Besson's 'Angel-A' is far cry from typical fantasy film


French fantasy: Although we tend to think of fantasy films as a colorful genre revolving around comic book superheroes or horrific supernatural spirits, that's not always the case.

Consider, for instance, Luc Besson's "Angel-A," opening May 25 in exclusive New York and Los Angeles engagements via Sony Pictures Classics, a wonderfully intelligent black & white drama set in Paris that's a far cry from your typical fantasy film. "Angel-A" revolves around an ordinary guy who's up to his eyeballs in debt and way down on his luck until a beautiful blonde turns up to turn things around for him. The fantasy? Well, skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know about it just yet. But what if the beautiful blonde turns out to be an angel? What if she's an angel and able to prove it -- yes, by flapping her otherwise unseen wings -- when she needs to? Starring are Rie Rasmussen ("Femme Fatale") as the angel and Jamel Debbouze ("Amelie") as the guy on the verge of suicide when she suddenly enters his life.

In the wrong hands, it's a story that just wouldn't get off the ground. But it's clearly in the right hands with Besson, whose directing credits include such films as the classic thriller "La Femme Nikita" (1990) starring Anne Parillaud and the sci-fi action adventure "The Fifth Element" (1997) starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Milla Jovovich, for which Besson received a Cesar, France's equivalent of the Oscar, for best directing.

Having enjoyed an early look at "Angel-A," I was glad to have an opportunity recently to ask Besson how he brought it to the screen. I began by observing that it had been more than a few years since his last film, the 1999 biographical drama "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" starring Milla Jovovich in the title role.

"I know it sounds long," he replied, "but when I was (doing) the editing of 'Joan of Arc' I started to do the first drawings (for the computer animated feature) 'Arthur and the Minimoys' (his 2006 family fantasy known in the U.S. as 'Arthur and the Invisibles'). I never stopped (working) except that the process of making the animated film was so long that everybody was saying I was on the beach having a good time. But in reality, I was not. I was working on this animated (film), which took me five years. In the middle of it, after two years, I worked on this film (promoting Paris' candidacy for) the Olympic Games, which took me like eight months. And then I did 'Angel-A.' So I was pretty busy, in fact, as a director. And, on the other hand, five or six years ago I started this company called Europa and then we started to produce between eight and 10 films per year. So, in fact, I haven't been so busy (for) years."

Actually, "Angel-A" is a project Besson had in mind going back many years: "In fact, (one of the film's key scenes) happened to me 15 years ago with my girlfriend. She was very clever. I was like all grumpy and she grabbed me and pushed me in front of a mirror and said, 'OK, look at yourself and say hi to yourself and say you love yourself.' I was not able to do it and it struck me because I said, 'God, she's right. What's wrong with me? I'm pretending I'm a director and I'm quite successful and I should be happy and why am I not?' I always remembered that.

"I started to write something about this character 10 or 12 years ago, but I was too young and I couldn't write the dialogue. I had the idea and the characters, but I couldn't write the dialogue. I had to get older. Life was kind enough to make me older and not to take my life away before. You know, you get smashed a few times in your head and in your face and (get your) heart broken a few times and then lots of happiness also and all of them mixed together makes you older. I took the script again and wrote the dialogue in two weeks. So it took me 10 years and two weeks!"

Asked how he works while writing, Besson told me, "I write in the morning. I start at 5 o'clock and I usually work (until) 9. That's it. Every morning. I put the headphones on (and listen to) music. I can't write if I don't have music in my head. But I can write every morning anywhere."

Does he write on a computer? "No, no. Pen," he said. "I don't have a computer."

What about organizing scenes on note cards posted on bulletin boards? "No," he replied. "I organize the film in my head and take some notes here and there. I want to be able to write the entire film on three pages in front of me. Like, basically, three half-hours. As long as I don't have these three pages in front of me with the 90 minutes (outlined) I don't start to write. So sometimes it takes 10 years. Sometimes even 20 years. But when I have these three pages and I know the characters and I know where I'm going, then I start to write and I can be very fast."

"Angel-A" runs a really tight 91 minutes and I asked Besson if he feels that's about the right length for a film? "It depends on the subject, honestly," he pointed out. "When I did 'Joan of Arc,' for example, just for the (subject matter) and the history you can take a little more time to tell the story because there are so many things to say about it. You can make a little longer film. I think the film was like two hours (IMDb puts its U.S. running time at 148 minutes). But when you do something sweet and not pretentious, it depends. I understand that some films run longer, but it depends on the purpose of the film. I didn't mind to have a long version of 'Titanic,' for example. It deserves it. But with some of them you can really make them shorter."

Besson shot "Angel-A" in black & white, he explained, because "it fit the purpose of the film. I wanted people to be confused about, 'Is it a real story? Is it a dream? Is it a fairy tale?' And I needed to give (the film) this floating feeling where you don't know exactly where you are. So I have the music for that and I have the black & white and the way I framed Paris. You know, just to give you the feeling that it's a little music in your head and everything can happen during the film. Because I needed people to believe (that the girl is an angel) and I have to put them in a certain ambiance. I want them to relax. I want them to get touched by (the characters) and to get involved with them.

"Also, (black & white was used) because she's tall, blonde, extroverted and he is small, tiny, brown and introverted. You have the good, the bad, the black, the white, the yin, the yang. She's the opposite of what he is so I love to play with that contrast."

Paris in all its beauty is almost a character in the film, as well. "Almost," he agreed. "You know, when you leave somewhere after a while you forget where you're living. You don't see the town anymore. You just go through it without seeing it. When I spent a couple of months taking care of the film (about Paris) for the Olympics Game I had to study and read some books and I kind of rediscovered Paris. It was like falling in love again. And that was very helpful for (shooting) 'Angel-A' because it's such a beautiful city. It's too bad there are Parisians in it, but --"

We laughed at his little joke about the famously unfriendly Parisians and I told him, "Very good. You can say that. I can't say that."

When it came to casting the movie, he continued, "I met Rie and Jamel almost at the same time. I was not planning to do the film, but I met her and I met him and then suddenly it flashed in my head, 'Oh, my God, they can play the film for sure.' So I didn't say anything. I had some lunch with her and some lunch with him to study (them both) a little more and to rewrite a little more. And then when I felt ready I gave the script to both of them at the same time and we had a first meeting (with) the three of us. When I saw Jamel's face the first time he sees her coming I knew that the film will be good. He had the same face as when he meets her for the first time in the film -- like, 'Where did this thing come from?' You know, what planet is she coming from?"

Putting the money together to make the movie wasn't at all difficult. "From a financing point of view," he said, "it was quite easy because I've had this production company called Europa for six years now and I produced the film through the company. We distribute 10 to 12 films a year in France and Japan. Everyone agreed to make the film."

Production got underway quickly, Besson continued, "because the film was not very expensive. It wasn't difficult to shoot. There weren't many special effects and things. We decided to make the film and, I think, a couple of months later we were shooting. We shot in July when all the Parisians are in the south of France and tourists don't wake up until 11 so we could shoot in the morning."

Clearly, Besson knew exactly where to get the great Paris locations he puts on display in "Angel-A." "I've taken some notes for probably 30 years here and there," he said. "You know, I'm always on a motorbike. So one day you pass and you see this very long street, very narrow, and at the end of the street you just see (a unique view of) the Eiffel Tower. And you just notice it. You say, 'Oh, my God, it's very strange from here.' It's very good (to work this way now) because I just stop and make a picture and (file it for future reference)."

As for how Besson works while filming, he pointed out, "Let's say, for example, if I shoot for eight hours I don't have a chair with my name. I never sit. I'm holding the camera myself. I'm the cameraman on the film. I know exactly what I'm doing and I don't want anyone to rest or to (not be) focused. I'm really putting everybody on their toes for sure. I need this concentration immediate and full 100% all the time. But I respect the people I work with and I never go over time, for example. If we have to finish at 6, at 5:55 I say, 'End of the day.' But if we say that we're starting at 9 and we're not ready at 9:02, I'm screaming to everyone. You know, if we are there, then we do it and we have to be there. I need this tension. I need the maximum from everybody because I'm giving everything."

Does he shoot in sequence? "It depends. There's no rules," he replied. "Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. But, for example, I spent a lot of time scouting locations. I sent my assistant to every bridge in Paris to make a picture every hour of north, south, east, west. I wanted four pictures per bridge per hour. I have a big book and I can see exactly at what time the light is the best (at each bridge). So sometimes we rehearsed with Jamel and Rie for days and days and we'd go on the bridge at 9:10 and we know the light is perfect for 25 minutes and we shoot the scene in 25 minutes and then we get off. So lots of preparation and very, very fast shooting, in fact."

Besson makes no secret of his affection for the movie: "You know, before 'Angel-A' I did 'Fifth Element' and 'Joan of Arc,' which are big films with big budgets and special effects. I am so proud (of 'Angel-A'). I've showed the film around the world and have had such good response from other directors. I didn't mean to do that, but there have been so many directors around the world who thanked me and said, 'My God, it's so good to see somebody like you who has the freedom to suddenly stop the machine and go back to (making) a French language speaking film in black & white. It shows that we still have freedom (as filmmakers).' It's something very important.

"I know it's a big business and we have to be careful with money, but let's not forget that films are (also) a piece of art and we have to let the writers and the directors and the artists express themselves. Otherwise it's like when we put products on the earth (in farming) and the earth becomes so weak that everything is polluted and food has no taste. I think it's the same (with movies). If we do a big budget funny film, I understand (that) it's a mainstream thing and it's for the family. They just want to have some fun for an hour and a half and eat some popcorn. And that's good. I'm not against that at all. I'm just saying that film can't be just that. It has to be a part of that. I was very pleased that a lot of artists around the world loved the film for that (reason)."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From April 28, 1989's column: "Universal, which has been enjoying a turnaround this past year, has further cause for celebration now with its promising limited opening last weekend of 'Field of Dreams,' which grossed $531,346 at 22 screens, an excellent $24,152 per screen.

"'The opening was tremendous,' Fred Mound, executive vp of Universal Pictures Distribution, told me. 'I think the most gratifying thing is that it was the plan we started with and that we stayed with all the way on this picture. It worked terrifically well for us.'

"Universal expands 'Field's' run today by 87 screens, bringing its total to 109 screens. 'Those screens will be added only in the 17 cities where we've already opened,' explains Mound. It widens May 5 to approximately 650 runs.

"What was the thinking behind the distribution plan? 'We knew we had a very special movie and that it was a picture that needed very careful handling,' Mound observes. 'We had to get the word of mouth out. We had to get critical acclaim. We were looking for a lot of things that sometimes you don't get. And we were basically hoping the public would take hold of this picture in these markets. I think the results speak for themselves. We've gotten the critical acclaim. We've gotten the public reaction. We've gotten a campaign that is gangbusters and is working wonderfully for us...Our thinking was to get the picture out in a very few markets. We hand-picked every one of these theaters.'"

Update: "Field of Dreams" had a great wide opening May 9, 1989, grossing $5.4 million at 633 theaters ($8,570 per theater). It went on to gross $64.4 million domestically, making it the year's 19th biggest film.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel