Luc Besson: Spending lots and lots of money to make indie films
You’re a huge fan of the Valerian comics, so this must have been a real passion project…
Well, I knew it would be difficult to bring to life. I think I studied it for three years before I said to myself, ‘OK, let’s try’. That was how difficult it was. Probably because at the time I didn’t feel I had enough experience to do it. The technology was just not there. And it was me who was not there also.
What did you need to learn in order to translate what you had imagined into reality?
Many, many things… To spread your effort, your energy over seven years. To have 2,000 people working for you. It’s a huge enterprise, and you need experience to do that. Perhaps what scared me the most was to lose the creative thread. The film takes place over one day but it took seven years to make, so you’re always scared that you’ll do a scene and then six months later you’ll do another one but now the actor has lost or gained three kilos. It can be as simple as that.
Does the final result reflect what you had in your mind’s eye as a child?
There are two periods to this. The first is when I was 10 years-old and Valerian was my escape. At the time there was no Internet and we didn’t even have a TV. The adult I later became is someone else, but I’m still in contact with this little Luc. I like him a lot. We talk often, and I tried to make the film for him, to please him. I think he will like it [laughs].
Your childhood was unusual. [Besson’s parents were scuba instructors and he grew up in different locations on the Mediterranean]. How did that inspire you creatively?
Imagination comes from places where you don’t have so much. The nearest toy store was 200km from where we lived. If you wanted to play, you didn’t have friends, because most of the children were Greek or Tunisian or Moroccan and they didn’t speak French. So you just had to invent. You’d grab a rock and a piece of wood and play with them. The imagination is like a muscle and the more you work it the more you have ideas. And that’s how it grows, and that’s how it stays with you.
Valerian fans want to see more of the world you have created…
Really? A sequel already? Oh my gosh, can I take two weeks off first? [Laughs]
Where would you like Valerian [Dane DeHaan] and Laureline [Cara Delevingne] to have their next adventure?
It’s funny, some films have in their DNA the possibility of sequels and some films don’t. Most of the time my films don’t. Even Taken was not made for a sequel. He finds his girl and that’s it. End of the story. But we found a good idea for Taken.
In fact we cheated. It’s not a sequel. It’s the second part of the first film, in that he gets the girl back but now the guy vanishes. But, for sure, Valerian is made for it because it’s a couple of cops and every film is an investigation, so you can easily imagine more. That’s why there are 29 books, and you could make as many as you want.
And do you have plans to do that?
A lot. Always. I wrote the second one already. And half of the third. My friends ask me, “Why are you writing when you don’t even know if you have another one?” But I’m like, “That’s OK, I like to write.” So I have it and it’s good. I hope we do it.
Do you have to force yourself to write?
No, it’s more complicated for me to live in this world.
I have to concentrate and say: “OK, this is not fantasy, this is real”. Because I have an easy way of going to another world in my head. I’m a dreamer, I can navigate easily in the 28th Century in Valerian. It’s more difficult to come back to Earth.
That’s a real gift, to be able to go so easily to that flow state…
A gift or a curse… We just don’t know!
Were there any other movies that inspired Valerian?
No. It’s the worst thing to do. If you re-digest what someone has already done then it’s like families making babies together. It’s not a good idea. I have 29 albums of Valerian to work from; I have other sources of inspiration. I work with young designers and they did almost 6,000 drawings for the film. I don’t need any other inspiration.
What was the thought process of filling lead roles with people not readily associated with the movie business?
There is only one rule that I follow: find the best person to play the role. I don’t care if you have a lot of experience, if you are a superstar or a beginner. We’ve seen many American blockbusters where the star makes $20 million and the film flops. It’s wrong to think when you start a movie that in four years from now we know what an audience will want. No one knows. Dane DeHaan was the perfect choice to play Valerian. I wouldn’t change him for anyone. And Cara [Delevingne] was also perfect. But more than that, the two together were magical, which was what I was looking for.
How did you discover that chemistry?
I couldn’t confirm either until I put them together in a room to verify that the electricity was there. And, honestly, after 30 seconds, I knew. It was just there.
Tell us about working with Rihanna...
Well, she’s the queen of pop. But that’s music. And one of the first things she told me was, “Luc, I’m a beginner as an actress.” She was very clear that she wanted me to do my job as a director. And my job is to find the actor and take out of the actor what I need. And she allowed me to do it right away. She was working with me. Her entourage was outside of the set.
You’ve got a solid track record for strong female leads in your film. Has that been intentional?
I put exactly the same attention in my films to both men and women. In Leon [the 1994 film with the title character played by Jean Reno] Leon is a big character and so is Mathilda [Natalie Portman]. And in The Fifth Element  Bruce Willis has a great part and so does Milla [Jovovich].
But you’ve a healthier ratio of strong female-to-male leads, compared to most of Hollywood.
Yes, well that’s your job to compare, not mine. [Laughs]
Would you share a memorable moment on the set of Valerian?
The entire film was done on stage in front of the green screens, so every day was pretty similar. But there was one moment when the creators of Valerian, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres stopped by the set.
These guys are nearly 80 years-old. I invited them to sit in the spaceship cockpit that they designed 50 years ago. And then Valerian and Laureline arrived in their suits. It was surreal for everyone. It’s almost like their characters had escaped them and could speak for themselves. It was actually very emotional and a nice moment on the set.
This is the most expensive independent film ever made. How much pressure did that put you under?
Honestly, none. My pressure every day is to do the best I can as a director. The real pressure is to make the film the best you possibly can. You don’t see the money. Everyone has been paid, that’s why it is expensive, and I’m happy they are paid. My first film, I couldn’t pay them.
Do you have to put yourself into a certain frame of mind to not feel the pressure?
No, it’s the reality. The fear is in the editing room, hoping that you have everything. And then at the end of it all you go through this filter where some people want to sit and watch your film, and other people just don’t want to do that. That’s the truth for everyone. So my role is to express myself and to offer it to the world.
The rest is totally not in my control. And I think not one of the painters in the history of the world ever thought about it either. They just paint. Some of them finish up at the Louvre, some of them not. But they paint with the same art.
How does an independent filmmaker raise $200m for a film?
It’s actually pretty simple. Three years ago we went to Cannes with the script and thousands of drawings. You go into a room with 150 buyers from around the world and you explain what you want to do. Then they go into another room, read the script, and then make an offer, or they don’t. If they don’t like it then you know that your script isn’t good enough and you just have to go back to work. So I’m not even nervous when I go.
I know I will have an answer. On this particular day we found more than 80 percent of the money, so I knew we were greenlighted. For me, the trick is not to go too soon as I’m a bad salesman. It’s better for me to take time to prepare and be ready with the best I can offer.
Do you feel that you’re carrying the torch for independent filmmaking?
I feel like an artist and I think we have forgotten that it is up to the financial people in the business to follow the artist, and not the opposite.
Do you have friends who are directors who are jealous of your freedom?
Jealous, no, but concerns, yes. The American system is maybe a little bit in danger, because too much power is in the hands of lawyers, agents and financiers. And all these people forgot that if you don’t have an idea then nothing works. But at the same time, if all the power was in the hands of the creatives, would that be good? No. It would be a disaster. The only real solution is to work together and be respectful of both sides of the process.
And you have a foot in both camps?
Well, I finished the movie three days ahead of schedule, which is completely unheard of in Hollywood.
How did you get the rights to use a Beatles song for the trailer, which is something the Beatles estate almost never allows?
One of the guys on the team brought me the song [“Because”] and I loved it. And he said the problem is they never say yes. So I said, “Let’s take the risk and edit the trailer with the song.” So we did everything perfectly and sent it to Paul [McCartney] and he agreed right away. I didn’t know that he is a huge fan of sci-fi and his daughter [Stella] is a big friend of Cara’s, and she’d come to the set one day. So he knew about the project through his daughter. There was some convergence, the stars aligned and we were lucky. It fitted together so well.
You still make a lot of French films and your studio is one of the most active in France. Is it important to use your success to help the French movie industry?
No, it’s not a motivation. It’s a consequence. It helps the industry, but do I do it for that? No. What’s important is to follow what you feel.
Would you work in television, seeing as it has had such a resurgence?
There are lots of good things on TV and you get lots of freedom. But there is a problem of distance. If you are good at the 100 metres it doesn’t mean you are good at the 10km. My distance is the 10km. So TV is not my distance. I like it, but I don’t feel I can bring something.
You’ve been involved in 50-odd movies. Where does your reserve of energy come from?
It’s like if you always go to the gym every day, then you can’t stop. I’m writing every day. I’m doing something
I love, which is movies. So I regenerate my energy all the time. My real problem is when I take two weeks of holiday and I come back feeling like a stone — I can’t do anything.
I don’t know how to write or do anything productive.
So the advice is to keep working?
If you like what you do, then yes.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is out now