Luc Besson Talks the Origins, Effects and Altered Reality of 'Valerian'

"I was really frustrated when 'The Fifth Element' came out. I always said to myself, you will avenge one day, and now I avenge," said the cult director about his upcoming SF epic.
Courtesy of EuropaCorp

Prepare to blast off into an area of space you've never visited before. Luc Besson's next movie is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on a French comic book series from the late 1960s — but as a preview of the movie at New York Comic Con demonstrated, the finished result looks anything but dated.

At a press event Friday, seven minutes of unfinished footage featuring Dane DeHaan as the titular time-traveling hero and Cara Delevingne as his love interest and partner, Laureline, were unveiled, showing eye-popping special effects, fast-moving action and reality-bending science fiction. Even unfinished, the result was akin to Star Wars meets The Fifth Element, only wilder than both.

"I've read the comic books since I was 10 years old," Besson told reporters after the screening, talking about the original bande dessinee. "At the time, it was two pages every Wednesday in a magazine. You basically have to wait six months to read the entire story. In France at the time, there were two TV channels, one in black and white, one in color, and the only way to escape were these comics. Probably the first woman I fell in love with was Laureline when I was 10."

Besson credited comics like Valerian with shaping the filmmaker he later became. "This kind of comic book built myself. I was living in the countryside, I would open my window and see cows. I wanted to escape, and every Wednesday, it's be Valerian and Laureline and yeah! It's building your imagination, your sense of beauty — it's important, it's almost your main food when you're 10 years old. That and music."

The idea of adapting Valerian into a movie had been raised by the strip's artist and co-creator Jean-Claude Mezieres, Besson revealed. "We met on The Fifth Element, when I called him and asked him to participate. He was the one who said to me, 'Why don't you do Valerian instead of this f—ing Fifth Element?' At the time, to be honest, you couldn't make it. There's, like, five or six [humans], all the rest were aliens. You really had to get to Avatar, and then think, oh, now imagination is the limit. Now we can do everything."

For his part, Mezieres said that he was happy with what he's seen of the big screen Valerian so far. "What I enjoy is not, 'I see that piece! That's what I drew!' For me, it's the feeling that I'm not betrayed," he explained. "It's very important to me that the base is the same, except Luc made a film, of course. I think a good comic book should bring ideas to its readers, and this is an excellent surprise. This is the first time I've seen finished sequences, and [Besson] improvised on the base like a musician."

That improvisation was key to the movie working, according to both Mezieres and Besson. "If the comic book is the storyboard of the film, there's no need to make the film," the comic book artist said, while the filmmaker said that adding to the original comic book story was necessary for reasons of length. "There's one basic volume [that inspired the movie] called The Ambassadors of Shadows, but you can read it in 25-30 minutes, so we took elements from about five or six different albums," Besson said — not that it was an easy process.

"When I saw Avatar for the first time, I took the script for Valerian and threw it in the garbage," he admitted. "It was not of that level. It's like you watched Usain Bolt and thought, 'OK, I'm not going to go into the Olympics. ... I want to be behind Usain Bolt, but I want him to look at me. I was depressed — happy for [Cameron], but depressed for me. But I'm happy now, because it's better. I was right to throw it out."

Cameron's influence on the movie was considerable, Besson said, but more from an inspirational and advisory standpoint than a practical one. "I'm not very techno. I don't like to touch anything with buttons, I don't even have a computer. I'm kind of allergic to it, but I like the result of it," he said. "Cameron was very cool, very encouraging, like all the big guys. Take Spielberg, or him, they're not protective or anything. Jim gave me lots of good advice. He invited me on the set to see Avatar, and I didn't understand how it was working."

The difference between working on The Fifth Element and Valerian was extreme, the filmmaker explained. "Fifth Element was the last film done with old-fashioned special effects; if I had a green screen, I'd have to lock my camera in one place, and they'd put dots on the screen for hours. It was a nightmare. And then six hours later, digital arrived and basically, you can put your camera on your shoulder and they say, 'Oh, we can do it later.' I was like, 'Are you kidding?'"

The experience of making Fifth Element soured him on special effects movies for some time, he continued. "I was really frustrated when The Fifth Element came out. I always said to myself, you will avenge one day, and now I avenge."

That vengeance comes with assistance from ILM and Weta, both of whom are working on the movie. "There are so many [SFX] shots in it," he said. "There are 2,734. We basically have three portions — we gave to ILM what looks better for them, and then Weta, and then Rodeo, a third company. ILM is doing the first 25 minutes; it's a big scene in a big market that's in a double world. It's very complicated to explain, and every easy to watch! Weta did all the rest, most of it in Alpha — a space station that's 18 miles long — and Rodeo is doing all the space ships and everything technical. Everyone was very positive, and I couldn't believe it was just my talent, but I discovered a month ago — it's because they know they'll be shown next to each other in the same film, and there's a little, smart competition. It's good news for me."

Besson went into more depth about the market and Alpha. "The big market is pretty crazy," he said. "It's in a desert and there are one million shops on five levels. You can buy anything. When you are in the first world, you don't see anything, just a desert. But when you put on your helmet and your sensors, you can see the shop. So if I want to buy this [holds up water glass], I take the glass with my glove, and if I don't have the glove, there's nothing there. I put the glass on the transmatter, and key in my genetic code, and I can pick it up without the glove. Now you can sell anything in five different dimensions, not just on Earth. In this world, they have to retrieve something that's stolen, and it's super complicated."

Alpha, by comparison, is entirely different — an outgrowth of the international space station that grew so large, it had to be moved away from Earth so as to not interfere with the planet's gravity. (There were full histories written out of Alpha and other alien concepts in the movie for lead actors Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne to memorize, Besson explained.) "It's a city of science, like the United Nations, Wall Street, everything. If you're an alien, you have to be represented there. They exchange all the knowledge in the universe and it's full of life," he said.

Despite all the new concepts, aliens and locations, however, Besson said that the heart of the story was something that everyone could easily grasp: "It's a boy and a girl. They have fun, they love each other, but they don't want to say it. He's a puppy — he's watching all the girls, and she's very old fashioned. For her, you fall in love with one man, you get married, you have kids. Just like that, it's today, but with aliens and fighting. I love the contrast of that. It's very human. That's the thing I wanted to keep since the beginning. Basically, the story is if the guy's going to get the girl."

If all this just makes you eager to see the movie for yourself, you're in luck — although the movie won't be released until summer next year, the first teaser will be released next month, and Besson is excited, joking that he's been so busy working on the finished film, the teaser was edited by an outside party — and the result made him excited to see his own movie.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens July 21, 2017.

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