For 'Hugo' Author Brian Selznick, Life (Thankfully) Imitates Art

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The author, whose children's book was turned into a Martin Scorsese-directed, Academy Award-nominated film, is starting to resemble some of his own characters.

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Paramount Pictures

In his lavishly illustrated books for children, author-artist Brian Selznick writes about magic—but not the wand-waving, quidditch-broom kind. Selznick takes up the real-life wonders conjured by history's big dreamers: the impossible illusions of Harry Houdini; the phantasmagoric landscapes of cinema's first auteur, George Méliès; the iconic exhibitions in New York's Museum of Natural History. Once a well-published but little-known illustrator, Selznick has catapulted to the very top of his profession in recent years. In this regard, he's starting to resemble his characters—visionaries who dream big dreams and strive, against great odds, to make them real.

Selnick's biggest success to date is The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), which won the country's most prestigious illustrator's prize, the Caldecott Medal, and was the basis for Martin Scorsese's film adaptation, Hugo (2011). The film's many Oscar nominations has resulted in a redoubled interest in the original; since the Academy's announcement on January 24th, Hugo Cabret ranks in the top five of the New York Times children's bestseller list, even beating Selnick's latest offering, the popular and acclaimed Wonderstruck (2011).

Hugo's story unfolds in Paris, 1931. He's an orphan who winds the clocks in Montparnasse Station; a broken automaton leads him to a disgruntled and disenchanted toymaker who we gradually discover is the filmmaker Georges Méliès. In time, Méliès rewards Hugo for his creativity, persistence, and technical skill. In turn, Hugo helps Méliès, who has renounced his career, remember how to make-believe.

Oscar Wilde claimed that life tends to imitate art, but in Selznick's case, the parallels are downright spooky. Hugo Cabret's fictional storyline foreshadows events the real-life book brought about: a talented but hard-up artist (Hugo/Selznick) joins forces with a famed director looking for a new story (Méliès/Scorsese). It's only one of many ways that Hugo's journey has been as strange, surprising, and delightfully unlikely as a Brian Selznick plotline.

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AS SELZNICK NOTES in The Hugo Movie Companion, his vibrant, behind-the-scenes treatise on Hugo's path from print to screen, Méliès fell into debt and out of fashion late in his career. His studio closed and his films were only worth the celluloid that they were stored on. During World War I, the French government melted down Méliès' archive to make boot heels—a vicious irony for a child of cobbler parents who'd turned to cinema to escape the awl and hammer.

The specter of failed promise haunts Hugo Cabret, in part because the book was written as Selznick struggled with his own creative and professional frustrations. Hugo's wrecked automaton, originally built to draw and write at the turn of a crank, can no longer perform its functions; by 2002, Selznick feared the same fate for himself.

"I hit a point where I thought I might not work anymore," he told me in a phone interview last week. "I felt like there was something else I should be doing, but I didn't know what it was."

At the time, Selznick had what he calls "a very good career" creating illustrations for other authors' books. But somehow, the thrill had gone out of his work. Editors seemed to offer him only one kind of project—illustrating children's picture book biographies, like ones he'd made about Amelia Earhart and the Victorian artist Waterhouse Hawkins. An illustrated book about Walt Whitman, eventually published in 2004, proved especially difficult—"Whitman just isn't a children's poet in any way," Selznick told me, laughing—and afterwards, he decided to take some time off. "I didn't want to illustrate any more biographies," he said, "but I didn't have any other ideas." For an alarming six-month period, he didn't work at all.

It was during this time that Selznick met one of his artistic heroes: Maurice Sendak, the iconic author-illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. Growing up, Selznick told me, he bristled at friendly suggestions that he make books for children. As an undergraduate at RISD, he skipped a campus lecture by Sendak, whose work he'd never seen, just to prove a point. "I didn't know anything about the genre, or what children's books could do," he told me. "It was my own ignorance, but they didn't interest me." Over time Selznick "came to his senses." The second time around, he was thrilled to meet one of the genre's modern masters.

"Sendak and I became friends and would have long conversations," Selznick said. "He'd just finished a big book, I think it was Brundibar, and he was in between projects, too. He wasn't sure what was next, I wasn't sure what was next." The challenging Whitman book, by happy coincidence, helped solidify their bond: "He'd just started reading Whitman for the first time in his life, and had fallen in love with him. We had these long, amazing talks about Whitman's life and poems."

Then the crucial moment came. "He asked me to send him a box of my books," Selznick recalled, "because he didn't really know my work." And so he looked. As it turned out, Sendak--who is famously forthright and blunt—had mixed reviews for his new disciple. "He basically said 'You know, you're very talented. I see that you can draw. But you haven't reached your potential yet. There's more in you.'"

The lukewarm, almost backhanded quality of this reaction—you're good, but you could be better—initially baffled Selznick. "At first, I had no idea what it meant," he said. "I was proud of the books I'd made before Hugo." On the other hand, Sendak's response resonated with Selznick's own feeling that he needed a new direction, and that he still had more to give. "That was the bottom line," he told me. "When someone like Maurice Sendak tells you that you have more potential than what you're reaching, you don't ignore that."

Selznick began reading widely, just to cast his imagination around, and by chance he discovered the book that set everything into motion: Gaby Wood's Edison's Eve, which explores the human desire to create lifelike mechanized creatures. To Selznick's surprise, the book had a whole chapter on George Méliès, who had built and collected automatons throughout his life. Méliès' automations, he learned, were donated to a French museum after his death, where they were stored in an attic and eventually destroyed by rain.

Years before, after seeing Méliès' masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon (1902), Selznick had vaguely considered writing a book about him. This time, the poignant detail about the ruined machines stayed with him. "This weird story began to percolate," Selznick said, "about a boy who finds this broken machine that leads him to the French filmmaker George Méliès. I just started working on it, because I had nothing else to do."

Once he started, Selznick quickly became enthusiastic about the project. "I got completely caught up with the story, and the research," he told me. "I spent two and a half years immersing myself in Hugo's world." He steeped himself in early French cinema, watching hours of Méliès' work and films by other directors like Jean Vigo, Rene Clair, and Jean Renoir. He visited the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to view historic automatons in the cog-wheel flesh--there, he discovered the writing, drawing Maillardet automaton that inspired the one in Hugo. Finally, he traveled to Paris to research the life and culture of the city in the 1930s, and to learn more about Méliès. He tracked down an apartment once tenanted by the filmmaker, as well as his grave.

Selznick was doubtful that the book would find an audience, and insists that Hugo was initially a personal and aesthetic venture, not a career or professional decision. "I was working on a children's book about French silent movies," he told me, laughing. "This was not a guaranteed bestseller at the time. I thought I was spending years on a book that no one would ever read."

Still, a nugget of Sendak's wisdom fortified him against self-doubt: "Maurice was the person who said to me, 'you know, Brian, you have to make the book you want to make.'"

AS IT TURNED OUT, the author and his protagonist had a lot in common. Hugo wanted to fix his broken automaton in the hope it would write out a message from his father. Selznick saw the whole book as a cracked machine, one that would write and draw itself if only he could find the right parts. "I started feeling like all these pieces of the story that I was moving around were part of the machine," he said. "Like, is Hugo's father alive? Is he dead? Is he the good guy? Is he the bad guy? And what does the automaton write?" Like Hugo, the author had no idea what the automaton would do when finally switched on. He worked for a year and a half before he unlocked the secret message trapped within in the mechanical hand.

When Hugo and Isabelle first turn the key inside the mechanical man, he appears, at first, to write--a series of unfathomable, runic pen-scratchings. His hopes are dashed; the robot is unfixable, and Hugo feels broken himself. But then it becomes clear that what seemed to be writing is actually drawing—a picture, heavily crosshatched like a Selznick illustration, appears on the page. "The mechanical man hadn't been writing," Hugo's narrator tells us, "it was drawing!" This moment, though crucial to the plot, also dramatizes a moment in the author's own creative awakening—his eventual realization that artwork, not text, would be crucial to Hugo's conception.

Selznick decided that he wanted his drawings to reflect the conventions of early cinema, but he wasn't sure how. Inspired by the "wild rumpus" section from Where the Wild Things Are, in which the words drop out entirely and the illustrations take the story's reigns, he began experimenting with full-spread illustrations that contained no text. This, he found, approximated the way silent films alternate between text and moving pictures—without ever using both at once. Additionally, he was thrilled by the way the illustrations gave the reader special agency. The reader of a prose page typically flips when he's finished all the words, but an illustrated page without text gives the reader more control—like a viewer in a museum gallery, the reader can stare for a long time, or a little.

When applied to Hugo Cabret, Selznick told me, this technique "makes time an aspect of the storytelling—how you move forward through the book, and at what pace you go, becomes part of the experience." The book's presentation self-consciously hints at these temporal and mechanical dimensions: divided into two long sections of 12 chapters each, the structure calls to mind the daily double-orbit that an hour-needle makes around a clock.

ANOTHER MAJOR INFLUENCE on the book's illustrations was Remy Charlip--a children's author and friend of Selznick's who, by another strange chance, closely resembles George Méliès (art imitated life again when Charlip became the model for the drawings of Méliès in Hugo). His essay "A Page is a Door" concludes this way:

"A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book's unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page."

With Charlip in mind, Selznick became enchanted with notion that page-turning is the book creator's first, best magic trick. What sleights-of-hand could he accomplish? "I started thinking about how you can turn the page and simulate some of the things that simulate that happen in the cinema," he told me, "the way that the camera can zoom in or pan across something, or cut form one moment to the next, or watch something unfold like a tracking shot." Drawing on small pages—3 by 4 inches, an homage to the scale used by the Maillardet automaton for its illustrations—Selznick began replacing the book's prose action scenes with picture sequences.

"The book immediately grew from 150 pages to 500 pages," he told me. "Take the line, 'Victor followed the old man home.' 'Followed' is a verb, and you can't really convey a verb very strongly in a single image. It's action. So that became six drawings of Victor following Hugo through the streets of Paris. And because every drawing is on a double page spread, that became twelve pages. So six words became 12 pages. The size of the book blew up."

The final book is a wonder to behold. At 533 pages, The Invention of Hugo Cabret stands several inches off the table. There are 142 illustrations across 284 pages--over half the book is drawn. The prose sections contain ever-shifting amounts of white margin space, speeding and slowing the time it takes to read a page. The illustrated sections are a marvel, too—you can stare at each one like a museumgoer before a series of high art canvases, or you can turn the pages quickly, frames of film running through a projector. In this way, Selznick says, the pictures help "invite the reader into the process of telling the story." In length, subject, and execution, Hugo is unique among children's books, a curiosity and a treasure unlike any other.

While preparing for this piece, I got to see Hugo Cabret start to work its magic upon an unsuspecting young person. I was on the train reading when a boy sat down next to me, fiddling with a Nintendo DS. Each time I reached a picture section, he'd peer up from his game at the tome outstretched across my lap, watching me turn the pages. I think he started to suspect that, between the two of us, I had the better toy.

THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET met with the kind of universal, high-profile acclaim that most illustrators dream about but very few receive. Publishers Weekly called Hugo "a true masterpiece." It was a #1 New York Times bestseller. It won the Caldecott Medal, and was a National Book Award finalist. But the most gratifying praise came from Maurice Sendak. "He told me that this was the book he was waiting for, that he knew was in me," Selznick said. "And that, of everything that's happened, is one of the most satisfying and amazing things."

Before Hugo was even published, an advance review copy ended in the hands of Martin Scorsese. The Departed producer Graham King initially passed the thick book on, insisting that Scorsese would love Hugo's story and sophisticated homage to early film. But before he even cracked the spine, Scorsese noted a filmic lineage in author's last name. Brian Selznick is a distant cousin of David O. Selznick, who helped make many classic movies, including Gone With the Wind and the original King Kong. The first film Scorsese ever saw was "Duel in the Sun," a David O. Selznick picture, a coincidence that links artistry and genealogy, just like the twists in Hugo.

In an interview with Selznick in the Hugo Companion Book, Martin Scorsese says that "the goal of the storyteller is to strike a balance between realism and myth"; Selznick remembers being happy when Scorsese said a version of the same thing during their first meeting. "One of my goals with Hugo was to make a magical fantasy story without using any actual magic," Selznick told me--he wanted his book to navigate a space between the miraculous and the entirely-possible. "Realizing that we were going to have Martin Scorsese translating that same idea onto screen was such a big thrill."

Ultimately, Scorsese's vision met Selznick's high expectations. "I love the movie," he told me. "I think it's brilliant--and one of the most satisfying things to me is how faithful Scorsese and John Logan, the writer, and all the collaborators, were to my work." Scorsese had a copy of Hugo with him for the entire shoot, and he referred to it constantly; Selznick's drawings ended up being used as storyboards for the film. "I didn't work directly on the movie," Selznick continued (though he has a brief credited cameo in the final scene), "but I feel like they all worked with me—because they used my book so completely."

THIS MONTH, in the latest of a long string of surprises, happy coincidences, and unexpected parallels, Scorsese's film has garnered a field-leading 11 Oscar nominations. And so Hugo's public story will end in the same manner as the book and movie: at a red carpet event in a bright theatre filled with cinaphiles (though it will be Hollywood this time instead of Paris). No matter who walks away with the Best Picture trophy on Oscar night, it's already clear that Brian Selznick is one of the night's big winners.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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