“I say this without pretension, but I’m an artist.”
It is crunch time for French filmmaker and EuropaCorp boss Luc Besson as he gears up for the July launch of his big-budget sci-fi extravaganza Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets.
The $180m picture - billed as the biggest budget European independent production of all time — comes out in 140 territories over a three-week period, kicking off in China on July 21, where it will be released on 9,000 screens.
Inspired by the graphic-novel series of French writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézieres, the intergalactic saga follows the missions of space and time-travelling agent Valerian and his tough female colleague Laureline, played by rising stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, with Rihanna also putting in a small appearance.
Even by Besson’s own blockbuster standards, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is an audaciously ambitious production. Aside from the elevated budget, the series spans a complex universe and a multi-species cast of thousands of different extra-terrestrial beings.
The director freely admits that while its failure at the box office would not destroy EuropaCorp financially, as suggested in some media outlets, it would have a deep impact for him on a personal level. With just one month to go until Valerian’s global release, Besson will be at CineEurope in Barcelona (June 19-22) to give distributors and exhibitors a sneak peak of the potential blockbuster. Screen International caught up with the director on the eve of the presentation.
What will you be showing at CineEurope?
Honestly, we don’t know yet — it depends what’s ready at the time. It could be anything from 10 minutes to up to most of the film.
You haven’t set the marketing campaign yet.
There’s a main campaign, which everyone can use, and then we have a couple of different posters. We like to try to work with our partners to satisfy the needs of their territories. To be honest, it’s very difficult with this film. It’s almost like Avatar. I remember when they tried to promote Avatar, it was so big with so many things in it, they didn’t know what to sell. It was not an easy concept like Planet Of The Apes, where the title says it all.
Like Avatar, or the first Star Wars, Valerian has so many aspects. I like the material we have but it’s small by comparison with what we have in the film. With every trailer, we try to show another angle. We’re up to the third trailer and we’ve still got six or seven big characters we haven’t revealed yet.
What drew you to the characters of Valerian and Laureline in the first place?
It grew out of a childhood memory. When I first started reading the books, there was no internet and only two channels on TV. My environment as a 10-year-old was very small. Valerian opened a window on the future and I fell in love with this couple working together to resolve big problems in space.
Laureline was unusual for a female character at the time. She was a tough cookie. The series is part of my “sentimental education”. The fact I came across Laureline so early on made me see women differently. It’s not by chance that I went on to create characters like Nikita, Leeloo [in The Fifth Element] or Lucy.
You have chosen to adapt the third graphic novel in the series. Why did you choose to kick off with this particular volume?
The storyline is just amazing. It’s set against the backdrop of a space station where everybody is trying to live together. The film makes me smile a lot because people today think it’s difficult to live next to each other if you’re black or white, Muslim or Christian. Can you imagine what it means to co-exist with 7,000 different species?
The big theme is tolerance and working together, but within that you have the story of Valerian and Laureline, these two cops on a mission. And within that, there’s the tale of a guy who is desperate to get the girl. Even if you don’t like sci-fi you can follow that storyline, and the film is pretty funny.
Who were your sounding boards when you were writing the screenplay?
I trust my producer [Virginie Besson-Silla]. Aside from being my wife, she’s also a really tough cookie. It’s rare to get even a smile and a, “Yeah, it’s good,” from her. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say, “Oh my God, it’s really good!” Then I go to two other categories of people.
First, people who do the same job as me, directors. Not even producers, or actors, just directors. Ones who know what they’re talking about and are not scared to say, “I don’t understand this part here.” Second, I like to sound out friends of mine who are not in the movie business. Their reactions are more those of real moviegoers.
People have been drawing parallels between your ambition for Valerian and George Lucas’s original vision for Star Wars. Have you sought his advice?
I wish I could have his opinion. Once in a while, we send little notes to each other but he is very private so it’s difficult to approach him more than that. I would love to show him the film to get his opinion, not least because without him I don’t think Valerian would have been made.
When you see Star Wars as a 16-year-old, you say, “Oh, OK, you’re allowed to do that.” He opened the gates for everyone. He showed the level that can be attained, and that you can start a film where the two main characters are robots, one of which we can’t understand [when he communicates]. When I ended up making The Fifth Element a few years later and my hero was a woman and we didn’t understand what she was saying, it was OK.
How did you come to cast Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne — two relative unknowns — in the lead roles?
There have been a few films of late where they cast big names and it doesn’t stop a film from being a flop. A big name is no longer an insurance policy. My thinking was also simply, “Let’s take the best people for the roles.” I saw a lot of people and Dane is the best person to play Valerian and Cara is the best girl for Laureline. And you know what, they’re 25 years old. [A large proportion] of today’s cinema audience around the world is aged between eight and 18 years old, so let’s have some actors who speak to them.
Dane is a genius. He is probably the new Leonardo DiCaprio. Cara was the newcomer. I think she will be the big surprise of the film. You will see how she is just amazing. There is also something else: Cara has 20 million people following her and Rihanna has 50 million [Delevingne has 8.8 million followers on Twitter, while Rihanna has 73.8 million]. It’s different today.
But you didn’t cast Delevingne and Rihanna for their social-media following?
No, not at all. When I hired Cara, people were asking whether she could act. She’d had a couple of small parts in films but not everyone was convinced. I sort of love the fact that put her in my hands, and you’ll see what she can do.
How did Rihanna come on board?
I met her a few times and she honestly wants to act, and I say “honestly” because the word is important. We talked and I felt she could give something. The part is not easy. You will see. She has to act. It’s a real part.
Speaking of social media, you’ve been posting regularly about Valerian throughout the development and production process. Is that really you or your marketing team?
I wasn’t on social media at all before I started the film. Then they explained to me how it works like I was a four-year-old. I took to Instagram, I think because it involves taking pictures and writing little jokes or comments, which is something I’ve always done for friends privately.
It was sort of an extension of that, even if I don’t know the identities of these friends or followers. I have been posting nearly every day and actually it sort of helps because most of the comments are so sweet. I’ve enjoyed the process.
You shot at Les Studios de Paris, the creation of which was spearheaded by you. Was this important to you?
The crew was made up of 950 people with some 120 coming from New Zealand, a bunch of Asian people, Germans, French and lots of Americans, especially in the special-effects department. It’s a very international mix so it could have been shot in Paris, Pinewood in England or in the US. But the point about the Paris Studios is that they’re new, just five years old, and I designed them. They’re made for directors and very practical. As a result, we finished four days ahead of schedule.
Did you design the studios with Valerian in mind?
Yes, yes [laughs] you’re right. That was seven years ago. I’m stubborn. This will make you laugh. When we were designing the studios, I spent two days figuring out where to put the toilets. No one could understand why I was so fixated with this detail. But you have to think it through. You have a 2,000 square metre studio and 400 extras.
There is always one time in the day when they have to go to pee. If your toilets are 100 metres away, you’re going to lose two hours a day. I was like, “It’s a nightmare when you’re trying to shoot and the people are never there because they’re walking to the restrooms.” So, I put the restrooms beside the studio.
Is it true you hated shooting The Fifth Element at Pinewood?
Honestly, it’s not true at all. The crew in England are amazing. I was blown away by making The Fifth Element over there. The two things I liked less were the food, and the fact that because it was built in the ’50s and ’60s, it’s very big and spread-out, and you lose a lot of time moving from one bit to another. It’s also far from London so sometimes I would sleep at Pinewood because I didn’t have time to go home.
We’re used to seeing US comic-strip characters hitting the big screen in big-budget productions. How did you convince distributors that you could pull off the same operation as an independent and with a French property like Valerian?
There are two ways of making films. You’re a big company and you buy a brand and hire a couple of hundred people to take care of it and to make money with it. That’s one way of doing films. There is nothing wrong with this way of doing things because most of the time it produces a good film.
The other way is much more as an artist. I say this without pretension, but I’m an artist. If there is something I fall in love with and think I can do something new with, I just do it, no matter what. It could be Valerian or a black-and-white low-budget film in French. Yes, I’m a bit of a spoiled child but there is one rule, which is that if I’m the only one who wants to do it, it will never happen.
How did the distributors come on board?
What I did was very simple. Two years ago, I went to Cannes and asked all the distributors from around the world to come in for a presentation. Dane and Cara joined me on stage and I showed something like 60 or 70 drawings, explaining the details of the different aliens and the concept for the film.
Then they went into a room and had two hours to read the script and make a proposal if they were interested. We got the immediate backing of some 140 distributors and locked down financing in one day.
Why do you think independent distributors were so hungry for this production?
Unless you’re Disney and Warner Bros, most distributors just watch these big films passing by. But for nearly 30 years, I’ve been bringing films like Leon [aka The Professional], Nikita and Lucy to the market, and this in turn has created good relations with the distributors who like the fact that once in a while they have access to something of this calibre.
China’s Fundamental Films was one of the first to publicly invest in the film. Did its involvement influence the cast and storyline?
My partner there is [Fundamental Films chairman] Mark Gao. The company had already released a number of EuropaCorp films in China. We knew one another very well with a relationship going back five, six years. It was not like, “Boom, we have a partner.” If we’ve decided to work together here, it’s because we like one another. They didn’t interfere at all.
On Valerian, they said if we could cast a Chinese guy in a small part it would help. So I took one but honestly I’d already cast other Asian actors before they asked. It’s sci-fi and set on a space station, so it made sense for the cast to be mixed. I met this young actor, Kris Wu, who is just a great guy and I was actually very happy to work with him.
You’ve got quite a following in China. Will you be travelling there to support the launch of the film?
Yes, sure. At the beginning of July, we have a six-day tour stopping off in Beijing and Shanghai and four or five other cities I’ve never visited before.
Will you be doing the same in Europe and the US?
I’ll do everything I can, until I collapse.
But you won’t go to the UK unless you are promised better food?
I will be coming to the UK with huge pleasure; we have a big premiere on July 24 and there are a couple of excellent restaurants in London.
There have been suggestions that if Valerian flops at the box office, EuropaCorp could go under financially. Is that true?
Like every film company, we will only greenlight a project if at least 80% of its budget is covered. With Valerian, we’ve covered 96% of the budget with pre-sales. I heard that a newspaper did write a bit of shit about the company but actually this newspaper belongs to another company that is going to release a film at the same time. It sounds to me like a very, very below-the-belt attack.
The risk to EuropaCorp is 4% of the budget so there’s no actual financial risk. The risk for the company is more one of notoriety. If the film is a big flop, we’ll lose credibility for making these sorts of films. The risk is not financial, but rather human.