Where Hugo Cabret was Shot
Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, is set in Paris, but nearly the entire movie was shot on a studio stage, in the spirit of George Méliès, one might say, on whose life story much of the film is based. (The silent movie pioneer, a master of the “artificial”, the fantastic and surreal, really did operate a toy shop in the Gare de Montparnasse for several years after WWI.)
The puzzle is not so much why Scorsese preferred to recreate 1920s Paris in a studio but why he bothered to shoot on location at all, and then only for scenes that are of secondary importance to the narrative and that do not enrich or embroider the film’s visual impact in any meaningful way.
The two scenes in question were shot on Place Edouard VII – we can clearly see the king’s statue behind the two youthful protagonists – and, just fifty metres away, on Square de l’Opéra Louis Jouvet where Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a cinema.
Scorsese could easily enough have done for these two scenes what he did for all the others: shoot them on a stage in Shepperton, delivering an entirely studio-based film, which is what Baz Luhrmann did a few years ago for a similar project of high artifice (Moulin Rouge). That would have saved his producers the expense of hiring 30 vintage cars and 250 extras and of paying 250 technicians, some of them undoubtedly flown in at great cost.
And to top it all, for his two “on location scenes” for Hugo Cabret, Scorsese chose a couple of Parisian side streets that are lined with English shops, English pubs and, of course, that feature the statue of an English king.
Either this shows that the Paris locations for Hugo were not chosen with particular care – or it is an underhand way of showing where the movie’s real heart lies.
Because Hugo’s gloomy side streets, its labyrinthine maze of dark passages and the story’s set of characters (featuring violent drunks, merciless coppers and embattled orphans) appear to owe more to Charles Dickens’s London than to the “real” Paris of the interwar years – so memorably depicted in Midnight in Paris.
And, before any of you ask: no, you would not have been able to look down on the Eiffel Tower from the original clock tower of the Gare Montparnasse – not least because the Eiffel Tower was, at the time, the highest building in Europe.
That is the part of the film that owes its setting to the imagination of its creators – and mere fantasy.