John Logan is smiling today, as he just earned a Writer’s Guild Nomination for adapting the novel “Hugo Cabret” for Martin Scorsese. If his other scripts had been eligible, he could just as well have sewn up three spots this year, for adapting Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” for Ralph Fiennes, or for his screenplay for Gore Verbinski’s “Rango,” the current front runner for the animation Oscar.
That’s how much Logan is in demand. He’s been beavering away on the James Bond film “Skyfall” since January with old friend Sam Mendes, who developed “Sweeney Todd” with him before Tim Burton came on board. (Purvis & Wade wrote the first Bond 23 draft.) “We’ve always wanted to work together,” Logan says, who’s tight-lipped on the film. “I grew up with Bond: ‘Diamonds are Forever’ was my first one.”
While Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is shooting now, Logan’s involvement was six years back. Next up after Bond finishes shooting is the film adaptation of Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids,” working independently with Smith. “It’s a breathtaking book,” says Logan. “No studios, no directors, just two artists with notepads trying to tell a story well. We’ll take as long as we want, the piece is so beautiful, I want to bring it to life.”
Of his three 2011 films, the script Logan can’t talk about enoough is “Coriolanus,” perhaps because modernizing Shakespeare brought the highest degree of difficulty. “It’s a muscular adaptation,” he admits. “The play has been around for 400 years. Shakespeare is a foreign language for most people.”
But as a man of the theatre, reading and performing Shakespeare is second nature to Logan. “It’s partly grasping the language in cinematic way, it’s about musicality,” he says. “The play will be around for another 400 years. There’s no way to kill it or destroy it, I felt a freedom to be bold.”
Placing “Coriolanus” in a modern context works, he says. It could be Chechnya, Belfast, or the Balkans. “We’re right here, living in that world; it deals with a military figure embroiled in politics, making compromises, unsettled in a state at war–there are so many parallels. Then it became Egypt, all the things we’re now seeing on the TV screen. The movie is strangely prescient, it deals with the overthrow of a dictator, how a totalitarian state becomes democratic, and the interplay between those two things.”
Above all, Fiennes’ central character, General Coriolanus, is contemporary: “He’s such a complicated, murky, challenging, austere, complex, damaged character,” says Logan. “He’s almost a post-modern creation.”
The other powerful figure in the play is Coriolanus’s mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave. “Shakespeare’s genius,” says Logan, “with all the other stuff going on–warfare, battles, compromise, politics, the homoerotic undertow with the characters–it all comes down to a boy and his mother, that human universal relationship in very neurotic form.”
Fiennes and Logan worked on the script in person, as much as they could. The first thing was to figure out what story they were telling–it’s Shakespeare’s second-longest play, which can easily run three and a half hours. “We talked about how to shape it to the central character, and worked through the play separately,” says Logan. “And then together in person we talked through the cuts, to focus on Redgrave’s relationship with Fiennes.”
They’d jump up and act out the parts and perform them, Logan says. “It was invaluable, to hear the language out loud.” The final two-hour film came out almost exactly as they wrote it, says Logan, because Fiennes was so rigorous during filming in Serbia: “He shot everything, not a single line was cut, nothing.” (Ralph Fiennes’ TOH video interview is here.)
Logan never thought he’d write family films, but this year he wrote the affectionate animated western, “Rango,” as well as “Hugo.” “I’m a huge western fan,” he says. “I’m also a huge Bob Hope and Don Knotts fan.” They both provide models for “Rango”‘s lizards.
Scorsese, who had collaborated with Logan “The Aviator” (one of two Oscar nominations, along with “Gladiator”) sent Logan the Brian Selznick book “Hugo Cabret.” Skeptical at first, Logan was deeply moved by Selznick’s novel: “I called and said ‘let’s go.’ We always wanted to preserve the spirit of the novel, which is a simple story about an orphan finding his way home. That had to be the spine of the book, that’s what spoke to me, that essential story.”
As Scorsese and Logan winnowed down the book, they also made references to old silent movies, from Georges Melies to Rene Clair’s “Rooftops of Paris,” or David Lean’s graveyard in “Great Expectations.” They wanted the audience to be emotionally engaged by early French cinema and automatons in Paris, but “the core of the movie is that boy,” says Logan. “It’s like Dickens, Little Nell, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, sad damaged children who make homes for themselves. That’s what Hugo does, he makes a future for himself.”
Creating an alternate universe behind the giant clock in the train station was key. “We knew that Hugo had to have his own world,” says Logan. “Part of it is an adventure story like “Treasure Island,” where one of the great things is to discover something new around corner. The train station provided a wonderful world of exploration. With 3-D you can move through things, corridors and tunnels, the clockworks.” Scorsese and Logan also had fun with the scale of the various 3-D dogs, poking them at the audience.
Logan sought not to compromise the scares of the story for a family audience, “like the movies I loved when I as kid. The dog in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ terrified me as did Magwitch from ‘Great Expectations.” They were frightening characters in a world of genuine jeopardy. The emotional stakes are huge, if there’s the possibility of not having a happy ending. There was never any discussion of lightening Melies, of making him more audience-friendly. His journey is of a damaged character who becomes healed. The chance to pay homage to an early film pioneer was very personal for Marty.”
Finally, Logan is always happy to work with Scorsese. Look for another collaboration soon: “It’s fulfilling. We’re talking about stuff.”