EXCLUSIVE: Luc Besson has long held a comfortable identity as France’s answer to Spielberg, an idea generator who hatches commercial hits. From Paris, he and EuropaCorp partner Christophe Lambert built a powerhouse company on Besson’s imagination that has fueled a long string of moderately budgeted Euro-flavored thrillers that do big global business. Besson directs some himself; others he gifts to up-and-coming filmmakers. At 56, Besson has turned a cozy life on its ear, as he and Lambert prepare to bet bigger than just about any independently financed European film company has in recent memory. They moved their families to Hollywood, to work more closely with Hollywood writers and directors to ramp up a slate of films for RED, a new U.S. distribution and marketing pipeline that was formerly Overture Films. EuropaCorp purchased half that pipeline from Relativity Media 18 months ago. The plan was to half-fund the payroll for marketing and distribution staff that would separately service the films generated by each company. Seizing control of those elements in the U.S. is a bold step for EuropaCorp, which has relied on numerous studios to domestically release The Professional, La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, Taken, The Lady, The Family, Taxi, and most recently Lucy, the Besson-directed film that cost $40 million to make and grossed $460 million worldwide. Starting September 4 with the release of The Transporter Refueled, EuropaCorp takes control of its own destiny in the U.S.
All this culminates in Besson’s biggest career gamble: the $180 million budget 3D interplanetary sci-fi epic Valerian that is slotted for July 21, 2017 release through RED. It’s based on an adventure comic book Besson loved while growing up in Paris. This kind of make-or-break creative and business ambition is a welcome antidote to Relativity’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy woes. Here, Besson discusses why an already successful filmmaker is risking all on the biggest-budget film ever funded by a European company, and why the realization of a dream for him and Lambert–a U.S. distribution arm to go with their overseas pipelines–won’t be impeded by Ryan Kavanaugh’s nightmare. Our Skype session begins with momentary chaos in Besson’s home as he needs to bid farewell to his three kids as they excitedly head off to the Teen Choice Awards.
DEADLINE: It seems like your French family is acclimating to life in America.
BESSON: More than you could imagine. I asked my daughter the other day, are you missing Paris? I ask her in French. And she look at me, and she said, no way! In English.
DEADLINE: Relativity’s bankruptcy woes has been a sad summer narrative. Since they are EuropaCorp’s partner in RED, people seem confused and have wrongly tied you to their troubles. Is RED at all saddled by by Relativity’s troubles?
BESSON: Not at all. I’m going to give you a very simple example. In France, we have an association for the distribution in video with Fox, Pathe and Europa. We are sharing the cost of FPE, one-third each. It works very well. Before that, it was Fox, Pathe and Canal Plus. Canal wanted to leave, we took its place, so its FPE. In United States now there is RED, and RED has two clients. Europa and Relativity. We are paying the 50 percent we have to, and they pay the other 50 percent, and that’s all. I don’t even know what they produce. I don’t go to their offices. I don’t know what they’re doing. It’s their business, just as I don’t know what Fox is doing in video in France. For us, it’s exactly the same. We heard what happened, and we were surprised and sorry, but it’s not our business at all. RED is an entity by itself, a tool used by two clients. It’s like we are on the same level in a building. We have an apartment, and the neighbor has another apartment, but we have nothing to do with the other apartment. It’s not ours, and the building is fine. The neighbor has a problem. That’s it. The accounts are totally separated. We have our own distribution background and what we want to do with the films, and that’s our only concern.
DEADLINE: As Relativity is frozen in place, do you need to pick up their half of the costs? You are getting ready to launch this venture and you need a fully operational distribution and marketing apparatus in the U.S….
BESSON: If I go back to the example of FPE, Canal Plus left and another client came and it was Europa. Today, it looks like Relativity has a problem. I don’t know if they will come back or if we will have to add another client to the company. That’s what we are waiting to see, who is going to be in charge of the other 50 percent. At the end of the day, if there’s no one, then we’ll see. But we have to continue, we have plenty of films to do. If we have to take more films, then we will take more films. That’s fine.
DEADLINE: It’s easy to romanticize the life of the most commercially successful French filmmaker, and yet at 56 you are taking on the biggest challenges of your career. Not only launching this distribution company, but providing its biggest event film in the $180 million budget Valerian, which shoots in January. How are you sleeping with all this right in front of you?
BESSON: The funny thing is, no matter what, I always sleep very well. The funniest thing is when I start, at 19 years old, and I went through Paris to everyone because I was looking for a producer, and no one wants to produce me.
BESSON: I was too young. I’d done two short films, and I was probably not a good seller, and they don’t trust me. I was miserable, and I say, OK, if no one wants to produce me, I’m going to produce myself. And then I create my company at 18 years old, and I have produced 130 films, but not because that was my will. So when we come now to distribution, there was a good period a couple of years ago before the crisis, where studios in Hollywood needed a company like us because we were able to do good, different films with edge and a European flavor, and not too expensive. For a couple of years, Fox, or Lionsgate, or Universal, they once in a while needed these kinds of films. After the crisis, we saw them reduce their slates and concentrate more on their own libraries, and there is less room for a company like us. So I basically decide exactly the same thing. OK, if it’s that complicated, let’s do a distribution company. We have one in France that works very well. It’s basically the same job, except bigger. You just have to choose the right people, and we have. The people at RED are excellent. Yes, it’s a big challenge, but I’m happy to do it. What I really like is the size of the company. We are just big enough to not be in trouble, but not so big that we are going to be dictated to, feel pressure that we have to do this film or that film. We can have an idea one morning, work on it on the afternoon, and hire a writer by night. Studios develop 10 to 15 films for the one they make. On 10 films we develop, we make nine. We are very director-oriented. I see all over the world, lots of directors now who maybe were happy with their experience at a studio, but they feel not totally comfortable because the weight on theirs shoulder is big.
The last example is what happened with Twitter and the guy who did this film, Chronicle. That was a small film, and then suddenly, everything goes wrong. We want to escape this kind of thing. This company is director-oriented. When I meet a director and we talk, they soon are smiling, because they know that I know what they are going through. I’m happy to be this little island where the director who doesn’t feel comfortable can come and have projects here. That is really the heart of the company. I enjoy our size. Maybe one day the size will be much bigger, but I’m not in a hurry. I’ve met a lot of directors recently, and nothing makes me happier than to work with them.
DEADLINE: I’ve always heard that you are an idea machine, and I can imagine how that must feel to writers and directors who sit down and are pitchd concepts instead of having to come up with them. Will the majority of RED product come mostly out of your own head?
BESSON: Not entirely. There are a few producers inside the company, and everybody develops. We also have projects that arrive at the company, and directors who wants to work with us. That’s the normal studio business. Then, we have this little faucet. I’m the faucet, and it’s leaking all the time. I was born like this, I don’t know why. Maybe you have to talk to my mom, but I get an idea every 30 minutes. But I’m not pretentious about it. Every time I’ve got an idea, I bring it internally through Europa, to check that idea. If I see stars in the eyes of people and they smile and they say, oh my God, that’s great, then we are looking for a writer. If everybody is like, mmmm, eh, what else? Then I drop it without a care. It comes all day long. So I don’t care. I love the excitement of collaboration. I will never impose something. To me, there is nothing better than seeing the smile or the desire in the eyes of the people when you tell them the story. It gives us a safety net at Europa, because we are not obliged to buy films, or pay too much to get a film. If there is something we like, we propose something fair. If there are buyers around the world who put more money, we let it go and say, OK, too bad. That’s OK, because we know at home, we have…today there are almost 20 films in development. So we are fine.
DEADLINE: Of the 20 films that are in development, how many came from that faucet?
BESSON: Oh, I was talking about mine when I said 20. We have 45, total.
DEADLINE: What have you liked most about ramping up the volume of projects?
BESSON: Two things. I love the meeting with the writers. When I pitch the idea and the guy loves it, and then we start to get crazy, inventing situations, and new kinds of stunts, and brainstorming what we can do, that’s my favorite part. The other one that I enjoy is the collaboration with the RED people who came from Sony, Warner Bros, New Line. We had a big meeting two days ago about Valerian, which is just starting. I couldn’t sleep that night because everybody came with experience, their own ideas. The meeting was nine hours.
DEADLINE: So much of the recent San Diego Comic-Con was prepackaged and stage managed, but you gathered a bunch of journalists in the back of a bar, and showed us elaborate storyboards that introduced characters and the worlds we will see in Valerian. You said you thought you were ready to make the movie years ago, and then you saw Avatar and threw out your script because it was too safe and not groundbreaking enough. I found the vulnerability and ambition refreshing. As a filmmaker who hasn’t put himself on public display too often, how did you feel, putting yourself out like that?
BESSON: If it was not natural, I won’t be able to do it. But this is such an adventure for me, and I know it’s really a turning point. This is a huge film. It’s expensive. It’s in 3D. It’s on Imax. Usually, only the big studios are doing this kind of film, and only basically Spielberg, and Lucas, and Jim Cameron, and Peter Jackson are doing this kind of film. I’m not feeling pretentious; I’m just feeling excited to try to follow this guys because they’re my heroes. They’re my big guys. They impress me often, and I just want to play with them. So I’m overexcited, and I wanted to share that. It’s not the kind of adventure where I say to all my friends in the press and everyone else, let me be by myself and I’ll see you in two years. This is too big. I want to share, and I’d rather take the risk that, down the road, some people might betray me, because that’s the human nature, and I will be sad. But I’d rather take the risk and share with a couple of thousand who follow on Instagram or on the news through you.
DEADLINE: How large are the stake on this movie?
BESSON: It’s the first time in the history of cinema in Europe that we going to do this kind of film. The last example was The Fifth Element. It’s like telling someone you’re going to the Olympics and you’re going to race, and there is Usain Bolt next to you. And you say, fuck yeah, I want to run.
DEADLINE: All those filmmakers are friendly, but they trying to top each other with technology and techniques. France hasn’t been in that race…
BESSON: No, we haven’t. But what I really appreciate also is that the people we just named really like each other, respect each other, and work together. They’re not teachers, but they help each other, exchange, share. I want to be part of that. Jim, for example, has always been nice with me. I went to see him two years ago to ask him for some advice before I start Valerian. He’s always happy to do it. These are guys who want to see good films from everyone, they don’t just want to see their own films.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you want to earn your way into that elite club, and maybe raise the bar and think, how do I top that?
BESSON: Well, I won’t be as pretentious as that. I will do my best, that’s for sure.
DEADLINE: What did making The Fifth Element teach you as you take an even bigger challenge here?
BESSON: I learned two things. The Fifth Element was the last film to be made with old fashioned special effects, because the digital was not there yet. Six months later, you could basically do whatever you want, and they will take care of it, later. On The Fifth Element, I have to lock my camera for eight hours. We have to put dots on the walls everywhere. It was a nightmare. On The Fifth Element, I had 180 shots of special effects. On Valerian, I have 2,370.
DEADLINE: It sounds like even though you’ve got many more, that technology has improved to the point where maybe this is not much harder?
BESSON: It’s more manageable. On The Fifth Element, I have to use my brain to cheat, to say, OK, how can we do this thing when we don’t have the tools to do it? All my concentration was on that. On Valerian, I feel so free because the only limit is my imagination. That’s all. You can do whatever you want today, and one of the things I do have is an imagination. So I feel good. So that’s the first lesson, is that on term of script and ideas, I feel so much better now because I have no limit. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is, when I prepped and worked on The Fifth Element. Everything was from Paris. I had Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jean-Claude Mezieres, lots of good artists, but at the end, when I released the film in U.S., I feel for the first time the difference of appreciation, of feeling, and I realized very late that the film was very European. The Fifth Element in the U.S. now is kind of classical; everybody still talks about it. But at the time, the film didn’t work so well here, when in the rest of the world, it was a huge hit. I am 20 years older, I have traveled much more, everywhere, a lot in U.S. and China. I think I will have a film here that feels much more global. It’s still France and European in a way, but it’s not so stacked.
DEADLINE: The situation you just described is one that studios are now comfortable with because overseas ticket sales account for more than 70% of a film’s revenue. If the film doesn’t do great here but crushes it overseas, that’s fine and movies like Hansel & Gretel get sequels because of overseas revenue. If you make Valerian feel less European, how do you guard against losing yourself when one of the things that makes you different is that you’re a European director?
BESSON: No, I won’t lose myself, but I’m not the same 20 years later, and what I see now is that there is way less difference between the audience in U.S., the audience in Europe, the audience in China, in Russia, everywhere. That’s because of the Internet and the new technology. This audience is…everybody has the jeans and T-shirts now, they all have the iPad, they listen to the same music. You used to eat sushi in Japan 25 years ago, but now it’s everywhere. I think everything’s much more global, and I evolve like everyone. So my film is not less European, or more American, or more Hollywood. I think the entire world in the last 20 years became much more altogether, you know?
DEADLINE: These groundbreaking movies from filmmakers we talked about, from Terminator to Lord Of The Rings, to Star Wars. In their origin stages they were either rejected by studios or those filmmakers were in some way or other left looking over the precipice with risks that could have been career killers. In a summer of mostly derivative films, it is refreshing to see a director ready to double down on ambition.
BESSON: You know what’s important also for me? It’s to have ambition for the right reason, and my ambition is not the money or the power. It’s just the ambition of having fun, trying something insane, and then sharing it, after. I will never, never forget when, at 16 years old, I sat in a film called Star Wars, and then suddenly, there’s a sound, and everybody did this [he turns around and looks behind], because for the first time, the sound was coming from the back. Everybody turned back around, and we look at the spaceship from the roof coming on screen, and everybody was like, wow. That’s why I’m working so hard. I want to offer people a wow moment that they will remember, you know?