Invention of 'Hugo': Writer behind the film, Brian Selznick, to speak at Mahaiwe


The boy sits quietly at a small table, fingers wrapped around a golden pen. His singular talent is scribing English and French poetry, and drawing elaborate pictures of chubby cupids, Chinese pavilions and three-masted galleons. His 200-year-old body is made of levers, cogs and pulleys, and he signs the name of his Swiss maker: Henri Maillardet.

This mechanical draughtsman displayed at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute inspired the automaton in Brian Selznick's Caldecott Medal-winning illustrated novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," about an orphan who, tending the clocks in a Paris railway station, encounters a mysterious toy shop owner.

Selznick will discuss his 524-page bestseller at a screening of Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning adaptation "Hugo" at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Originally from New Jersey, Selznick attended Rhode Island School of Design with hopes of becoming a theater set designer. While working in a Manhattan children's bookstore, he "started discovering how beautiful children's books could be," he said in a recent phone conversation.

"The Houdini Box" launched his career as an author and illustrator, introducing his signature style of intricate crosshatched pencil drawings.

"I always write first, but I think in pictures," he explained.

"The Invention of Hugo Cabret" was inspired by fantasy film pioneer Georges Méliès' "A Trip To The Moon," he said, when he learned the French filmmaker's collection of automatons was discarded after he died.

"I immediately saw this kid climbing through the garbage and finding this broken machine and trying to fix it," he said.

The story of "Hugo" unfolded from there, combining history with make-believe. Selznick's research introduced him to French cinema, from the innovative work of Jean Vigo to René Clair's iconic "Sous les toits de Paris" (Under the roofs of Paris) and Truffaut's "400 Blows."

"It was ‘Hugo' that really led me to all of these great discoveries," Selznick said.

Like Norman Rockwell, Selznick draws from photographs of costumed and posed models, inviting his hero, author illustrator Remi Charlip, to depict Méliès. His double-page illustrations capture moonlight, luminous Paris views, the bustle of a train station, and expressive facial closeups.

Instead of the usual one-image-per-chapter convention, he replaced parts of the story with extended picture sequences like a cinematic storyboard. While the format recalls graphic novels, it's really a 500-page picture book, he explained.

"Because I was making a book about movies," Selznick said, "I wanted the book itself to feel like a movie."

He still marvels that Scorsese ended up using the drawings as actual storyboards to make "Hugo."

"When I saw that he was using his camera to recreate the exact sequences I had envisioned in my head for the book," Selznick said, "I was completely delighted and shocked."

Selznick will appear at the Mahaiwe with his longtime Scholastic editor, Berkshire resident Tracy Mack, who chose "Hugo" -- now published in 35 countries and recent "best book of the year" winner in Iran -- to launch her "One Book, Many Towns" reading program for children.

The goal, she explained by phone, is "to have a whole bunch of events inspired by the book that would all culminate in something grand."

Mack had encouraged Selznick to experiment with interspersing images throughout the epic book, "something really original that pushed the boundaries of what had been done before."

The drawings and airy text pages make the weighty tome "a more inviting, less intimidating reading experience" for children, she said, giving them a sense of "conquering" the book when they finish it.

"Kids are much more visually savvy than we were growing up," Mack said. "[They] think it's cool that they have to read pictures."

Selznick initially created miniature dummy books depicting all 284 pages of drawings, gradually increasing the scale to match the end product, she recalled.

"I've never worked with anyone who works as many hours as he does," Mack said admiringly. "He really is an obsessive, exhaustive researcher and worker."

"I'm a bookmaker," Selznick explained, "and I love making books."

One Book, Many Towns


What: 'Special Effects & Magic: the Beginning' -- Drop-in screenings of short films by Georges Méliès

Where: Mason Library, Great Barrington

When: 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Admission: All ages, free popcorn

What: Eugene Mamut, founder
of Animagic Special Effects Museum, Lee: Excerpts and discussion of Berkshire-made movies

Where: Mason Library

When: 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Admission: Ages 8+, free

What: Todd Shearer, robotics engineer: Hands-on fun with simple machines

Where: New Marlborough Town Library, Mill River

When: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Admission: Ages 5+, free


What: Brian Selznick on ‘Hugo' and screening of ‘Hugo,' Q&A with Selznick and Tracy Mack, book signing to follow

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

When: 2 p.m.

Admission: Ages 10+, $10

(413) 528-0100


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