On Location: Dante Ferretti re-creates Paris in 'Hugo'
When director Martin Scorsese needed to conjure the world of 1920s and 1930s Paris, he turned to his longtime collaborator, Italian production designer Dante Ferretti. A two-time Academy Award winner -- for art direction on Scorsese's "The Aviator" and Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" -- Ferretti has worked with many celebrated directors, including Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola and especially Scorsese. Ferretti, 68, spoke with The Envelope about his relationship with the director and his work on the recently released 3-D film “Hugo,” which is based on Brian Selznick’s bestseller.
How did you get involved in this project?
I was working with Martin Scorsese on “Shutter Island” when he said, “Maybe you could do ‘Hugo.’ ” I knew the book, and I loved it. So when Martin asked me, I said yes. I felt very lucky because it was a very big job. I was born in a little town in Italy. When I was 12 years old, I was friends with the son of the guy who was in charge of the clock tower in the town square. Many times I went with my friend to the tower because his father was sick, and we would go together to charge the clock. When I read the book, I said, “Oh, my God, this is something which is part of my life.”
Wouldn’t it have been easier to film at an actual train station in Paris, instead of building one from scratch?
In this case, it wasn’t easier. First, the period was the 1930s, and it was impossible to shoot in a modern train station. So much of the film takes place in a train station, so we couldn’t stop all the activity in an actual train station for such a long period of time. Also, when you shoot in 3-D, you need more room to shoot because you have more depth. It was much easier to stay in one place than move the entire crew from one location to another.
We filmed a few days in Paris, but most of the movie was shot in England at Shepperton Studios, where we built the train station and the clock tower. We built everything from scratch: all the tunnels, the secret compartments, the bookstores, the bar, the inspector’s office and Georges Méliès’ toy shop. We started work in the beginning of March and finished the stage (150 feet long and 41 feet high) by July. We also built an extension of the train station, including a bridge, an entire graveyard and Georges Méliès’ street and apartment.
What research did you do to create such an authentic-looking set?
Brian Selznick’s book was a like a storyboard. I also visited real train stations like Gare de Lyon in Paris. We had a lot of photographs and books of the period and watched many Georges Méliès and French avant-garde movies to get the right atmosphere and feeling of Paris at the time. We wanted to re-create Georges Méliès’ world.
You also enlisted the help of your wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, with whom you also shared your two Oscars.
She did an incredible job with the set decoration. Almost everything came from Paris, but she also made a lot of stuff from scratch, like 40 huge street lamps. Her team built all the toys in the shop. She put almost 40,000 books inside the book shop.
You’ve worked with many famous directors. What’s different about working with Scorsese?
Working with Martin is really special. He’s my hero because he knows, shot by shot, thousands of movies. He’ll say, “Dante, you have to see this movie,” just for this one shot or scene. I met Martin 30 years ago with Fellini in Rome when we did “City of Women.” He came to visit Fellini, and we had dinner with him at Sergio Leone’s house. He asked me to work on “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but I was with Terry Gilliam on “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” so I said, “I can’t.” When he called me for “The Age of Innocence,” I said, “I’m coming to New York.”
What is it about Italy that produces so many renowned production designers?
Maybe because Italy is a very old story, and we’re surrounded by great art and artists in cities like Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. In my case, I studied fine arts and architecture, but I decided to move into movie design because I grew up in a small town in the Marche region and spent a lot of time after school in the movie theater. I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to design historical movies like “Ben-Hur.” I saw this as my life.
Photo: Dante Ferretti, left, and art director Dave Warren on the set of the movie "Hugo," from Paramount Pictures and GK Films. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount.