The French film-maker talks to Screen about the EuropaCorp strategy following the departure of Le Pogam and his new project The Lady, starring Michelle Yeoh.

EuropaCorp boss Luc Besson was in the UK earlier this month for the screening of his film The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec at the Rendez-Vous Film Festival in London and Scotland. His new project, The Lady, about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi played by Michelle Yeoh, is likely to be ready for Toronto.

Besson’s business partner Pierre-Ange Le Pogam left EuropaCorp in January. Meanwhile the company is gearing up for the sequel of Taken which will shoot in November, with Olivier Megaton directing and Liam Neeson once again in the lead role.

If you had made Adele Blanc-Sec in English, the film would have been easier to market. Why did you shoot in French?

I wanted to. That was the only thing. You’re not making a film thinking about how much you’re going to do and how it’s going to work. You start with the honest feeling – which is I don’t know why but I want to do this film. Then the second question later is, OK, now that I want to do this film, how much will it cost and how can I find the money to do the film.

If the film had been in English, would it have been bigger? Maybe, I don’t know but I don’t care. The film was pre-sold everywhere in the world. The Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese don’t care if the film is in English or French because they will be reading the subtitles anyway. 

For you as a director, how easy was it to switch from an effects- driven project like Adele to The Lady, your forthcoming film about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi which stars Michelle Yeoh?

I am very lucky to be able to change subject like this. It is really a big, big pleasure. I am not stuck in any one genre. Adele is a vanilla strawberry ice cream with M&M’s on the top. It’s just a dessert. I was happy for once to do a light film because I’ve never done one. It was three months of pure joy and happiness. Honestly, it was like a holiday. The Lady is a biopic of 40 years of history of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi.

She’s alive and she struggled for 20 years, arrested in her own house. This is serious. So I am much more concentrated. I am dealing with the truth. I have to verify and take some specialists. I have a lot of Burmese people coming with me on the set. I am responsible. Now she is out but for a long time, Aung San Suu Kyi was not even able to talk to people. So you are going to talk for her.

You often make films about strong women, whether it’s Joan of Arc or Adele or Aung San Suu Kyi.

It’s true that I try to propose strong roles for women but I try to propose strong parts for men too if we watch Leon or Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element or Angel A. Traditionally, since the 50s and 60s, male characters are always the heroes and the guys driving (the story) and there is a lack of nice, good parts for women. I hope I won’t sound pretentious but I have had the feeling since Nikita, where we proved that a woman can drive an action people, people have started to think wow, he’s right…things are a little bit more equal now. I try to be respectful and propose things for actors and actresses that are quite strong.

How did you have the idea to make this film about Aung San Suu Kyi?

I knew her and the story since she had won the Nobel Prize. I had read articles.Michelle Yeoh, who I knew from before, came to see me and said she would love to make this film as an actress and produce it with a friend of hers in England. She said “can you help to produce? Of course, I’d love for you to direct but you probably have other things to do.” I said “you’re right, I have other things to do but let’s see if I can help.”

I read the script and I was like – what! I didn’t really know the real story about her love story and her life. I said to Michelle,” I know you are looking for a director. Maybe I’ve got one!” So she was thrilled. Then I met the English coproducer Andrew (Harries) and the writer.

How involved is Aung San Suu Kyi?

  It’s her story. She knows we’re making the film. She has never read the script but she knows we’re making the film. I’ve talked to her.

In terms of EuropaCorp, your business partner for many years Pierre-Ange Le Pogam has now left..

I don’t make any comments about that.

Is it a new beginning or business as normal?

No, no, it’s the same. We produce 10 to 12 films per a year. Sometimes we have great years. Sometimes we have bad years. We are finishing a very bad one…but it happens in the life of a company. 

Next year will be very good. And the year after will be probably excellent. A film is over two to three years. Sometimes, you make a bad choice, a mistake. You make an association with a producer or distributor and it’s the wrong one – you pay three years later. 

That’s the business. Sometimes you’re unlucky. Sometimes you’re very lucky. Taken was a big surprise. We didn’t expect the film would be so big.

You have Christophe Lambert now. Do you work very closely with him

He has been here for eight months now. He is the new CEO.

Like your earlier film Angel A, Adele portrays Paris in a very loving way.

In Angel A, when you see the shots of Paris, there is no (artificial) light. It is exquisite because Paris is exquisite. You have to wait for the perfect hour with the sun. It is a lovely city to film. Paris very photogenic because the main city was built 200 years ago. The buildings are not so high so it’s the perfect city for Cinemascope because everything is long. The stones, with which the buildings are made, are taking the light very well. It is magic. You don’t have that in New York for example. It is almost impossible to film New York in Cinemascope because everything is vertical – if you’re close, you don’t see the top and if it’s too far, it’s foggy. 

It’s a nightmare to film in New York – except if you are Scorsese!

Post-The Lady, do you have other directorial projects? There was talk a few years ago that you were going to step away from directing..

I was tired. It is important to be honest. I can’t just make a film for the sake of making a film or for money. I love it too much for that. With The Lady, I was five months in Thailand and Burma. I was very in it – very consumed by it. I don’t want to leave this state of grace.

I am working on a couple of things but it is too early to talk about.

How easy to reconcile your role as artist and director with your role as the boss of a huge, vertically integrated company like Europacorp?

It is very easy…I am much more a writer/director/creator than a businessman. I learned the business because no-one wanted to produce me! But that’s not where I come from. Europa is a team of people who are very good. It is well organized now. My main concern is the creative part. The happy moments in my life are writing, shooting, directing, the editing room and meeting new actors and actresses.