From the start, French film culture told Luc Besson where he stood: He’s too American and too commercial to be taken seriously. That messaging began when he was 17-year-old applicant at the National School for Cinema.
“The interview was 30 seconds long, because after 30 seconds [the interviewer] felt I had nothing to do with the school,'” said Besson. “I was always shocked by that because he just asked me one question and then, ‘Get out.’ The question was, ‘Give me the three directors you love.’ Obviously, I gave the wrong answer because I said Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese, and the right answer was probably Godard, Truffaut, and Eisenstein, and I was never able to get in the school.”
Instead, Besson interned on a short film, then made short films of his own. By the time he was 30, he already had two international successes with “La Femme Nikita” and “The Big Blue” and was one of the biggest players in the French film industry.
Besson said his desire to build his own school, L’Ecole de la Cite, comes from this period of his life and recognizing how lucky he’d been.
Samuel Goldwyn Company
“When I started, I was lucky enough to meet people who helped me,” said Besson. “‘OK, we’ll listen to you. OK, we’re going to help you — here’s a camera, here’s some lights, you can pay later, that’s OK.’ The school comes from a sense of gratitude that I have to perpetuate – people gave me a chance at the beginning, I have to give back to young people today.”
Launching the school in 2012 was also motivated by the fact that, despite becoming one of the leading French filmmakers, there wasn’t a school that would accept Besson when he was talented and hungry to learn filmmaking.
Besson’s admission process is designed to reach passionate students who would never see the inside of prestigious national films schools like La Fémis and Louis-Lumière. His belief is those schools’ rigorous application processes attracts only a certain type of student.
“So my school, for example, you don’t need to have a diploma,” said Besson. “You need to be between 17 and 24, there’s an application, 9,000 people get the application and we take 60.”
Becoming part of that elite group requires three separate tests that take place over 24 hours, non-stop. Said Besson, “The ones we take are the ones with guts, the ones who are ready to die for the film, and the ones who are talented. That’s all we’re asking.”
The school’s philosophy is built around professional training, where theory is mixed with practical work experience in classes taught by professional filmmakers, not academics. With a goal to create employable young filmmakers, the curriculum emphasizes learning and speaking English — a decisive factor for French filmmakers finding a job after graduation.
Besson’s school is housed in the enormous studio complex Cité du Cinéma, which the filmmaker designed himself and where he shot his latest film, “Valerian the City of a Thousand Planets.” Some of his first students’ hands-on experiences included working on “Valerian,” with a particular contribution to one key part of the film.
In the film’s first big set piece, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) must disguise himself like a tourist and enter the enormous Market to recover an important device for the military. The Big Market, though, is another dimension, or reality, that requires the year 2500 equivalent of a VR headset to access; otherwise, it’s just a desert. The complex action sequence cuts back and forth between events happening in both locations, which are technically in the same place.
Besson laughs, saying he’s convinced that until last month, when the crew saw the film, did they actually understand what was happening in the scene.
“It’s only at the end that it becomes simple, when all the effects and sound are finished, you can understand they’re two worlds, but also the same one,” said Besson. “It looks simple now, but two and half years ago when I started to explain the big market to the team, I can see in their faces that no one was understanding what it was like at all.”
To solve the problem, Besson brought in his L’Ecole de la Cite students from down the hall to help create something that would allow the director’s dozens of artisans to understand what they were doing.
“I had to pre-shoot the entire scene with the students at my school,” he said. “We did the 600 shots one by one, went through the editing, and we edited the entire scene, so now I can show the scene and then we can shoot the scene.”
Talking about placing all the storyboards out and seeing how all the pieces fit together, Besson added, “I would’ve loved to do something like that when I was their age.