Director Luc Besson On Putting 'Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets' Together Piece By Piece [Interview]

When filmmaker Luc Besson was 10 years old, he was reading the comic book he'd adapt into a massive feature film 48 years later. Based on Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières' "Ambassador of Shadows," published in 1975, Besson has brought their colorful, wacky world to to the big screen with his personal touch on every frame. From the complex, clever set pieces to the jokes to the colorful environments, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is pure Besson.

In a race against the clock, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) will have to save the city of Alpha, where alien species from all over the galaxy come together to share knowledge. The world feels endless, full of all sorts of aliens, characters, and environments. It took many years it took to build this world piece-by-piece, and the French director behind La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element recently told us about the process.

Below, check out our Luc Besson interview.

The movie is so bright and colorful. What conversations did you have with your DP and VFX houses about the color choices? 

I mean, it's days, and days, and days of work, every day, so it's like, I have the feeling, like in the 19th century when the people were during furniture by hand, it's the way we made the film. With time, and love, and polishing it a bit. Put some color, wait for a week...and then, we'd put another layer. It's really made by hand, and that's why it looks so finished, so clean,'s so by hand, you know? It's not a machine who have done it, it's really point-by-point, we did it. It's a nice piece of creation, and so many people work on it, I'm amazed. The credits take forever. It's almost like 2,000 people work on the film.

Do you just take it a day at a time and try not to think about how big of an undertaking it is?

Every day you have to do 15 shots. That's, don't even, like a horse, put things here, and don't watch left and right. Do what you have to do today, and today, you have to take these five stones and put them here and start the wall. That's it. Don't think. Just do what you have to do per day. If you watch the big picture, you die.

Was there one VFX shot in particular that was a real challenge?

A few. Do you remember when [Valerian] tried to escape in the big market, and he's pushing everyone and he's going on the top of the bus, and going down...this one was challenging. It took a year to do it. And we have an entire blue screen stages, 6,000 meters square, feet square, with a flying camera on cables, and yes, two years, the exact path, with people, and block of object, and...when we finish that, they have a year of work in post-production. A year. And the shot is like 30 seconds.

What were the other complicated effects shots?

The canyon, a big market, with the flying camera who goes in the canyon. This one was kind of insane also. That was a complicated one. The Rihanna scene, takes six days to shoot and almost eight months of work for a minute. Sometimes with some distance I say, "We're crazy."

I know how much these comics have meant to you, and how long you've been thinking about the film. Over the past 15 years have you just had these environments, and characters, and story just waiting in your mind ready to get out?

Yeah, piece-by-piece, yeah. Little by little, it's almost like going to flea market every day and finding just one little piece for your house, you know? And at the end, the house is full decorated, you know? But it, sometime it takes years to finally get all the nice pieces, the perfect pieces and, but I was lucky also to work with some creative designers. I mean, they did the job also. I mean, they were insane. They come with ideas that I would never even think. I mean, the first time, you know the Omelites? They're the ones that were on strings and working on the golden plates, on the walls of the formations. The first time the designer, he came and show me the drawing, I was like, "What the fuck is that?" Because he didn't try to, I didn't give any indication. They were just like searching, and one day he come with this thing and I say, "Oh my God, that's amazing." And then I modify a few things and say, "Okay, I'm gonna keep turn like this." And then when we make it even better, but the idea comes like this, to watch the thing, and you said, "This is in the film for sure." You know?

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets TrailerThe second act set piece goes from so many different locations and moves at such a fast pace. I imagine you had to heavily storyboard that scene?

The crucial thing is the storyboard on this one, and I work a lot, a lot all night, I have all my drawings so I know, and I have drawings for each part and thing. And you really go piece-by-piece, you have to – it's like building a car, and it doesn't look like a car. You put like pieces, mechanical pieces together. But you have to believe that at the end it will be a car who was working. You know what I mean?


So, that's how you made it. Little piece by little piece and you just have to believe. You have to believe that what you think at the beginning is working at the end. And then, suddenly, after months and months and months, you put your hands on the key, your heart is like, and then you turn the key, and then, woo, it's working, and you say, "Whew, and it's all, it's working."

But you will totally accept that, if you turn the key and nothing happen you say, "Okay, we did something wrong in the mechanical [department], so let's start again, let's see where." It's this kind of feeling. But maybe one of the crucial thing was also's like a football team, in a way, even the best player in the world cannot win, they have to be 11. And sometime, just the 11 together are stronger than a couple of the best guy, you know what I mean?

So, the people that I surround myself, special effect, costume, building stages, sound, I mean, honestly, the quality of the people around, and the designers and all, I mean, they made the film. I was the captain, but they made the film. They were the best bunch of the coolest, and best artists we can find today around the world. And dedicated, they want this film to be good, they no way. They were not just like, paycheck or thing, they want this thing to rock. They were as dedicated than me in fact.

One effect I want to ask about is Bubble. Did Rihanna's casting influence the movements or design at all?

No it's the reverse, everything was designed before. With the choreography, and Emily Livingstone, who works on it, to do the choreography six months before, and worked with her. It was four people in the show. There's Rihanna, Emily, and two others. And you can tell. Six months to, for the special effect, for the zing.

Do you have a big booklet with a wealth of information about those Bubble, Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke), and all of the alien species?

Oh, I have a bible almost 300 or 400 pages, I have the entire history of Alpha, from day one to 28th century. I have few pages per alien, where they live, what they eat, how they reproduce. I have the background story of Valerian, Laureline, Clive Owen, everyone. I have an entire bible, you have to, you have to give that to the actors to know where they're living, you know? It's like, you're doing a film about the 18th century, and you giving a book from Flaubert or Victor Hugo, or, and you say, "Okay, read that, because that's the mood." You know? So, you have to do that. But Bubble, for example, if you read the comic book called The Ambassador of Shadows, Bubble is in it, but such a small part. It's in it, and I just took this small idea and make a big character.

I know you had some frustrations on The Fifth Element, that VFX hadn't quite caught up with what you were doing. How much did the experience of making that film and creating that world maybe influence your work on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?

I did the film with the experience I have at the time. I was pretty young, so I did my best. But, I didn't have the experience. I feel much more comfortable even if the film was much, way much more complex in Valerian. I feel comfortable because I have 20 more years of experience. Lucy was very helpful. Because I work with ILM on some of the shots, so, I get more used to work with the team and do caption, and all this.

I was more prepared for Valerian than I was with Fifth Element. Actually, when we did The Fifth Element there was this new company, who sent me a letter and say, "Oh, we are a new company for special effect, and we would love for you to come to our company." And the letter was signed by the president. And the president was Jim Cameron. It was Digital Domain. So, it was the first film made at Digital Domain, was that Cameron was running. And it's funny, because 20 years later, he invite me on the set of Avatar, and he was so sweet with me and give me a lot of tips. And I think it's just funny, it's just funny that 20 years later I finally did Valerian, and he's doing Avatar 2. It's great.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now in theaters.