Thursday, July 20, 2017


From July 14 to 19, 2017, the American Cinematheque revisited a selection of Luc Besson’s films, and also hosted a special members-only advanced screening of his new movie, Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets. Such a series, where the movies from one specific director are being shown, always helps put his or her work into perspective and Luc Besson is among the directors who have a very apparent signature style. His movies are marked by strong female characters, climactic action scenes, amazing visuals, and tons of humor.

Luc Besson photographed by Silvia Schablowski

On July 16, between the screenings of
The Professional and La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson appeared for discussion with Today Show entertainment interviewer David Karger. The conversation focused on his earlier work, especially the films that were screened during the Cinematheque’s retrospective, yet the upcoming movie Valerian could, of course, not be ignored.

The witty, confident, and charming Luc Besson started the Q&A with a clever response when asked, “Is it okay to talk about your past movies?" “We always said with my friend Jean Reno, that we won’t talk about anything until (we’re) 75 around the fire - and there we would start to say 'remember.'" Fortunately, the word "remember" came earlier and much was unveiled during this in-depth conversation that gave inside information to the audience about his most significant movies.

Le Dernier Combat, Besson’s very first feature-length film, has a script made out of two and only the two same words - “bonjour.” It was also his first of many movies with Jean Reno. In the film, no one is able to speak. Besson sarcastically pointed out that the reason he wrote a two-word script was because, he was only 19 and was “not very good at that time.” He explained further, that saying "hi" was a way to show that one understands the value of communicating through simple words, which today is often neglected, can be extremely emotional and special. He concluded by stressing the essence of the movie, "This was a way to remind people that it is important to be able to talk.”

Regarding his movie Subway, Besson revealed that the metro scene was filmed without authorization and that they were accompanied by an assistant working for the station. One scene in the beginning of the movie, where Fred (Christopher Lambert) gives the briefcase back to Héléna, was filmed quickly when the assistant was otherwise occupied for a while. It is these tiny gems of trivia that are revealed during Q&As that make them such a treat for movie lovers.

Early on in his career, Besson already indulged in a much more metaphorically personal script with his third feature film, The Big Blue. Not only was it Besson's dream to become a marine biologist when he was younger, but his parents were scuba diving instructors, so diving was always of personal interest to Besson. But The Big Blue has even more ties to Besson’s personal life. The role played by Jean-Marc Barr was very hard to cast, and it was only the weekend before the first day of shooting that Besson encounter Barr in London and cast him in the movie. Before that, he was prepared to play the part of Jacques Mayol himself, but he was happy that he didn't have to. There were family members who did end up being cast in the movie. The role of young Mayol was played by his half-brother, and the role of his father was played by Besson’s actual father. Furthermore, the opening scene of the movie, which took place in Greece, was where Besson actually played as a little child. To this day one could argue that The Big Blue might be one of Besson’s most intimate movies. However, Valerian is not far from it. His favorite comic growing up was Valerian and Laureline and his first love was Laureline. 

His work after The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, was his first feature with a strong female lead. The protagonist, Nikita, was played by his then-girlfriend, who later became his wife (Anne Parillaud). An unusual move for its time, the reason Besson made a film about a strong female character cannot be related to gender issues. As he stated, “I always try to write a good part for women and men. I never make a difference. It’s probably a way to respect both of them.” For Besson, it's always about the character when it comes to casting an actor. More than the prominence of the actor, he is interested in whether the person auditioning for the part fits the role and sometimes someone famous might not fit the bill. 

Patrons dressed as the main characters
from The Professional. Photo by
Silvia Schablowski
If Besson was not already a household name in cinema, The Professional certainly made him one. It is also during this movie that he discovered the Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, who was 11 years old during the filming and as Besson pointed out, the obvious choice for the role of Matilda. He told an anecdote about how easy it was to forget that Portman was only 11 years old, but how rapidly he was reminded of the fact, when Portman did a scene and then wanted to “play” rather than shoot another scene. For the duration of the shoot, he related that Portman was given a “play break” after every 20 or so minutes of work, which made Besson nervous during the whole shoot. It was implied that he feared she might suddenly decide to stop working! Much persistence was necessary, but well worth it. 

Besson also had to disappoint audience members when he was asked about a possible sequel to the movie. Besson stated that when he thought of the idea Portman was already 30 years old, which would have been too late to stage the movie. Given this conundrum there will not be a sequel. Furthermore, he added that one half would have hated him for doing a sequel and the other half would love him.

Another huge success followed with The Fifth Element, which is a cult classic today. In the film, he revisited the theme of a strong female character and for the first time indulges in a sci-fi world. The movie was supposed to be in two parts, but at the end he was asked to make it into just one movie. The script was also the longest he had ever worked on. The Fifth Element was originally a book of 400 pages and Besson, afterwards converted it into a script.

Lucy was his latest movie with a female lead and Besson refuted the rumor that Angelina Jolie was supposed to play the title role. As for the financial challenges that come with making big budget movies such as Lucy or now Valerian, Besson said, “My only rule is to try to make the film the best you can…just be honest, cast the people you thought were best and just be honest.”

All his movies require a great depth of imagination, and Besson explained that he started to be creative from an early age. “When I was in Greece with my parents, the nearest shop was 200km away. The children only spoke Greek, not French…and because of this, this muscle rose. It comes from the fact that I had nothing. It just comes.” He mentioned that his best friend was an octopus and playing with a stone, he needed to imagine it as something else, so the stone became a spaceship and this set the path for a vivid inventiveness. “My imagination was working a lot,” he explained.

Besson did not end the Q&A without answering a question of a young writer studying at UCLA who asked for tips regarding scriptwriting as a profession. Besson emphasized, “quantity is important. You have to write, write, write write.” He added that he can now finish a script in 2 weeks, but only after 30 years of writing. As Besson spoke, the young man stood, furiously taking notes. Another interesting fact that was unveiled through a question by an audience member was about Besson’s relationship to technology; while he loves to use the newest technology in his movies, he himself only directs people to use it and to this day continues to write on paper. 

A very unusual remark, coming from a director whose latest movie Valerian features 2,355 visual effects shots, beating the latest Star Wars movie Rogue One and his previous movie The Fifth Element which has 250 special effects shots. Besson reported that 900 people worked on Valerian’s special effects, and that some shots that lasted a few seconds in the film may have taken two years to render. This is not all that makes Valerian special; with a budget of 220 million dollars, not including marketing costs, it is reportedly the most expensive European movie ever, and financially competes with Hollywood blockbuster budgets. It will be interesting to watch what project will follow Valerian and to see where Besson’s career takes him. One thing is certain, Besson truly seems to have an infinite imagination and talent for realization where anything can be possible.