The French director of La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional returns with a new super-female – and in this case it’s no exaggeration. Plus he tells Jeremy Kay why the first meeting with Scarlett Johansson was like two dogs sniffing each other’s butts.

Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson as drug mule who is packed with a new product that explodes inside her stomach, turning her into a supremely evolved human being.

Universal holds worldwide rights to the action thriller except in France, where Besson’s EuropaCorp will distribute directly, as well as in Belgium and China. Lucy also stars Morgan Freeman and opens in the US on July 25.

How’s it been with Universal?
It’s the first time I am working with Universal and it’s been a wonderful thing. They’ve been at the service of the film. It’s been a great lesson for me.

What gave you the idea for Lucy?
Nine years ago I was promoting a movie and met this young woman who was working on a cure for cancer. It was unexpected and we talked for hours. A couple of years later I become friends with a professor who works on the brain and I was curious. I knew I wanted to make a film about it but I waited probably for about six years because I wanted to be familiar and needed to know the environment. I knew I would use a few things that were true and take a few artistic liberties. You need to be a little serious about the brain. You need a real base.

Is the drug in the movie real?
CPH4 is a fake name but the molecules are real. It’s true that pregnant women after six weeks create this amazing product that helps the baby to grow. This molecule is very powerful and people are trying to make a synthetic version of it for good and for bad.

Scarlett Johansson has cornered the market on other-wordly, strong women. Was she an easy pick?
You need a very good actress. The script is pretty crazy to read and it could be scary. I met a couple of actresses to see how they reacted and Scarlett right away got it. She was interested and bombarded me with questions and was serious – it was about the work. She wants to work the character and see all the X she can bring. When you watch the film, after [Lucy is able to access] 20pc [of her brain] we were obliged to invent a certain way of talking and moving. After the first 10 minutes she cannot feel anything and has no life. Everything is escaping her so you had to recreate everything. So I needed a real actress. The first meeting is always like two dogs sniffing the butt and if we get along it works.

When and where did you shoot?
We started on August 15, 2013, in Paris. It’s a long weekend where Parisiens are on holiday and that was the only date where the mayor accepted that we could destroy shitty cars in Paris. Then we went to Taipei for six or seven weeks. It was great over there and we finished on a stage in Paris. Post was pretty long and we did all the effects with ILM. It’s the first time we worked with them and it was wonderful with them.

How did you stay consistent with the stages of Lucy’s evolution in the movie?
It takes one second to become corny. We took a big sheet of paper and I put 10pc and 20pc on the sheet all the way up to 100pc. Scarlett put that on her wall, like a checklist. Every morning she was checking if on the day of the shoot was at 30pc or wherever and would check everything she could do, could not do, feel and could not feel. Every day she was referring to her methodology.

Why did you make Lucy do what she did as she continued to evolve into the highest human state?
When you’re powerful the real power is to pass it on. So many people around the world today are powerful and use it very badly. They are greedy and it’s a message to us: if you want to be as close as you want to god, when you are very, very powerful, just pass it on. Some people get it, like Bill Gates.

The style is particularly kinetic, feral. Why?
From the first image of the film I tried to deconstruct the story-telling because I wanted people to be on their toes, because the end is difficult and strong and believable. If it had been linear you wouldn’t buy the ending. So to prepare people for the ending, I started with cells and you see cheetahs [hunting their prey ]– it’s all deconstructed so people were on their toes and they follow.

What is it with you and strong female characters?
We always say that women are the weaker sex and men are the stronger sex. I’m interested in the strength of the female and the weakness of the male. Take Achilles: without his tendon there’s no interest. What makes him interesting is he has a weakness. A woman cannot physically fight with a man most of the time, so she has to be more intelligent and flexible and she has to find another way.