Sir Ben Kingsley plays silent film pioneer Georges Melies in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The film has proven to be a tricky sell commercially, and it's unlikely to be a moneymaker -- but the film is a marvelous and magical journey that fully justifies Scorsese's decision to adapt Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and to shoot it in 3D. And Kingsley is sly, sad and commanding as a man desperate to bury his glorious past.
Were you familiar with the book, or with Georges Melies' work?
Neither. Neither the book nor Georges' work. My starting point was the script by John Logan, which was a wonderful read. The arc of everyone's character is so extraordinary it jumps off the page.
And also, I loved to see that Georges would be filmed by Marty at the height of his powers, in his glass palace where he was a king with so many domains: writer, director, designer, set decorator, editor, leading man, magician, special effects creator...Probably because he didn't know what the limits were, he was breaking boundaries all the time. Because he was the first of the great auteurs, nobody told him, Georges, you can't do that, as I'm afraid they would today. He just had no boundaries whatsoever. I watch those early films of his, and his joie de vivre was completely contagious. It must have affected his audiences.
But when we first meet him, that feeling is long gone.
Yes. What I loved was to have that sequence filmed by Marty in which I'm deeply happy, at the peak of my creative powers, and then to film the sequence where I'm standing by an enormous conflagration as Georges burns all his things.
That was a very real day for me. The bonfire was extremely hot, and quite painful. I was burning things that our company had made, and they were beautiful. The moon's face, the spheres, the swords, the costumes, the helmets, the drawings of my wife, they were all perfect. And I was able to inhabit Georges' sense of utter defeat, and probably anger.
It's a very violent act, a kind of little suicide. He was the king in his palace, then the suicide, then the toy shop. For me, that was an arc that I could fully appreciate and fully inhabit.
Did you film it in that sequence?
As a matter of fact, I didn't. But I have a way of approaching a script rather like a symphony, in that if I know each movement well in my heart, then I can inhabit it, even if I haven't played that sequence yet. Knowing that I would be in that glass palace gave me an appreciation of Georges' imprisonment in that toy shop.
There's actually a drawing that Georges made himself, where he has a dog collar around his neck and is chained to the back of the wall of his shop. As I saw in his early films, Georges had a very straight dancer's back. But in this drawing, he drew his back completely round and collapsed. And so when I talked to Sandy Powell, our costume designer, I asked for a padded back and tummy to wear.
It took me about two hours to get completely ready for Georges in terms of makeup and costume, and then I was stuck in defeated Georges all day. And I also realized that Georges did all his own stunts, and I've noticed this on a film set when I am involved in a stunt: In the evening, once the adrenaline has dropped, I'm lying in the hot tub, and there's a bloody great bruise on my thigh, and it hurts. You're not aware of it when you're working, so he was probably living on adrenaline for about seven years. And I know a little bit about that withdrawal. When they say It's a wrap, those are the worst words in my vocabulary.
In many ways, we think of 3D as just another special effect. But Hugo doesn't treat it like that at all. It uses 3D to say, Come into this space where our story is happening.
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Marty does bring you into the world, and he uses 3D to surround you with that world: the railway station and the toy shop and the apartment and the little hole in the wall where Asa lives. He pushed 3D round a very important corner, I think. He's done it.
Did shooting in 3D change how you did your work?
Yes. Every gesture you make has to be linked directly to the narrative. Nothing can be arbitrary. Nothing can be explained. I learnt a long time ago, you must never explain anything to the camera, because it doesn't need it. All it needs is to see the behavior of the character. It doesn't want to see any acting. The camera is allergic to acting, it hates it. But the 3D camera has such X-ray capacity that you almost have to modify your acting to a terrifying degree.
Fortunately, my first 3D experience was with Martin Scorsese. And between action and cut, he sees everything. He sees every single gesture, nuance, shift in emphasis that you offer him on every take. So if you take the 3D camera, plus working with Asa, who has no filters and works from the heart, plus Marty, it forces you into a corner out of which there's only one way. And that's your version of the absolute, honest truth. Anything else will interfere, and the 3D camera will see it, and the audience will say Oops, bit of acting there! You daren't act. You daren't act.
I'm sure I'll coin the right phrase for it sooner or later, but it's an exercise in under-acting. That's the only way I can put it, rather crudely right now. It's under-acting.