For a man who makes his living writing and producing muscular action movies like the "Taken" franchise, Luc Besson is a filmmaker who has continually shown an amazing sensitivity and fondness for strong female characters. These aren’t buxom bimbos that wield Uzis and mutter one-liners; these are fully dimensional characters that Besson is seemingly fascinated by, since they turn up in everything from historical epics to tiny, Kapra-esque comedies. The newest Luc Besson heroine is the title character played by Scarlett Johansson in this week’s "Lucy," about a young woman who, after accidentally ingesting an experimental drug, unlocks the potential of the human brain. It’s crazy and kind of awesome, and the latest in a long line of Besson’s strong female characters.
"Lucy" is the second film in as many years for Besson, who had seemingly decided to devote more of his time to writing and producing European action movies than making films for himself. When we asked Besson if this recent jag of activity is evocative of anything, he shrugged (we could hear it over the phone line, we swear). "I don’t know," Besson said. "I am so lucky that I can do what I want. Sometimes I feel to make a small black-and-white French film, and I do it. And even if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter – it teaches me things, I learn things with each film." Besson then drifted into more philosophical territory, (possibly because we had spent 20 minutes running through much of his career), and said: "My biggest fear at the beginning was to make ‘Nikita’ all my life or ‘Leon’ all my life. I feel, as an artist, I want to open doors all the time. Sometimes it’s big and the audience will be there and sometimes not. But it doesn’t matter. I’m here to learn and to try. It’s the only way to be respected."
And now, let’s run through some of Besson’s most memorable heroines…
"La Femme Nikita" (1990)
The stereotypical Luc Besson heroine would be established in one of his very first movies – 1990’s kicky spy thriller "Le Femme Nikita," about a beautiful young street thug who is hired by a mysterious French spy organization. Anne Parillaud played the title character and in real life would also have a secret identity as Besson’s wife (they have since divorced). Besson said that Parillaud’s aura inspired the character. "At the time, when I met Anne, she was very mysterious," Besson explained. "She didn’t want to say anything about her life. She was very mysterious to me. And then I started to think, Maybe she has a double-life. Maybe she’s a double agent. Maybe she’s a killer. And that’s how it starts." Hopefully, we joked, that wasn’t the case. To which Besson shot back: "I still don’t know."
"Leon/The Professional" (1994)
Besson returned to the world of "Le Femme Nikita," sort of, with "The Professional" (titled "Leon" overseas) his simmering crime thriller about a French hitman (played by Jean Reno) living amongst the Italian American community in modern day New York. As Besson told us: "’Leon’ comes from ‘Nikita,’ in fact. There’s a character in ‘Nikita’ called The Cleaner, and Jean Reno said, ‘I love the character of The Cleaner. Can you make a feature film with The Cleaner?’ So then I started to think about the Italian cover of the cleaner, and his name was Leon. And so I started to work on ‘Leon.’"
In "The Professional," Besson turns a young Natalie Portman, playing a girl named Matilda whose family is murdered by a double-dealing DEA agent, into his heroine. The decision didn’t come from any feminist agenda on Besson’s part, but rather a desire to partner Reno with his polar opposite. "I worked with opposites, so I put in the front of Leon every situation and how he would react – male, female, young, old, strong, weak, a plant, a dog, a bird. I put every type of character up against him and tried to see which was the most interesting," Besson said. "Very quickly, one thing was very interesting – a little girl. That’s how Matilda is born. She’s born after Leon. She is the exact opposite – small, a girl, innocent." Not that they’re all that different: "At the same time they are exactly the same. They’re both 14-year-olds. Mentally he is fourteen. And she is supposed to be eleven but really she’s fourteen."
"The Fifth Element" (1997)
Besson’s most ambitious project is also the one with the most unlikely female hero – his whirligig sci-fi spectacle "The Fifth Element," which seems to have been inspired by French comic books (Bruce Willis‘ wise-ass cab driver could have been ripped from "Heavy Metal" too), "Star Wars," and silent sci-fi films. It turns out that Besson had been thinking about this story for a long time. "I grew up 60 kilometers from Paris. That’s where we make the cheese. So when you want to make movies, it’s really not the right place to be. And when I opened my window, I see cows. So believe me, I wanted to escape," Besson explained. "I started to write ‘The Fifth Element’ when I was 15 years old. I wrote 800 pages. And obviously I was not a director yet. So I always had this book on the side. And after two or three films I started to think about it, like, I’d really like to do this movie about a flying cab."
When it came to crafting his otherworldly heroine, the lithe, orange-haired Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich), Besson wanted to fly in the face of convention. "When I worked on the character of Leeloo, my first feeling was, when we wait for the supreme warrior, we always expect The Terminator or Schwarzenegger or Stallone," Besson said (and rightfully so – this was produced in the mid-nineties, at the height of those actors’ power). "And I thought it was so funny that it was a woman and we don’t understand a word of what she’s saying, and she’s just enjoying herself. It’s the exact opposite. I wanted to create the exact opposite of what you were thinking." And he did. "The Fifth Element" was the most successful French film in history… up until "The Intouchables" was released in 2011.
"The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" (1999)
After "The Fifth Element," Besson brought much of the cast and crew (including Jovovich) to an entirely different kind of spectacle: a mud-and-blood-soaked retelling of Joan of Arc entitled "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc." This was a conscious decision on the part of Besson who once again wanted to try something new, and maybe the clearest case of a female hero not only when it comes to his filmography, but in history too. "I think when I finish a film, I want to leave the universe and go to another one. I was fascinated by Joan of Arc and there were a bunch of American projects being developed at the time, so I said to myself, This is French history. A French director has to do a new version. Not an American. So I decided to make it," Besson said.
He then dug in for an intense period of research. "I went to the library of Joan of Arc – there are 8,000 books about her. There was a great guy in the library and I worked for four months with him. We worked from the Latin transcription of the trial and we tried to make it very honest and very real." Still, Besson pointed out, "This girl was nuts. She was really nuts." How nuts, you ask? "We read some comments from a monk who was following her and by night, at the camp with the soldiers, some hookers would come on the camp and she would chase these hookers with a sword. She actually broke her sword three times chasing these hookers. She was mad." Besson then added, "I would never chase a hooker with a sword."
There are some movies that Besson’s audience of hardcore action or sci-fi fans will just not follow him to; "Angel-A" was one of them. It’s a small, Kapra-esque comedy about a gimpy small time hood (played by Jeunet regular Jamel Debbouze) who encounters a super sexy, extremely powerful angel (Rie Rasmussen), who saves his life in more than one way. Besson said the whole movie was a metaphor for being comfortable with yourself after you reach a certain age. "When you reach 40, you realize that for a part of your life, you lie. Almost all of the time. Not like big lies but you always try to look better and look more intelligent and there’s this moment around 40/45 when you say, ‘You know, I should just love the way I am. I don’t need to pretend to be bigger than I am.’ And we call it the age of reason. It’s supposed to be at 7 years old but it usually happens at 40 for men." For Besson, this idea was inherent to "Angel-A." "The film talks a lot and it’s about a guy who’s lying all the time and he finally meets this angel and the angel says, ‘I am you, but inside.’ She’s a pretty, tall, big blonde, and that’s who he is inside. He’s gorgeous inside. The film is about learning to live with yourself."
All of this brings us to "Lucy." It’s a heady philosophical/scientific/existential treatise, but it’s encased in a crazy action movie where people are stabbed and shot in the head. When I described the movie in this way to Besson, he laughed loudly. "I love the description of the film! I love it! It’s exactly what I wanted to do!" he exclaimed. But how did these two different aspects come together?
Besson explained: "Nine years ago I met a woman. I was at a dinner and they sat this young girl next to me. I guessed that she was the niece of a guy who wanted to be an actor in New York. But in fact she was a professor who studied nucleus cells that get cancer. And I was like, ‘What?’ Then we talked for three hours and I learned a lot of things. So I became very interested in the power that we have in our body that we barely use." This idea stuck with him and over the years he would return to it. "Little by little for six or seven years, I studied that and met a couple of professors and I knew I needed to have a scientific basis and to understand how it works before I write anything. I decided that I didn’t want to do a documentary. I wanted to do a feature thriller with a philosophical message."
But, of course, Besson’s own shortcomings got in the way. "I started to write the script and I was very slow, because if people are using 10% of their brain, I am using 9%. It takes me nine years to write this script; every dumb scriptwriter could have written that in a year," Besson said, in a charming moment of self-deprecation. Still, things worked out for the best. "I get this script that I was really in love with and everything went very fast. I gave it to Universal and they said yes right away and I gave it to Scarlett and she loved it. Everybody loved it right away. It was worth it to wait so long."
When we asked what made Johansson the perfect Luc Besson heroine, and in some ways the ultimate Luc Besson heroine, the apex of what Besson has been working through for almost his entire career, the filmmaker was quick to explain. "At the first meeting, she was looking at me, in the eyes, for the entire conversation," Besson said, still sounding awestruck. "She was asking me a lot of questions and was very interested in the subject and loved the script. She was involved. She wants to work on it. You can smell that she was interested and intrigued and she wants more. And I love that. I need an actress with this kind of commitment for this kind of role. If the actress is just like trying to decide between three or four different projects, I don’t know, what’s the best for my career, this kind of thing – that’s not going to work. As soon as we started to talk, I can feel that she catches the hook and wants to know more." Like we said: a perfect Luc Besson heroine.
"Lucy" opens this Friday.