At New York Comic Con, superstar director Luc Besson admitted that the first woman he fell in love with was a comic book character. So when heroine Laureline comes to life next summer in Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets, it’ll be the culmination of a lifelong dream for the French film-maker.
Accompanied by Jean-Claude Mezieres — who co-created and drew the original Valerian comics series — Besson showed the same seven minutes of unfinished footage that first appeared at San Diego Comic-Con. His connection to the comics started when he was a kid. “I was living on the countryside and when I opened my window, I saw only cows. Believe me, I want to escape,” he remembered. “Then on every Wednesday you have Valerian and Laureline, like ‘Yeah!’ Reading those stories was like building your imagination, your sense of beauty. It’s important. It’s almost your main food when you are 10 years old. Probably the first woman I fell in love was Laureline when I was 10. So you always have that in your mind. But to be able to think, ‘one day I should make a film about it,’ that comes way, way later.”
In the roundtable interview that followed, the director said that Mezieres playfully needled him about an adaptation while working as a design consultant on The Fifth Element. “He’s the one who said, “why don’t you do Valerian rather than this fucking Fifth Element?” Besson recalled to much laughter. “At the time, to be honest, you couldn’t make it. There are five or six [human] characters and all the rest are aliens. The technology was not ready. You really had to wait until Avatar to really start to think, “oh, okay, now imagination is the limit. Now we can do everything.”
Besson told the assembled journalists that he met with James Cameron when the sci-fi blockbuster was in production. Closing his arms around an imaginary treasure, Besson said “you think people are going to be like this with their film and it’s not [like that]. You can take Spielberg or him and they’re always [open]... they’re not protective or anything. Jim gave me lots of good advice. He invited me to the set to see Avatar. He showed me everything.”
But Besson’s reaction to Avatar wasn’t one of elation. “When I saw Avatar for the first time, I took the script for Valerian and I threw it into the garbage and I started again,” he said. “Literally, I was depressed. I was happy for the film and him, because I like [Cameron] a lot, but totally depressed. Threw it away. Wait for a month. And then say, 'OK, start again.’ So I start again. And I’m happy because it’s better. I was right to throw it away."
The sheer number of special effects shots in the movie — about 2,734, according to Besson — meant that both Industrial Light & Magic and the famed WETA effects studio were doing work on Valerian, which has sparked friendly competition between the two VFX companies. “None of the companies can take the entire bid for themselves,” Besson said. “We have basically three portions. We give to ILM what looks like better for this kind of thing and then WETA the other part. And then Rodeo, the third company.
“I discovered a month ago that WETA and ILM were [being] very, very positive. I couldn’t believe that [it] was just for my talent and my film. Then I got it. It was because they know they will be shown in the same film and they really want to be the best. So there is a little nice competition and they’re giving their best, believe me. Not for me,” Besson laughed. “So it’s good. It’s good news for me.”
Besson said that he’s prepared a hefty bible explaining the Valerian universe and its various alien races. Co-stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne had to study the tome while the film was in production. “We have 60 major alien [races] and we have 15 pages on each of them. We even had the coordinates [in] space, where they come from. Then how they reproduce and what they eat... So it’s a big document.” Because main character Valerian and Laureline are space cops, Besson treated DeHaan and Delevingne like rookie trainees. “I gave them the manual and said, ‘you need to know all of these guys.’ So when they interact with [different species], they know who they are. They really know where they come from, they know their weapons and how sneaky they are.”
New York Comic Con marked the first time that Mezieres had seen near-finished sequences from the movie, and the 78-year-old artist was delighted by seeing his creations on screen. He explained that, while he understood that any Valerian film would need to expand on the source material, he felt that Besson was building on the vision that he and writer/co-creator Pierre Christin made. “My own feeling is I’m not betrayed. The thing is, it’s very important that the base is the same,” Mezieres said. “I think a good comic book should bring ideas to its readers and not to tell everything. So it’s an excellent surprise.”
When I asked Besson about differences between French and American types of science fiction, he began by reminiscing about test screenings of The Fifth Element 20 years ago. “When I did The Fifth Element, the French hated me and they said, ‘oh, he’s an American now,” Besson said. “Then I released the film in the US and I realised how French I was, because for the people in the US, that was too much at the time. That’s 20 years ago. I remember they did a screen test in Phoenix, Arizona. A big white guy with his popcorn was there with his son.
“The film starts and the guy said, ‘the president of the universe’. And there’s a black guy coming on-screen. And the guy said, ‘what the fuck is this thing’” Half an hour later there is a blue alien who comes and sings classical music. The guy said, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ And the guy left.
“I was there watching the guy leaving and I’m like ‘OK, I’m European, I think’. I could see a difference at the time. The thing is now with the internet and all of this [change], we hear Bob Marley, we’re eating sushi and watching an American show at the same time, from Denmark, from France, from everywhere. I think 20 years later it’s much more like, we all have been American, we all have been European. Which I love. Because we have more access to each other. I think the difference from where I was with The Fifth Element and the American audience was kind of far. But now with this one, I’m still crazy but the world gets crazier.”