Like any director about to release a massive summer blockbuster, French filmmaker Luc Besson is anxious about how his $180 million dollar sci-fi adventure will be received.
“I can feel the resistance when it comes to the American audience,” said Besson. “I can feel it, I’m not blind. ‘Oh, that’s not a Marvel? Oh, she’s not totally an actress yet? [Star Cara Delevingne was a successful fashion model.] What is Rihanna doing there and who’s this weirdo French guy?’ I can feel all that.”
From the start, Besson knew his vision for adapting Pierre Christin’s 1967 comic series “Valérian and Laureline” did not fit Hollywood’s tentpole model, which is why his EuropaCorp raised the $180 million production budget and partnered with STX to bypass studios completely.
Janette Pellegrini/Getty Images for EuropaCorp
To some degree, that is the story of Besson’s film career. As either producer (the “Taken” series) or director (“The Fifth Element”), he can’t win: He’s viewed as too Hollywood by cinephile-driven French film culture, but his sensibilities don’t fit the mold of the studios.
“I was raised with Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, but also Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, and Godard,” said Besson. “It’s a reflection of the way I was raised. I enjoy American movies a lot, but I also enjoy different kind of film and I try to reflect that in my films.”
The gulf between Besson’s sensibilities and Hollywood franchise films is self evident in the first few seconds of the “Valerian” trailer: The bright color palette and playfulness of the film stand in sharp contrast to the visually and thematic dark American superhero movies.
“If you are telling me that the world tomorrow is the world that we see in all those sci-fi films – which is that it is raining, psychologically the hero is wondering what he should do, and it’s all so dark – I’m going to kill myself, because if that’s the future, I don’t want it,” said Besson.
Besson refers to the future as “a white page” he can’t predict, but said he prefers to paint with an optimistic brush.
“Let’s be a little naive and let’s dream. Let’s say, ‘Yeah, in the future everybody will shake hands and we will smile at each other and the foreign guy will be an alien willing to share knowledge,” said Besson. “I want to a young audience to smile at it and take this philosophy and think that the [flying alien guy] is not obviously a bad guy.”
Besson likes to refer to himself as a “painter trying to do his painting,” which is why he bypassed Hollywood’s money and distribution channels to make the film, unusual for an English-language film on a canvas as big as “Valerian.” Yet for Besson, this isn’t about making an art film, but rather how narrowly American studios define what can be globally commercially viable.
“It is true, there is a limited sense [of what a big commercial film can be], but what’s true here in America, is not true in the rest of the world,” said Besson. “You really have two markets, the US and the rest of the world.”
Besson believes that the audience outside the U.S. is naturally more curious and open.
“There’s more common points between Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris and Berlin then L.A.,” said Besson. “Because the orientation of the American cinema, like most of 95 percent of the screens are taken by American films, which is not the case in France or in Europe. We love American film, but not only.”
Besson knows his ability to break through to that American cineplex audience, who are used to more-familiar packaging than “Valerian,” will be the trick.
“I love the challenge,” said Besson. “I am smiling, just take a chance [laughs]. And we’ll probably be surprised, because right now every time we do a screening, it goes very well.”