Luc Besson isn’t exactly bitter about the making of his seminal sci-fi feature “The Fifth Element,” but that doesn’t mean he looks back on the production of his 1997 film with only fondness.
“‘The Fifth Element’ was the last film made the dinosaur way,” Besson recently told a group of journalists at an event for his latest film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” “It was the last film before digital, where you have to put dots on the screen for six hours and lock your camera. It was a nightmare.”
That so-called nightmare was over soon enough as filmmaking technology swiftly moved towards a digital future — though Besson is still a bit rankled that his film was the one of the last ones to be created without digital assistance.
“And then, six months later, you basically can have the camera on your shoulder, shoot whatever you want, and the guy says, ‘Oh, we’ll deal with it after,'” he said during a trip to New York this week. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Why you don’t say that last year?’ It was insane.”
Besson’s newest film is based on the French sci-fi comics series “Valérian and Laureline,” written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, a childhood favorite of the filmmaker that was originally distributed as two-page panels in the weekly magazine “Pilote.” The film follows a pair of “spatio-temporal agents,” played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who are charged with keeping the peace across the universe.
“I never thought about doing a film about it, because it was just part of my childhood,” he said. “When I did ‘The Fifth Element,’ I hired the designer from ‘Valerian’ [illustrator Mézières, who did uncredited work on the film], and he worked with me for six months. He’s the one saying, ‘Why are you doing this stupid “Fifth Element” thing? Why don’t you do “Valerian”?'”
At the time, Besson thought it was simply impossible, thanks to the scope of the story and the many creatures and space-set locations that are key to the story. Still, he started writing the film’s script nearly a decade ago “in case the technology would be ready,” eventually crafting a screenplay and a 100-page Bible of information that details the film’s primary location — Alpha, the “City of a Thousand Planets” — and the various alien species that congregate there to peacefully engage with each other.
“And then, ‘Avatar’ comes,” Besson remembered. “And then everything is possible, thanks to Jim [Cameron].” Cameron’s 2009 feature relied heavily on motion-capture technology, aided by a virtual camera system that allowed the filmmaker to see his actors and their performances in the digital space in real time, a major innovation in the filmmaking space that continues to be utilized in mo-cap and CGI-heavy projects. Cameron himself has called it “a form of pure creation.”
Armed with new technology, Besson finally felt capable of telling the story that had enthralled him since he was just a kid — with the added bonus of avenging his experiences making “The Fifth Element.”
“I always think I will avenge one day, so that’s my vengeance,” he said, tapping on “Valerian” tie-in book. “‘The Fifth Element’ has 188 shots with special effects. This one has 2,734. That’s the size of the vengeance.”
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” opens July 21 in theaters nationwide. Check out the film’s teaser trailer below.