Some 37 years after first breaking into the movie business, Luc Besson is about to see whether his biggest career gamble will pay off. Besson wrote, directed and produced Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of his favorite French comic book growing up. From a world-creation standpoint, the film is as ambitious as George Lucas’ Star Wars, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies or James Cameron’s Avatar. Its $180 million-plus budget puts Besson in a domain usually reserved for studios, Marvel and DC superheroes, or Star Wars spinoffs. Besson mounted Valerian independently, and raised what is reputed to be the largest budget for an indie ever in Europe.
The film is the culmination of a great career spent directing French-flavored hits including Léon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element and Lucy, while hatching, writing and producing such franchises as Taken, Taxi and The Transporter. Those films, and the building of his EuropaCorp production banner and his Cité du Cinéma studios, were all stepping stones to his dream project.
How long did the desire to turn Valerian into a tent pole-sized film burn in your gut?
It only came to mind during the shooting of Fifth Element, not before. I was already 30 years old. I hadn’t thought about it, because it was part of my childhood, and who thinks of making a film about a childhood souvenir? I had [Valerian comic book writer Jean-Claude Mézières] working on The Fifth Element, and he’s the one who said, “Why are you doing this shitty film? Why you don’t do Valerian?”
What was your reply?
My first answer was, “Because it’s impossible.” In my memory, there are basically two actors and a billion monsters, and I didn’t know how we could do it. I went back to the comics to read them again. I arrived at the same conclusion—impossible. But every year I looked again and thought, maybe one day it is possible. So I took an option, and started writing a little bit.
How often do you option properties and develop them over a long term?
I’ve got some, but usually ideas, not properties. Take Lucy, for example. I wrote the first 50 pages 10 years before I made it.
Why did you stop?
It was about the intelligence, and I was not intelligent enough. So I had to wait, and I did three, four films before Lucy. You put these ideas through the filter of time. You look every year, and go, “Goddamn it, I still like it.”
It sounds like you were waiting to fall out of love.
It’s such an energy when you make a film. Nonstop, for two, three years—you feel lost, so tired, and you wound relationships with your family and your friends. You pay a heavy price to make a film, so if you do it, make sure it deserves to be made. There are ideas I liked, but after a year or two I decided, it’s too small, too cute, not strong enough. It’s more about being strong than big. Like this little tiny film that I did that was in French, and black and white, called Angel-A. It was very important for me to do, because of the purpose of the film, and it had nothing to do with the numbers of admissions. It’s in French. I knew it was small.
Did Léon: The Professional or Taken take the same amount of time?
Léon, it was Jean Reno, who one day said to me he loved the character he was playing in [La Femme] Nikita. “Can you write me a story about this guy?” I said, “OK, when I have time I will write it.” I started to think, put down a couple of notes, while awaiting the green light for The Fifth Element from Warner Bros. They told me, “We need two weeks to figure out the budget.” I said to myself, ‘OK, let’s write something else in case the film is not made.’ I wrote Léon in two weeks. In fact, I finished two hours before I got the answer, which was a no, actually. So I said, “OK, fine, I’m going to do Léon.” I wrote it fast, not for me to direct, but I fell in love along the way, and decided to do it. Then I came back again with The Fifth Element, and made that script better.
Taken was a small story I had in my head. I talked with Robert Kamen, and he liked it. It was tiny, really the same vein as Charles Bronson in the ’70s. I never wanted to direct that one.
It became a huge hit, landing after the 2008 fancial collapse, when people felt helpless, watching their 401Ks disintegrate. Here was every parent’s nightmare—a daughter abducted to be sold into sex slavery and most would be powerless to stop it, but not this guy. It was the only thing he did well. Did you write it as a response to the global financial crisis?
No, and I’ve seen films that don’t come out at the right moment and nobody cares, which is just life. On Taken, what was also important is, I found this article in the press where they discovered this house in Marseille in the south of France where some girls stayed for a couple of days. They described breaking the girl like you’re breaking a horse. They were tied up at the bed, 15 girls in the house. They got raped every 20 minutes. They had drugs. I read the article, and I could never imagine that humankind could do that. I know that we do ugly things to animals; I never imagined they can do that with women. They really use the expression “breaking them”. They say it’s five days for a horse, and it’s seven days for a woman. Horrible.
What made this the right time for Valerian?
I thought the script was kind of good a few years ago, and I was ready to start the financing. Then, Avatar arrived. The good news was that, technically, I could see that we can do everything now. The film proved that imagination is the only limit. The bad news is, I threw my script in the garbage, literally, when I came back from the screening.
It wasn’t good enough. James Cameron pushed all the levels so high. So I started again.
Ridley Scott told Deadline that when he saw the first Star Wars he was angry with George Lucas, because of his overwhelming film, and that he dropped out of a film to find a space project, and that led to Alien. Before you threw your script in the trash, how did you feel, walking out after seeing Avatar?
First, I was amazed. You watch and say, “Wow, OK, now we can do that.” That’s a higher level, a new step. One half of me felt desperate. After a couple of days, you say, “Yeah, OK, that was Usain Bolt I just saw.” It doesn’t mean you stop running, if you aren’t him. So let’s try to run with Usain Bolt and if, for a second during the race, Usain Bolt is nervous, you win. For sure you can’t beat him, but at least he takes you seriously and says, “I still have to run hard, because these guys behind me are in good shape.” That gives you some energy.
How much greater are the visuals in Valerian than when you made The Fifth Element?
It’s the difference between a bicycle and a supersonic plane. There were 188 visual effects shots in The Fifth Element; there are 2,734 in Valerian. To do near that for The Fifth Element would not have been possible, and everything we did was a nightmare. There is no limit in special effects today. You can do whatever you want. And that’s very, very good news for people like me.
You once made your movies quietly and showed them when you were done. But since then you’ve shared your process with journalists like me, starting with the concept paintings of the worlds and creatures you hoped to create. You seem more vulnerable, looking for approval. Picasso didn’t show a partially painted canvas. What did you get from opening up like this?
I don’t like so much your example with Picasso, because Picasso is Picasso, and even if he showed up with five percent, we would be amazed. For me, this was the only solution. There is too much competition, from Warner Bros., DC Comics, Marvel, Disney. The biggest films of the industry are The Avengers, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Star Wars. And then you show up with what? Your cute face, saying, “I’m going to do a film in this group”? You have to be either very pretentious or crazy in a way, OK? I think, why not me? I’m happy to try. Do you mind if I try?
With this film, I am playing not just in France; I’m playing in Hollywood, the temple of these films. You cannot just put on your sunglasses and say, “Shh, you will see in three years.” You can’t do that. So I try the opposite and say, “Do you want to follow me for the entire thing? Maybe I’ll fail at the end, but here’s how I am spending my days.” And when you see it finished, you will remember the drawings that I showed two and half years ago. Since then, I worked nonstop to make it good, with 900 people who worked on the special effects. I’m so proud of what they have done.
Also, we have Weta and ILM on the same film; usually, it’s one or the other. They both accepted because the film was too big, so neither could take the entire thing. They are sharing, but you can tell they are fighting to show their best work to impress each other. I am the winner, because the film has gone to a level I was not even expecting, honestly.
You’ve put EuropaCorp and your long relationship with territorial distributors to the test here. They say Valerian is the biggest budget ever for a film made in France—
Europe, then. It’s also got to be one of the most expensive indie productions ever. How are you sleeping at night?
First, I always sleep very well. I have absolutely no trouble sleeping, because I never forget that it’s only a film. I’m not a surgeon, saving lives. I take my job very seriously, but I’m not taking myself seriously. It’s only a film. The best I can have is people watch and after two hours they say, “Oh my God, it was so fun. Oh, I want to see it again.” That’s basically the best I can achieve, which is not going to change the face of the world. That’s why I’m sleeping well. No one is asking me to do more than the best I can, and that is what I am doing.
You must pay a price when you risk your company on the biggest project you’ve ever done. Where does it take its toll on your life to do something this ambitious?
Usually, the price is paid because you don’t measure how you become victim of your enthusiasm. It’s like you say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and then people say, “Sure.” And the walk is 40 miles, and you realize you have on your shoes for town, and not sneakers. After a while, you say, “God, that hurts. I should have taken another pair of shoes to go so far.” So that’s my problem. Most of the time, my enthusiasm makes me blind. All I see is, “God, it’s going to be so fun. My kids are going to watch the film, my friends. It’s going to be great.” And then two and a half years later you’re just destroyed. So tired. I don’t know if it’s a fault or a quality, but if I say I will do it, I don’t know how to let it go. Until July 21st, I will fight for it.
How do you prepare for that ordeal?
I was ready. I tried to lose some weight, before. I took some gym. We prepped, a lot. I never prepped so much on any movie in my entire career. The result is that we finished three days early, which was totally unexpected for this kind of film. I heard that Rogue One had, like, six weeks of reshoots.
Usually, these movies go over budget, but we finished early, and that’s how prepped we were. We were on stages, so you can control the light, the weather, everything. The cast was so sweet, easy, no entourages. I must say also, the studio in Paris that we built was made for this kind of film. The ergonomics of it; the location of the lab, the editing room, the facilities, the gym, the rehearsal room, everything is so well fitted that you don’t lose time, and you’re not even tired. You go boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, all day long.
Did you build your studio with this film in mind?
Yeah, six years ago. Because I remembered when I did The Fifth Element in Pinewood. The team of English people was great, but the location made it painful. First, it’s an hour and a half to go there. The commissary is a mile from the stage. Even to go to the restroom was complicated, and because we shot for, like, 18 weeks, I realized the time we were losing. When you want to go to costume, you have to take the little cart, and the cart is not there. You have to call the guy for the cart. You are losing energy, all the time. When I built the studio, I remembered that. I said, “No, no, no, no.” For example, on the first plan, they put the restrooms very far from the stages. When you have 300 extras, every minute there is someone who wants to go to the restroom. If you put the restroom four minutes away, it’s not the same as 30 seconds. You save almost an hour per day, just with that. I was very careful because I’m the director who always starts on the dot, and always finishes on the dot. I never go over time. I don’t like that.
Everybody has a family. They want them to go back home to feel good and come back the day after and be happy, because they have seen their kids. And not coming back at 11 pm, where they don’t see their kids, and they are grumpy, and you pay for it, one way or another. So if we say 6pm, I finish at 6pm, and everybody can organize their life.
Besides Avatar, what movies made you believe you could do something like Valerian?
Oh, many. 2001, for sure; Star Wars, the first one; Indiana Jones, the first one, I was amazed. The first Alien—that’s the one where I think I got the most heat. I like heat. What they make you feel is, nothing is impossible. You realize, “OK, the limits are not here, they’re over there.” Add in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire.
Cinemascope. You follow the story for two hours and it just works. You see love, adventure, everything. And there are no words spoken at all for the entire film. Wow. I go, “OK, we can do a two-hour film without a word. Now we’re allowed.” Each director pushes the limit for the others. Peter Jackson is the same. So you come on the back of that, and the field of play is even bigger now. It allows you to be crazy. You thought, I can’t do that, it’s going to be too much, it’s not going to be believable. Then you see Avatar, and you say, “OK, I guess I can.” These guys give you the permission.
In casting Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline, you are creating stars instead of relying on existing ones. Why them, and how much harder was it to mount such a big film this way?
What we have to understand today is that the studios, the six studios, are all powerful. So, around the world, there are lots of independent distributors, and they never have their hands on Avatar, Spider-Man, Captain America. They just watch the film pass by because Buena Vista has an office there, and so does Warner Bros. But they can get their hands on Valerian. The first time I understood the importance of this was with Nikita and Léon. People were fighting to get the film because that was the only opportunity they have that year to have a kind of American film. I remember it with Léon—I was in Cannes, and there was even one guy who wanted to buy the film for his country, and he arrived with a suitcase full of cash. They didn’t know what to do with the cash. They were like, “Can we have a check instead?” But I understood it at the time. We were a real opportunity for them. But it doesn’t mean that because they need films, they’re going to buy everything.
So the process on Valerian is the one they’ve come to expect from us. We come with the script, and the concept art you have seen. I went to Cannes with Virginie [Besson-Silla, producer], Cara and Dane. We made a show for an hour and a half. I explained the story, the drawings, and they had an hour to read the script, in the room. If they like it and think they can make money with it, they will buy it. We sold probably 70 or 80 countries in one day. That was the moment of truth. If the script had not been good enough, they would have said, “Oh, we’re interested, but we’re not sure, because it’s a lot of money for us.” I knew that day, we would know if it made sense or not.
Sounds like a nerve-wracking day, the fate of your dream project being decided by territorial buyers.
And the funny thing is, you’re not even nervous. Because if the answer is, “Not yet,” you have been given the signal you have to go back and work on your script.
How much of your budget did you cover that day?
More than 60 or 70 percent. Then you have the TV and others. But we knew the level we had to reach to make the film. If we didn’t get to this level, we could not make the film. This was three years ago.
Your leads aren’t yet stars, but there is a lightness and playfulness to them reminiscent of the original Star Wars.
That was my feeling at the time, exactly. I want to be able to discover Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. I remember clearly when I saw that film. They were so young and fresh, even the robots. Avatar, the same. We knew Zoe [Saldana] a little bit, but not Sam [Worthington]. I wanted to give the audience the same pleasure of discovery. I wanted a hero 25 to 27 years old, maximum. Honestly, today, the so-called star system is almost dead. No actor in the world today can open a film by themselves. Dwayne [Johnson] or Leo [DiCaprio], in certain kinds of films, but it’s still them, plus the project and director. Before, you had stars where, no matter what the film, comedy or drama, you’d follow them, you wanted to see their new film. Today, people are careful. It’s not so cheap to go to the movies, and they want to know first. For sure, they love Tom Cruise, but they love Tom Cruise in certain kind of films, and if it’s not that, they don’t go. Look what happened to Scarlett [Johansson].
In your $40 million film Lucy, Scarlett Johansson played an action star, and it grossed over $460 million worldwide. But Ghost in the Shell didn’t open well at all.
Take the two biggest stars this year, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence; they are both gorgeous actors, really good. I love both of them. Put them together in Passengers, you think, wow. And then the film doesn’t go very far. It’s over, and it’s a good thing. These films are more complex every year, we are spending $250 million to make them. And the audience is aware now. They eat the food and they want more, but they won’t buy if it’s a bad meal, just because you put a star name on it. They will say, move your ass, make it better, and then we’ll come. The audience is pushing us to be better.
There are many adventures in the original Valerian comics. While you wait for audience response, do you dare look ahead to sequels?
Oh, yeah, of course. I will be the happiest guy in the world if the film works and I can do a second one and a third one. I will sign, right now. Cara and Dane; every time we see each other, we pray we can do another one. Cara is always teary every time I see her, because we had a really good time. It’s like, you go on holiday to a place, and you want to go back next year to the same place, because you had so much fun. But that will only be possible if the film is big enough to do another. That’s why we have to wait. I’m ready to go on two and three already. I know what I want to do.
What does the film have to gross to warrant the sequel?
It’s not just about the money. It’s a little more complicated than that. It’s a feeling, also. What I need to have is an enthusiasm. I need to have an audience around the world start sending messages, “Oh my God, please do another one.” If I feel this message, then off I’ll go. But not if it is just the core fans, and the rest of the world hates the film.
What does it need to gross?
Take Lucy, for example. If it goes to the same kind of numbers that we had on Lucy, then we’re fine. It comes down to something you feel in your gut, and you feel it around the world. You smell it. Fifth Element, I never thought about doing a sequel.
Because the response in the U.S. was, at the time, very deceptive for me. The film was probably too much in advance. The film did $70 million box office. We opened at number one, but I went to a couple of cities in the middle of America where I saw people leaving in the middle of the screening, saying, “What the fuck is this thing?” I remember a family watching the film, and when the blue alien starts to sing classical music in space in the opera, the guy says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” and they stood up, and they left.
What does that tell you?
I guess it made me realize how European I was at the time, 20 years ago. And the cultural differences—what the European and the Asian audiences love about the film was exactly what Middle America hates about the film. So that was too much. It was too different. And it’s very interesting with Valerian, because I think we’re closer now. The Fifth Element worked in a lot of countries, but the country where it worked least was the U.S. I think it was Variety that had a list of the top films in the U.S. and international, and then combined. Under U.S., we were number 26, and international, we were number three. It was Jurassic Park, Men in Black, and Fifth Element. What’s interesting is how The Fifth Element over time became a cult favorite here. I see it often on TV, which is good for Valerian.
After turning yourself inside out to realize a dream project, what makes Valerian a success?
For now, I succeeded in bringing it in on time, on budget. Second, it’s really close to what I wanted to do, so I’m happy at least that I love it. I hope I’m not alone.
When you were a kid you used to wait for the grocery store to open, so you could get your hands on the next volume of the Valerian comic. What’s it like to transport yourself back to something that you absorbed as a child and turn it into a big movie like this? Is it better than you remember?
It’s so different. At that time, I didn’t have a TV at home, and the only time I went to a cinema was at Christmas to go to see a Disney film. I watched a film per year at the time. So what I was reading had no rhythm with the film. I was reading backward, forward, backward, forward, and I turned the page again. It was more than the storytelling; it was the characters. When I was young, I could stay 10 minutes on one drawing to see how it was made. I didn’t have any culture of movies. It’s not like when you read a book and then you say, “Oh my God, I wish we could see that as a film.” I knew what a film was, but at the time, I didn’t know what a film was at all.
What film did you see that made you want to do what you are doing now?
Actually, what made me want to be in the movie business is not films at all. It’s because one day I went to a set, after a friend said, “Can you help?” It was a short film, and I went on the set and just fell in love—with the creativity, how they were building with their hands, the boom, the guy putting up the lights, and controlling the lights. All these things. I said, “Oh my God, I want to be there.” I went to watch films after, but not so much. At the time, I didn’t have TV at home. My stepfather didn’t want TV, and we didn’t have VHS, and we were living 15 kilometers from the city.
Where did your film education come from?
I was taking still pictures when I was 13, and I have been writing since I was 14. So my background is pictures, architecture, music, and writing. Those are my tools. Not films.
Most directors immerse themselves in films, but it’s like you developed separate parts of your brain with still images and literature. What do you think that gave you?
Freedom. I’m never reacting because of something else. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I’m very glad that it came to me like this. When I started on my first film, and I was 19 years old, I said, “We’re going to do a shot like this.” The guy said, “No, you can’t do it like this.” I said, “Why? Who says that we have to do it this way?” He said, “Luc, come on, everybody’s doing it the other way, OK?” And I was saying, “So what’s the point in doing it if everyone’s doing it that way? Why we don’t just try?”
You ask about stress? My stress comes from the people who try to not let me do what I want to do. That’s probably why it happens that I’ve worked a few times with a studio, but never for a studio.
You work for yourself?
I work for the film, not for myself. The film is the king, and you have to protect the king. I hear from friends the stories where the executive comes with his notes. Obviously the notes are not for the film, the notes are to show that he’s got the power. He’ll say, “You have to add this guy from Bulgaria, because it will be good for Bulgarian territories,” or some stupid thing like this that has nothing to do with the film.
But that doesn’t mean I believe it’s my way and no other. My rule is very simple. If there are more than two people who watch a scene and say something isn’t clear, go back to the editing room. You’re not here to say, “Oh, you don’t understand. You’re stupid.” No. If you don’t understand, I’m stupid.
You asked before: why were we taking all this risk? What’s the motivation? In fact, the answer is we have no choice, because the other choice is not to be ourselves. We cannot fight this. When I decided I wanted to do movies, it wasn’t because I was hoping one day that they would offer me Spider-Man 7. I want to share. I make films because I want to say something, and I want to show something—this is what I want to do.
Last year, Peter Jackson told stories of how it felt to know that if The Fellowship of the Ring failed, so would the whole New Line studio. At certain times in one’s life, it’s probably best to bet on yourself, the way you’ve discussed here.
We went to New Zealand, and Peter was kind enough to invite us to dinner, and he told us those stories himself. We were laughing so much, you can’t imagine. I started telling my stories, too. It turns out they are similar for everybody. Everybody said to Lucas that he was crazy to do Star Wars. Everybody said to James Cameron that he was crazy to do Titanic and Avatar, and said to Francis Ford Coppola that he was crazy to do Apocalypse Now. There are so many examples in the history of movies where the crazy ones are the ones who have made the greatest films. Not all of them. Sometimes, the guy was just crazy, and failed. But my God, if everybody was reasonable, I wouldn’t go to see movies anymore. I would stay home.