Adolescent actors have to work twice as hard as their grown-up counterparts on a movie set, fitting in their coursework between takes before the camera. On the set of Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," shot over eight months last year in London's Shepperton Studios, 14-year-old Asa Butterfield moved back and forth between the film's faithful recreation of a 1930s Parisian train station and a modern-day classroom, where he absorbed daily doses of reading, writing and arithmetic. But that conventional education paled in comparison to the lessons the young British actor learned on the job.
Scorsese, who won his long-overdue Oscar in 2007 for "The Departed," doesn't work with children very often; his leading actors are usually all grown up A-listers from Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio. Knowing the rarity of the opportunity with which he was presented, Butterfield made sure to absorb as much as he could from the great director as they worked together to tell the story of an orphaned boy living in the walls of a Parisian train station, running the clocks as he tries to repair a broken robot left to him by his late father.
"It was a very different experience, working with him, because he's such a perfectionist," Butterfield says. "You see how long he takes setting up shots, doing things over and over again." Scorsese shot some 135 hours of footage for what would be a two-hour film, and all that repetition, Butterfield says, could be brutal.
"You might do a scene, he'd say, 'Perfect,' but you'd keep doing it over and over again," he recalls with a laugh. Butterfield soon discovered, however, that what might at first seem obsessive -- or even sadistic -- was better understood as generosity. By shooting all those takes, Scorsese was giving Butterfield and his young co-star, Chloe Moretz, the freedom to bring their own youthful selves to the characters.
"Marty let the actors come up with their own ideas," Butterfield says. "Because me and Chloe are kids, we'd come up with a more truthful, realistic representation of how children would react in some situations, rather than an adult thinking how a child would react."
"One of the things that Sir Ben told me was that, 'It's not doing another take, it's getting another chance,'" Butterfield says, referring to Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley.
Butterfield learned a thing or two about method acting from Kingsley, who plays the early-20th-century filmmaker Georges Méliès, and Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the station agent: both actors stayed in character whenever they were on set. "It was weird, because you see so many characters when you look at Sacha," Butterfield says. "You see Borat, you see Bruno, you see Ali G. Seeing him working that way -- it was a bit unnerving."
But the most important lesson dealt not with discipline but with the art form of film itself. "Hugo" spends its second hour exploring the groundbreaking work of Méliès and making the case for film preservation, in what amounts to a grand PSA for Scorsese's pet cause. It was important for the young actor, who had never seen the silent films of Méliès's era, to understand what his character was fighting for.
"Marty gave me loads of homework, as he called it," Butterfield says, laughing again. "Loads of films by Georges and other old filmmakers and things that inspired him to become a director as well. So yeah, I learned loads by doing the film, about old films... It was a completely new experience, and it gave me a whole new view on filmmaking."