'Hugo' Author Explores His Inspiration Up Close

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When Brian O. Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabaret — a graphic novel about an orphan in 1930s Paris — he imagined the secret spaces of a Paris train station. For inspiration, he visited Grand Central Terminal in New York City. But the scenes in the book — hidden tunnels, secret rooms, the giant clock tower — were all drawn from Selznick's imagination and later turned into the movie Hugo by Martin Scorcese, which is nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Selznick recently got to explore Grand Central's secrets for the first time and it turns out that life imitated art in shockingly faithful ways.


Now, a bit of movie magic straight out of the real world. The film, "Hugo," nominated for 12 Academy Awards is about an orphan who lives in a Paris train station. He keeps its clocks running and befriends a girl named Isabel.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick. Though the book is full of drawings of secret rooms and passageways, Selznick had never been behind the scenes of a train station.

That is until he took a tour of the secret Grand Central Terminal in New York City with Andrea Bernstein of member station WNYC.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: In the lower level of Grand Central, Selznick and I meet Danny Bruckner who gives private tours. We join a small group.

DANNY BRUCKNER: Hi, girls and boys. All right, it's just at that magic moment...

BERNSTEIN: When Selznick was drawing pictures for his book, he came to this very spot for inspiration.

BRIAN SELZNICK: So, I invented this whole behind-the-scenes world, behind the walls connecting all the clocks, and then I came here to Grand Central and photographed some of the track.

BERNSTEIN: But Selznick never got further than that. He imagined everything else for Hugo Cabret, a book full of mysteries. Like the one behind the broken automaton left to Hugo by his dead father, whom he remembers in a flashback.


JUDE LAW: (as Hugo's Father) Magicians use machines like this when I was a boy. Some walked. Some danced. Some sang. But the secret was always in the clockwork.


BRUCKNER: Back away from this - this is the door. OK, were in. We're protected.

BERNSTEIN: Now we're out to unlock our own secrets. Bruckner whisks us into an elevator and we ride all the way to the top. It opens onto a hallway.

SELZNICK: That's exactly like...


SELZNICK: ...the scenes with Hugo and Isabel running behind the walls, all of which I had originally made up.

BERNSTEIN: And then we're in the glass catwalk high above the main floor of Grand Central terminal. Unintentionally, our tour guide has evoked a whole other scene from Hugo

SELZNICK: And, you know, Hugo talks about the world being like a machine. And it's just so amazing to watch all these people walking randomly. Yet it forms a kind of giant pattern.


ASA BUTTERFIELD: (as Hugo Cabret) Right after my father died, I'd come up here a lot. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need.

BERNSTEIN: In this scene, Hugo takes you Isabel up to the station's giant clock tower and looks out at Paris through the clock tower's face.


SELZNICK: This is really incredible. We're behind a giant glass clock in the facade of Grand Central Station and it is unbelievable.

BERNSTEIN: This clock is burgundy, blue and yellow. Each hand is about six feet long. You could hang off one of them, just like Hugo does in the movie when he hides from the evil station inspector. To get outside, he has to open a window at the bottom of the clock, just like the one here.


BERNSTEIN: After our tour, Selznick puzzles out what it was like to step into the real clock tower that was so similar to the one he created.

SELZNICK: The fact that one of the numbers actually opened like it does in the movie. It was very uncanny being in the real space after having been in the physical space of the movie, and then the imagined world of it in my head.

BERNSTEIN: An imagined world that gave birth to 12 Oscar nominations.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Bernstein in New York.


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