“Thank you for supporting the movie,” Luc Besson says as I’m walking out of his suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. “We need the help.” Not thinking about it, I respond, “I know,” like some kind of shitty film critic Han Solo and immediately regret it.
When ad campaigns call Besson a “visionary director,” they actually mean it. His filmography is full of bold stylistic experiments, odd music cues, and performances that straddle the line between operatic and fully camp. That doesn’t always translate to box office success. His last directorial effort, Lucy, was a big global hit, but Besson’s right about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. He needs the help.
Reviews have been harsh. Even the positive ones — like mine — have taken issue with the film’s wild, unrestrained tone and stylized dialogue. This is the kind of movie that screams “cult classic,” in the way a picture like Buckaroo Banzai did in the 1980s. In our wide-ranging chat, we talk about his nostalgia, his interest in modern gender dynamics, what was actually too weird for the film, how video games ruin creativity, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Take me back to the moment when you bought your first Valerian and Laureline comic.
I don’t remember. At the time it was in a little comic book called Pilote that you have every Wednesday. You had two pages of Valerian on Wednesday. That’s how I discovered it. Just to remind you at the time, there’s only one channel on TV, in black and white. There’s no internet. There’s not even Walkmen. So if you want to listen to music, you have to stay home. No video games, for sure. So, this comic book, this Pilote thing, every Wednesday, was my only escape — my only access to worlds other than mine. I was not even living in Paris. I was living 40 kilometers from Paris, in the countryside. It was essential. When, suddenly, I discover this cute couple, flying in space and time, kicking ass on aliens. She was like a bomb. That was my only escape.
It does seem like in that period, '60s and '70s, there were comics anthologies like 2000 AD in England, where Judge Dredd came from and all that stuff. Is there something missing from our culture because we have so much to look at and consume, and a lot of it is derivative? Whereas you go back to the '60s and '70s, these comic books with these worlds that are really crazy come down from the sky and show you something you couldn’t see.
Yeah, and I think also I come from a very modest family and I didn’t have so many toys. Just a couple of things. In a way, your imagination is building. What you don’t have, you create it. I remember, in Greece when I was young, I’d take a stone and a piece of wood and then for a few hours it was the Romans, then a few hours later, it was Cowboys-and-Indians. Then, a few hours later, I was in space with the same rock. It was very practical with this rock. You could do whatever you want. The imagination did its job.
It’s probably at this time that the muscle — imagination is a muscle — developed so much. After, I’m flying much easier when I’ve grown up. Rather than today, when the kids have 200 channels and they have Netflix, plus the [PS4], plus everything. But everything is pre-eaten by others. When they play video games, they follow someone who created the video game. It’s not very imaginative. So, they lost that a little bit. Most of these kids, you have to wait five more years so they can get rid of it and create something new.
On the topic of creativity, this is an adaptation of a comic book series, but you’re known for your aesthetic and for it being very singular and very specific to you. How much of yourself did you put into this and what was the challenge of adapting this based on the aesthetics of the comic, while also being a Luc Besson movie and having your stamp?
It doesn’t change so much. You have to cook dinner for friends and the adaptation is that your fridge is full. You still have to cook, but at least the fridge is full. You don’t have to go to the supermarket to buy stuff. But at the end of the day, you associate yourself with a bunch of creators and you guide them, but they are the ones who create the worlds. You are the captain and you say, “This goes in the film. That’s too weird. Go to the hospital.” But they are the creative people. I bring a couple of ideas too. We mix everything. At the end, I say “It’s in. It’s out.” There’s a bunch of creators who work on the film who are amazing, so I have all the food coming from [comic creator Jean-Claude] Mézières, then I have all the food coming from them. There were characters coming from Valerian that we adapted.
For example, Bubble [Rihanna’s character] is in the comic book, but very, very small and doesn’t look like this at all and doesn’t have the same part. So, the base exists and then we glue another idea here. You need time for that. That’s why the film took so long. You can’t build this kind of thing in six months, because the studio says “Oh, the opening date is the 21st of July.” You start working and you know it’s a five-year run before you start to prep. It’s the only way to do it.
Give me an example of something that was too weird from the comic that you considered putting in the film, but you said, “People are going to be turned off by that.”
There were a couple aliens where [mimes turning a comic book around]. You’re turning the drawings and you don’t even know which side is the guy. There were concepts that were just too weird. I remember this space suit — pieces of it were disconnected. It was like plates — transparent and depending on what you were doing, the plates were changing. It was too complicated to explain. The space suit was a story by itself. Some stuff was great, creatively, but too weird. You have to choose.
I know time travel was part of the comic series, but there isn’t time travel in this. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, you want to be familiar with Laureline and Valerian first. [The film] all happens in one day. At the beginning, she says you missed my birthday. At the end, he says “happy birthday.” It’s 24 hours. It’s pretty heavy for one day. If we do a next film, that was Monday. Tuesday, maybe they’ll go in the past. I think it was important to establish [space station] Alpha. It was born in 1975. We know kind of the world now. Now, we’re familiar. Now we can see another crazy adventure in the past or something.
One thing I noticed about the comic book, which translates to the film, too, is the relationship between the protagonists is different than what you’d expect. Valerian gets the title of the movie and all that stuff, but Laureline is the real hero. She’s the one who makes the decision to do the right thing instead of what she’s been ordered to do.
That female emphasis seems like a through-line in French comic books, at least in something like Barbarella. In American comics, you get the straight-laced white guy. Was that important to you — that it was a female hero?
The couple, to me, is a reflection of the society today. The man has the title. He’s in charge. He’s overpaid. He’s lying. He’s pretentious. In the society today, the one ruling the house is the woman. I wanted this couple to be the same. Valerian says “I’m the hero of the film!” The girls says, “Sure…” because she knows it’s her. I love that. It’s too late now to have the superhero full of muscles and pretending he knows everything. That he’s responsible for the morality of everything.
That’s what I loved about it. I wanted to show the modern hero of today. They’re pretentious. They’re lying. They can cheat. But in one moment, if he needs to take two swords to defend his wife, he’ll die for her. That’s the modern hero for me today. They’re not perfect. They still have a sense of morality and dignity.
I want to show the switch in society today. Men are overrated. They’re overrated, honestly. Look at your president.
That still shocks me, for sure. Talking about Valerian and the representation of men as being overstuffed and overconfident, the casting is interesting. You didn’t cast a traditional, square-jawed, big guy. In Fifth Element, you’ve got Bruce Willis, who is the prototypical male action hero. Dane DeHaan plays villains in a lot of movies.
I’ll just remind you that [Corbin Dallas] is a cab driver. He lost his wife. She left. She was his best friend. He’s a loser in a lot of ways. He’s not Schwarzenegger, hasta-la-vista-baby, I’m the king.
He’s on the outs.
Yeah. He has skills, because he was in the army, but he can’t save the world. He’s already between. It’s really like the big, super classical, fat American hero; Bruce in the middle; and then Dane is here. Bruce was on the way.
What was it about Dane that said to you that he was going to be your quirky hero? Playing villains seemed to be his trajectory.
I think he got it right away in the script. He loved that. He loved not playing the classical '80s superhero. He’s much more complex. I like that sometimes we don’t like him, because 10 minutes later, he’s fighting 200-kilo monsters with swords. It’s the same guy.
This is a movie that really is hopeful and has a firm, clear morality to it. Doing the right thing is important. Multiculturalism is important. Do you think that’s missing in action movies today? Star Trek had it. Star Wars had it. Valerian and Laureline certainly had it as a comic book. Do you want to see more of that in films going forward?
I think that, on the left we have films with content and the right we have films like cheeseburgers. I think it’s wrong. I think we can easily have films that are fun, but have content also. Even if you’re not serious about the content and not pushing your finger on it and saying, ‘This is important,” just put some message here and there.
The most important thing is the kids. Today, they need this kind of message. They’re playing video games and think they’re the king because they kill 200 people in one minute. That’s not a nice way of saying you’re king. The politicians around the world and the big companies, you see how they’re lying and just do things for money. They’re able to do evil things, like Volkswagon lying to millions of people by saying they’re ecologic, while they’re polluting twice as much. These guys should be in jail. In jail.
We see black people, Mexican people in jail because they stole a cheeseburger. These guys lie for money and they’re alive. They’re there. It’s important to put little messages in for the young audience, because that’s a way to teach them the morality, the dignity, because the heroes in the films they love are like this. If you do it too strongly, they reject it. You have to put it on the table. It’s like my kids. I never come and say, “Would you like to play piano? Can you imagine you as a pianist?” Never say that. Come home and say, “Oh, what is that? That’s a piano.”
Then they get curious.
And they ask, “Can I open it?” “Yeah, sure, sure.” “Oh my God, can I play?” “Sure.” Let them do it. Maybe they catch it, maybe not. My girl, 15-years-old, is so good on piano now. One day, she said, “I’d love to learn more. Do you have a teacher?”
They gotta figure it out.