another space as a child, tapping into that imagination, which is the same thing that I depend on and look for whenever we make a film.

“Maybe my last connection to childhood imagination is that feeling. I’ve been fascinated with 3D all my life. I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be used if it’s used appropriately for the story.

“I would like to deal with 3D as an element in the future. The equipment is getting much more flexible and they’re working on ideas about how to lose the glasses. So why not?”

Hugo (U) is now showing in cinemas

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