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European films

For Luc Besson, director of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, making extravagant space opera a no-brainer

The French auteur hired three separate special effects companies to help realise his vision for the US$180 million blockbuster, which he had long considered unfilmable until the technology caught up with his imagination

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 July, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 11:36am

When French filmmaker Luc Besson was directing The Fifth Element at London’s Pinewood Studios in 1996, his designer Jean-Claude Mézières asked why he wasn’t instead making a film of Mézières’ comic book series, Valerian and Laureline, of which Besson was, and still is, the world’s the biggest fan.

“I didn’t know the answer,” recalls Besson, 58, who drew heavily on Mézières’ cityscapes for the US$90 million French production, then the biggest ever in Europe. “So I went back home and looked at the comic and I came back and I said, ‘It’s just not possible.’ And I was right.”

Besson met annually for a drink with Mézières, who had created the series with writer Pierre Christin, and the filmmaker always concluded it couldn’t be done. After a decade the rights became available and he finally took the plunge to write and direct a film version, encouraged by his meetings with James Cameron and the technical advances of Avatar.

“The rights belonged to an American studio for many years and they didn’t know what to do with it,” Besson explains. “It took me three years just to figure it out, then seven years ago I said, ‘Let’s try.’”

At a cost of US$180 million, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as two very clever (and emotionally involved) special operatives in the 28th century, marks yet another Besson project that set a record as the most expensive European film ever.

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For the surprisingly boyish filmmaker, it was deeply personal. “I discovered Valerian when I was 10 and I fell in love with Laureline for sure,” admits Besson, who then only had a black and white television transmitting one channel and looked forward to every weekly instalment of the comic.

“Valerian was one of my best friends and I’d talk to him and tell him everything. I think it’s important not to forget him. There’s a philosopher who says that the child is the father of the man – so he’s my father. He taught me everything. So I made this film for him.”

All Besson’s previous movies led up to this defining moment, from his early pairing of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional (1994), to his powerhouse portrayal of women in Nikita (1990) and recent hit Lucy (2014), to his writing and producing of successful franchises – Taken, Taxi and The Transporter – via his independent company, EuropaCorp.

The tools we have today are so amazing. The limit is the imagination. There are no more limits
Luc Besson, director

Valerian begins by showing the mind-blowing capabilities of Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) as they jump from one dimension to another on the intergalactic beat. Their new assignment is to investigate a dark threat to Alpha, the city of a thousand converged planets where species of all types, shapes and colours have lived together harmoniously for centuries.

“The film is very current; actually we’re talking about ecology,” Besson says. “We’re talking about living together and accepting each other and we also talk about immigration. In a space station far from home, we’re all immigrants.”

Besson shot his extravagant, highly visual 3D film at his personally designed City of Cinema studios in northern Paris, which opened in 2012, and was just as fastidious with this as he was with The Fifth Element, personally overseeing much of the production.

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The task of creating the visual effects was so enormous that he hired three companies: ILM founded by Star Wars’ George Lucas; Rodeo FX in Montreal (which worked on Lucy); and New Zealand’s Weta, for the motion-capture creation of the wide array of scene-stealing aliens. Besson ensured that during filming the aliens were all played by real actors.

“That’s very important for me,” he says animatedly, hunching down as he attempts an imitation. “It’s very difficult to ask Cara and Dane to be emotional in front of a tennis ball. I’m here to help them, not to put stress on them.”

DeHaan, 32, had already appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 before Valerian. “I love doing these kinds of movies,” he says. “Spider-Man was such a huge gift. It opened up so many opportunities and now I’m able to be the title character.”

The classically trained American actor had come to the film direct from another starring role in Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness , which was shot in Germany. “I was exhausted by the end of it – I had to sleep for days,” he recalls.

“But it’s different working with Luc. He’s so much fun and after five months I don’t even feel tired. Since he runs the studio and owns the studio, it’s all Luc’s vision. There’s a uniqueness to it and a voice to it that I think would be stripped away in an American studio.”

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Besson creates a familial atmosphere partly because he’s a family kind of guy: with his wife of 13 years, producer Virginie Silla-Besson, he has three children. He also has a daughter each with his first wife, Nikita star Anne Parillaud, and actress-director Maiwenn Le Besco.

In recent years Silla-Besson has taken over the reins of producing her husband’s films and really proved her mettle with Lucy, which cost US$40 million and made more than US$463 million internationally.

“She’s the sole producer of Valerian, which is unusual for a huge film like this and I’m amazed to see how she manages,” Besson says admiringly. “To meet her she seems so regular – but if she wants something she gets it. I couldn’t have made Valerian without her.”

Probably the most famous cast member on Valerian is chanteuse Rihanna, who is keen to make a stronger impression as an actress. Besson goes all silly again, flailing his arms around and recreating her gooey, gurgling, shape-shifting character, Bubble, who morphs into a scintillating pole-dancer and a whip-wielding French maid, among others.

Besson sets one thing straight: “Everything in the film was decided by me. I wrote the Bubble character; Bubble is Rihanna. Rihanna is the ultimate artist, the ultimate diva, and she’s the queen of R’n’B. There is a connection between her and the character.”

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Did the stars readily accept coming to Paris to shoot the film? “It didn’t matter,” says Besson. “We obviously cannot shoot in space! The entire film has to be on a sound stage, so whether you’re in Paris or London, it’s exactly the same. You just try to go where it’s easiest financially.”

But really, when will he shoot a film in space? “As soon as we can,” the director chuckles. “The tools we have today are so amazing. The limit is the imagination. There are no more limits. You can really do whatever you want, which makes me very happy, because I have a couple of crazy ideas.”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens on July 27

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