Best known for his gritty adult dramas "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Mean Streets," "Goodfellas," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed," Scorsese is equally renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and advocacy for film preservation. This marks his first family movie.
"I made this book thinking it could not be filmed because the book, at the end of the story, the object of the book itself actually becomes part of the plot. And what happens when you turn the page because a big chunk of the narrative in my book is told with images like a movie. But even so, it's celebrating movies. It's really about what happens when you turn the page, and the power of the book itself," Selznick, who is distantly related to "Gone with the Wind" and "King Kong" producer David O. Selznick, told reporters in New York recently.
"I got the call that Scorsese wanted to make it," remembered the 45-year-old New Jersey native. "And I thought, 'Well, maybe this actually can be a movie.' And, I realized I never would have thought of him. Like, if someone had asked me, 'Who would you imagine directing this movie?' But, of course, the second we hear his name, we all realize there was no one else who could have made this movie."
"Hugo," Scorsese's magical film based on Selznick's book, is up for a leading 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, going into Sunday's Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles.
The movie is about Hugo, an orphan played by Asa Butterfield, who secretly lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris and takes care of all its clocks. The boy, who has a gift for fixing broken machines, strikes up a friendship with the once-great but forgotten filmmaker Georges Melies, as well as his wife, Jeanne, and their goddaughter Isabelle, played by Ben Kingsley, Helen McCrory and Chloe Grace Moretz, respectively.
Given his family connection to classic American cinema, Selznick said he grew up loving movies and excited by seeing his last name at the beginning and end of some of the best. The author went on to say he received "an amazing education" in early French film while researching his book.
"It was really incredible and definitely was one of my favorite parts of making the book was discovering this entire part of cinema," he recalled.
"So, when I got the call that Marty wanted to make this movie -- after the initial shock passed, which actually it still hasn't entirely passed. You know, knowing that he would then, of course, have gotten all of the references that are made in the book to these movies, and then be able to use these references for the film themselves, and bring God knows what else to it, the entire history of cinema to it, is amazing," Selznick said.
Asked if he thinks it might be a tough sell to get children to sit through a film that is more than 2 1/2 hours, regardless of how good it is, Selznick countered: "The book I wrote is 530 pages, and a lot of people had this same comment about the book, 'Will kids be able to sit through the book?'
"But I think that the story that Marty has captured on the screen is something that will carry kids through. Of course, there's going to be individual kids who are fidgety," he acknowledged. "There are going to be individual adults who were fidgety during 'Gone with the Wind' or anything. ... And I've talked to a lot of kids now who have seen the movie, as well. The ones I have talked to have been really, really thrilled and excited about what it is."
The author admitted he took a bit of a gamble writing the book, given its length and subject matter.
"In real life, I was thinking I was writing something no one would read because it's a book about French silent movies for children, which isn't a guaranteed best seller," he said of the novel which eventually became a critical and commercial hit, as well as the winner of the literary world's prize, the Caldecott Medal. "It's as if I did all of that for Marty. ... I think this might be the first illustrated book that Marty has adapted. I don't think there are drawings in 'Age of Innocence.' I haven't read it."
"When I got the cast list, and I saw who was being cast, I was like: 'Oh, my God. They all look exactly like the people who I drew.' And the person I was most nervous about meeting was Asa as Hugo because Sir Ben is playing a real person. But I made him up and there he was, Asa."
"Hugo" is due out on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday.