The Brian Selznick Interview: The children's author behind Scorsese's 'Hugo'

January 30, 2012

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This week the Chicago Children’s Theatre kicked off their latest production, The Houdini Box. The play is based on the children’s book by Brian Selznick, who also wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which became the movie Hugo by Martin Scorsese. Hugo just got 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

I caught up with Selznick last week, while he was in Chicago working on the stage production of The Houdini Box.

WBEZ: Why were you interested in Houdini?

Selznick: When I was a kid Houdini had been a hero of mine. I think the first time I ever heard of Houdini was the Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh movie, which I saw on TV, and I just loved the idea that there was this guy who could escape from anything. 

I’m a very, very bad magician so I would try to do magic tricks and always fail. In college I got an assignment to do an art project about Houdini. I made this little glass three dimensional image of Houdini on stage and then wrote a story about a kid who gets to meet Houdini, cause that’s what I would have wanted as a kid, was to meet him. But he died 40 years before I was born.

It sat in my closet for a while until after I graduated and decided to get into children’s books and remembered this story I’d written. And that became The Houdini Box and I wrote it while I was working at a children’s book store in New York.

WBEZ: That’s how you first got into the idea of children’s literature - being aware that there was writing for children?

Selznick: Yeah, in high school everyone told me I should illustrate children’s books since I drew all the time. But I didn’t know anything about children’s book so I…hated the idea of being a children’s illustrator. For some reason it seemed really insulting to me.

It wasn’t until after college that I realized my favorite things to do are writing and drawing, and that I’ve always loved kids. And so upon graduation after not taking any illustration classes I realized that I probably actually should be an illustrator. So I got a job at this book store so I could learn about it.

WBEZ: The idea in the Houdini project- that this was an opportunity to imagine yourself into a situation - is that a template for you? When you write a book are you trying to recreate magical moments in your own life?

Selznick: Yeah. I think I didn’t consciously set that up as a template but I think you’re right, because it has recurred as a motif in a lot of the books I’ve done, from Houdini to Hugo. And I think that one of the great things about writing and the genre of children’s literature is we can go back and experience certain emotions we experienced when we were kids when everything is very new and very heightened.

WBEZ: I want to ask you about the Chicago Children's Theater's adaptation of Houdini. Do you have a deep hand in the production?

Selznick: Yeah. They’ve been rehearsing this final version for the past couple of weeks. But we’ve been work-shopping it and thinking about it for the past two years. And so Blair Thomas, the director, and Jackie Russell, the artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre, and Hannah Kohl, who’s writing the book and lyrics, and Mark Messing, who’s writing the music and is amazing, you know, we’ve been getting together for this amount of time to talk about what this show is going to be.

WBEZ: How did that happen – who approached whom?

Selznick: Jackie [Russell] approached me. I’m good friends with Leslie Danzig and Adrian Danzig from 500 Clown. And they worked in redmoon. Jackie, when she was starting the company, was talking to Leslie because she wanted to bring in a children’s book illustrator to maybe do some work for posters.  And I also have worked as a professional puppeteer, so we got to talking about puppetry and children’s theatre, and Jackie knew The Houdini Box and early on said, "I think this would make a good show."

WBEZ: So were you part of that crazy puppet scene in New York? There was one, right, a while back?

Selznick: Yes - and it’s still going strong. There’s a really interesting avant garde puppetry community in New York and of course there’s an incredibly strong puppetry community here in Chicago. I’ve worked with a puppeteer named Basil Twist who is really amazing. We did an underwater abstract puppet show called Symphonie Fantastique in a 500 gallon tank of water. And I first saw Blair Thomas’ work in New York at the Henson Puppet Festival that they used to have and he brought his show about Buster Keaton.

WBEZ: So it all comes together. I was thinking about that when it comes to Houdini because he has connections to one of the big subjects of The Invention of Hugo Cabret – early cinema. He made a film in 1901 and he was a special effects consultant.

Selznick: Yeah and he wanted to be an action hero. He was a real life action hero. He was the first person to fly a plane in Australia. When he would perform and come to a city he would lock himself in a strait jacket and then hang from a crane over a city center and thousands of people would come to see him.

WBEZ: The Tom Cruise of his day!

Selznick: Exactly! That’s exactly how I was going to describe him! And he wanted to be a movie star. The movies were new and he saw there was something exciting happening. So if you ever want to see a really really bad silent action movie go see one of Houdini’s silent movies. They’re terrible. He’s battling robots, which are kind of amazing-- the giant cardboard tinfoil robot from 1922. But he saw a connection with the power of cinema. 

A lot of the early filmmakers were magicians - like Georges Méliès who’s a central figure in Hugo. Georges Méliès owned the Jean Robert-Houdin Magic Theatre. Houdin was a magician in Paris who originally was a clock maker – he made automatons and all these very complicated wind up figures and was also a magician. And Houdini named himself after Houdin. So it turned out there were all these connections between my first book through Hugo.

WBEZ: Given you have this cinematic bent, what did you think about Scorses's adaptation of your  book?

Selznick: I think it’s really good!

WBEZ: Honestly? [Scorsese’s] not here, you can be honest with us!

Selznick: Don’t tell anyone, but I love it. I make books that are about a lot of different subjects but ultimately for me they’re about the power of books. They’re about the object that you hold in your hand. They’re designed so that you turn the pages to move through them in a certain way. Hugo has 300 pages of pictures that help propel the story forward. So to me everything is about books in the end.  And I love being a bookmaker. 

But it’s really exciting that there are these other artists who read the stories that I’ve made up and then want to make an adaptation. I actually got the call that Scorsese wanted to make this adaptation before Hugo was even published.

WBEZ: For me that was part of the pleasure of Hugo: How could you not like a children’s movie about the magic of cinema and the power of books? But many people walk out of the movie and say, “Oh, that was a public service announcement from Martin Scorsese – ‘Save early cinema!’ - because that’s his passion.” Do you feel that his message has somehow overshadowed your own interests and messages?

Selznick: I couldn’t be more proud that something I wrote has inspired one of the great filmmaking legends to make an important statement about saving film through his most beloved medium. 

I did not work on this movie. I got a cameo, I got a line and I spent a day on the set acting opposite Sir Ben Kingsley!  But other than that, I didn’t actually make this movie.  But everyone who made the movie worked with me, and every problem and every question didn’t go back to the screenplay, it went back to the book.

And they used all my drawings. These picture sequences that run throughout Hugo actually served for Scorsese as story boards. So the camera is doing what my pictures are doing. At the beginning of the movie when the camera swoops through the train station up to the clock face with Hugo looking at the number – I drew all that! So I felt like my work couldn’t have been treated more respectfully.

And what I feel Marty and [screenwriter] John [Logan] did was to take my book and invert its message in a really smart and powerful way. So my book celebrates cinema but is ultimately about the importance of books. They’ve made a movie that celebrates books, with libraries and bookstores and a character who becomes a writer, and a love of reading. But ultimately, like you said, it’s about the importance of cinema and I think that’s a brilliant choice because it’s a movie.

But now I’ve been reading all of these articles about Scorsese – his history. I’ve been talking to him, watching his other movies again and suddenly I’m sitting here looking at this story that I made up essentially alone in my little apartment. But I feel like I made this for Scorsese.

I read this article that said there are three figures in the movie, all of whom stand in for Scorsese. You’ve got Hugo, the lonely boy cut off from the world, like Marty was when he was a child and had very bad asthma. He wasn’t allowed to laugh when he was a kid! You’ve got Méliès who is the great filmmaker. And Scorsese has done for other forgotten filmmakers what Hugo does for, which is to bring them back to attention. 

WBEZ: Please tell me the third stand-in is Sasha Baron Cohen’s character – the task master with the crazy mechanical leg!

Selznick: (Laughs) Little boy, little man! The third stand-in is Tabard, the film historian. So they’re all there.

WBEZ: You have your own cinematic ties – you’re related to David O. Selznick, the famous film producer behind films like Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. Are you interested in making a film?

Selznick: No! (Laughs) The first movie set that I ever got a chance to be on was Martin Scorsese’s and I think the first thing I thought to myself was, “how does anyone ever make a movie?” Of course it’s a Scorsese set, so it’s highest level of everything that’s happening. But the number of people who have to come together to work, to collaborate, to make something – to make anything – happen is so overwhelming.

As a bookmaker I can sit at my desk and be the director the writer the lighting designer, the costume designer, the actors. I can make it all happen and do whatever I want.

WBEZ: It’s the power of the orphan.

Selznick: Yeah, exactly. I love the fact that Hugo has given me the chance to peek into this world. And there’s talk about possibly collaborating on a screenplay.  So my toes are a bit more in that world than they were before Hugo. 

WBEZ: Where do you go after Scorsese and Hugo?

Selznick: My real life is at my drawing table and that doesn’t change. I still have no idea how the next story is going to end. I got all the way through Hugo thinking nobody was going to read it. And I eventually started a new book and that became Wonderstruck and I spent three years working on [it] thinking, “Well, everyone liked Hugo so much there’s no way anyone’s going to like Wonderstruck.”

In a way, thinking about working on something that you think is going to be a gigantic failure gives you a lot of freedom. I eventually might actually hit something that people don’t like, and I’ve been through many years where I made books that nobody read. 

But all you can do is make the book you want to make, and tell the story you want to tell, and try your hardest to make it as good as it can be.