The first 10 minutes of Martin Scorsese’s latest feature “Hugo” is an overture of sorts. It introduces the film’s main setting, Paris’ Montparnasse train station in 1931, and its central characters: titular hero Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives clandestinely in the station; the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo’s seriocomic nemesis; Papa Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), the embittered owner of the station’s toy shop and a man with a secret connection to the dawn of cinema; and Isabel (Chloe Grace Moretz), the shopkeeper’s bookish goddaughter.
Shot virtually without dialogue, the sequence rises and falls on three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore’s lustrous score.
“The score uses a lot of themes and motifs and variations,” says Shore, who also recently scored “A Dangerous Method,” his 10th collaboration with David Cronenberg. “It’s written in an older style. In the first reel of the film, the first 10 minutes, you hear seven main themes of the film. It’s a very through-composed piece. … The score is about an hour and 45 minutes — a really extensive score for one of Marty’s films.”
Shore took some measure of inspiration from the film’s source material, author-artist Brian Selznick’s copiously illustrated 2007 book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which served as a virtual storyboard for the picture.
Shore says, “Not only is the writing very good, but the illustrations and the design of the book are wonderful. So it brought me into the story very early, in a very vivid way.”
Since “Hugo” is a period film, Shore gravitated to instruments that played a prominent role in Gallic music from the late 1890s through the early 1930s.
He says, “The ondes Martenot (an early electronic keyboard from the late ’20s) was used. Other solo instruments included guitars and percussion from the late ’20s/early ’30s. Piano was also used very specifically for a sound from the late ’20s … (I also used) musette, a French accordion.”
Shore adds: “Symphony orchestra was the primary instrument used, and then there’s a sextet, a small group, that was really part of the orchestra, and they became the soloists that you hear through the film.”
While Scorsese is noted for his evocative use of source music, little is heard besides snatches of work by contemporaneous French composers Erik Satie and Camille Saint-Saens, whose music is heard in some key sequences recreating the early days of silent filmmaking.
“Saint-Saens was a composer whom you would have heard, whose music might have been played in a silent film tent, in a sideshow or a carnival,” Shore says. “You would have heard this music being played in a theater.”
With his work on “Hugo” wrapped, Shore has moved on to renewed collaboration with another director who has played a key role in his career: He has started writing for the two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” by Peter Jackson, whose “Lord of the Rings” trilogy earned the composer three Oscars.
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