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“The Fifth Element is a short film compared to this,” declared filmmaker Luc Besson, talking about his latest movie project, Valerian.
Besson, the French writer-director behind cult hits such as La Femme Nikita and The Professional, as well the Bruce Willis sci-fi movie Fifth Element, had no immediate reason to be in San Diego at Comic-Con — he has no footage to show from any new movie, for example — but flew in from Paris to showcase, to a select few, his concept designs for his latest and most ambitious endeavor: the adaptation of the popular French comic strip.
Valerian is not well-known outside of Europe and with a series of meetings, Besson hoped to lay a little groundwork for the story of the titular time-traveling galactic agent, his red-headed true love Laureline and the world of the 26th century.
And with a budget of $180 million, co-financed with his media company EuropaCorp, and a story that calls for only five living actors amid a sea of alien species, this is clearly the largest filmmaking challenge of his career.
“This is the biggest adventure of my life,” he said.
You can thank James Cameron for that.
“I saw Avatar and had to throw the script into the garbage,” said Besson, who first tried to tackle Valerian years ago. Cameron’s world-building was at such a high level that it was clear to Besson he had to start again.
“It was too normal,” he said of his old script, 50 percent of which he jettisoned in the effort to refashion it. “It was too normal, it was not good enough.”
He then added, praising Cameron, “All the directors in the world have to thank him because every five years he comes out with a movie and pushes us.”
Valerian, Besson described, will have a love story amid a larger story of good versus evil, although he said he hopes to escape the pattern of movies where the villain is introduced in the first 10 minutes and everything is on a clear-cut path.
Besson went into detail of how humans got to their future point (it will all be explained by the end of the opening credits, he says) and living on a spaceship 12 miles in diameter with millions of lifeforms on it
He also showed off elaborate designs for world, starships and aliens, some seen in the bande desine, some brand-new, on which he’s been working for the past nine months with four artists from around the world.
Besson canvassed art schools from around the world to find his design team, whittling down to 20, then to eight (the first round was asked to draw one alien, one spaceship and one alien world, then got more specific from there). The process is highly secretive: They only communicate with the filmmaker and they don’t know each other.
“I don’t isolate them, I protect them in their creativity,” he said. “They are safe because I protect them. We don’t talk about money or shooting. We are in our world and just create.”
The casting of Besson’s actors was announced at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the project was sold to international territories. Dane DeHaan is playing Valerian (“I think he will be huge, and he has a way of attracting the camera,” Besson offered), while model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne won the part of Laureline, but only after five hours of camera tests (“She’s a beginner but she learns fast,” said the helmer).
The filmmaker plans to kick off a six-month shoot in January, aiming for a 2017 release date.
So does that theoretically allow him to show off something next Comic-Con?
“I will be back here in a year,” Besson promised.
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