Hugo Interview: 2nd Assistant Director – Frazer Fennell-Ball

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was not only one of the biggest movies to be released last year, but also one of my personal cinematic highlights. The film has gone on to become a commercial and critical success, which has been rightly recognized by the Motion Picture Academy of America. It was no surprise when the Oscar nominations were announced at the end of January that Hugo led the way with 11 nods, more than any other film, and picked up five awards including Best cinematography, Art Direction and Visual Effects. Having previewed the film in February’s issue and it’s Korean release imminent, I wanted to get a behind the scenes insight into the making of the film, and was lucky enough to interview a key member of the crew.  I spoke to Frazer Fennell-Ball earlier this month, who discussed the process of bringing 1930’s Paris to life, as well Korean cinema, and gave some words of advice to any of our readers looking to break into the film industry.

First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, I really appreciate it.  Before we get into Hugo, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do? 

Hi, My name is Frazer Fennell-Ball and I am a freelance 2nd Assistant Director from London. I’ve been working in the British Film Industry for 11 years and I’ve worked on such films as ‘Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith’, ‘The Golden Compass’, ‘Clash of the Titans’ & soon to be released greatly anticipated ‘John Carter’.

How did you get into the film industry and what was your first film? 

I started out at Pinewood Film Studios in Buckinghamshire making tea, ordering stationary & fighting with photocopiers on a Hallmark TV production called ‘Dinotopia’ back in 2000 (We all have to start somewhere!). During the summer of 2000 I worked in the Pinewood bar, pouring pints and collecting glasses, when I got talking to the Line Producer of ‘Dinotopia’. The production was just starting up and I asked if I could come and do some work experience for a few weeks during my college summer break. He said yes, and after a week offered me a job permanently and I’ve never really looked back since.

How did Hugo come about? 

The film industry in the UK works very much on word of mouth, so when Scorsese rolls into town everybody hears about it. Normally, You get jobs by knowing your boss, in my case that’s the First Assistant Director. But Marty (Sorry, Mr. Scorsese has everybody call him Marty, which I still think is the coolest thing ever!) uses an American First A.D that I had never met. So I knew some of the guys in the production office and found out who the Key 2nd AD was going to be and it happened to be a guy I knew. So I rang him up & said I would love to be considered for any positions that would be coming up, sent my CV in for their perusal and got an interview. The rest is history.

What were your day to day duties on Hugo? 

I was solely in Charge of anything to do with Background Artists, the 400 people you see walking around in the back of the shot. Now that doesn’t sound that amazing until I tell you that the movie is set in a busy 1940’s Parisian Train Station. We had a huge set at Shepperton Film Studios in London which covered 2 sound stages (They had to break the wall in between the 2 stages to enable us to fit our massive set in!) I was in charge of bringing the station to life with Porters, Commuters, Workers, Cafe Waiters, Musicians, Bakers, Alpine Skiers, Animals etc etc. Basically when you see the movie, anybody talking in front of the camera are Marty’s and all the people that are strolling about in the background are mine. A normal day consists of something like this: Meet the Background Artists every morning, get them fed, watered and ready through the costume, hair & make up marquee the size of a football pitch. Transport them all, sometimes as many as 500+ people on some days, to a holding area next to the set. And then I’ll talk to them about the scene (Day or Night, Busy or Quiet, Sombre or Manic) so they can get into their characters and then when all the factors that have to come together to be ready on a film set come together, we go on to set and place them all in their positions.

Where there any challenges in getting the film made?  Are there any particular scenes you look back on and think “Wow, that was a tough day?”. 

Every single scene was a challenge. You would finish one scene which might take 2 days and be using 400 people, and then straight away you’re head first into another scene with 500 people. And in the story it’s a different day, but you’ve got 400 of the same faces that you’ve just used in the last scene and you can’t have the same faces walking around in every shot because otherwise your audience starts to notice that the same guy is walking about in this station everyday and that’s not real life. So the real challenge comes in knowing every single face and which scene they’ve been seen in and what they were wearing, and trying to rotate it all so if you see someone’s face on the last scene, this time you can only see the back or side of their head. And when you’re doing that with 400 people it gets extremely difficult, you have to be under complete control and be concentrating every second otherwise one might slip through the net. Everything was on such a massive scale as we were recreating a very busy Gare Du Nord station. Imagine Waterloo at about 08:00 am on a monday morning and you’ll have an idea. So everything from making sure they don’t all overact in their characters & that they walk in the correct way (we had rehearsals for a week just making sure everybody walked correctly. In todays world we all slouch and swagger around, in the 1940’s people didn’t do that.) You just have to keep a beady eye and pray that nobody does anything wrong on camera. But we had a pool of about 800 people that we worked with day in, day out for months and by the end of it the Background guys were so good as their characters that they didn’t need me to tell them what to do anymore, I just said “GO”. We all had to become a close knit team and it was a special film to be involved in.

Or how about scenes you look back on with fondness?  I’m guessing anything that was filmed in France?? 

I personally love the George Melies flashbacks as we recreated the shooting atmosphere of his early films. For those that don’t know, George Melies was one of the pioneers of early film and “Hugo” is as much an homage to him as it is about the boy living in the walls of the station. We built a whole shooting studio that looks like a big green house (back in the day they used glass houses to make movies so they could enhance the natural daylight instead of using big lights), and we all sat down and watched hundreds of melies’s films and came up with the ones we wanted to recreate, brainstormed some ideas and started to put rehearsals together.
What are your thoughts on the finished film? 

I loved it. It’s such an amazing feeling to be involved with something that you’ve seen go from 100 pages of script paper and finally onto a cinema screen. It’s so much more than just a movie about the boy ‘Hugo’, it’s like tasting a little slice of 1940’s paris with beautiful little side stories and funny little moments. Also, because we shot the movie with prototype 3D cameras (more advanced than Avatar!) the finished product in 3D is mind-blowing. From snowflakes falling in to your face, ash billowing around the station from the trains, everything happens in the 3D on purpose. It all came from Marty’s mind before we shot it, not added in afterwards like most 3D films about at the moment. Given the choice you should definitely see it in 3D and not 2D as you really are transported to another world for 2 hours.

You’ve worked on a number of films from tiny British indies to huge Hollywood blockbusters?  Any preference? 

They both have the good & bad points. On big films you can become a small cog but they often pay well, on Smaller films you’re a much bigger cog and more involved with the on screen process but the pay is not always as good. But I really don’t mind which ones I do as I still consider myself lucky to be involved in any movie making process.

How does the experience of Hugo compare to the rest of the film you have done? 

It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. It was like being at school most days because we were all learning so much everyday either from Marty, Bob Richardson the D.O.P, Dante Ferretti the Production Designer, Thelma the editor or any other member of Marty’s team about so many aspects. You have to give 110% every second just to keep up with these guys. I finished the film 10 times the Assistant Director that I started as, and that’s down to the brilliance of all those great people and in terms of being schooled, I’ll never learn so much in such a space of time. A truly incredible experience.

As an Assistant Director, you are heavily involved with the actors and the director. What was is like working for legend, Martin Scorsese? 

I don’t get to work with a genius on every film so to put it simply, Scorsese doesn’t come knocking on your door every day, and you have to cherish moments like this and realize how lucky you are to work with somebody as talented and intelligent as he is. I will hold my memories of Hugo close to my heart for the rest of my life and one day I’ll tell my children that I was lucky enough to work beside & learn from one of the greatest film directors the world has ever seen.
And what a cast to work with!  Especially Chole Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield who did a great job. 

The two of them are exceptional and so talented for children of their age. Definitely the best I’ve ever seen. It’s funny because you’d think these kids would be scared out of their wits performing for Scorsese, and if they were they never showed it because they can laugh and joke and basically be kids off camera but when the camera switches on they were both electric. We all think that Asa could go on to be as big as Leonardo DiCaprio, he is that good. There is one scene with the falling ashes were he is so powerful that the whole crew were crying watching the monitors & even Scorsese shed a tear (I’m not sure I’m allowed to say that?!). You are with them for most of the film, and not for one minute do you feel like you’re watching children. That say’s it all.

Do you have any advice for anyone reading that might be interested in a career as an Assistant Director? 
Yeah of course. Keep the faith, always be punctual and keen and say yes to everything. Even if you have to work for free to get your foot in the door, you must. Keep emailing your CV’s to people and when they say “Sure I’ll be in touch” and then they don’t, keep pounding on the door and one day you’ll get there. It’s about being determined and it’s definitely who you know, not what you know.
And lastly, are you a fan of Korean cinema? 
Yeah I’m actually a massive fan. Chan-Wook Park is one of my favourite directors and what he has achieved with his Vengeance Trilogy, in particular ‘Oldboy’, must be considered as cinematic masterpieces. Choi Min Sik’s performance as Oh Dae Su is one of the most brilliant journeys I’ve ever seen a character go on. I mean… that 2 minute long fight scene all in one-shot is up there with the very best shots in cinema history. Not to mention he ate a live squid I think something like 8 times. To me in London that is fascinating! Korea should be proud of it’s cinema, it produces these fresh and different movies every year and Hollywood should take note.
Any plans to make it out to Korea? 
If Chan-Wook Park is reading then I’m available and I’ve worked with Scorsese!

Categories: Interviews

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