'Valerian' Director Luc Besson On Why You Should Watch His Movie Twice [Interview]

The making of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was a long journey for writer and director Luc Besson, who started reading the work of comic book writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières when he was 10 years old. He brought the comic and its two galaxy-saving agents, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), to life with a giddy, exuberant race-against-the-clock sci-fi adventure earlier this year. Besson's dreams (and his hard work) shows in every one of the film's environments, which shine bright with the sort of color absent in most of today's blockbusters.

While Valerian didn't catch on with American audiences when it was released over the summer, Besson appears hopeful that more people will come around to his movie, which he believes is best on the second watch. We recently spoke to Besson at a press day for the Blu-Ray release of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, where he discussed the reaction to the movie, that big market sequence, and much more.

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You've been talking about the movie for a long time now.

Yeah, it's okay. Talking about something you love, so it's okay.

I liked the bit in the bonus features where Ethan Hawke says you told him to play Jolly the Pimp like Dennis Hopper.

It's Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Yeah, when he's a photographer and he has no film.

It shows in his performance. How many days did you have to shoot with him and Rihanna?

He was there for like two, three days. But he was lucky because all the other parts they were like so prepped and so ... I was guiding everyone so clearly. Ethan was the only one who had freedom. I told him, you know, come on the set and have fun, let's have fun for three days, because you're gonna be the pimp of Rihanna. He said, "Yeah, good, I'm coming!"

So we did the costume and then we build the character, he has the lines and everything, but we just have to create it together and it was so much fun because you don't have ... It's not so often you have this opportunity to have this freedom on the set. By the way, the scene with Dane outside of the club is the first day of shooting for the entire film. First day.

Did you want that to be day one for a reason or is that how the schedule worked out?

No, it was dates, you know, like the Rihanna dates and things.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Featurette

You did save the last scene for last, though, right?

This kind of trick, yeah, I've done it. I'm always careful with that. Dane and Cara, they're so sweet. They worked together for eight months and it's the last day of shooting, so they're very emotional, if you do that to her she's gonna start crying and then they're gonna say goodbye and the last shot is kiss. Yeah, you put everything in a good condition to have some emotion on the screen. There's something real about the kissing goodbye and the fact they were together for so long and, you know, you try sometimes to help a little bit the situation.

It happens to me, for example, when there's a very difficult scene for an actor to play. First, he's scared about the scene, so you don't put the scene right away, and you wait until he's comfortable with the character, and then now he's comfortable, now you can make the scene and then suddenly you say, "Now, I'm gonna make it here," so the guy says "fuck, fuck, fuck!" And he continues and when you arrive you say, "No, I'm gonna do it here." And then suddenly, now the guy wants to make the scene, when he was scared of making the scene at the beginning. So now you turn the thing the other way, now he want the fucking scene, he wants to cry, he wants to ... And then when you feel the guy come, you say "Okay, we shoot tomorrow." It's a way to help a little bit, you know, put people in the situation.

How complicated was it planning the big market sequence?

The big market was the most complicated. Before we started shooting in prep, I made this big meeting with all the people, we were like fifty in a room, special effects, everyone, and I explained the scene. It takes me an hour to explain a 17 minute scene. And at the end they all look at me and say, "uh huh", and I can tell you no one understand. No one.

Does that make you nervous?

It makes me nervous. I say, God, I need them to understand. So what I did is I took the entire school, I have a school in Paris, sixty students, I take the sixty students, we put the six hundred shots of the storyboard on the wall and we shot the entire six hundred shots with the students. One by one, I went to the editing and I edit the scene. So when it was the desert it was little red, when it was the vision, the merchant vision, it was blue, and when we were really in the other world it was yellow. So now everyone knows where we are in which shot.

When people talk about your work and your style, do you recognize or agree with how they define your style? 

No, I respect it. You have a child and everybody says "Oh my God, it's so much you," but you don't see it. My boy is him. He's my boy, for me he's so defined as a human being so I can't see me inside him. But people around say "Oh my God, he's exactly you." I think it's the same ... No, I don't have, I don't see my style. The only thing I can see is my involvement. I never have done, in my life, one shot for nothing. That's it: if I do a shot, I'm on the camera, I designed the shot, I was the shot. Even if it's a hand, or foot, or whatever. I have these dedications, shot by shot, on everything so maybe at the end of the day when you watch one of my films it doesn't matter what is the subject, maybe you feel this texture, and I usually try to be really at the right place at the right moment with the actor.

Right. You always look like you're right in the action on the bonus features.

I'm on the camera, all the time, so, I grab the actors sometimes during the shot.

Do you think that helps the actors?

According to them, not only Dane and Cara, according all of them, they're always surprised the first two days, always, because the director is here, and then after two days they just love it. They love it.

Because I'm also able, like, let's say that you have a long scene with a lot of dialogue where the emotion, the tears, have to come in the middle of the scene. You can tell when you're there because I feel them, I smell them. You can tell, for example, that she's late in a scene, she couldn't catch the rhythm at the beginning and she's gonna be late at the middle of the thing, but now it's coming, now it's coming, but it's too late. So you ... In the middle of the take I don't count, I say "Breathe, breathe, breathe, go back to the start, go back to the start." And then you're using the fact she's hot now, she's here, to start again and then now she's gonna be in rhythm. You know, with the emotion.

So, by being there, you can help them, you can really help them to get the thing.

Valerian

What's it like working with a performer like Rihanna? 

Since the beginning for me, Rihanna is Bubble. Bubble is the ultimate artist, you know, she has the freedom, she can do whatever, she can change, and actually for me that's what Rihanna is. She has a freedom, like no-one is holding her. She can do whatever she wants at her own rhythm and she's creative and she's working with different people and I can feel since the beginning that she has something she can play for sure. I knew it, I knew she can play. And she's very ... She's emotional in the film.

I really enjoy where that storyline goes in the second act because it seems like things could be going off-track, but all of that just worked for me.

Have you seen it once or twice?

I've seen it once.

The second time is the best. It's really the best because the film is so much of shards. When you're watching sci-fi today, driven ninety percent by Marvel and DC Comics, there's feeling, there's a pattern, there's a thing, and then we get used to it. And if you're watching in the history of art, in a kitchen ... In cooking, painting, music, every time something weird or strange, a sound, arrived, you're like, "Whoa!"

And sometimes, especially for a song, for an album, the first time you hear it you're like ... You know, and then you hear it twice and third time and after like a couple of times, yeah, you get the thing. I think Valerian, like The Fifth Element twenty years ago, it's the same. There's so much different things in the film, that you can't embrace it in one sitting. It's almost impossible. There is too much. So that's why I'm very happy that the people will have the DVD because they can watch it quietly at home twice or three times and watch all the details.

And there's the reverse, you see a film and you say "Yeah, that was great!" And you watch it again a year later and, you know, the charm is not there anymore. It was like fast food.

Time has been kind to your movies. Does time ever affect your relationship or thoughts on your work?

They are my children, so I love them all. I love them at ten years old, at twenty years old, at 2 years old.

So you feel the same way about this film today as you did 2 years ago?

Yeah.

Going back to the beginning of working on Valerian, what about the comics did you want to stay true to?

No, it's more the relation between the the two. The fact that, and it's probably why in the US it was more complicated, because the guy is not, he's not Schwarzenegger. He's not like a big guy. And he's stupid, most of the time. He's pretentious. He's like, "I'm the best!" And she's like, "No, you're not the best, you're just a fucker, get out." This relation, she's ruling the boat, she's ruling the day. And that's, for me, the reflection of the society today. Men are a bunch of pretentious guys – my car, my house, my money, my credit cards. We like to show off like this. Who is ruling the house? The kids and the holidays and who is ruling, in fact, the thing that make us to chill and say, "Come back on Earth," it's the women. You know, and when they're in charge, politically or professionally, they're stronger.

We're a bunch of warriors, like hunters, and I want to show that, I want to show that in the film. To show that, yeah, he's in charge, he's the major, but he's not big and and he's not a superhero at all. At all. But he can be heroic, if he has to save his girl he will die. He's heroic.

But the entire principle, like, the superhero with super power, it's very difficult for me. It's very difficult because I don't have super power.

You can't relate.

No, I can't relate. And so I just have to say, "Oh thank you, thank you to save me." No, I want to save, I want to die, trying. My grandfather was a farmer, he went to war and he fight. He was heroic. He doesn't have super power. But he participated, and he almost died for it. That's what I like, that's the characters that I like.

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.