Luc Besson Interview

Luc Besson, director of The Professional, La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element

Luc Besson is one of the greatest cinematic talents ever to have come out of France. From Big Blue to The Professional to The Fifth Element, Besson has carved out quite a reputation for himself. He chats with Chris Neumer about retirement, casting British actors and the pains of paying to make things look worse.

by Chris Neumer

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LUC BESSON: How are you sir?

CHRIS NEUMER: I am well and you?

LUC BESSON: Very good thank you.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well good. I appreciate your time this morning. I was looking over some interviews that you had done in preparation for this and saw that all people wanted to talk to you about what your impending retirement from feature film directing. I was curious to know if you were happy with the decision to go public with your “10 films and I’m done” idea. It seemed no one could talk about anything but that with you.

LUC BESSON: [laughs] Yeah, I was not so happy about it. It was not a misunderstanding, but … I had a long conversation with a journalist, a friend of mine and [journalists] tend to pick up only 2 or 3 lines in the interview. I went to the IFP. You know the IFP?


LUC BESSON: It was like, “Luc’s going to sell everything, he’s going to disappear. He’s going to stop everything. That was not the message at all.

CHRIS NEUMER: Journalists are bad like that, aren’t we?

LUC BESSON: No, no you are not bad, it’s just the IFP made a stupid move. They made a kind of resume of the thing and everybody kind of obeys the resume. So everybody said, “Is it true that you are going to stop everything?” And it’s not the case. I was explaining how I feel after 30 years of loyal service.

CHRIS NEUMER: Oh yes, tired and hurt…

LUC BESSON: Sounds logical to me. It’s like the sports people. You can feel there is a moment where… It’s not the fact that you are not good anymore. I feel strong, but do I have the courage and the strength to start something new and fresh and spend 2, 3, 4 years on it? It’s just difficult.

CHRIS NEUMER: Sticking with the sports people analogy that you’ve used to describe your feelings, the athletes often retire too early and then complain about a love of the game and need to come back for more later.

LUC BESSON: You know 30 years is long for a sports guy.

CHRIS NEUMER: This is true. But are you thinking you might come back later? A Michael Jordan like return?

LUC BESSON: I understand that might be a possibility when they stop at 32 or 35. I’m 47.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s definitely a unique situation. I’ve talked to a lot of directors and I read some of your columns about how exhausted you felt when you are directing a movie and how much energy and time went into it. It is an exhausting process. There is an American director, Todd Solondz, who has done a couple of films. He had one very telling quote that he used with me. He said, “Filmmaking is a horrible, time-consuming, taxing process and that is just when things are going right.” Not many directors comment on exactly how much energy goes into the process and how taxing a career it is making film. So I figured I’d ask you why you think this is the case.

LUC BESSON: It’s a passion for sure. Either you have that in your blood or you don’t. If it’s running in your blood, you don’t think. You know it’s going to hurt; it’s going to be difficult and everything. Really, it’s just for the pleasure of seeing the face of a kid in a screening to tell you like glue on the screen. That’s worth it.

CHRIS NEUMER: More so kids than adults? Or are we talking just in reference to the Arthur film?

LUC BESSON: More in reference to Arthur than other films. I remember my previous film, Big Blue for example or The Professional. Some people getting out of the theater and you can see it in their eyes that they were [totally captivated]. What I love is when they talk about the film and they are so passionate that they forgot that I did the film. They always come to this point where they tell me, “You don’t understand…”

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes, yes I do. It’s got to be a good feeling to know that you can strike a chord like that with an audience.

LUC BESSON: The biggest part of the audience, they don’t go. Then there’s one part that goes, but inside they’re torn; there’s a part of them that doesn’t like it and a part that says, “Yeah, it’s good.” And there’s a little part that is totally silent and amazed by it all. It’s never a big, big number, but it’s always good to see.

CHRIS NEUMER: Never a bad thing. It’s funny you mention that because I noticed in a couple of different places that you weren’t ever too worried or too concerned about what critics had to say about your films. There is a producer here in the states, Neal Moritz, who has done The Fast and the Furious and a lot of other movies like that. He had made the statement to me that he never cared what the critics said. He completely judged the success of his films based upon the box office. He said that the people would vote with their money. If his film makes $100 million, that is the highest praise that he can be paid. I’m not assuming that you’d say the same thing–

LUC BESSON: I’m not agreeing at all.

CHRIS NEUMER: How do you judge the success of your projects?

LUC BESSON: For me it’s: have you done the best that you can. If the answer is ‘yes’, you can sleep with dignity. You can go to bed and say, “I’m happy. I did my best.” You know sometime when you start the film that it’s not going to be huge and popular, because the subject is not. The subject is more intimate and it’s different. It’s in black and white. You know you are not going to have a large audience. For me it doesn’t matter so much. As long as the audience is thrilled. Sometimes there’s a film that the best you are going to do is let’s say $10 million box office. If you do $12 million, it’s wonderful. It’s amazing.

CHRIS NEUMER: But you don’t use the box office take to sort of judge …

LUC BESSON: No, no, no. Honestly, no. I have seen great films that have done nothing at the box office and I have seen a piece of shit make $200 million.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ve seen many of those actually.

LUC BESSON: With the critics, it’s different. When you make a film, you spend your entire day as a critic yourself, all day long. You’re with your technicians, your friends, your actors, actresses. “I don’t like this. What do you think about that? Let’s try this. No, it’s not good enough.” We know about criticizing ourselves. That’s what we do all day long. We go in the editing room and we change our minds 200 times. So I’m not scared about one more critic. But it is true that the one you care the most about is the guy who pays. Basically, he trusts you. He says, “This one looks cool. I’m going to put $10 to watch the film.” Then I feel concerned because, “Oh my God, he believes me. He wants to see my film now. He pays me first. Oh my God, I don’t want him to be deceived. I don’t want him to be disappointed.” I care for him. If I come across this guy after the screening and he says, ” I didn’t like it so much”, then I’m sad. Then I say, “Really? Why?” If he says, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t believe this or that,” then I’m concerned.

CHRIS NEUMER: You bring up an interesting idea that I’ve often wondered about: if somehow the studios are going to be able to charge more money for movies that have been nominated for Oscars and films that they qualify as being good. It seems like somehow they would be able to figure out a way to suck more money out of the movie-going public with those films. You have to figure that they try everything.

LUC BESSON: It’s funny because I like the fact that no matter what you spend on the film–and by the way it’s the only economy around the world that is like this–whatever you spend, you make a film with $5 million bucks, you make a film with $200 million, the price of the ticket is the same. I love that.

CHRIS NEUMER: That is an interesting take on it though.

LUC BESSON: I love that because if you buy a car, believe me if the window is electric, you are going to pay more.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m trying to think about a $200 million car that you can pay $18,000 for.

LUC BESSON: [laughs] Can you imagine paying $10,000 no matter what is the car.

CHRIS NEUMER: No, actually I can’t. That is a completely new idea. I just hope the wrong people don’t hear about that and get to work figuring out how they can in fact charge more for $200 million movies. One thing that I was curious about in terms of your work … You’ve become a name and a producer and a director who transcends country almost. You direct English language features. You direct French features. You produce British features and other things like that. I know that Arthur was originally done in French dialogue. I know your film Angel was in French and you followed up with Joan of Arc in English. I know it all comes down to good story, but is there a way that you determine where a project should be shot, whether it be in France, Britain or America?

LUC BESSON: No, honestly it is one by one. It depends. For Joan of Arc for example, there are two things. First, I couldn’t make the film with French actors and actresses.

CHRIS NEUMER: Is there a reason for that?

LUC BESSON: They are not good enough. We have some good guys, but not really good enough to be at the level of Milla and I didn’t find any girl at the time to the level of her. Some of the English guys I have in the film … it was a problem for me. That’s one reason. The second reason is historically in 1431 everybody spoke English for 8 years already. We are invaded. The critics say, “Why does he shoot in English?” Basically the north of France had been speaking English for 8 years. She was speaking an old French, not the French that we have today. She was talking in fact a kind of slang coming from Lorain. The trial was in Greek and in Latin, so there is no sense anyway.

CHRIS NEUMER: I was thinking about this in reference to Angel A. I was wondering was that a uniquely French film? Was that something that just had to be … because if you took a look at La Femme Nikita that was remade virtually shot for shot over here in the states, I wondered why it was originally made in France. You had The Professional which was originally in English and I started wondering if there was an aesthetic about a project that determines where you set it.

LUC BESSON: No, no. It depends on the story. Angel A, the story of the man is almost my story. It’s about a man of 40 years old who has to finally make a deal with himself. He’s about to watch himself in a mirror and say, “You know what, I accept you the way you are.” So it’s something very particular and very close to me. I feel much better to express myself with this film in French and to shoot it in my hometown. When I did Nikita, my point was the way the government acts. You make a mistake when you are young and you pay your whole life. The government tries to make you believe that they give you a chance, but they don’t. They just use you a different way. I feel more comfortable shooting that material in France because I know the political situation and how the police work. I know that much better than America. America is much more complex between CIA and all this. I didn’t know about that at the time at all. So I feel more comfortable shooting in France. What I like also in Nikita is–you know there is this glamorous image of France with the nice architecture and to see this under that image, it is also very dirty and violent. I like these contrasts. When it comes to Leon I feel comfortable in New York because for me, in New York, you can be invisible. You can see someone lying on the street and no one will stop. Maybe not now, maybe they will stop now, but at the time … New York is so big that you can disappear. If you have no phone and no credit cards, no one knows where you are. The guy is coming from Italy. He’s an Italian guy, I have this European knowledge about it so I feel much more comfortable about shooting in New York. One more thing: you can’t shoot Leon in France because in France in every building you have a concierge and she knows everything. She is glue with the police all the time so you can’t be invisible in Paris.

CHRIS NEUMER: So it is really just a case-by-case basis.

LUC BESSON: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: Very minor question here, but you’ve actually referred to the film as both The Professional and Leon. It took me a while to adjust because I think when it was re-released over here it was called Leon. Do you actually refer to it as both titles or do you call it one or the other?

LUC BESSON: I know that the title here was The Professional. For me it is Leon, but sometimes when I say Leon, people don’t know what I am talking about, because they know the title in English.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes, you use both. I was very impressed by that.

LUC BESSON: For me it is Leon.

CHRIS NEUMER: The reason I was saying that was that I had just gotten used to calling it that. I figured that was what it is. It took me a little while to get over The Professional. The first time you said it, I wondered if I had been wrong and if I should switch back now. One thing that I noticed throughout almost all your interviews was the way journalists kept writing that you wouldn’t talk about your private life. They’d instantly follow this sentiment by talking about your daughters, your wives, your childhood, how you grew up, where you grew up, where you came up with all these ideas. I started thinking about this and thought, “This doesn’t seem like the man doesn’t talk about his private life at all.” Is this something that is unique to the American and British press where there’s an intense need to know almost everything that goes on in your personal life or is this global?

LUC BESSON: Most of the time I think it is US and UK. They always want to know everything.

CHRIS NEUMER: I really couldn’t think of anything else to ask you about your personal life. What more do people really need at this point? Unless you are hanging out with Paris Hilton.

LUC BESSON: No, I totally understand. I don’t understand why they want so much to know. When you talk about your childhood, it’s a long time ago, I’m not going to hurt anyone so it’s fine. It belongs to me. When you come to my life today, I just need to protect the people I love, that’s all. They don’t want to be in the newspaper.

CHRIS NEUMER: I can only imagine that in certain circumstances you don’t even want to be in the newspaper.

LUC BESSON: If we talk about the film, then that’s great.

CHRIS NEUMER: I know that you had no previous experience with animation prior to working on Arthur and I know that this has been trumpeted in many different places, but going into the project, did you have any specific goals in mind of things that you wanted to accomplish or specific things that you absolutely did not want to happen?

LUC BESSON: No, my goal since the beginning–because we started as a normal film in the 60s with the grandmother and the kid, I wanted people to get confused on the way [through]. I want the 3-D element to go little by little. I want the people to think that it’s going to be a normal film and then it turns to animation. On most 3-D films you have to accept for the first few minutes that, “Okay, it’s an animated film. Normally the animal doesn’t talk, but he is going to talk here.” It takes you a minute or two and then you accept it and then you can go in the film. Here we start like a normal film, so I have a new problem. I want the people to believe everything. I wanted the way we are going to make the nature in 3-D to mix it with real nature so people will get confused. When you see some of the element in the film like the flowers, the mushrooms, the houses in the village of the Minimoys, you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. The village of the Minimoys for example is 300 houses. We built it without the village.

CHRIS NEUMER: In miniature?

LUC BESSON: Yeah, it was a huge set. Yeah, it was like a miniature.

CHRIS NEUMER: So you actually wanted people to sort of be confused and when Arthur goes down into the world, to be like, “What the hell is going on here?” This used to be normal.

LUC BESSON: I want them to believe it looks real. If I refer for example to a very old film… you remember Elliott the Dragon?

CHRIS NEUMER: No, I can’t say that I do.

LUC BESSON: You’re too young. It was a normal film. Or let’s say Roger Rabbit.

CHRIS NEUMER: Okay, I can remember that.

LUC BESSON: And it’s a film that I love, by the way. We know the rabbit is fake. It’s in 2-D and I love the film, but it’s a different type of film because we know that the rabbit is fake. When you go on Arthur, when you go on the river and all this, it’s real, it’s all backyard. Any kid can relate to that.

CHRIS NEUMER: So your starting out the film with the sort of traditional live action was almost designed to set the audience up for, “Hey, this is sort of a normal kind of movie in the sense you are not going to see anything too real”, and then you want to let the bottom drop out of it and then they enter this new world and they are not going to know what’s going on.

LUC BESSON: Yes, exactly.

CHRIS NEUMER: Have you ever worked on a project previously where you’ve actually gone into it thinking, “I’d like to confuse the audience?” That seems like a really rare perspective for a director to have.

LUC BESSON: Maybe confuse is not the right word, because it sounds different in French I think. It’s like a magic trick. You want the people to smile and open their eyes.

CHRIS NEUMER: Unexpected?

LUC BESSON: Not exactly. You want them to believe. I think that’s the correct thing

CHRIS NEUMER: Is it in any way where you were starting down a path a little bit to the left … you would start slowly going in one direction with the live action and then you would go to the right with the entry into the 3-D world of animation?

LUC BESSON: No, the way we enter the world is little bit by little bit.

CHRIS NEUMER: So a sort of building of reality where the audience … you don’t immerse them all at once. It’s just little by little and each little step …

LUC BESSON: There is this moment where he takes his long view and he has to put the long view in the hole on the garden. He’s watching inside the long view and suddenly he sees the top of a ladder coming . He hears the sound of the foot on the ladder like “dunk, dunk, dunk”. Then there is the face of a Minimoy appearing. The Minimoy is wondering who is coming to bother him. Suddenly the first description is from one side to the other side of the long view.

CHRIS NEUMER: By long view you are just referencing a wide shot?

LUC BESSON: No, no, no. You know to watch the stars?

CHRIS NEUMER: Oh, like a telescope?

LUC BESSON: Yeah. Arthur is in the garden to one side of the telescope and the minimal appears on the other side of the telescope. They are watching through the lenses. You have some scratches on the lenses, so it really looks like the minimal is there.

CHRIS NEUMER: I always like that technique where you can put little imperfections into the animation that makes it look more real. It might have been in Shrek 2 where they actually had sort of sun flares on the lens. I remember thinking that that was going above and beyond.

LUC BESSON: Yes. On the film we spent like 6 months to put dirt on the film.

CHRIS NEUMER: Wow, 6 months huh?

LUC BESSON: Shadows, wind in the shadows, scratches and imperfections.

CHRIS NEUMER: Going back to your analogy about how many people are going to actually notice that and appreciate it, that’s 4, but the 4 who do notice it will probably enjoy it.

LUC BESSON: Yeah, there are 4 who notice it and … You know it just put up the level of satisfaction. The people get out and they say, “Wow, it was great. I love it” even if they don’t know on the first vision it’s a global film. You feel that you have it for your money, you know what I mean?

CHRIS NEUMER: Just because you can’t put your finger on what exactly it was that you liked about it, all the elements come together including the dirt to create the vision.

LUC BESSON: Your English is definitely better than mine.

CHRIS NEUMER: You had led me down the path.

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