Sir Ben Kingsley on “Hugo,” film preservation and his first movie memory – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell Sir Ben Kingsley has a secret to protect, a skeleton hiding in his creative closet that the inquisitive orphan, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is threatening to reveal. That might not be such a bad thing, as you’ll learn once “Hugo” reaches theaters.

Martin Scorsese’s new film has been earning headlines for the legendary director’s first foray into 3D technology. But what audiences will discover is that the two themes driving the narrative are cinema’s rich history and the need for proper film preservation.

Sitting down with Kingsley for a recent interview, I asked him about these subjects and was surprised by his personal responses. “Hugo,” in hindsight, is a story that touches Kingsley deeply. Find out why: I want to start with film preservation, a huge theme of the film. Can you recall the first piece of film you remember seeing yourself on?

Sir Ben Kingsley: That I saw myself on? Yes, you personally.

Well, now here’s a sad story. I was filmed on my dad’s 16- and then 32-millimeter camera from the age of about 3 until my first marriage. And my mother allowed it all to be destroyed. It’s incomprehensible. But I have experienced that loss, personally. I remember the aluminum cans were this high [gestures with hand] in a store room in the house. And for some reason, she took them out of the house and moved them to an outhouse, which basically was a coal cellar. Being in the north of England, it was damp.

I said to a friend of the family, “It’s in those cans. What can we do?” And his dad was a projectionist. He said, “I can fix this.” He took the lid off, and bam. The nitrate just exploded. I don’t know how many cans. Twenty? Yes, I do remember the first time I saw myself on film, and it’s all gone. Did you watch it often before it was destroyed?

Not very often. Once I started with my education and developing my career, I didn’t really … and I thought they always were going to be there. And we don’t take the time to revisit our home movies.

I’m so sorry, because it has all disappeared. And it’s wrong. I told Marty this story, and he just held his head in his hands. He was shook up. Those are memories that are gone.

For my character, Georges, to be the destroyer of his own footage must have been agony. It’s like taking poison. It’s a tiny suicide, the destruction of the creative spirit.

You mentioned that you had two things you wanted to touch on? Yes, the other theme of the picture is the sharing of cinema with newcomers, showing them their first films. I wondered if you remembered who introduced you to cinema. It sounds like your father was an influential force.

My father, who died very young, had a huge projector rigged up with a speaker that had all sorts of weird machinery inside of it. So we were able to watch movies at home. And in the cinema, I actually do remember my first movie. It was “Never Take No For an Answer” (or “Peppino e Violetta), by Maurice Cloche, about an orphan who has to fix something, and nobody tells him he’s able to until finally, at the end of the film, he fixes it. It’s a deeply moving film, kind of like “Hugo.” This screenplay appears to have been tailor-made for you.

I realize talking to you that there are so many threads that I can pull together. But that’s acting. We’re always pulling these threads together.

Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” opens in theaters on Nov. 23.

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