How 'Hugo' Turned From Book To Film

Before Hugo was the hit film directed by Martin Scorsese, it was a children's book called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Host Rachel Martin speaks to screenwriter John Logan, whose script for the film has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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RACHEL MARTIN: Before "Hugo" was the hit film directed by Martin Scorsese, it was a children's book called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick. A lot of great films started as something else; a book, a stage play, a television series. In the weeks before the Academy Awards later this month, we're looking at some of the films nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

This week, we're joined by John Logan who's at NPR West. Logan says Scorsese had mailed him a copy of Selznick's book. He opened it and couldn't put it down.

JOHN LOGAN: Within five pages, I wanted to do it. I was transfixed by it.

: Why?

LOGAN: There was something about the way Brian Selznick did the illustrations in the book that was very elegiac. They were all pencil illustrations so they're black and white. And they're very sort of feathery and haunting and poetic. And they just reminded me of Dickens. They reminded me of all those lost wayward children in film and literature and art that had moved me for years. So I just was drawn to - ironically, I was drawn to the tragedy of it.

: The main character, Hugo Cabret, is an orphan living in a train station in Paris. He makes sure the station's clocks are running properly, explores the empty tunnels and underground passageways. And he watches over the people rushing to catch the coffee or sipping coffee at a bistro.

John Logan says he didn't consult with novelist Brian Selznick at first.

LOGAN: It's necessary when you're doing an adaptation to flex your own muscles, to find your own way into the story. So a lot of subplots, characters fell away. And also we felt it was necessary to build up an antagonist. So we built up the character of the station inspector that Sacha Baron Cohen ended up playing, to give Hugo a foil throughout.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUGO")

(SOUNDBITE OF A BARKING DOG AND TRAINS)

SACHA BARON COHEN: (as Inspector Gustav) Seems Maximilian doesn't like the cut of your jib, little man. He is disturbed by your physiognomy. He is upset by your visage. Why would he not like your face, eh?

: We mentioned the pictures in the book are black and white, these sketches. The film itself is so colorful and there's so much movement. I'm assuming that must have been the result of a lot of conversations between you and the director of the film, Martin Scorsese. Is that right?

LOGAN: Absolutely, I mean we always wanted it to be a very kinetic experience to reflect two things. First, the idea that it's really a mystery story, and Hugo is trying to unlock, you know, the mysteries of the universe like every 10-year-old boy: why was I left an orphan, why am I am unhappy, why don't I have a family. The process of figuring out clues is a movement through a mystery. The same way if Sherlock Holmes walks into a room, he looks as clues as he walks from the door at the end of the parlor. So, it suggests movement and energy.

And also, you know, we just wanted to always reflects early movie, early cinema. There was such a joy in simply capturing movement in early film, because that was what was innovative about film that we tried to reflect that in our movie.

: How do you decide what dialogue stays and what dialogue goes?

LOGAN: Brian Selznick is a terrifically good writer of dialogue. So, whenever he wrote something that was fantastic and appropriate to the world of the movie, I didn't touch it. Our intention from the very beginning, from the first discussion, was to try to keep the dialogue as spare as possible and to let silence and tone really work for us. So, things like the ticking of clocks, or the grinding of train engines, or people - the sound of footsteps moving through the empty concourse - would become like other characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUGO")

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN)

: What in this film is most to you?

LOGAN: I think more than anything it's the moment of Hugo's actual break. He achieves sort of emotional critical mass and everything falls apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUGO")

ASA BUTTERFIELD: (as Hugo Cabret) Listen to me, please. Please. Please, listen to me. You don't understand. You have to let me go. I don't understand why my father died, why I'm alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

LOGAN: The way he expresses his pain; when Hugo, a 10-year-old boy finally has to grapple with raw emotion and there's no more artifice around him, you know, when he really has to speak from his heart, that's when the playwright in me comes out most, I think.

: John Logan, his screenplay has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie is called "Hugo." He joined us from our studio at NPR West.

John, it was a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking with us.

LOGAN: My pleasure.

: Next week, a conversation with playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon. He's nominated, along with Grant Heslov and George Clooney, for Best Adapted Screenplay for the "Ides of March."

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