Tech Support Interview: Howard Shore lends aural depth to the visual palette of ‘Hugo’

Posted by · 4:23 pm · February 9th, 2012

It”s a rare thing for Martin Scorsese to use a score as expansive and elaborate as Howard Shore”s Oscar-nominated one for “Hugo.” Indeed, Philip Glass’s booming and full composition for “Kundun” 14 years ago represents the last score from one of Scorsese”s films to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“We worked very differently on this film than we had previously,” Shore says, calling from his studio in New Zealand where he is currently writing the “brand new and shiny” compositions for Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit.”

Shore won two Academy Awards for his scores on Jackson”s “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, as well as Best Original Song for the series’ final installment. His work on the trilogy was an immense undertaking which was eventually adapted into “‘The Lord of the Rings’ Symphony: Six Movements for Orchestra and Chorus.”

“Hugo,” though, marks his sixth collaboration with Scorsese. Their previous efforts, however, have traditionally been more measured affairs, selective in their original music considerations. The director, notably, makes powerful use of pre-existing music throughout his films. The scores often act as a bridge or as punctuation marks, whereas “Hugo” has a very thematic score, with nine themes that are developed through the piece, seven of which are stated in the first reel.

“”Hugo” is made in the classical style of the 1940s,” Shore says. “We’re all big fans of Michael Powell”s work and we wanted to make a film that would stand the test of time. There were certain techniques that we went back to, more classic techniques, of how music was used in films in past to create something that was very balanced with the score, the cinematography, the production design and all of the other elements in an attempt to try something that we had not really done before.”

That sense of harmony has been reflected back with 11 Academy Awards nominations for the film, which acknowledge the wide spectrum of craft contributions. Shore”s compositions in particular have the ability to act as storytellers in their own right, so a portion of his task is to ensure that he is in an effective and concordant part of that balance. In order to do so, he works in a detailed step-by-step process with both Scorsese and the director”s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

“We like to look at the movie quite a lot,” Shore says. “We tend to screen every 10 days or so. We do little mini-productions and recordings of little bits and pieces of the score and then we keep looking at the film.”

One of the key choices he says he made was to utilize two ensembles, one nested in the midst of the other, in order to accentuate the sense of immersion that was created by Robert Richardson”s cinematography. The orchestra, therefore, contributes to the feeling of depth that the film evokes, while the small group that sits inside the symphony creates the sense of familiarity with the characters.

“It”s a sort of French dance band that includes the ondes Martenot (a French electronic instrument that was designed in the late-20s), tack piano, gypsy guitar, upright bass, a 1930s trap-kit and alto,” Shore says of the mini-orchestra. “The little group had the intimacy of the café orchestras in the streets of Paris and the train stations and the symphony orchestra adds the depth of field of the 3D.”

Shore says he loves the historical period that “Hugo” takes place in, but that while it’s a fictional story, it’s steeped in fact. “It”s a great director (Martin Scorsese) making a film about another great director (Georges Méliès),” he says. “So you are dealing with the exhilaration of early filmmaking. It”s this period from 1895 with the Lumiere brothers to 1931 where music is set and covers what we call the silent era, which was never silent. All of the silent films had live music accompaniment, so it”s actually a very rich period in music.”

Scorsese”s passion for cinema is well-documented. “Hugo” in some ways acts as his opportunity to (with a sense of exuberance that is rare for him) express that devotion. His sense of reverential enthusiasm certainly comes through, particularly in the third act, where the visuals and the score shift from young Hugo Cabret”s point-of-view to reflect Méliès”s journey.

Early on, the film presents a portrait of the world as Hugo views it from his hidden passageways in the station that is his strange and lonely home. Later, the visual design becomes more fantastical as we enter the universe of Méliès’ stagecraft as a magician and extraordinary effects work as a filmmaker. Accordingly, the score takes on Papa Georges”s perspective.

“The conclusion involves both of their music and both of their thematic ideals and pieces,” Shore says. “And of course there are certain things they share — the love of fixing things, the love of clocks and trains and mechanical things — so those thematic elements that are in the score work with both characters. The Hugo character is like a young Méliès.”

Just as he moves between the character”s perspectives, Shore dances between an objective and subjective frame of reference in order to assure that he maintains the harmony of the collaboration. “I detail each scene to the colors I want to use and the sounds of the small group and the orchestra,” he says. “It”s kind of an intimate relationship that I try to develop between how I feel as the composer watching the scene and writing something form my heart, and how I feel as the audience watching the scene.”

Ultimately, of course, Shore, like the majority of craftsman, must be willing and able to adjust to the needs of an individual film and director. His career has spanned from his time as the band leader on the original “Saturday Night Live” through horror films, romantic comedies and late night television to the grandiosity of offerings such as “Hugo” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

“They all work so differently at that level,” Shore reflects. “David Cronenberg is an example of somebody that I”ve done a lot of films with [including this year’s ‘A Dangerous Method’]. And David likes to challenge the viewer a bit in what movies are and can be, and he doesn”t want to imply too much, really, to the viewer as to what they should be feeling in certain parts of the film. He likes to play with ambiguity. That”s very different from Peter (Jackson) and how I worked with Scorsese on ‘Hugo.””

Ultimately, though, it will be interesting to see whether the singular experience that “Hugo” represents in terms of Shore”s creative relationship with Scorsese will mark a new era in how the director approaches the use of music in his films.

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