Interview | Luc Besson, ‘Valerian’ and the Science Fiction of Optimism
One of the best movies of the year opened last weekend. And according to the box office numbers, you probably didn’t see it.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on the influential French comic series by Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, is the story of two space cops played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, who find a vast conspiracy hidden in a gigantic space station called Alpha, where a thousand civilizations live peacefully together in cultures and environments that have been shoved right on top of each other to make the most of the space.
It’s a dazzling motion picture, in some respects unlike any science fiction film before it, and it relies on the some truly pulpy storytelling sensibilities. So basically, it bears a lot of the qualities that made Star Wars so successful almost 40 years ago. (The comic book, incidentally, was one of George Lucas’s influences in the first place.)
Luc Besson, a fan of Valerian and Laureline since childhood, has brought the story to vivid life, and I was thrilled to get him on the phone shortly before the film’s release to talk about this vision for the future, the importance of telling stories about optimistic futures, what orifice the Mül converter spits pearls out of, and why his sci-fi classic The Fifth Element – which also struggled to find an audience when it first came out 20 years ago – was never going to have a sequel, despite rumors to the contrary.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is out now.
Crave: There is a rich backstory for Valerine and Laureline in the comics. Why did you want to start with City of a Thousand Planets? Why was this the story to start with?
Luc Besson: I think that I was very interested by Alpha, the city of a thousand planets, this place where we try to live together, sharing knowledge and culture. To me it was a background, very positive and very funny and colorful. It was a way for me to show off the world that Valerine and Laureline are living in. So we learn a lot through this locatiohn and then we will learn more about their past. If we do a second one, I hope, or a third, then we will explain more about where they come from and all this. But for the first one I’d rather do it this way.
Speaking of Alpha, your opening sequence in Valerian is the origin of Alpha, but it also plays like a mission statement. It’s all about how science and science fiction can bring about this message of hope for the future. Was that your intent, or did you just want to do a cool music video?
[Laughs.] No, no. It was very, very important and it was an idea that I had for a long time. I wanted to start with some footage from 1972. I want to start from who we are, okay? In 1972, Americans and Russians are able to smile to each other and shake their hands. And we forgot! It starts well. Everything was well until six months ago! [Laughs.]
But it’s very important to show that these humans, no matter where they come from… okay, here is Russia and America, but they’re so happy to meet! They’re so happy to shake their hands. And then after we see the Chinese and they’re happy too. And then we see the alien. We see everyone and then the first alien, and we are little nervous when we met the first one but we smile and we shake hands. I just love that. I just love to see that we are writing our future. So we are we writing something so dark? Everything is possible on paper. It’s doesn’t mean that we will finally have a world so idealistic, but at least we can write it, you know?
Yeah, I feel like a lot of the science fiction that we create for ourselves – especially on a grand scale – has a certain cynicism to it. And here you have a film that opens with handshakes and hugs.
That’s exactly what I feel as a human and as a moviegoer. I’m really fed up to see all these films where the alien is always the villain, and the hero, the superhero is wondering what they should do, if he should interfere or not. It’s just metaphysic problems, and I don’t get it. You’re a superhero. You’re not washing the dishes. You don’t clean your room. You don’t have to do all these things. So why are you so pessimistic? You’re a fucking superhero with super power. Just enjoy it.
And yet you do have to tell a story with conflict and ultimately the story of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets does go to some dark places. How do you try to balance that hopeful future with something very dark that happens in it?
I think it’s like life. Life is like this. Since I’m born, you’re happy for ten minutes and you’re laughing for ten minutes and then the phone rings and someone from your family is dead. It’s like this. It doesn’t advance from anything. And then you’re at the cemetery and you’re very sad, and suddenly you see one thing and then you start laughing, because it’s ridiculous. Life is like this. […]
What I like about Valerian is that it’s a tiny story. It’s about a guy and a girl and they’re like you and me. They’re cops, they’re working, they try to get the girl, he’s lying, he’s heroic sometimes, he’s pretentious the rest of the time. It’s very human. And then on the top of this little story then we have a big story, a story of humanity, a story of lying, a story killing people, and we have this big theme on the top of it. But it’s very human. Valerian is not a superhero and he’s not even a hero. He is heroic sometimes. [Laughs.] That’s who we are.
There’s a great bit towards the end of the film where Valerian and Laureline are handed a moral dilemma and their first instinct is to do the exact opposite things, which I thought was kind of refreshing.
Yeah, and in the end the winner is love.
There’s a word that has been used to describe Valerian and even The Fifth Element, as a contrast to a lot of the American films of similar landscapes. That word is “European.” They’re very European, is the word I keep hearing. What does that even mean to you?
Not so much, in a way, because all the Europeans are saying that I’m lost because I’m an American now, and the Americans are saying that I’m European, so I feel like an orphan. [Laughs.] Please, someone, take me! Take me! I need a passport! I don’t want to be an alien!
Alpha will welcome you, I guess.
Thank you. What’s so interesting – you know what? – compared to thirty years ago, today if you are in Bombay and you listen to, in your phone, you listen to reggae and you’re eating some sushi, it’s okay. You can do these three things at the same time. That’s how our cultures are mixed up now, and I love that. You can do that. Thirty years ago, don’t even think about it. You eat sushi in Japan and you hear reggae in Jamaica, and if you’re not Indian you’re not in India.
I like the fact that everything is mixed up now, and it’s a real progress, I think. I’m probably less European now than I was when I did The Fifth Element. When I did The Fifth Element the American audience was like, “Where did this weirdo come from?” Now, after ten years of internet, most of the kids and people are exchanging everything. Now at least they say, “Oh, that’s a cool weirdo!”
I remember when The Fifth Element came out. I was immediately enamored of it but I had a hard time convincing some other people to see it, just because it didn’t conform to what they had idea that science fiction and fantasy was.
I know, I know…
My philosophy was, it’s science fiction and fantasy. Why should it conform to anything? Shouldn’t be just as big and crazy as we want it to be?
I agree. I agree 100% with you.
I guess that leads me to my next line of thought, which is in Valerian…
Can I interrupt you for a second?
Please, go ahead.
I think also when you’re in Europe, in Paris for example, you can see more than 400 different kinds of films in Paris the same day, from – every day – more than 30 different nationalities. So we are kind of… we’re okay with Japanese films, Indian films, American films, Italian films. We’re used to that. So we’re probably more curious and open, where here in the U.S., the American films are really leading the market. It’s 95% of the thing. So the people get used to that, so when it’s too different, sometimes it takes time for them to accept it, you know?
I find also there’s a certain dominance in the American market, for the lack of a better word, in which movies that look and play even remotely like Valerian are usually called Star Wars or Star Trek. People aren’t familiar with the other ones.
It’s true, yeah.
Does that create, when you’re working on a film like Valerian, a sense of competition? Are you actively trying to make sure you’re not doing what those films do?
No, no, no. Never, ever think about that. You have to do your painting. It doesn’t matter what Picasso or Modigliani have done before. You are doing your painting. It belongs to you. It’s your vision. If you’re using blue and people are saying, “Oh, Picasso used the same blue in one painting?” “Okay, great, [but] that’s MY painting.”
There’s an amount of visual invention in Valerian that kind of blows my mind. There are so many things in this film that I’ve literally never seen in other movies before. There are action sequences that take place in multiple dimensions, there are chase scenes that fly through different planets, but it leaves me wondering… is there anything you COULDN’T do? Was there anything that was impossible to articulate, or too expensive, or is it all on the screen?
It’s all on the screen and there is nothing that I couldn’t do, at all. And I’m going to explain for you why. It’s because I’m not a techno guy, at all. So if I was a techno, I would probably reduce myself because I would say “Oh my god, we will never be able to do that.” Here, I’m totally insane and I have this idea. I put my VFX team with me and I explain what I want and then I leave, and they’re scratching their heads and say “How the fuck are we going to do this thing?” [Laughs.]
But you know what? It’s their problem, not mine, and I don’t care because I’m responsible for the characters, for the emotion, for the pace, the rhythm, the soul, but I’m not responsible for the technical part. So this what I want, and try to make it as best you can. And actually I was blown away by what they had done. Blown away. I would never expect that the pearls and the Mül planet would be so cool and so gorgeous. I’d never expect that the big market would be so easy to understand and funny to watch. I was amazed most of the time. It was beyond what I expected.
Is there ever a moment when you’re making new characters, new environments, where you even say to yourself, “Well, THIS is weird!”
I bring it up because I was watching the movie and the Mül converter is such a bizarre creature around which to hinge an entire story. It eats something and then for all intents and purposes it defecates copies of it. That’s odd.
I know, but you know what? I’ve known the converter since I was ten years old! Because he was in the albums. So for me this pet exists. I know it, since I’m ten, so I never think about… yeah, for me it’s like a dog. You know, a dog exists. Cats exist. And [the Mül converter] exists. So the only problem I had, because I never spoke of it before with the VFX team, is we actually had to answer the question… from which holes the thing is getting out, because I really don’t want to use the asshole, for sure. That’s too weird. So if you watch carefully, the second time you watch the film, it’s totally vague where it comes from.
Yeah, it’s just sort of the bottom of it somewhere.
Yeah. Somewhere. We don’t know. But it’s not pooping out the thing, that’s for sure.
It must be fun to make a movie where an actual line of questioning people have to ask you about is what orifice on the creature are the pearls coming out of?
[Laughs.] For the rest, for example the first alien who comes in the film, their name is the Kortan Dahük. They’re [the] aliens kind of red and blue with big lips, and very peaceful. And then when we saw the first drawing of it four or five years ago, and you work on them, you work on them, you have the actors playing it, and you go on the internet, you’re looking for how they’re going to walk and you I find some footages of camels, the way the camel works, and how the ostrich is walking, and I make a kind of compilation of camels and ostriches to show to the actor, and we have to find how they’re walking… and that was so exciting. It was almost like seeing the birth of someone. And then when, finally, you have all together the actors, the location, the CGI, and then you see the humanity they have in their eyes, it was like… I was so thrilled and so happy to see them coming, you know?
It’s wonderful to see the world of Valerian brought to life and it was wonderful to see the world of The Fifth Element brought to life, but one of the things that was rumored for many years was that there might have been a sequel to The Fifth Element. How close did we ever get to that actually becoming a reality?
No, I never thought about it.
No, never. No, it was a story by itself. So I don’t see… Valerian is totally different because they’re two cops and they are in charge of one mission. So it’s easy, conceptually, to see these two cops in another mission. It’s Starsky and Hutch in space, so you can do as many as you want. In the DNA of the story, the characters, yes, you can do as many as you want because it’s based on a comic book where they have 29 stories. So yes, you can, you know?
On The Fifth Element, you can’t. I don’t even know how I would start if I wanted to do a sequel. What’s interesting is when I started writing The Fifth Element I wrote the film in two parts, part one and part two, so I had two films at the beginning. It was one story of four hours, cut in two. But I guess at the time I came too soon, and no one would have the guts to go for two films right away. They said “Oh, we never know. If the first one doesn’t work it’s going to be worse for the second” and da-da-da. And they obliged me to reduce the story and to do only one.
So The Fifth Element was your two stories combined into one film.
Yeah. And I regret that. I regret that because the entire full four-hour story was great.
What was the cut off point? How far did we get into The Fifth Element before the second film would have begun?
Oh, that’s twenty years ago, so god, I don’t remember. I remember that Corben has to find his dad, who was actually blind, and there’s this nice scene where he has not seen son [in] 25 years but recognizes him by touching him. The last time he saw him he was a kid. No, I remember this scene because it was very good. So, that’s too bad. We won’t have it! [Laughs.]
Maybe you can find another place for it someday. Maybe in a sequel to Valerian.
Yeah, I will find a way.
There are almost 30 different Valerian stories. You started with City of a Thousand Planets. Are there any other favorites, ones you would hope to do in the future?
Oh yeah, yeah. Many of them. I mean, I hope this film will be successful enough so I can do a second one because I really, really want to do a second one. I’m ready. I’ve finished the script already, like a month ago. Even if I’m not sure I will do it, it doesn’t matter, I want to write it. And actually I wrote the third one already, also. I’m in the middle of it. Because I’m just excited! I don’t know if I will do them but that’s okay. [Laughs.]
I hope the movie does really, really well, but regardless I want to read those scripts someday. Or see something.
You know what? If we can’t make the second and third then I will probably make a book, at least. [Laughs.] It’s cheaper.
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Top Photos: STX Entertainment & Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.