An Extra Life On… Martin Scorsese's Hugo

Paul W Franklin writes weekly for Bleeding Cool about the life of an Extra.

When somebody asks if you'd like to work on the new Martin Scorsese film, there's only one answer:

You talkin' a me?

And then you realise they're on the phone to you so of course they're talking to you… so the appropriate answer is of course 'Hell yes'.

Which memorable masterpiece will I be honoured to be part of? you wonder. From the infamous director who's barely put a foot wrong (obviously aided by some superb screenwriters), you wonder in what vein the new one will be – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets… Even if his newer fare isn't as great as in his heyday (admittedly I dozed off towards the end of The Departed, and let's not talk about Shitter Island), I was still excited. It has to be said, most of his films have cool titles.

So, what is it, what is it?? I felt like i was on a game show and the Mystery Star Prize was about to be revealed.

'The Invention of Hugo Cabret.'

Sorry, what?

A kids' film.

Come again? This is THE Martin Scorsese? Not some wannabe pretentious 22-year-old film student who changed his name?

Yes.

Ooooo-kay.

The Mystery Star Prize was a weekend in Bognor Regis. A quick search told me that Hugo, as it was known in the film world and now abbreviated to in the real world, is about a 1930s orphan who lives in the walls of a train station and has some kind of toy robot. That's right readers, Scorsese has been kidnapped, lobotomised and is now working for Disney. You heard it here first.

July 2010. I attended a costume fitting where I was forced, against mild protestation, to wear a lovely pale blue moleskin suit, complete with waistcoat and cap. With all the buttons done up, standard bodily actions were greatly restricted.

'Um, it's a little tight, I don't think I can breathe properly.'

'Oh it's fine. Scorsese likes the outfits to be tight.'

Yes, I BET he does.

He likes tight uniforms, he obviously fancies the boyish-looking di Caprio, and now he's working with children. I hope someone's keeping an eye on this guy.

Shooting started, and at Shepperton Studios two large stages had been combined into one, which was dressed up as an art-deco Gare du Nord (Parisian train station), complete with timetables, ticket booths, Dubonnet adverts and smoke. I realise this is the first column I've written where the movie in question has not yet been released, so I won't give away too much. Especially the ending. I can't believe the robot turns evil and it eats all the orphan children with a tiny spoon!

Joking, of course. Robots don't eat.

So the general idea of the scenes we did is that Sacha Baron Cohen is the station chief and he doesn't like this Hugo kid who's living in the station somewhere, and he chases him around in a comical way. Accompanied by a Doberman. And somewhere amongst all that, Chloe Moretz (the girl from Kick-Ass who we all kinda fancied but knew we shouldn't) befriends Hugo and runs around with him. I hope to God – and all other deities – that she busts out the C-word in this film, perhaps in a line such as 'Which of you c***s stole my teddy bear!?', but I seriously doubt it.

You know that thing they say about never working with children and animals? A more extreme version of that would be 'Never work on a film where Martin Scorsese works with children and animals'. The man is a real stickler for details, a definitive perfectionist, and of course you have to admire that. But it's no wonder the shoot was already way over schedule after just a few weeks. Oh and did I mention it's in 3D? (When I first went on set, I saw several of the crew wearing chunky black glasses, which I took to be some sort of Scorsese piss-take/tribute. As it happens they were watching the monitors in 3D glasses. Silly me.) Picture, if you will (or go see the trailer, whatever) a meticulously-dressed set with 200 Extras walking to and fro, carrying baggage, train smoke billowing all around, and thousands of specks of ash drifting down from above onto the throng. In 3D.

Bit of a nightmare to film, if you ask me.

Mr Scorsese of course passed on this painstaking work ethic to all of the crew, especially the set-design and costume people. Someone must've told them that shooting in HD and 3D means the viewer can see every tiny microbe, even on those out-of-focus characters nowhere near the camera:

Did you shave this morning?

Yes.

Wet shave?

Yes.

I can see stubble. Sure you didn't do it the night before?

Alright yeah. But I can hardly see my own face at 4:30am, let alone have the wits to put a razor near it.

Go and wet shave, then join the back of the queue.

Go and suck my dick, then choke on it.

I was even subjected to one make-up lady plucking a hair from my nose and another from under my chin with tweezers. ( I wonder if they're as thorough with HD 3D porn?) But then, as a massive contradiction, some guys managed to go onto set looking like George Michael. Furthermore, gents with little or no hair on their heads were told to have it cut (and get paid for it), while those looking like Captain Caveman as a member of Oasis were told they didn't need one. Who's in charge of all this?! you wonder.

Anyway, on set it was warm. Very warm. When I say 'on' set, it's more like 'in' set, as all the doors were shut and most of them draped with green-screen, and we were trapped inside the hive, 2 or 300 of us buzzing around under the lights. This was the busiest train station I've ever encountered. Businessmen, couples, painters, luggage-handlers, rat-catchers and guards scurried around within inches of each other with barely room to move. I did a quick mental calculation and worked out that around 2 billion people must pass through every day. That's pretty busy.

At first it was a pleasant temperature, but as we bustled around and the lamps warmed the air more and more, it got sweaty. Then uncomfortable. Then dangerous. I decided after an hour or so that the waistcoat I was wearing wasn't even visible under my done-up jacket, and therefore could go. I slipped it in my sexy guard's satchel, along with my bottle of water, and was grateful for small blessings. I can't comprehend how others in their shirts, suits, winter overcoats, hats and gloves coped, I really can't.

To one side of the set were stairs leading to an upper level of the station, which some of us would sidle up and down. Up there it was even hotter. On some of the balmier summer days it hit 40 degrees C. Like a Bikram Yoga session without the strange positions. If you're not sure what that's like, go to your room, put on all your warm woolly winter clothes, switch the fire on and jog around the lounge for a while with all the windows shut. Not pleasant is it. After each take, when it seemed like the shot was in the bag, Extras would edge towards the wings, waiting for the signal. Before the A.D. had even finished saying 'Ok go get some air' we were already rushing for the exits, gulping lungfuls of the stuff and ripping off layers.

Back in set, and I was trying to use ancient ninja techniques I'd seen in bad 80s films to slow my heart rate, and turn off heat and pain sensors. Which seemed to work, to a point, but the side-effect of this was that my Boredom Gland then went into overdrive. Trouble is, marching back and forth whilst pretending to be chirpy about being a Station Guard quickly becomes tedious, and the chances of striking up a half-intelligent conversation with other cretins who've also only had four hours sleep is nigh impossible.

But then temporary relief came in the form of a 2nd A.D.'s impassioned speech. Presumably someone more senior had muttered 'Look at these guys, they look like they don't give a shit!', and so Mr 2nd gathered us round and said: 'I want you all to think about YOUR character. Who are they? Where does he or she come from? What are their plans, where are they going today? Know your backstory, and try and put that into your performance'.

Well, I was moved, I must say. I turned to a not-offensive looking female S.A. and asked her about her character. As if she'd been given a script weeks before, she responded, with all sincerity:

'Her name's Clara. She moved to France to make it as an actress. To fund her trip, she worked in a café bar at night and left her suitor back at home in England.'

Wow.

'And yours?'

I gave it a moment's thought.

'He has no name. He may seem like a lowly guard, but in fact he's a super-efficient killing machine. Under his jacket he has seven types of knife and a garrotte. He plans to assassinate Hugo and steal the girl, and his favourite French word is foufou.'

Presumably thinking I wasn't taking it seriously enough, she turned her back on me.

It was going to be a long few weeks.

Next time: An accident, a fight, a meltdown and more.

Paul W Franklin is a pseudonym.

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

twitter   facebook square   instagram   globe