On the phone from his home in Brooklyn, Brian Selznick, author of illustrated novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” sounds more like your witty Jewish cousin from New York than the creator of a story involving 1931 Paris, automatons and the magical work of the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès.
In a breezy conversation recently, the 45-year-old Selznick was ironic, hilarious and even self-deprecating as he described an artistic slump that almost derailed him as well as the experience of writing “Hugo” and having Martin Scorsese turn the book into a film. “If my father,” who was an accountant, he said, “had lived to see Martin Scorsese make a movie out of one of my books, it would have killed him — he would have been in such shock, he would have dropped dead of a heart attack.”
Nominated for 11 Oscars, more than any other film, “Hugo” is faithful to Selznick’s dialogue, as well as to the more than 280 pictures in the thick tome, which reads like a silent movie.
Both book and film begin with a sweeping pan through a Paris train station, which zooms in on the eyes of a boy peering through one of the station’s gigantic clocks. This is Hugo, played in the film by Asa Butterfield, an urchin abandoned by his uncle, the previous caretaker of the station’s clocks. So that no one notices his uncle is gone, Hugo has taken it upon himself to clandestinely care for the clockworks, lest he be carted off to an orphanage. In his dusty hidden quarters, Hugo has a secret: He is also repairing an automaton that once belonged to his father, convinced that the mechanical man will be able to draw a message from his beloved deceased parent.
To fix the automaton, Hugo steals metal parts from an embittered toy seller, who turns out to be Georges Méliès (played in the film by Ben Kingsley), creator of such classic films as 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon,” before going broke and ending up running a toy booth at the Montparnasse train station. As the mystery of Hugo’s automaton unfolds, the boy and the filmmaker embark upon a healing journey with the help of Méliès’ stepdaughter, Isabel (Chloe Grace Moretz).
“A broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo tells Isabelle. “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.”
Selznick can relate; his own journey to artistic fulfillment was long and sometimes fraught. Growing up in East Brunswick, N.J., his social life revolved around his temple youth group and traveling to Israel on a scholarship when he was 16. But his obsessions lay with movie monsters and with magicians such as Harry Houdini as well as with Méliès. The young Brian was also keen on the exploits of the famous studio mogul David O. Selznick, his great-uncle.
“Actually my grandfather, Benjamin, and David O. grew up hating each other and spent the rest of their lives never speaking,” Brian Selznick said. “After my grandfather died, my grandmother decided that, in fact, David. O. and her husband had been very close — probably because he was famous and it made a better story. But it was always fun to see my last name at the beginning of one of his films, like ‘King Kong.’ ”
Although he was always a talented artist, Selznick stubbornly rejected suggestions that he should become a children’s book illustrator, finding the idea “vaguely insulting,” he said with a laugh. So much so that while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, Selznick refused to attend a lecture by the renowned children’s author Maurice Sendak.
“I was an idiot my entire childhood and pretty stupid all through college,” he said, wryly.
Eventually Selznick relented, writing and illustrating a book called “The Houdini Box,” but then felt he had “hit a wall” when he became typecast as an illustrator of biographies for kids. Disillusioned, he quit working for six months and reached out to Sendak, author of iconic books such as “Where the Wild Things Are,” which Selznick was tickled to learn was inspired by Sendak’s Jewish immigrant relatives. Sendak took the younger artist under his wing: “You can draw, but you haven’t reached your potential,” he told Selznick. “Push beyond what you think you can do.”
Selznick did just that when he read a book on the history of automatons and discovered that Méliès had donated his own collection of robots to a museum, where they were left to decay in an attic and eventually were thrown away. He imagined a boy coming upon and rescuing an automaton from the garbage, and thus the seeds of “Hugo Cabret” were sown.
And, with it, a new genre of books: “I thought, ‘What if I tell part of the story like a movie, where pictures wouldn’t just illustrate, but would move the story forward?’ ” he said. “I used the drawings to mimic what happens in films — to edit, zoom in and zoom out.
“I can’t write; I think visually,” Selznick added. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you make children’s books; that must be really fun.’ And I’m, like, ‘Are you crazy? It’s so not.’ But what’s fun is getting to tell stories I love, and finding out about different things that interest me, like French silent movies, or automatons. But the process is hell.”
Selznick’s 2007 “Hugo Cabret” went on to win a Caldecott Medal for children’s picture books, and it wasn’t long before Scorsese came calling. Selznick was initially shocked that the celebrated filmmaker of gore-fests like “GoodFellas” would want to adapt his book to make his first family film and 3-D effort. But it made sense, he reflected, given that Scorsese is a devoted scholar and activist in the preservation of the history of cinema. During a trip to Paris several years ago, Selznick tracked down Méliès’ gravesite at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. There he drew a little card featuring Méliès’ stunning image of a rocket landing in the eye of the Man in the Moon with the words: “From a fan in America: Thank you.”
In a way, Selznick feels he has Méliès to thank for his upcoming trip to the Oscars ceremony on Feb. 26. “I’d like to wear Hugo Boss, so I can say I’m ‘wearing’ Hugo,” he said.