Interview: Luc Besson Talks 'Valerian', 'The Fifth Element', and Imagination

If one couldn’t tell by his lovingly lavish film adaptation of the 50-year-old French graphic [...]

If one couldn't tell by his lovingly lavish film adaptation of the 50-year-old French graphic album, the custom-made T-shirt featuring its 1972-era comic art worn by filmmaker Luc Besson when he sits down for an interview makes it clear: he adores Valerian.

With his epic, eye-poppingly sumptuous cinematic take on the material, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, available on today, November 21st, on home video, the acclaimed French filmmaker known for his diverse and enduring body of work – including La Femme Nikita, Leon aka The Professional, The Fifth Element, and Lucy – was eager to visit his labor of love, both in conversation, and, if the movie gods smile upon it, in further Valerian films, as he explained to Tell me about that feeling that you got from reading the comic books when you were a kid that you wanted to recapture and convey with this movie. What was the essence of Valerian that you were hoping to turn into a film?

Luc Besson: I think it's two different things. The feeling at 10 – I was living outside of Paris, on the countryside, one TV channel, black and white, no music, pretty dry. When you opened the comic book and then you read two special agents kicking ass in the middle of the universe with aliens everywhere, it's an escape. You're like, "Wow!" It's really an open door. It's like suddenly having Internet. It's like, "whoa," and that's the feeling that I remember.

I was exploring. At 10 years old, you have no notion of comportment between men and women, and then suddenly I have a couple. I see a couple. It was very unusual, and they're bickering, like she's better than him in a way, and sometimes he's a little stupid, and she's leading the thing, and that was new. That was new. Then I was so involved in the readings of it.

Way later, it's just probably because it brings me so much as a young child, I probably want to give that back, to say, "That's a good food." It's a good food. It's inventive, it's different, it's poetic sometimes, it's funny, but it's different. It just opened your mind. We're talking about living together, protecting the planet, having to deal with others – not just like a Chinese, or black guy, or Jewish, or Muslim, we have to deal with people coming from a million years ago to there. Suddenly, it gives a distance. Suddenly, the Arabic and the Jewish and the black looks like my brothers. "I love them now. They are like me. They are like me, because they are not like me at all." And I love that. I love to play with that, because in sci-fi, we, most of the time, we never stop, really, to figure out that.

Obviously this is something that sparked a lot of your imagination back when you were a child, so tell me about taking that professional filmmaker grownup imagination, and applying it to this thing that you loved as a kid.

OK, on one hand I have my imagination as a kid, then I have 29 volumes, and then I have [Pierre] Christin and [Jean-Claude] Mézières who is still there. It's really the dinner that the three of us have. It was a friendly dinner, like everybody brings everything, and then we try to make it good, but with a lot of affection, a lot of friendship. It was never like, "This is my vision," and Christin and Mézières saying, "You know, you have to respect our vision."

Actually, maybe one of most beautiful, lines I ever heard is that when I give the script to them, by love, I try to respect them a lot, to respect Valerian and everything. And Christin – and he's like 80 years old – he said to me, "You know, I understand that you want to respect me, but I'd rather that you surprise me." I thought that it was just like such a beautiful line, from a creator to another creator. "I'm glad you respect me, but I want you to surprise me." It shows how young he is, because he knows that art is not about anything else than surprise.

Tell me about the emotions that you had while you were making the film. You'd invested so much time in trying to bring this to life, and then when you're actually doing it, what was happening inside of you emotionally, creatively?

I think probably the same state as a sports guy, or someone doing the world tour on a boat, as a race. Like, every minute, every hour, you're just like, you're on it. The match is on. You can't rest. You can't. You have to be better. I am very careful with pleasure, because pleasure most of the time is an enemy, because when you have pleasure, then you're blind. So I try to take just a little bit of pleasure, but not too much [Laughs]. And I enjoy being with my actors, and just work, and the satisfaction. Because, I'm at the camera. I'm operating the camera, and then when sometime for a few second you see it's there.

You see that the smile of Cara [Delevigne], the way she turns, or the line, the way she says it, or Dane [DeHaan]. He turns and has a smile – you see it, you see the birth of it through the screen. You know this one will be in the film, and that's the little pleasure you have per day. It's sometime when you see the flame, like, "Whoa!" You say, "Oh my God. I got it." It's almost like catching a wave, you know, like you're missing one wave. You're doing surf and you're missing one, two, and then suddenly you take one, and, like, whoa – it goes.

Do you want to sort of direct most of your creative energy now to sort of getting another shot with Valerian, to continue this world on screen?

I want to do another one, for sure, but there is many things I want to do too, so I'm going to shoot a film in a week, and then after, I will try to do Valerian 2.

What's exciting for you about your next project, Anna? What got you creatively energized for it?

It's smaller. There's no special effect, and it's about the actors. It's exactly what I need. You know this feeling like at the end of the summer, you want the snow, and then at the end of the winter, you want the sun? You know what I mean? It's exactly the same. After Valerian, I really want a film without special effects. I want a real chair, a real wall, a real car, just to reenergize myself to something else. That's the only way to find again the pleasure to do Valerian 2.

You do such an incredible job of creating a fantastic world. It seems like right now, so much opportunity is in established franchises, like Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars saga. Is that territory you would ever want to work in, or do you prefer to, even though Valerian was somebody else's brain child, to kind of create your own cinematic universe?

No, it was not the will of creating my own. It's just like you fall in love. You know, you just met someone. I work with Mézières, and I loved Valerian since I'm 10, and then, "God, why we can't make this film?" Yeah, it's different, totally. It's for sure different. It's different from Marvel. It's different. It's more poetic, more imagination. It's more lyric in a way, but let's try. Let's do it. Let's try. That's it. That's the motivation.

Most of the theaters, they have 15 screens, so there is room for everyone. It's OK. I'm not fighting anyone else, but as a moviegoer, I don't want to see the same food every Friday. I have a problem with that. Now I'm a little older, and I'm maybe more difficult, but just like the same product over and over again, and you just change a little bit the color? I'm just fed up.

Because Hollywood's so franchise-centric at this moment in time, do you get calls about The Fifth Element, which is now considered a classic? Do people want you to do another one?

I think the franchising, it's something different. You need to have something in the DNA of the story. In Valerian, honestly, they are two cops. You can do as many mission that you want, so in the DNA, you can do many Valerian. In The Fifth Element, there's nothing in the DNA to make a sequel. There is none. They just live together, and they're happy, and she's the Fifth Element, and that's it, and they resolve the problem. So no, I don't think it will be good. It will be fake. It will be just for money, and I'm not interested.

Do you have another dream project, in the same way that Valerian was for you, that's been in your back pocket, that you'd love to get off the ground? Is there something equally weighing on your brain?

Equally? Probably not, because it goes with the age. It's the memory of who I was when I was a child, so it's one area. There is a couple of things that I really want to do before the end, that I'm waiting to be mature enough, or to be old enough to be able to talk about it in a good way.

It's very difficult to go deep, for example, in feeling, in love story and things, if you're like 22 years old. What do you know about life? You know nothing about life, so I think you have to do the films which go with your age. Yeah, there is a couple of things that I really want to do later, that I just wait to be ready to do it.

At this point in your life and career, what about filmmaking for you feels exactly as exciting in the same way as when you first started out, and how has your feeling about filmmaking matured along the way?

When a story excites me, I still have the same love. I wake up in the morning. I say, "God, I have to do this film," so that didn't change, because that's my fuel. If I don't have that, I won't make the film, but when I have it, when I realize that I'm in love with this thing and I want to do it and then I go, that didn't change since the beginning.

What changed is I know my job way much more now. I really know my job. It's like some chess players – they don't even need the board. They can play chess by phone. They say, "Oh, the tower on Q3. Fuck, that's a good move," and they know exactly. I don't want to feel pretentious, but that's how I feel now, after 17 films as a director, 60 films as a writer, and 120 something as a producer. You bring me on the set, just from my car to the camera, I can tell you everything about everyone and their state of mind. That's how I know the set. I was on the set at 17 years old, and I'm 57, so I know the game. It's difficult to trick me.

What do you feel is special and unique about the French approach to filmmaking, as opposed to the American approach?

The organization is not the same. In France, the king, the emperor, is the director. Everybody around is here to serve the director and the vision that he has, almost like a creator. When in the U.S., it's much more a team. You have the director, which is one thing, the producer, the executive producer, the studio, the unions. There is a lot of power who have to be agreed together to do the thing, so it's another method. It's more like a republic. You have a congress and you have to vote. When, in France, we have a king, and that's it. The king wake up and say, "I want to do this," and everybody say, "Ah, the King said that we have to do this."

I'm not saying it's good or bad, because excess is always bad anyway, in one hand or the other. When I was assistant, I've see some kings who were abusing totally the situation, and it was ridiculous. And on the American side, I've seen some sets where it was so organized that it was amazing to watch, but sometimes the director had almost no power. The studio were sending pink pages under the door at midnight, to the new scenes that the guy doesn't even know, and I don't think it was good, too. The truth is always in the middle.

When you made The Fifth Element, you were able to put a lot of imagination into it, but you were limited by what the effects could make look real. It's a very different situation now. Tell me about the joy of learning all the things that you are now able to pull off visually in a film like this.

The way it evolves in a couple of years is that the director can do whatever he wants, really, because the limit is the imagination. What happened on Valerian is I describe exactly what I want, and I give that to Scott [Roddick], which is the chief of special effect, and you know what? I don't even want to know how he's going to do it. I let them ... "That's your problem, but this is what I want," and that's amazing. That's amazing, because it tripled the possibility and the freedom for a director. Now you can be [shooting] on shoulder and having millions of animals or aliens come in. You can really do whatever you want.

In exchange, sometime they come and say, "Look, we need this. We need that. We need to have a cable here and things," and then I say, "OK, all right. I deal with what you need," but I never want to know they're going to deal with it. "What I want is this." I'm like a spoiled brat! "And this is my image. I have the drawings. This is what I want, and until it doesn't look like that, I will say no." We gained an amazing amount of freedom, an amazing amount.

You need your actors to have almost as vivid of an imagination as you, because in this situation, they're working with nothing in front of them, other than what you're telling them.

No – it's not what happened. I have an entire story about the life and the creation of Alpha, the space station, from 1972 to 2800, year by year, what happened. I have five pages on each alien on the station, and the document is like 300 pages that they have to learn. I have 6,000 drawings of the station, the aliens, and everything, and it was on my wall upstairs, where we have our bedrooms. I'd make like classified things, so when they arrive, they know who they'd meet. If I say to Cara, "That's a Kortan Dahük," suddenly she'd smile and she'd say, "Hey, hi," because she knows what a Kortan Dahük is. She knows that they are sweet and they're pretty nice.

If I say, "Oh, there is an Azin Mö," she will know that she can't talk to them. They are like, it's impossible. There is too much barrier. If she sees the three Doghan Daguis coming – the three animals on their knees, the actors – if she sees them coming, she will say, "Oh, no. Fuck," because she know the entire history of them. No, they knew. They were very prepped, and they have no surprise.