Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview With Sir Ben Kinglsey about Hugo

 Q: Before you received the script for Hugo were you aware of the character you play, the trailblazing  French filmmaker Georges Melies?

A: I knew a little bit because as a schoolboy I was lucky enough to have a film society at my school that explored the early days of cinema. We saw Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and other extraordinary filmmakers. We saw glimpses of Melies. I was convinced I saw A Trip to the Moon before I read the screenplay and the novel and walked on to the film set. So, a little bit I did know. I found it beautiful because he seems to have entered the psyche, all of us felt we recognized Georges Melies' work. There's an odd familiarity about his work so I think his presence was absolutely in my conscience before we started filming.

Q: Hugo is your second film with Martin Scorsese. The first being Shutter Island. What is it like working with him?
A: I find his level to attention to what I am doing between 'action' and 'cut' is absolutely extraordinary. He will see absolutely every fragment of what you are offering to the screen. Way before he sees the rushes  with Thelma (Schoonmaker) his brilliant editor, he remembers take after take exactly what you did. He knows the tilt of your voice, what wash of fear or joy colored you expression. He always treats his actors as equals. He never patronizes you. He is firm and loving. You never have to go around to the director and say 'Did you like that?' You never need to worry.

Q: What was it like for you to shoot Hugo in 3D? Did it change your approach as an actor?
A: The 3D camera doesn't like acting. It loves behavior. It forced an economy on us. You can't show off in 3D. You have to be modestly inside your character. Between the 3D and Marty, that combination won't miss anything.

Q: Hugo has been described as a magical cinematic experience. Would you agree?

A: Yes. I would say it reminds an adult audience of what it was like to see the world through a child's eyes. That is an extraordinary achievement not only from Marty's direction, but also the camera work, the 3D, the lighting, the sets make a period film look brand new. Everything is shined and polished with a newness.  It's an experience I think you haven't felt since you were a child. Asa (Butterfield) is really the camera. Marty uses the eyes of the young people in the film so we are able to experience the beauty and potential of life. The kids are healers in this film.

Q: Hugo is mesmerized when he watches his first film. What was your first movie experience?
A: I saw it at the cinema. It was the black and white film Never Take No for an Answer. It was filmed in Italy and is about a little boy and a donkey. The boy is an orphan, just like Asa's character. The donkey is the taxi, the tractor, carter, the mover of the whole village. The donkey gets very sick and the boy has to go all the way to Rome to get a special letter from the Pope to get the donkey into St Francis' Chapel. That is basically the film. I was in floods of tears at the end of the film. I looked just like the little Italian boy in the film and so much so the theatre owner lifted me up above the crowd and said 'This little bambino!'. That was my first experience. It was a magnificent adventure and beautiful film for everybody filmed through the eyes of a boy, so with Hugo, I feel I have come full circle.

Q: Was that also the first time you decided you wanted to be an actor?

A: Absolutely. I was so moved by the story and identified with the boy, I knew I had to be part of storytelling.

Q: There are many messages in Hugo. One is the importance of preserving film.

A: Yes. Implicit in this film is how important it is to rescue our culture. Cinema is an amazing record of how we got here. If you watch a film like Breakfast at Tiffany's you see the politics of that era. You see how men related to women in that era. Films document our journey. To have films destroyed or lost forever is shocking. All of the black and white footage on my Dad's 16mm camera of me growing up from a baby to 24 or 25-years-old, my mother destroyed it all. It was miles and miles of my history. It was the social history of Indians at that time. It's all gone. I have personally experienced that loss from my own childhood. For Marty to be restoring films and for Georges' film's to be restored, it is very, very important. It is more than just saving movies. It is about saving our history. How we got here.

Q: You are such an accomplished actor, but is it possible for you to learn from young actors like Asa and Chloe?

A: Absolutely. Oh yes. It is very exciting to be with those who are taking baby steps. Martin Scorsese was taking baby steps as a 3D director and Asa and Chloe were taking early steps as actors. Their intuition and truth and uninterruptible honesty is yet to be bashed out of them and when you are in a scene with them, you have to respond to them. It is a duet. The song they are singing I have to join in. It is so honest and so truthful. I learned and was reminded of a huge amount. I love working with young actors.

Q: Did you spend a lot of time with Chloe?

A: I did. Although we did not have a lot of scenes together, but we had a very strong relationship because we had a lot of conversations about our characters. I remember we spoke about how disturbing it must be for Isabelle to see Georges cry because he is her rock. For a child, that can be disturbing. It was a very interesting conversation.

Q: Martin Scorsese and his team put a lot of effort into recreating the films that Georges Melies made and you really ham it up in those scenes. What was that like?
A: Fortunately, thanks to Marty I saw the original footage so I knew Georges' body language when he was the actor, director, choreographer, composer, writer, magician and all of those things. Thanks to Marty's love of all film, he knew where to guide me and what to watch. I watched lots of footage. I'm also fascinated by body language, so I really enjoyed replicating it. In those days the gestures were derived from theater and theaters in those days were gaslit, rather dark and very big so gestures had to be huge in order for them to be seen. That carried over to the early days of cinema where it was very demonstrative.

Q: Your character in the film is a broken man. Have you ever felt broken in your own life?
A: I have died many times (laughs). I have experienced a second, third and fourth chance. Many chances. What is stunning and gives this film lasting resonance is it is an ancient myth of a broken soul being guided back into life by the hands of a child. There are four hands of children in this film and they are profound. It is an extraordinary gesture to be seen in a 21st Century film in 3D because you have ancient, beautiful healing mythology.

Q: Georges Milies says 'Only happy endings come in movies'. Do you agree with that?
A: He is actually contradicted by the film. We have a man who has given up life, but is guided back by a child. I do not believe happy endings only happen in movies. I also like sad endings in movies because it is a movie. You can walk away, have a good cry and a gin and tonic and you are right. It is a movie. I honestly believe the outlawing of tragedy from the screen is very, very dangerous. That's why children are told stories every night before they go to sleep. It is a form of healing and a form of education and a form of preparing your children for the world. That's why Grimm's fairytales are terrifying. In the Victorian era they changed the ending Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. Romeo married Juliet and Edgar married Cordelia and nobody died. It didn't catch on. We need in stories the kick of tragedy. It makes us appreciate life. If we sugarcoat everything it is absurd. There are dark moments in this film. Hugo does cry his heart out. He is frightened, desperate and lonely. We all go through dark periods during the movie. It was very brave of Marty to say 'No, it's not all popcorn boys and girls. It has to get dark before it gets lighter'. If there was no dark area in the film, our hero would have nothing to rescue. My character Georges has to be rescued. 

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