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Luc Besson Tests the Outer Limits With Sci-Fi Epic Valerian

Luc Besson Tests the Outer Limits With Sci-Fi Epic Valerian

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Luc Besson Tests the Outer Limits With Sci-Fi Epic Valerian

by Adam Rogers | art by Ulises Farinas


Luc Besson’s spaceship looks weird.

Sure, it’s a spaceship, a major player in Besson’s new movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Visit the set of any movie stuffed full of CG and everything looks a little hinky—greenscreens where there should be roofs, shiny dots instead of textures.
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This, though, is a whole other thing, more like the Jean Paul Gaul­tier costumes in The Fifth Element, Besson’s daft 1997 sci-fi opera. Or maybe like the juxtaposition of angst and violence Besson stirred into La Femme Nikita or Lucy. It’s a strangeness that lives deep in the soul of every Besson movie. And it’s here, on this set, one of seven soundstages dedicated to Valerian at Cité du Cinéma, Besson’s studio complex outside Paris. The little shark-shaped, one-person fighter pods at the rear of the cockpit are too far apart, with too much glossy floor space between them. The control panels have all the detailed labels and switches you’d expect—they’re just catawampus, at unharmonious angles.

But operating the camera pointed at costar Dane DeHaan (who plays the title character, Valerian), Besson himself sees nothing amiss. I amble back to the video village, where monitors show what the cameras are pointing at, and I finally see it. Onscreen, the cockpit is a slick, dimly lit, metallic space boudoir, an oblique glimpse of a distant, sexy future. It’s still weird. But also awesome.

After he’s done shooting for the day, we head up to one of the posh suites on the top floor of the Cité, where Besson camps out during filming. I tell him how surprised I was by the view through the eye of the camera.

That earns me a Gallic shrug. “Yeah, but I designed the set,” Besson says. “The size, the height of the roof, the depth, the distance of the hallways, how the hallways turn. It’s for my angles, because I know how I want to shoot it.” After seven months of storyboarding, Besson has every one of the movie’s hundreds of shots in his head. Valerian takes place in locations across the galaxy, but it all happens on the planet of Luc Besson.

Besson has made a long career out of quirky, international genre hits full of gun fu and explosions, with actors who often seem to find the scenery too delicious to resist snacking on. Yet, his movies feel like more than just cliché potboilers. When The Fifth Element crops up on cable, as it seems to every six hours or so, you don’t click past it. You watch it until the end—because it’s fun and cool, yes, but also because it’s delightfully un-American. With its genderqueer, panethnic cast and comedy beats working to some exotic polyrhythm, The Fifth Element feels like a beach party on Planet Ibiza. Then there’s Lucy, which somehow combines fighting and car chases with a third act so inscrutable it makes 2001 look straightforward. (Neither was a mammoth hit in the US; both were huge money­makers elsewhere on Earth.)

Valerian, though, will be an order of magnitude stranger. For starters, there’s the source material, a French series of bandes dessinées (graphic novels, literally “drawn strips”) called Valérian et Laureline, a moderne sci-fi title not well known in the US. Then there’s the Avatar-level amount of alien that Besson is pumping in—far more than anything else he has made. The movie has visual effects from both Weta (The Lord of the Rings) and Industrial Light & Magic (basically everything else). Where The Fifth Element had just under 200 effects elements—that flying-car chase through Manhattan, the luxury-cruise starship—Valerian has about 2,500. Finally, weirdest of all, there’s the fact that the movie is getting made at all. With few exceptions—Interstellar or Passengers, maybe—nobody makes hugely expensive science fiction movies out of unrecognizable or original intellectual property. It’s too much of a financial risk. No matter how big the cult of Besson is, it’s fair to ask: How the hell did he get to make Valerian?

A cynic might suggest that Besson’s spaceship can do nothing but auger in, leaving a saucer-­shaped crater in Hollywood’s 2017 gross receipts. But as always, things look much better to Luc Besson. His approach to movies, from the stories to the production and how they get financed, is as full of surprises as a tall, blue lady with tentacles, singing electro-opera.

Cara Delevingne as Laureline in Valerian.

Besson’s origin story doesn’t start with film. He grew up with a weekly habit familiar to nerds worldwide: On Wednesdays, he went to buy comics. French bandes dessinées, though, weren’t like US comics. They eschewed primary-colored spandex-clad do-gooders in favor of science fiction, weirdness, and sex.

He didn’t go to film school. Besson talked himself into apprentice-level gigs on-set, carrying cables and guarding cameras. His second film, Subway, was an homage to musicals and gangster movies and also to 1980s Paris, and it elevated Besson into an emerging cohort of young French directors. Unlike New Wave avant-­guardians like Godard and Truffaut, with their broody, art-house mannerisms, Besson and his contemporaries valued things like “plot” and “action.” American stuff.

The French critics, they did not much care for this. They called it the “cinéma du look,” damning with faint English. Yet Besson was committed to fight scenes among urban ruins, shot in wide-open Cinema­scope. He didn’t seem like an auteur. In fact, he described himself instead as a metteur en scène—literally a stage director. To me, at Cité du Cinéma, Besson describes himself as “an artisan.”

When Besson was developing The Fifth Element, he turned to bandes dessinées creators for production-design help. Jean Giraud, who under the pen name Moebius had ruled ’۷۰s sci-fi comics in Europe, illustrated characters. And for Bruce Willis’ flying taxicab—a full-size version of which sits in Cité du Cinéma’s cathedral-like lobby—Besson turned to Jean-Claude Mézières, cocreator of Valérian et Laureline. According to Besson, adapting Valerian was Mézières’ idea. “I said, ‘We cannot do Valerian,’” Besson says. “‘There’s too many aliens and robots and spaceships. It’s impossible.’”


Besson had a point. The series follows the titular characters, far-future space cops who get around in a time-­traveling flying saucer. The first issue sends them back in time to fight a mad scientist under a flooded, post­apocalyptic Manhattan. Before long it’s off to a hollow planet, where men wage war against women in galleon-like airships. (Laureline spends a lot of time in a metal bikini in this one.) So yeah, good luck filming all that.

Besson and his longtime producer (and wife) Virginie Besson-Silla bought the rights anyway, thinking conditions might change. And they did: Avatar came out. Big enough computers fueled by large enough bank accounts could make anything look real. “Suddenly, only imagination became the limit,” Besson says.

Imagination wasn’t a scarce resource for Besson. In a binder that grew to hundreds of pages, he wrote biographies for Valerian and Laureline and dozens of secondary characters. He described the centuries-long history of Alpha, a 12-mile-wide space station that’s home to 17 million, most of them aliens. He put out a call to designers all over the world, seeking ideas for creatures and ultimately ended up with 3,500 submissions. “So when the actors arrived, they had a package with all that. That’s their homework,” Besson says. “Honestly, none of this information will ever be used in the film. But when you tell them, ‘You’re in headquarters on Alpha,’ they know exactly what it means.”

A Pearl, one of Alpha’s hundreds of resident alien species.

Science fiction and fantasy fans and filmmakers love world-building. George Lucas dreamed up details of the Star Wars universe before filming Star Wars. Part of what makes J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth books so great is not getting the references. (Hyarrostar is clearly the nicest peninsula on Númenórë.)

But from a commercial perspective, all that backstory tends to clutter Besson’s front-stories. If The Fifth Element’s New York City scenes feel a little dense, maybe that’s because of the 20-page essay he wrote on modular housing in the metropolis of the future. So while French critics have busted Besson for being too American, American audiences have found him a little too French.

The American fans Besson does have tend toward the niche and the nerdy. To see why, dig into the scene in Nikita where the title character, an assassin, finds out that a pleasant meal at a restaurant has been a ruse by her boss to get her close to a target. “The fight by itself is well made, but that’s it,” Besson says. “What’s the big difference? You feel for her. She got betrayed. That’s the scene. The action is just the color. What makes the action unforgettable is the emotion.”

Or take Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a vapid young woman who acquires superpowers after exposure to an illegal drug—and eventually transcends humanity. “What interests me in Lucy,” Besson says, “is, in the car chase, the difference between the cop in the car, who’s scared to death, and Lucy, who says, ‘You know, basically, life, death, it’s the same, doesn’t matter.’”

This is one of the secrets of the Bessoniste genre: interweaving fraught subtext into the set pieces—the gunfights, car chases, and space battles. “You recognize his—in French we say sa patte,” Besson-­Silla says. “How do you say it? Like, his brush? On all of his films, you recognize it directly.” (For the record, patte literally means paw, which seems even better.)

Back before Buffy and Katniss, Besson was one of the only directors championing stories with women as action leads. He’s a little cagey about this. “I pay the same attention to the girl and the guy,” Besson says. “What I like, in fact, is the strength of the woman and the weakness of the man. I will be interested in the Terminator the day he starts crying because he is missing his mom.”

This belies a more complicated truth. La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and Lucy all portray women not just as action heroes but as women transformed into action heroes—usually against their will. As Susan Hayward wrote in her 1998 book, Luc Besson, Nikita undergoes an elaborate “civilizing” ritual. It’s Pretty Woman with murder. In The Fifth Element, men literally build Leeloo from a tissue sample. Bad guys in Lucy expose Johansson’s character to origin juice by forcing her to become their drug mule. Even when Besson’s main character is a woman, her change—Joan’s arc, if you will—is initiated by men around her.

Which, OK, this could be just the straight-­outta-Cahiers du Cinéma academic theorizing that Besson says he ignores. Except Besson was in a relationship with Anne Parillaud, the star of Nikita, and with Milla Jovovich of The Fifth Element. His movies luxuriate in transformations of these women’s characters just as Besson was literally, in real life, transforming their characters. Gazes don’t get much more male.

Oof. Très français.

Yet so compelling. For genre fans who actually like a little subtext with their sci-fi, this is all catnip. It’s all a lot more to absorb than, say, “Spider-­Man has a crush on Mary Jane, and he has to rescue her.” Five movies and two Spider-Men have explained that to you in the past 15 years, with a sixth movie and a third Spider-Man on the way; it’s practically comforting in its invariability. Besson’s movies tend not to be comforting at all. In a middle-budget actioner with minimal dialog, that’s fine. For a would-be epic with an unfamiliar title character, unfamiliar source material, and a nine-figure budget? I hear the wind whistling the name John Carter.

Besson has managed to bat away any hint of that. He got a green light and the financing to make his biggest movie yet—without a major studio. As to how? Well, that’s complicated too.

Like much of the film’s visuals, the Intruder spaceship is torn straight from the bandes dessinées.

Thanks to antitrust court decisions dating back to the 1940s, movie studios like Fox or Warner Bros. aren’t allowed to own movie theaters. But most of the other machinery of moviemaking—development executives, marketing teams, television networks, and (maybe most of all) popular intellectual property—is in-house. Studios pay a lot, and they control a lot.

That system has evolved to privilege a certain kind of movie. “Three to six roughly $200-million-plus movies will determine the health of a major legacy studio in a given year,” says Adam Fogelson, chairman of STX Entertainment’s motion picture group, which has a newly minted distribution deal with Besson’s personal studio and production company, EuropaCorp. “Everything else is filler.”

So who makes cheaper movies? A lot of people, in a bunch of different ways. Here’s a relatively simple one: studio cofinancing. Get a studio to put up a chunk of the budget for a movie and find a private investor or fund to put up the rest. That hedges the studio’s bet, while still giving you access to studio marketing and studio distribution—which is how producers got major, prestige promotional pushes for the cofinanced Birdman and The Revenant.

Completely forgo the legacy studios and things get … well, not sketchier, exactly, but more intricate. These approaches are what used to be more commonly called “independent.” The key thing to remember about them is that production is only part of the cost of making a movie. There’s also marketing and, more importantly, distribution—getting the movie into theaters domestically and internationally. Keep that in your head.


One funding method that sidesteps the system: full-equity financing. That’s when the producers find people willing to invest in a movie against its future performance and use that money to pay for production. Then they sell the movie to a distributor when it’s done—maybe by showing it at festivals like Sundance or Cannes. Or they use more equity to self-finance the release. These tend to be in the sub–$۱۰ ­million budget range; Nocturnal Animals used this model, and so does Paul Thomas Anderson’s current project.

For funding movies between that amount and, like, $100 million, producers have another option: the foreign-sales model. A producer takes a presentation to distributors for other countries—a script, maybe, and images from the film, possibly a trailer or some early footage, all constituting a kind of pitch. If the distributors like it, they sign presale contracts, paying an advance to the producer with a promise to pay the balance on delivery of the movie. Those presale contracts become collateral to take to a bank and get a loan to cover the majority of the budget, say 50 to 80 percent. And all that becomes an inducement to get a financier to put up the rest. Maybe they also get some kind of tax rebate from wherever they’re going to shoot.

If that sounds dicey, three decades ago it was—a way to fund direct-to-video schlock starring D-listers and has-beens. Today, though? Loving structured its financing through foreign sales. John Wick was financed by foreign sales plus equity; once completed and screened for studios, it was bought by Lionsgate. Lionsgate partially financed La La Land, with the rest coming from two partner companies. Plan B developed the script for Moonlight, then partnered with A24 for financing and distribution. Clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to selling art; rather, every studio assembles its own constellation of cooperation. And as risky or haphazard as one of these financing ventures might sound, everyone looks smart if the movie is a hit.

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Besson has worked all those angles—and more. Besson shot The Fifth Element in England after the studio he was working with couldn’t cut a financing deal in France. The movie made $264 million worldwide, yet French studio Gaumont still balked at one of Besson’s next pitches. So he started his own production company and made Taxi, a minor franchise-starter.

That gave Besson the money to start EuropaCorp, essentially his own studio. Even as he was fending off accusations of getting sweetheart deals from the French government to build Cité du Cinéma, he was writing and producing (though not directing) lucrative television and movie franchises like Taken and Transporter. The fact is, Besson has a very particular set of skills, and they include the production of low-dialog, high-­intensity-action international hits. He has a reputation for on-time, on-budget delivery, and that has allowed him to maintain decades-long relationships with distributors—and their money—all over the world. EuropaCorp distributes its own movies in France, has a distribution deal with STX for the US, and works with a crowd of international distributors on foreign-sales financing.

In 2015, Besson and Besson-Silla went to Cannes with a presentation for about 70 foreign distributors, most of whom Besson knew. “We came with 80 drawings on the big screen. We showed all the designs. I told the entire story, and they could read the script and make an offer,” Besson says. “We sold almost $80 million of presale in a day.” Eventually they sold the pitch to distributors in more than 100 countries.

It may be a huge, tentpole-scale movie, but it’s financed like an indie. All the deals, the presales and tax benefits and so on, mean that Besson is only exposed to a fraction of the risk. And he didn’t have to pitch an expensive science fiction movie with largely unknown source material to a conservative, franchise-drunk studio.

That means Besson dodges a whole other risk: notes. Lots of notes. “He pieced together a financing structure that would allow him to make the movie without—I’ll choose my words carefully—the weight of major-­studio executives who, rightly if they had invested that amount of money, would feel the need to manage the process along with the filmmaker,” Fogelson says.

So that’s how you’re getting Valerian. “We have the freedom to do what we want to do and not be guided by financiers and marketing teams,” Besson-­Silla says. “Or else in the end you don’t make the movie that you wanted.”

Thanks to this creative financing machinery—not to mention ever-cheaper visual effects and cameras and a profusion of distribution outlets—more and more people can make the movies they want. The Chinese film The Mermaid is every bit the international epic success that Valerian hopes to be, no major US studio required.

Dane DeHaan as Valerian.

By the time Valerian is actually in production, making the film is something of a grind. One morning, for example, Cara Delevingne performs a scene with what the audience will see as a cute, guinea-pig-sized alien. (No space suit today; she’s in a bikini and a diaphanous cover-up. Plus ça change …) On the spaceship set, in a room with walls that are bare except for little orange CG-calibration dots, Delevingne talks to the critter. “Wow, you have the most beautiful eyes,” she says, holding it up to her face. “Hey, someone’s trying to flirt with me.” Then she carries the little guy to a sort of cabinet built into the wall.

With Besson again operating the camera, and a bunch of crew crammed into the tiny set, Delevingne performs the scene again and again. It’s not because of any flaw on her part—the creature will be computer-generated, so the Weta gang needs multiple takes. Delevingne performs it with empty hands, to empty space. She does it with a stuffed animal. And then with a live rabbit. Then the Weta crew does it with a polished, mirror-reflective sphere the size of a tennis ball, and then with a matte-black one.

Then she does it with the rabbit again for the reverse angle, with the camera behind her. Then a few more times with a Steadi­cam following her. It does not seem interesting, but that’s the way Besson likes it. “The actual shooting was just the confirmation of everything we had designed,” he says.

Seven years of writing and prep, 100 days of shooting, and 20 months of postproduction later, Valerian is a real movie. It might have been relatively easy to finance, but it won’t be easy to sell. Marketing will likely center around Besson’s previous successes—action sci-fi like Lucy and The Fifth Element. “People love to discover something, and if you can wrap in a package something that’s exciting yet familiar, all the better,” Fogelson says. “It’s a giant, fun, science fiction spectacle.” If the marketing people have their way, maybe you’ll read an issue of Valérian et Laureline and notice how similar some of the designs and characters are to Star Wars. If it gets your butt in a seat, they’ll try to make the case.

Besson made the movie he wanted. Valerian will have a tight if not altogether plausible plot, easily translatable dialog, and striking images and action. Even if you don’t like the movie—or if you plan to just watch it every time it comes on cable—everyone else in the world is probably going to buy a ticket. But even if they don’t, the infrastructure remains in place. Filmmakers now have a wide range of options, beyond a Fox or a Disney, for getting movies made. And if Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets doesn’t achieve escape velocity? Well, Besson is already working on his next script.

Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) is deputy editor. He wrote about Star Wars in issue 23.12.

This article appears in the July issue. Subscribe now.

all images courtesy of EuropaCorp and STXfilms

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