Martin Scorsese leaves the tough guy world far behind with his latest film Hugo, a 3D fantasy set in pre-war Paris about an orphan and a toymaker -- as well as about himself, the US director said Monday.
Hugo, which hit US screens last month, is at once a warming Christmas carol and a cinephile's tribute to one of the art form's founding fathers, the Frenchman Georges Melies, a real-life magician turned experimental filmmaker.
"As I was making the film, more and more people kept telling me: 'That's you'," Scorsese told a press conference in Paris. "And ultimately by the time we had finished editing, there was no doubt. "'C'est moi'" (It's me), he quipped in French, picking up on the line by the 19th-century writer Gustave Flaubert who famously proclaimed the same of his seminal work Emma Bovary.
Set in an imaginary Paris circa 1930, the film tells the story of 12-year-old Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, who lives hidden in the walls of a Paris railway station, tasked with keeping its giant clocks wound and ticking.
Hugo crosses paths with an old toymaker played by Ben Kingsley, who turns out to be none other than Melies, now fallen on hard times. As it turns out, Hugo is trying to repair a toy robot left to him by his dead father.
Scorsese adapted the movie from a best-selling illustrated novel by US author Brian Selznick, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" -- which in turn was inspired by a study of Melies' collection of lost automata.
Melies' intricate automata become a parable for the dream-machinery at the heart of filmmaking. Scorsese's first 3D movie leads the viewer into the imaginary world of the soft-spoken Melies, whose experimental films like the 1902 science-fiction adventure "A Trip to the Moon" have a magical, home-made quality.
Hobbled by acute asthma as a child, Scorsese said he felt a strong initial resonance with its lonely boy hero. "The boy's isolation, and the fact that it resolves itself through Melies and the invention of cinema -- this for me was a direct connection, with a fantasy of my own childhood in a way," he said.
Though a handful of scenes were filmed in Paris, most of Hugo was shot at Shepperton Studios outside London, in a make-believe station based on Paris' Gare de Lyon, Gare du Nord and the old Montparnasse station. "We would have loved to be here the whole time," Scorsese said, "but the film had to have another kind of Paris -- a heightened Paris."
Scorsese's sepia-toned French capital is, by his own admission, an American's impression of the city, made larger-than-life by gorgeous 3D imagery that magnifies the slightest snowflake, the hissing steam from the trains and the hot oil poured into the clocks' innards.