Interview: Luc Besson Reveals The Secrets Behind That Stunning 'Valerian' Trailer

This morning, the trailer for Luc Besson's Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets was released. The Fifth Element director's return to sci-fi looks stunningly beautiful and wonderfully weird. If you haven't watched the Valerian trailer yet, now's your chance. Last week I had the opportunity to visit Wildfire Studios and talk to Besson about his upcoming film.

In my Luc Besson Valerian interview, the filmmaker tells us about how they secured the rights to an original Beatles song, the first time in 4 decades, how he brought this crazy vision to life, how he was able to bring 100 different fantastic looking alien creatures to life, the possibility of sequels, how much of this was adapted from the comic books, how he found the actors, his plans for the film's score, explains some of the craziness going on in the teaser trailer, tells us about the very very elaborate backstory created for the movie's story, world and aliens, the film's runtime, if it will be good in 3D and the time-travel abilities of the spacecraft. All this and more, after the jump.

valerian

Luc Besson Valerian Interview

Luc Besson: So the music is a surprise, 'cause it's The Beatles. So if you can please hold the secret until the at least the 9th. And if you say The Beatles, that's okay, but what we don't want is we don't the people to know which song. We want to keep it, and it's actually a first time since 40 years that they allowed a film to get the original song. Usually, it's a cover. But they never have the rights for the original one.

Question: How'd you get them?

Luc Besson: I ask. I say please. I mean, you never know until you ask. So we just ask and, I mean, I didn't talk to Paul, but it sounds like the project just felt like it was appropriate. I wish I would know. I would love to talk to him to say thanks. But at least we have it.

Question: It's a really unique approach. I wouldn't connect that song with those visuals, but it works so well.

Luc Besson: But you know what, it's funny because we have the song first and then we did the trailer with it. We did the opposite. We tried to find a feeling first musically and say, okay, what is the color of the music of what we want to say? And the song was what we wanted. It's perfect. It's like ah, oh there's everything in it that we like for the film. And then after it was easy. I have more than 100 aliens in the film. So it was easy just to see which one fitted in best.

valerian

Question: It seems like we've reached a point in C.G. that you're finally able to fulfill your insane vision fully. Is that...?

Luc Besson: We reached a point where imagination is the limit. So the artist will be back in business now. Yeah. 'Cause now, really creative people can do whatever they want. You can really do whatever you want. Flying pink elephant. No problem. So...

Question: Do you like to go back to practical occasionally and mix the two?

Luc Besson: No, I think this film is the perfect example of how you can mix everything in at the same time. And not having C.G. or practical or, you know, but it's a mix. Later I will take you in the room to show you that sometimes on some aliens, Weta asked for half of the costume. So they have a piece of the costume. And they can build from that. Because it helps them on the movement. You know it's better for them because otherwise, the animators come back to the pattern. You know, and the movement is always the kind of same. There is nothing better than a human movement. So for most of the aliens, I need a piece of something real, and then they build the rest. So it's pretty amazing. I mean, I was like was watching like this. When I went to Weta, they have like 500 people working. They're all nerds. They're crazy. They barely want to speak to me. They're working, 'yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm working. Okay, okay, okay.'

valerian

Question: How detailed do 100 different aliens get as far as their...

Luc Besson: You will see. We worked for two years on drawings. So we have like a scale. 'Cause the process pretty interesting because what I realized is with a big sci-fi film, the greenlight usually comes very late. And they already have an opening date. So they hire like 60 people to make the drawings because they have nine weeks to come with the drawings. So I did the entire opposite. I sent 2000 letters to 2000 schools around the world and said, I'm gonna do a sci-fi film. If you want to participate, send me a spaceship, a world and an alien. That's all. We received 2000 demand, and we picked up 15. Then I worked with five artists for a year. And the five artists, they didn't know each other. The only contact they had is me through Skype. That's it for a year. They were not allowed to talk to anyone else. And for a year I said to the guy, he's not even in office; he's in his home. And I said, here's the description with words of the alien I want. Come back with something. So the guys had no limit of time or budget or just creatively for the first six or seven months. They were just totally open. And then little by little I started to reduce the field. Okay, forget that, that's too crazy. I'm gonna call the police.

Question: I wanna see a design you considered to be too crazy.

Luc Besson: Some of them, you want to call the artist;s parents and say, you should keep on your boy, he's nuts. No, some guys were like [MAKES NOISE] You can't even do it. I mean, it's too much of a distraction from the film, because you almost want to do a story about the thing, you know. So you have to say, okay, that's too much. No, that's good.

valerian

[We were shown the trailer a second time]

Luc Besson: So yeah, all the shots you have seen are not final for the film. They are final for the teaser, but not for the film. We are gonna add more things. Like for example, when he falls at the end, there is two people, police from the police with 20 cameras on it and when he fall, they just like [MAKES NOISE] follow him, filming him on the way. Which is funny, but we have no time to put it in. So... next time.

Question: So are we gonna get toys when this comes out?

Luc Besson: I don't know. I mean, I'm so like trying to finish. I don't know. I don't know if someone I guess so. I hope so.

valerian

Question: I hate to make this comparison, but when I see this trailer, the world building looks like on the level of Avatar or Guardians of the Galaxy in that like it seems like this is more than just one film. Like are you planning, are you building this world for multiple films?

Luc Besson: No, I built it for this one. But I can do much more if you want. No problem, I can sign for number two and three right now. 'Cause the reality is I love the two characters. 'Cause it's a comic book that I read when I was 10. And I'm in love with them since. So I can finish my life with them. No problem. And the good thing is because they are agents, every film is almost like a how you say? A police...

Question: A new case?

Luc Besson: Yeah, a case. You can make as many as you want. They just cops, they resolve the problem. Then you can go to another case.

valerian

Question: How similar is this story to a specific comic?

Luc Besson: It's the base of the story is the Ambassadors of the Shadows. But you read it in 20 minutes. And I have to do two hours. I have to add a lot of things. But the main storyline is Emperor of Shadows.

Question: Did you mix in any of the other stories?

Luc Besson: Not in terms of story, but characters. There is like three guys called the Doggone Daggies [PH]. They're small; they look like pterodactyls. And they speak eight thousand languages. And they're very funny. So they are in the film also. So that's where we are. There's 2700 shots with special effects. And I approved 200. So...

Question: You got work for you.

Luc Besson: Yeah.

Question: So you've obviously been a fan of Valerian for your whole life of these characters.

Luc Besson: Yeah.

valerian

Question: What made now the right time to make the film?

Luc Besson: You couldn't make it before. It was impossible. I never thought about it for many years. And I did The Fifth Element and Mezieres, the artist of Valerian; he was working on Fifth Element. And he's actually the one who say, why don't you do Valerian? And I said because we can't make it. And you really have to wait for Avatar and to suddenly think oh okay, maybe we can think of it. But before Avatar, just forget it. I have like 10 actors and 100 aliens in the film. And they come from the four corners of the universe. Some of them are liquid. Some of them are just [so visually] crazy.

valerian

Question: How hard was it to find the right actors, Dane and Cara?

Luc Besson: Cara I wanted to be sure that she would be involved. 'Cause she didn't do a lot of films before I met her, so I didn't know if she was serious and so I push her a bit. I saw her like five, six times. And I was never talking about the film. And then at the end, I say okay, let's do some test. She says yeah, yeah, good. So I took her in the room, and I test her for like six hours non-stop. Exercise, exercise, exercise for six hours. It was actually funny. And then I knew at the end of the six hours. What a director is looking for is someone who will follow you and no matter what. And if you ask for blue, he's gonna try blue. And if you say, give me a piece of red with it, and they try. And you don't mind so much if it's difficult to get the blue and the red together. As long as they try. And as long as they give everything they can to give you what you want. That's what I'm looking for. Why you want blue? I'm not sure about blue because you know blue, I've seen that before. That's what I hate. You know, like if you're a musician you take the partition of Mozart you say, why is the flute is going so high? Play f***ing Mozart and shut the f*** up. You know. And Dane I met him in the bar, the restaurant. And I knew after 10 seconds that was him. No doubt. I mean, he comes in and you know it's him. Just talk, his voice, his eyes, that's it. Then I get scared, because between the moment I knew it was him I have to wait the moment he read the script and he like it and he say yes. So it takes like few days where you're like 'oh f***, f***, f***.' You don't want to think so much. But I wish he could say yeah. And then he calls me back and said, 'my God, it's insane, I'm in.'

valerian

Question: When you have a trailer with a bold song like this, bold music choice, it makes me wonder what is the music gonna be like in the actual film?

Luc Besson: He start Monday. So I can't tell you exactly.

Question: Who's that?

Luc Besson: We talked a lot with the musician. And for now there are few options, and I give him few weeks to come and surprise me with something. I don't want to start and say, okay here is what I want. Because maybe he has an idea that is better than mine. You know, so I tell him what I want. But I say, okay, for now, you are free for a couple of weeks to digest the thing and see what's coming from you.

Question: But it's gonna be all traditional score, it's not gonna be pop songs?

Luc Besson: No, probably classical probably. We don't know yet if there is a place for a theme. Which is very interesting because of the rhythm of the film in the '70s and '80s like Star Wars and the film before that... I'm a big Star Wars fan, so nothing against the film, but the rhythm was way more, you know, [MAKES NOISE] They come in, they walk, they open the door, they talk. You know, it's another rhythm. With this rhythm, you have the time to put theme. Today with the Internet and the way that people are watching films, it's so fast that you don't have the time to place themes in the film anymore. It's very strange. It goes too fast. They finish the line, boom, open, tack; they take the thing, the door, up, another line. You know, it's the rhythm of today. You can't escape that. So I don't know if we will have themes in a classical way.

valerian

Question: What has been the biggest surprise for you in the process of making this?

Luc Besson: Not the biggest surprise, but... If we wanted to make it the way I imagined I knew that we would have to wake up earlier and start very early. So we prep like crazy. And the competition you have is like Avatar, you have Star Wars, you have all the big Marvel stuff.  So if you want to come in the race, you know, don't be pretentious. Be humble and say okay, all right, I have to prep myself. So everybody prepped, and we finished the film four days before the end. We were so ready that we were early, which is unheard of in the history of the sci-fi film. We were so concentrated. My biggest surprise is probably the level of involvement of all the artists who participated at every level. I was kind of surprised that, about 99 percent of the people grabbed the thing and [MAKES NOISE] You know it's their thing. And I'm very impressed by that. Like Weta and ILM, it's the first time they work together. They are fighting. There's no way that Weta will be better than us and then the other said, no way that ILM will be better than us. So they like fight. I don't even have to do anything. I say, okay, approved, it's good. They say, no, no, no, we gonna come back with something else. Then okay. You know, it's not my film, it's really their film. It's very strange. And maybe because it's more when you comes to the Marvel films it's way much more organized and plan, you know, they planned. Okay, we have Thor here, we have this and then we do The Avengers, and then we group. You know, it's much more organized. So maybe there is a little less freedom at the end for the creative people. Where I did the entire opposite. I let them help me, you know. So that's also why maybe they were so involved.

[We moved to his editing room where he showed up concept art and shots on his computer]

valerian

Luc Besson: That's an original drawing from one of the five guys. That's the drawing that we worked with at the beginning. It's coming inside the station — Alpha Station. The idea that comes in later is that the circle is like a veil. When you go through it, it reads all the information of the spaceship. Who is it for? Are there parasites? Whatever you have inside, we will know it. That's one angle. That's the reverse. The idea was to lose totally the horizontal. We never know where we are. One of the prominent ways to resolve it was the gravity and how it works. The gravity is in the ground all the time. For example, in your house, you have the heater on the ground itself. Here, it's the gravity. No matter where you are, that's where the gravity is coming from. It's almost like a carpet that you put down. If you're on the other side, it doesn't matter to us because we're still walking on the ground. Actually, at the beginning of the film, we see when they install the gravity system.

Luc Besson: So now we have that in reverse. That's the storyboard that we have in the beginning. It's an easy shot. It's just a spaceship coming in. That's the first layout. On the first layout, we see the timing of the shot and the speed. It starts to get some shadows, and we see that everything is moving in the back. Now we have some spaceships. It comes to life. This isn't the latest one, but it's close. But it's not totally finished. This is way too clear. The flare is too big. I want to see more details. I want to see that this thing is turning. We have to reduce this here so that we see the thing turning on the back more. You see? Otherwise, we don't see it enough. We see it's turning, but it's not clear now. The flare is too big. It makes it a little fake.

Question: But that's a pretty gorgeous shot.

Luc Besson: With no actors!

valerian

Question: What are those globe things that look like the EPCOT globe?

Luc Besson: Those are aliens living in their own environments. That's Alpha Station, which is the city of a thousand planets. It's a space station where everyone in the universe comes with their knowledge. It's a city of science, Broadway, Wall Street, Shibuya, Pigalle. It's everything you want in one place. Anything you want to build, the knowledge will be in there. It makes a very special place. Who controls Alpha is obviously an issue because you could do whatever you want with the knowledge they have. The United Nations is there. Everyone is there. So that's the second example. That's a KORTAN DAHUK. That's the first alien we see in the film. That's another artist. The first one was Chinese, the one with the space station. This one is American. Personally, that's my favorite alien. I love him. I love his profile and his face. There is such a sweetness and almost a sadness in his face.

Question: Do you return to the artists throughout the process?

Luc Besson: After that, I chose 15 guys. There're the five major guys. After, there's guys where I can give him the KORTAN DAHUK and he's going to design the weapon which goes with it. The object who goes with it. I don't need the main guy to do that. There's guys that, if they're inspired by him, can do it. In fact, I don't think the original guy did his weapon or the communications system. That's his communications system there.

valerian

Luc Besson: Now that's the storyboard with him. That's the shooting. It looks very simple, but my job was to teach him how to walk. Look at the way he walks. There is something almost animal. I have to show the actor different animals like an ostrich. Many different kinds of animals. Pink flamingo. Just for him to be inspired. I put strange things under his shoes. That's the difference, in fact. Just the way he walks. The two others are not so good. The one in front is really good. That's the first test on the background. As you can see, there's a part of the costume. Weta wants those, so we have the arm bit and the color, a piece of the hat. Now it's the first, and that's the latest one. But then we'll have people who will watch the film and say, "Yeah, yeah. That's easy. Where are we going to eat?" Sometimes I see people finish a film and they go, "Yeah, that was good. Where are we going to eat?"

Question: Is all the imagery from the comics?

Luc Besson: The principal manifestation, yeah. It's in "Ambassador of Shadows". I mean, there's a couple of moments.

valerian

Question: How detailed do the alien races get?

Luc Besson: We have a bible that's 600 pages. There are five pages on each alien and where they come from. Even the address you can check on the map. On the star map. It's real numbers.

Question: Will you publish that?

Luc Besson: I don't know. I wrote the entire history of Alpha because the space station was around for 500 years. I have 30 pages on the history of Alpha. Every ten years what happens. They took control and what happened. Every 80 years, they have to change the communication system because it doesn't work anymore. Some aliens come with new technology, and suddenly you can change the electric system. We wrote the entire story. When Cara and Dane arrived, I told their agent, "They need to know all this." I gave them the 600 pages. I said, "You have to learn everything. You're a cop. You need to know the names." I don't want him, when he meets an alien to go, "Whoa" like this. I want him to know if this guy is peaceful. What is the history of the human race? Maybe we were fighting before, but now we're friends. It's the equivalent of, "Are they Russian? Are they Swiss? Are they Italian?" It's the same. If you're someone from the government and you meet people from other countries, you want to know who you're dealing with. It's the same for them. They have to come. The KORTAN DAHUK, there are always three. They are translators, and they speak 8,000 languages. Their brain is divided into three parts. One of them starts a line; the next one continues a line, and the third one finishes the line. If you kill one of them, you lose the information. So you can't kill them, or you lose everything. They're very polite, and they're in the business of selling information to everyone. So when they come, you're always pissed off to see them coming. First, they're going to sell you something. Usually, they sell you information that, in five minutes, isn't going to be a problem anymore. Usually, they come right before a problem. When you see them, you know the problem is coming. When you see them coming, if I'm Valerian or Laureline, I'm going to go, "I don't believe this. What do you want?" the attitude I have is because I know the history. You have to write it because they need to know. I'm sure they forgot. But I was tricky. There were times I would come on set and go, "The KORTAN DAHUK? Where do they come from?" Even I sometimes forgot myself.

Question: Because of that history, could you move forward or backward at that location in future films?

Luc Besson: The two detectives are, as we call them in French, Spatio-Temporal. That means that they can travel in space as well as time. But the spaceship they have, it's an XB980. The B model is able to go to 30 centuries on average. The A model can't go in time. It can go in space, but only in this galaxy. The B model can go 1,000 million lightyears. It's a very powerful spaceship.

valerian

Question: What can you tell us about the other aliens in the trailer? There was a blue alien picking flowers or something.

Luc Besson: They are farmers, in fact.

valerian

Question: There was another that looked like an inspector. He was looking at something under a magnifying glass.

Luc Besson: That's AUGIN SYRUS (?) He's a mercenary. He's a bad guy. He's not nice. The BULONG (??) farmers, they grow cobalt in water. The first ones, the KORTAN DAHUK are travelers. They were the first to have arrived on Alpha a long time ago. They're travelers. They don't go through space the way we go because we take time and travel. They have a map of holes. It's almost like a short cut. You go in here, and then you appear here. They have a map of all the holes. That's why they're the first ones we met because they travel through holes. But they share. They share because they're nice.

Question: Would you publish a book of everything?

Luc Besson: I don't know. If some of you are interested, you can talk with her. If there's a specific article or something you want to do, they can give you the thing to read.

Question: Does the movie begin just hitting the ground running or do you have some sort of historic recap?

Luc Besson: We will see the history of Alpha. That's the beginning. It's in the credits. Credits and we're done. We know where we are. The credits are very funny. It's basically hundreds and hundreds of years of history, beginning in 1975 with Apollo and Soyuz meeting. That's the beginning of Alpha. Then the Europeans come and the Chinese come and the station grows, grows, grows. In 2100, the first alien wants to join. We say yes. Then the second alien and, fifty years later, it's fat. They decide to take the station out of the terrestrial attraction because, if it falls, it would be catastrophic. So they push it out. It goes in the current in space. Then the story starts 500 years later. When we get back to the station, it's 50 times bigger than when we left it. It looks like this when we come back. When we left it, it was just like a mile in diameter. Now it's 18. It grows very fast, like Shanghai.

valerian

Question: What is the film's runtime?

Luc Besson: Two hours and nine minutes.

Question: Do I need to see this in 3D?

Luc Besson: You can, honestly.

Question: [Laughs] I can?

Luc Besson: I'm not a super big fan of 3D. But, once in awhile, like "Avatar" in 3D, it's amazing. There are a couple of films I'd rather be watching in 2D. But I saw the teaser yesterday in 3D. I hope you can see that in 3D. The shot of the canyon in 3D is [amazing]. You see all the levels. The 3D is very impressive. I'm amazed by the conversion. I don't know how they do it.

Question: Is that runtime what you were shooting for or would you want even longer?

Luc Besson: No, it's two agents and one mission. You don't need to do more than two hours. Most films, when it passes 2 hours 20 — except "Avatar"... But I do it myself. So two hours nine and that's it. It's already long, two hours and nine minutes. But the film is fat, so you have things to watch. But I see some movies that are 2 hours 40. I mean, it's just what I like personally. But I try to make what I like as an audience. Even if I love, love, love a film, I try to think, "Can I cut ten minutes?"

valerian

Question: I'm curious about how the time travel works. Do they come from another time than when the story takes place?

Luc Besson: No, they're from the time. They are able to, by certain rules, go to the past if they want. They can't go to the future. That's impossible. But they can go to the past, maximum 30 centuries. You need specific authorization. In this film, they don't go into the past. Maybe in the second. It's a bit complicated already. In the comic, time travel is very tricky. You need a specific order. You can't touch anything. You can't change anything. It's very specific. They are allowed only to go to the past to fix some disorder. They're cops. If someone goes and makes a mess in the 12th century, they're allowed to go and get the guy and put everything back. They can't do just anything in the past.

Please note: The above interview was conducted with myself and three other journalists in a roundtable format. I have also tried to clean up some of Besson's responses to read clearer in English. Enjoy!