Even if you've seen all of French auteur Luc Besson's films, which include such visionary masterworks as "Le Femme Nikita," "The Professional," "The Fifth Element," and "Lucy," you won't be prepared for the visual splendor of "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."
Based on a groundbreaking French comic book series, the film follows a pair of intergalactic law enforcers (played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne) as they uncover a mysterious conspiracy at the heart of a bustling space station and flirt with each other a lot in the process. At one point, and we mention it because it's brought up in the interview, the duo does a mission in Big Market, a kind of interplanetary flea market that exists in another dimension, so anyone entering it has to wear special goggles and gloves to be able to interact with the merchandise.
You can tell that this is something that Besson has been wanting to do; indeed he's been a fan of the property since he was a child and used some of the comic book artists in "The Fifth Element." The movie has the feeling of an artistic statement decades in the making. And it's so much fun to watch, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (seek out the IMAX screens that aren't been monopolized by "Dunkirk," it's worth it).
We got to sit down with Besson in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and talked about choosing the right story to adapt, the technological changes that happened between "The Fifth Element" and "Valerian," why he doesn't think it's foolish to already be prepping the sequels, and how he can't find the hidden "Fifth Element" Easter eggs in the movie.
Moviefone: You've been a fan of this comic since you were 10. How did you decide what story to adapt for the first movie?
Luc Besson: When I was 10, I didn't think about making the film. In fact, I never thought about making the film until "The Fifth Element." Before, it was just a part of my childhood and I never thought I'd make a film of it. It was also impossible, because technically I didn't know how you'd do it 20 years ago. I never had an issue because the Ambassador of Shadows, that's the volume I chose, it struck me as the most evident. If you want to introduce the world of Valerian and Laureline, this is the one to do it. Because there's Alpha, there's the Pearls, there are the three stooges, there is the giant fish, the pirate. It was obvious. But you can read the comic in 25 minutes. I have to make a two-hour movie. So you have to get out of the drawings.
Have you earmarked what the next one will be?
Well, I already finished the script for the second one. I'm working on the third. And it's funny because some of my friends have said, "This is insane. You don't know if the first one will work. Maybe you'll never get to do the second one." And I said, "Yeah but I don't care." I just love to write.
You write a lot.
Yeah, I do write a lot. This last year, I was working three hours a day on the special effects. But that's it. So I'm kind of like [raps fingers on the table].
What story did you adapt?
It's not one in particular. The third one, yes, is an adaptation.Can you talk a little bit about the opening of the movie with the space station? It wonderfully relates it to our world.
Exactly. I was struck by this footage of 1975 of the American and the Russian shaking hands and I watched the news an hour before and you see all this conflict between America and Russia and how we're back to the Cold War. Suddenly, I watched this wonderful footage of these two guys with big smiles and they hug each other and I said, "Why'd we lose this energy?" I thought it was a good start. To start in 1975 and from 1975 to basically 2400, to see how this space station grows little by little. I used the shaking hands to have everybody shaking hands. It's a metaphor to show we can still shake hands. It's fine.
Was part of the appeal of the movie making a hopeful science-fiction story?
As a moviegoer, I'm a little fed up. Sci-fi is so dark. It's always raining. It's always night. The hero is always wondering what he should do and if it's right to save the world. It's like, "Wow. That's the future? Are we sure it's that?" The present is dark. If we cannot imagine that our future is bright, then it's all suicide today. We will right our future. It's up to us to shake hands and make it bright. And by the way, if you look at the state of humanity in the 10th century, we were fighting a lot. Today we share. We take the same planes. We are in the same company. We share the kitchen. We share sushi. We share a cheeseburger. It's better. So why aren't we sure it'll be positive 10 centuries from now?
Can you talk about the division of labor between your two big effects houses, Industrial Light & Magic and Weta?
At the beginning, we bid. Weta wanted to do everything and ILM wanted to do everything. And I honestly love both of them. So we had this conversation and I said, "Let's be honest. Do you really think you can handle 2,734 shots by yourself on time?" They were kind enough and honest to say, "Maybe it's going to be hard." So I said, "How about you share? You do a piece and you do a piece?" It's the first time they shared. I was so happy. They almost choose by themselves. ILM was comfortable with Big Market, to take the entire thing, because it's 600 shots. So they did all of Big Market. Boom. Then Weta took most of the rest. And there's a third company called Rodeo and Rodeo that took all of the mechanical stuff -- the space station, the space ships, nothing organic but mechanical. That was the third. The Pearls, all of the aliens are from Weta. And Big Market is ILM.
Is Big Market from the comic?
No, I came up with it.
I know.Was it hard for everybody to keep track of?
Come on. My first meeting I had 80 people from special effects and 100 people from the crew. I spent an hour explaining the scene and, at the end of the hour, they look at me like ... I can tell no one understands. No one. I scratched my head and thought, How am I going to do this? It's going to be a nightmare.
I took all of the students from my school, I have a film school and there's 120 students. I rented a sound studio for five weeks and we shot the scene. It was all handheld but they were playing the parts, they were doing the accessories, the sound, everything. So we put the 600 storyboards on a wall and did every shot one by one. I edited the entire scene, put some temp music in, and then I colored the entire scene. We had three colors -- one for desert vision (yellow), blue vision I put on my helmet and see the other world, but I see the desert at the same time and the third vision, the red one, is the merchant who sees us. So now you have the entire thing edited with three different colors. Now we understand which version we're seeing and where we are.
I have this scene and it's 18 minutes. So we have it on stage so the technicians can always refer to it and the actors are really happy because they can understand. Six weeks shooting for the entire Big Market sequence.
At a recent special effects convention, it was teased that there are some connections to "The Fifth Element."
That's not the story. The story is that some artist at ILM told me they put some tricks in it and I have to find them. He said there's seven of them. I found five. There are two that I haven't seen.
There's supposedly a flying taxi right?
Yeah, that's what they said. I haven't seen it yet.In your mind, are these two films of a whole?
I think there is a common energy and a common meaning in a way, but "The Fifth Element" was way weirder than "Valerian" for me. I think "Valerian" is easier to embrace. Because it's the story of the guy and the girl and the guy tries to get the girl, this tiny little human story, which I love. They look like a couple from today fighting and having a job. This aspect makes it very real for an audience. Someone who doesn't even like sci-fi can relate, because of that.
"The Fifth Element" is out of this world. The girl doesn't even speak English. And I think the audience, you have to remember, at the time, even though "The Fifth Element" is now a classic from what I heard, the movie wasn't popular when it opened here. You had a blue alien singing classical music in space and having a stone in her stomach? It was nuts. But, 20 years later, because of Internet and people are traveling now with no cost, kids are flying everywhere, they are much more open. They're closer to this type of universe than they were before.
Do you miss the puppets you worked with on "Fifth Element"?
No. It was a nightmare.
Why did Alexandre Desplat do "Valerian" instead of your usual composer and collaborator, Eric Serra?
You know, the reason is very simple: Eric is my friend of more than 30 years. We know each other so well. It's very hard to reinvent ourselves when we're together. It's like an old couple. For the past couple of years, I've decided to do a movie with Eric once every two films. So he did "Lucy," he did "The Lady." So he will do the next movie I will do. I'll do a movie in between the next "Valerian." It's a way of refreshing ourselves and meet again. Now he's frustrated because he didn't do the film and now he wants to impress me. I remember five, six years ago we were looking so much like an old couple it wasn't creative. It wasn't creative enough.
Can you talk about your decision to go with a big orchestral score instead of something more electronic and futuristic?
I think, after a while, when you see sci-fi what makes them old is the music. When you go to classical, it's not dated. That's why, for me, I wanted it to be more classical.
There's a story in the press notes about Natalie Portman visiting your set dressed as Jackie O.
I'm shooting "Valerian," and we're in sound stages in Paris. And I have my little lounge. And Natalie is shooting "Jackie" in the same sound stages and her lounge is next to mine. So sometimes I come in the morning to my little apartment and see Jackie Kennedy aka Matilda aka Natalie, who I've known since she was 11 years old, dressed as Jackie. And she really did look like Jackie, with the pink thing and the wig. It was like switching in space every time I see her. I didn't know who I was looking at -- Jackie or Natalie or Matilda? And then you see Jackie Kennedy say, "Hi Luc!" It was so bizarre. When I met her as Natalie I'm used to it. It's fine. It's the fact that she was Jackie, it was too much for me.How was working with Rihanna?
My goal is to think, Okay who do you think is the best to play the plot? Then you figure out everything else. First, it's all about who you'd love to have. If you don't try, then you never know. And I thought, Well Rihanna. Everybody collapsed. They said, "Are you kidding? She's the biggest star in the world?" But I figured we should ask. The first thing I asked her manager was, "Is she interested in playing the part?" They said, "She's definitely interested in playing the part and definitely interested in meeting you because she knows you and your reputation with women." I said, "Well that's a good sign."
I think between the role and the director I am, it was a safe place for her to go. It's a real part but not too long, it won't take six months out of a world tour. She trusts me, she has faith. So it was perfect for her too. The minute she came to Paris, she was dedicated totally. She let the entire entourage outside of the set, she came by herself and she really offered herself as an actress. She let me model her.
Before I leave, I wanted to ask you about the ending, not to get into spoilers but it's very human-versus-human. Was there ever a version where more of the crazy creatures we meet along the way show up again?
No. It was already complicated enough. The only moment was, at a certain point, I wanted to put in the Doghan Daguis [three whimsical, gargoyle-y creatures that serve as comic relief earlier in the film]. I tried it a few times. I'd found a way, but it makes the climax more funny but too funny. I wanted the people to fear. There's a ticking clock. If you have them cracking jokes in the middle of that you're not going to take it seriously.
"Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is in theaters across the galaxy starting Friday.