Hugo takes place in Paris in 1931 and tells the tale of an orphan who lives behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse railway station. Befriended by a young girl named Isabelle and hunted by the Station Inspector, Hugo seeks to solve the mystery his father left behind – a mystery embodied by an imperturbable automaton. Hugo eventually encounters Papa Georges, who grieves for his own past and, like Hugo, is haunted by what he has lost to time and circumstance.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brain Selznick’s 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret is many things. It is a love letter to mid-twentieth century Parisian culture; an ode to the early days of film; a tender story about loss, loneliness, and deliverance; and an experiment in modern cinematic technique. But most of all, it is a story of characters and passions. The same can be said of Howard Shore’s score. It is an amalgam of forward-thinking technique and old-fashioned storytelling. It’s both an homage to a fascinating period in the budding art of film music, and a continued evolution of Shore’s deeply personal compositional voice. However, as befits the story, the score’s primary concerns are place, people, and heart.
“Hugo is very detailed in its use of motifs and themes,” says Shore. “It’s an older style as we know, but Hugo had a pretty traditional type of approach to using themes for characters and objects. Marty really got into it. It’s such a nice way to work.
“It started off right away. I wrote the first reel, and it had seven themes in it. And I thought, ‘Oh ok, I know where we’re going!’”
The score’s first theme is built of interlocking fragments of ticking arpeggios, which represent the great clocks behind which Hugo builds his home. “It’s all eighths and quarters working together like the gears of a clock.”
The clockwork theme often underpins Shore’s mystery theme, which depicts the puzzle Hugo inherits from his father. Here the melodic line passes slowly and steadily, falling by recurrent octaves in piano.
“Hugo’s theme is a waltz that turns into ‘Coeur Volant,’” Shore describes. “It was written by me, Elizabeth Cotnoir and Isabelle Geffroy, whose professional name is ‘Zaz.’ She’s a French artist who lives in Paris. She worked with us and performed the song. It was similar to the way we worked with Annie Lennox. We had some melody, we had some lyrics, and then we worked with the artist who was actually going to perform it. Zaz added some nice elements.”
Isabelle’s theme is closely related to Hugo’s in spirit and flavor. Each has a lonely, isolated quality that warms as the score progresses. “Isabelle comes into the toy store and you hear the solo musette for the first time.
“There’s also a theme that’s heard in the tunnels. It’s a traveling piece. I used it in various places in the film for Hugo’s movement.”
The automaton that Hugo’s father left behind is decorated with the most exotic orchestrations in Shore’s score, but they’re subtly applied. The short motif for the machine rotates through and around B minor tonalities, and is often orchestrated for strings, celesta, harp, and the delicate electronic tone of the ondes Martenot, a kind of French theremin that was created in 1928 and employs a standard piano-like keyboard with a sliding metal ring.
Finally, the Station Inspector’s theme is a rigid marche comique featuring cornet, bassoon, and snare drum, which is heightened then expanded into any number of burlesque contortions as the inept Inspector chases Hugo throughout the station. “I experimented with many different trumpet sounds, and I ended up trying a cornet. At the same time I was also experimenting with different mutes – wooden mutes, paper mutes, brass mutes – and found a certain sound that I loved: cornet with a wooden mute. I used that in many scenes.”
With these seven themes assembled, Shore was prepared to start into the 105 minutes of score that Hugo would eventually require – an unusual amount for a Scorsese project.
Doug Adams: There’s a real depth to the writing in this score. At times it feels like it’s a smaller ensemble folded into a larger ensemble. It’s such a beautiful way to do it because it puts you in the mindset of three-dimensional imagery. You think of things in proximity to the listener. Intimate things are close-up, larger-scale things are broader.
Howard Shore: That was one of the things I wanted to do very early on. I had not previously worked on 3D films, but I wanted to make sure I had a lot of depth to the sound of the recording, so I used a pretty big orchestra: triple winds, brass in threes, 60 strings, and percussion.
The orchestra was about 88 total, and then I used a second smaller group, which became its own little band in the middle. It was the sextet: the ondes Martenot, musette, gypsy guitar, piano, bass, and drums. We used an old 30s drum-kit.
DA: That’s great. All the old woodblocks and that …
HS: Right, there’s woodblock, and old cymbals, and snare drum.
I also used a variety of pianos. The tack piano is actually Mrs. Mills’ piano. It’s a very famous piano that McCartney used on “Lady Madonna.” They’ve had it in Abbey Road’s Studio Two for years, so they rolled that out. I used that quite a lot. It’s a beautiful old Steinway. It has a good tuning, but it’s got that ‘tack’ sound. I don’t think they’ve done much to it; it’s just an old beat-up piano!
Mrs. Mills had a TV show in the UK. Everybody knew the piano. They all called it “Mrs. Mills’ piano” and made a whole thing of bringing it out! I actually tried other pianos – small uprights –but we ended up with Mrs. Mills’. A lot of the ivories are gone, and when the ivories are missing the keys are very rough. So Simon Chamberlain’s hands would be raw and sore! He’d be playing all these very fast things, and the piano had no ivory or plastic or anything on the keys.
The sextet was really the core. I did twelve sessions with the sextet on its own before I worked with the orchestra. I did a lot of recording with them over the course of about five months; I would write, and then I would do a live session with the group. Marty never uses temp – he never puts anything in the film that doesn’t belong in the film – so whatever I was writing and recording, he would put in the film. He likes to screen the movie a lot. So it was a way to watch the film with the right music in it.
DA: I loved the use of the ondes Martenot in the sextet, because it doesn’t play a novelty role. You’re just using it as another woodwind; it sits right in that family. It has that beautiful color but it doesn’t draw undue attention to itself.
HS: That’s right. It’s used like a woodwind, exactly. It’s such a beautiful instrument. It’s subtly used.
DA: The sextet is creating a very ‘French’ type of sound, but it still feels like it’s entirely connected to the score. It doesn’t feel like you’re using a different voice and then going back to the score proper. It’s all one self-contained sound. That’s got to be a tough thing to accomplish.
HS: Well, I think that’s just from orchestrating it myself. I get into these grooves. It would have been a hard score to do with a lot of different people. The completeness is why I like to do the orchestration.
DA: The other thing that struck me about the consistency of the score was the harmonic language. If you look at Hugo’s theme, even when it transforms into the song, it never becomes a I-IV-V-I thing. You’re not just doing a folk tune. It still has the changes that are so much a part of your voice, things like the augmented chords and so on. That made it feel like it was an extension of the score.
HS: I think that’s because you’ve heard this music all through the film, so it seems it’s most satisfying to hear a lyric at the end. When you hear that voice come in, it’s like: “Ah, we’re home!” It just feels so good … if you get it right!
DA: It’s a sense of completion, like all the parts came together to make something – a last statement.
HS: Exactly. I love that. The lyric by Elizabeth is so beautiful, and hearing Zaz sing the song in French is just so gorgeous.
DA: It’s such a beautiful language anyway.
HS: Exactly. And it just feels so natural. The lyrics are really beautiful. They’re about the boy and the girl, and about time and healing. It’s a nice completion.
One of the things I love about writing film music is that I can delve into these musical periods. They’re so interesting. Like the world of Naked Lunch, or Ed Wood, or Georges Méliès, or The Aviator. That was always a major attraction – to be able to live in these worlds. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to work in 1930s Paris? Or with the Lumière brothers or Méliès’ in the late 1800s.
DA: The last themes in the score deal with Méliès, yes?
HS: Yes. With Georges Méliès in the last half of the film I started to develop the Nostalgia theme. It has to do with the past. So that’s the theme of his magic show, and the early days of cinema. It’s used all throughout the ending of the film.
You know, people forget that the silent film era was actually over 30 years long.
DA: Yes, we think of that period like a flash in the pan, but it was around a long time.
HS: From around 1895 – that was the Lumière brothers – up to the beginning of recorded dialogue and The Jazz Singer in 1927. But the silent era was never silent. It always had music. That’s fascinating to me. In Hugo they show the Lumière brothers’ film A Train Comes into the Station [(L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat)], and it has a man playing a piano into a tent. It’s in a sideshow, like in a carnival. He’s playing Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. I really wanted to get Saint-Saëns into the film because, as we know, Saint-Saëns was the first film composer.
DA: That’s right. Just about the very first, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise [(L'Assassinat du duc de Guise]).
HS: You hear his work predominantly in a couple of key spots. Danse Macabre was from 1874, and it was a popular classical piece. It was a very dark piece – people weren’t used to that kind of music evoking rituals.
DA: The figure of death on his violin and all that.
HS: Yeah, exactly! So it was a very popular piece, and of course the Lumière brothers’ silent films were also a popular type of entertainment. And people were frightened by it! A Train Comes into the Station was tremendously frightening to people. People thought the train was going to run them over! That sort of reminds me of 3D. Méliès was an early experimenter with stereoscopic images, and coloring the film, and creating special effects around the turn of the century. It was a pretty unusual thing to be doing, but he was such an innovator.
It’s so fascinating, the silent era. It was the birth of all film music. What was played in those movie theaters became what we associate now with film. It went up through Waxman, Korngold, and Steiner. Everybody that came after the silent films started with this classical idea of music in film.
DA: It’s such a fascinating period. We think of that as such a logical combination now – a film will almost always have music whether it’s an original score, or songs, or source, or whatever. But somebody had to have that idea. They had to think, “We’ll use music, it’ll help the storytelling.” People take that for granted, “Of course it’s there, it has to be.” But somebody thought of that. That was an idea; that was an innovation.
Hugo puts you right back in that world of large productions and traditional narrative music. That’s a good place to be as you move into the next year, yes?
HS: Yes, Hugo was a good lead-up for The Hobbit.
DA: It puts you in that thematic mindset again?
HS: Exactly, yes. It brought me back into that whole process. It was a bigger film score than I had done for a while in terms of the amount of music, and how the music was used in the film. It’s not quite as long as The Hobbit will be, but it was a very similar process in terms of composing. The composition took basically five months, and the production was pretty extensive – two months of orchestration, two months of recording/editing/mixing. So Hugo was like a mini Rings score.
Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King