They say that for a producer, your relationship with the talent is everything, and no one in the industry has embodied that better than Graham King. The 50-year-old British producer has only been making his own films for eleven years since founding Initial Entertainment Group, and through that as well as his new company GK Films, he's had recurring relationships with some of the biggest names in the business, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt. Further, he's more independent than other super-producers like Scott Rudin, being able to finance, make, and now, through his FilmDistrict subsidiary, even distribute pictures.
But King is perhaps best known for his decade-long relationship with Martin Scorsese, teaming with the legendary director to make "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and "The Departed" (for which he won the Best Picture Oscar), as well as pairing to produce the costume drama "The Young Victoria." Their fifth endeavor together, the family film "Hugo," hits theaters tomorrow, and we caught up with King over the weekend to discuss Marty and the excellent new 3D picture they've made together.
The film came out of Scorsese's desire to make a film that he could show his daughter.
As his first PG-rated movie since "The Age of Innocence" in 1993, "Hugo" marks a shift for the director, best known for his ultra-violent crime pictures, with this being Scorsese's first true family film. As it turns out, that came out of his desire to please his own kids more than general audiences. "I knew going through the whole shoot of 'The Departed' he had it in the back of his head that he wanted to do a movie that he could show his kids," King said. "But it was about what was the right movie for him to do that would be a movie that he could show a young daughter."
Of course, finding a four-quadrant picture that still fit with the director's interests wasn't going to be easy, but fate intervened almost immediately. "Lo and behold, literally out of nowhere, someone at my office brought me this manuscript, this book that's coming out, 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret.' And it was like one of those Hollywood moments, I've just had this conversation with Martin Scorsese, and then I've just gotten this on my desk. It's a sign, you know! I read the manuscript, called Marty up, sent it to him. His wife read it, he read it and his kid read it, and he just really took to it. We were actually going to make it after 'The Departed,' but things happen, and he went off and did 'Shutter Island,' and I had four or five filmmakers who said 'Scorsese's not doing this, we'd like to jump in.' But I just had to wait for him, he was the only filmmaker, for me, to do this movie."
Part of the appeal of shooting the film in 3D came in the contrast with the hi-tech format and the old-fashioned love of cinema in the project.
In a year where 3D has gotten pretty bad press, "Hugo" stands out as one of the few examples that really show the potential of stereo photography. For King and Scorsese, it was key that the film was shot in 3D, rather than converted after the fact. Of the technique in the film, the producer asked, "It feels natural, right? You don't feel like you're watching a 3D movie. That's how it should be. There's a lot of complaints right now about 3D — it gives them a headache, it's this, it's that. Again, that's when you're dealing with it in post-production, adding a layer to the film. With us, it is natural, because the film was shot in 3D, you had to wear the glasses at the monitor. It becomes a big character in the movie. To me, I love, like most people, the way Marty does those sweeping camera shots, the way he did in 'Goodfellas' and 'The Aviator,' and I'm thinking, if he can do that in 3D, and capture that, you know?"
With the film being, in part, about the early years of cinema, and serving as a tribute to many of the films Scorsese saw while growing up, it led to an amusing collision on set between the lush period production values and the latest technology. "[It's] the contrast of making a film which is partly about the cinema with the most modern technology," King said. "We would be on set, these fantastic sets that [production designer] Dante Ferretti had built, that really transported you into this world, we'd be on the concourse of the train station, 150 extras in costume, the actors in costume, and at the back, there'd be all these technicians, that Marty and I had never seen before on a film set, working on the 3D. It was just an amazing contrast."
Of course, with no one involved having made a 3D film before, the format presented more than a few challenges.
"Hugo" is Scorsese's biggest-budget film to date, costing at least $150 million, but widely rumored to be significantly more than that. And while the impressive sets, among the largest ever built (which included working trains) helped to contribute to that, it was the 3D that caused the biggest headaches on set. "Logistically it was a challenge, because the camera and the rigging were so big, it was huge. So when the sets were built, no one thought of the size of the camera," King told us. "So the challenge was, how do we get the camera into position where Marty wants to do certain shots. Sometimes the sets were built so elaborately, we'd have to take a half a set down to fit the camera in, to do one or two shots. We were learning as we went, every day was a different challenge." But ultimately, the producer was convinced, considering the pedigree of his team, that the results would be worth it. "For me as a producer, when you have Scorsese behind the monitor, [DP] Bob Richardson handling that camera, you know, it's such a fantastic partnership, you've just got to let them go for it."
This easiest part of the process of making a Scorsese film is casting it.
While the 3D might have been something of a challenge, finding actors to put in front of the cameras was no such thing. The film is led by two young stars, Asa Butterfield ("The Boy With The Striped Pyjamas") and Chloe Grace Moretz ("Let Me In"), but there's a veritable constellation of stars cropping up in small roles.
And as King explains, it's not so much a question of casting the film as taking your pick of the many, many actors dying to work with the filmmaker. "When you're asking someone to show up for a few days for Scorsese, they're more than happy to do it… Ray Winstone for a couple of days… Jude Law, this is the second time he's done it, he played Errol Flynn in 'The Aviator.' You know, Frances De La Tour, Christopher Lee. And then of course the main cast, Emily Mortimer, Sacha [Baron Cohen], Sir Ben [Kingsley], whose performance I think is outstanding. As a producer, the easiest thing to work on with a Scorsese film is casting, because actors want to be in his movies. So it's not like I'm trying to bang someone's door down to play a role in a Scorsese film, the actors come to me. I get more calls from agents and actors on a Scorsese film than any other."
King is aware that the film may take some time to find an audience, but is confident that one is out there.
"Hugo" might be poised for release on one of the biggest holidays of the year, but it's a crowded field, with two other acclaimed family films sharing the same Thanksgiving date, and two blockbuster 3D animated sequels still in the upper reaches at the box office. King is aware that it's not necessarily like other, more frantic kids pictures, but has faith that its slower pace won't alienate moviegoers. "It's a two hour movie. It's not like it's a two-hour-thirty, two-hour-forty movie. It's never about running time for me, it's about telling a story. 'The Aviator' was two-hours-fifty, 'The Departed' was two-hours-twenty-nine. It's about how can we keep an audience engaged for that time of telling the story, and I believe this one we can. There's so many layers of stories within stories on this movie that you have to tell it right, otherwise you're cheating the audience for a running time. When it's Martin Scorsese, you've got to let him do his thing, you've got to give him that space to make the movie he wants to make, and tell the story he wants to tell."
King's a realist, and isn't expecting the "Twilight" crowd to flock to the film immediately. "It's going to have to be discovered for them," he told us, regarding the film's appeal to younger audiences. "I don't think it's something that fifteen 12-year-olds are going to gravitate to and see immediately, but I think they're going to hear about it." But he also hopes that an audience exists for the project. "Anyone who loves film should check out this movie, because it teaches you so much about the history of film. For me there's nothing better than to make a film that's entertaining and educational at the same time. Like I said, I truly believe the film's going to have to be discovered. We're going up against 'The Muppets,' and 'Happy Feet Two,' and 'Twilight,' and 'Arthur Christmas,' and we're not a branded movie. But we have the best filmmaker that's ever lived! There's so many layers that people should go and check this film out, if nothing more than for the 3D of it. To see that wearing those glasses isn't always a bad thing nowadays. A lot of kids have read the book, especially in this country. So we'll see."
"Hugo" is in theaters tomorrow, Wednesday November 23rd. Interview by RP.