Sacha Baron Cohen has made us laugh in films such as Borat, Bruno and Talladega Nights. Cohen is flexing his dramatic muscles in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, out in theaters now. Cohen sat down recently to talk about the Hugo filmmaking process, how he found working with a legend in Scorsese as a director and how the history of movies at the heart of Hugo spoke to him on multiple levels.
Movie Fanatic: How did you find working for a film icon in Martin Scorsese on Hugo?
Sacha Baron Cohen: It seems to me that Marty makes films for himself. He is an artist, a true artist and he makes the movie that he wants to see. So my first line in the movie had the word malfeasance in it, which I barely understood. And I said, “Aren’t you worried that some of the children won’t understand this, let alone the grown-ups?” He said, “No, it’s the right word to use there.” And he’s one of the last remaining artists that is out there. And I think we should respect that. The movie is not focus grouped, and it’s not tailored for a seven-year-old in Iowa or Berlin or anywhere to appreciate it. Marty has made a work of art in the same way that Miller did. So I think that is a beautiful thing and it’s an incredible achievement for a filmmaker still to be able to do that. Thanks to Graham for being able to fund that.
Movie Fanatic: What do you think is the key to Scorsese’s success as a filmmaker that you discovered acting on his set?
Sacha Baron Cohen: He’s totally collaborative, which I was surprised about, because I expected him to be some incredible author. He is an author, but part of his power and part of the reason why his films are that successful and that enduring is the fact that he’s ready to collaborate fully with all his actors -- and, in fact, everyone. So any idea that I came up with he was ready to listen to, and surprisingly -- because I came up with some really absurd ideas -- he was ready to try them out. You know, to having a bath with a dog. And one day Asa hurt his hands. He got stepped on, and he had to take the day off. We had nothing to do the next day. I was looking at some old chaplain that Scorsese had given me, some unseen chaplain. And I thought maybe there is a scene of something to do with the train. Maybe his leg got caught in the train. I don’t know if it’s in the final cuts or not. He said, “All right, let’s try it.” I said, “Are you sure? It’s going to involve hundreds of extras and a moving train.” He said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So he was just totally ready at each point to try out any idea however ludicrous the suggestion was, which was wearing for producers and the finances of the movie. But for me, it was great. It was basically like doing improvisation or sketch comedy except you have 500 extras around, and award-winning designers and producers and actors. So it was a lot of fun for me.
Movie Fanatic: Considering the history of film that is explored in Hugo, how did Scorsese get the cast ready for that aspect?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Scorsese always does that with the cast, you know, when it’s set in a specific period, and I had a whole box set of many of his (Georges Melies) films to watch. And hours of it, really, which was hugely useful for me not only to understand his language of cinema, but also how he multi-tasked to an extraordinary degree. When you’re watching the films, you see a great performer. But then, of course, when reading the footnotes, you realize that he wrote, choreographed, directed, edited, designed, starred in with his wife co-starring. I think he must have got about four hours sleep a night because having worked in his glass studio, he then went to the musical in Paris to saw people in half, and do all these kinds of fun things like that. So, yeah, Martin really saturated us with wonderful material to watch.
Movie Fanatic: Scorsese used 3D for the first time in Hugo. How do you think the format fits within the history of filmmaking?
Sacha Baron Cohen: It felt like here’s the logical extension of filmmaking, that if Miller was alive that he definitely would have been using 3D. That was the interesting thing because of the whole debate in cinema at the moment whether 3D is a gimmick or not. Scorsese really showed that it was a logical development of the filmmaking process. And that was fascinating for us really.
Movie Fanatic: Many of your characters are so sexually out there -- like in Borat -- yet in Hugo you are so reserved…
Sacha Baron Cohen: I have a bath with the dog! [Laughs] What happened beneath the bubbles is our business.
Movie Fanatic: Was the appeal of playing a character that has a “normal” romantic interest an appeal for you?
Sacha Baron Cohen: This is actually the first romantic plot I’ve had that’s not been with a black prostitute or a man [laughs]. So it was actually my first. We didn’t actually have a kissing scene, but there was a bit of romance in there. So that was a little bit different. And as for the rest, playing an authority figure, well, he’s a bumbling authority figure. And he’s dark, but he does have some beauty and softness underneath him -- so a bit like my other characters. You know, he’s a mix of things.
Movie Fanatic: Did you build a backstory, or get one from Martin, for your character in Hugo?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yes, when I started to approach the character of the station inspector, I wanted to know why was he so obsessed with chasing children. Was he actually, you know, a class villain or was there reason for his malice? And, I sat down with John and Martin and we started talking about perhaps he was a World War I veteran, and maybe he was injured. So we came up with the idea of the leg brace. Originally, it was a false leg, which the audience wouldn’t have realized until it was going to be the first chase. Then I was going to turn a corner and then my leg was going to fly off and go into the camera in 3D. And that was going to be the first big 3D moment. Unfortunately, practically I was made aware that I would have had to kind of strap up my leg for four months in order to do that. So we kind of abandoned that, and I started wearing a leg brace instead. But yes, there was that whole, you know, we were trying to examine the kind of roots of evil. This station inspector who is doing incredibly unpleasant things, why was he doing that? We kind of realized that maybe he himself was an orphan, and was put away in a work house and that’s the kind of structure that he knew. That’s what he is trying to impose on these young children.