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Immersed in Movies: Oscar-Winner Dante Ferretti Talks Retro ‘Hugo’

Immersed in Movies: Oscar-Winner Dante Ferretti Talks Retro 'Hugo'

As expected, the 84th Academy Awards were ruled by “The Artist” and “Hugo,” with each splitting five Oscars in a strange alignment of early moviemaking nostalgia. However, while The Artist” not only scored the top three prizes for picture, director (Michel Hazanavicius), and actor (Jean Dujardin), it also beat out its rival for costume (Mark Bridges) and original score (Ludovic Bource). In fact, this ended “Hugo” composer Howard Shore’s Oscar winning streak at two (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Return of the King”). Nonetheless, “Hugo” triumphed in production design (Dante Ferretti), as anticipated, while also managing two surprise wins in cinematography (Bob Richardson) and visual effects (Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, and Alex Henning).

This was fitting considering it’s a hand-crafted retro triumph in game-changing 3-D. It’s like looking forward and backward at the same time, which director Martin Scorsese wouldn’t have any other way. Yet for such Oscar-winning and period piece stalwarts as Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell (“The Aviator,” “Shakespeare in Love”), and composer Shore, “Hugo” provided an extra charge, with its rich dawn-of-the-century French setting, the celebratory Méliès factor, and the indispensable 3-D experience.

For Ferretti, who created everything from scratch with his set-decorating wife, Francesca Lo Schiavo — from the train station to the clocks to the toy shop to the book store to the fairgrounds to the theater to Méliès’s famed glass studio (including the sets and props and cameras) to the all-important automaton — it was like “being born there.” Indeed, Ferretti says, “the secret is not to make it look like a copy because then it’s boring. But I also like to make some mistakes because everything looks believable. Look around the world, it’s full of mistakes. It’s important to be accurate; you have to invent something in the same style.”

After doing a series of 3-D tests to accommodate the multi-layered framing for all the set decoration, Ferretti set about inventing everything like an architect from the period. He studied several different train stations for an amalgam, but in the end it mostly resembled the famed Garre Montparnasse with its see-through windows.

“In this story, the 3-D is important in the train station and inside the clocks because you feel like you live inside,”Ferretti says. “I think you feel more involved. We shot in Paris only five days, but I think it was easier to shoot in 3-D on the back lot and on the stage.”

Ironically, in retrospect, Ferretti believes they were destined to make “Hugo” as a testimonial to Méliès because way back on “Kundun,” the Dali Lama sat and watched “A Trip to the Moon” while they were shooting the documentary. “To do this movie about the movie was special.”

For Powell, “Hugo” turned out to be one of the rare joyous experiences that didn’t wind up as a bad movie. “I don’t know why but quite often when you have a really good time on a film, it doesn’t turn out that well,” she observes. “The best films come out of torture and drama.”

While the costume designer studied a plethora of period movies with Scorsese and her other colleagues — par for the course — she found one outside-the-box choice particularly useful: the British Ealing comedy, “The Lavender Hill Mob,” because of its heightened sense of reality, she explains: “Marty showed it to me to see the level of stylization that was necessary for the station scenes.”

It was very much a case of recreating a storybook look in keeping with the source novel by Brian Selznick. Everyone has a single, trademark costume, for the most part: Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is dressed like an orphan with an undersized and worn outfit; Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) is slightly more upscale; Méliès (Ben Kingsley) looks weather-beaten and world-weary in an old suit; and the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) has a very striking uniform.

“I realized in reading storybooks that kids don’t change their clothes,” Powell suggests. “It was very ‘Rear Window’ from Hugo’s point of view from high up or across a floor. So you needed to pick them out at a distance. I used a lot of stripes and zigzag patterns. Chris Lee is extremely old and I wanted him to be backdated to the 1900s and look wise but sophisticated. And there were hundreds of extras in the train station all in winter wear in the middle of summer for months. We had the Méliès films there to watch, but it’s quite difficult to really see what people are wearing. It was my own versions to capture the essence of the real costumes.”

But in the case of the Station Master’s uniform, Powell originally planned to make it dark green in keeping with the period and the novel. Except she had to make it bluer so it wouldn’t look black as a result of the autochromatic-inspired stylization they eventually devised as a further cinematic nod.

“We had very little time to do tests because the actual camera that they used didn’t arrive until the week before. I had to do stuff knowing that it could get fixed in post, where a lot of the actual color tweaking happens in the end when I’m off the movie. It would be something that I would be interested in getting involved with because some of the colors that we actually see on the screen aren’t the colors in real life of what I thought they would be. But on the whole, I think it works incredibly well, especially with the Station Inspector’s uniform.”

For composer Shore, “Hugo” offered the opportunity to experiment with period instruments to evoke the era and the emotion. For a lengthy 105-minute score, he alternated between a sextet (ondes Martenot, musette, gypsy guitar, tack piano, bass, and ’30s drum kit) and orchestra in creating a sense of aural depth in concert with the 3-D.

The seven primary themes, introduced in the first reel, “describe Hugo and Isabelle and the Station Master, but also objects like the automaton and the clocks,” Shore explains. “The clock theme evokes the mystery and adventure; there are also the tunnels within the train station.” There’s a primary waltz, a comedic march, and, for Méliès, a haunting solo piano that ties together the sense of mystery, magic, machinery, and melancholy.

“They all came in a flush of inspiration because I wrote the first reel very fluidly. And after I saw the film in October [2010], I already had a few thematic ideas right away. I think the 3-D just drew you into the world. You put the glasses on and the frame just got large but you thought you were in the film. It was so immediate and sensual. It made it more personal and intimate.”

And that may well be the lasting impression of “Hugo,” which has served as a vital bridge to the past as well as a potential window to the future.

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