La Homme Besson
AN INTERVIEW WITH LUC BESSON
For devoted fans of French director Luc Besson—the man behind such international blockbusters as La Femme Nikita, Leon the Professional, and The Fifth Element, these days are bittersweet indeed. On the one hand, Besson has returned to the director’s chair for the first time since 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan Of Arc with not one, but two new films. The filmmaker has recently released Arthur and the Invisibles, a cheerfully goofy animated fantasy (based on a pair of children’s books written by the director) in which a young boy (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore) travels to the land of the Minimoys and joins forces with the beautiful Princess Selenia (voiced by Madonna) in order to defeat the vile Maltazard (David Bowie) and uncover some rubies that will help his grandmother (Mia Farrow) save the family farm. After this, Angel-A, a low-budget romantic fantasy that Besson shot largely in secret in Paris, will make its American debut later this month at Sundance in advance of a planned March opening.
Visiting New York in order to attend the American premiere of Arthur and the Invisibles, Besson got on the phone to talk about the challenges of going from live-action filmmaking to animation, his rumored retirement, and his die-hard passion for moviemaking.
Peter Sobczynski: When it was announced that you were going to be doing Arthur and the Invisibles as your new project, it seemed strange that someone famous for doing these large-scale action films would turn to doing something aimed at a much younger audience.
Luc Besson: I started making films when I was 20-years-old, and when you are young, you want to kick people. You want to exist. You want to push people and say, “Get out of my way—I need to express myself!” You are like a little fighter when you start. This was especially true in the 1980’s when French society was very bourgeois; I felt that I had to exist and push all the rules in order to start. Now it is thirty years later, and you get older, and the world is more and more difficult. You can see a lot of pain in the world, and you find yourself turning to the younger generation now. First, you want to apologize for the state in which you’ve left the planet and because the examples we have given them are not very good—we are basically killing each other for money and power and we are destroying the planet. I am more sensitive to that, and it is true that I want to talk to them and give them a little more love and humanity to give them a better sense. Kids between five and ten are building themselves by looking for the truth—if you talk to them, you have to be very careful with what you say.
PS: Most of your films deal with children—either literal ones such as Mathilda in Leon, or metaphorical ones such as Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element—whose adventures mark the passage from the relative innocence of childhood to the often harsh and violent reality of the adult world.
LB: For me, those films were all about the period of adolescence, and this is the first time I have really talked to kids. There are three big periods in our lives—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—and most of the films that I have done have talked about adolescence. Angel-A, which is the last one, is probably my first one for adults, and Arthur is the first one for kids. Maybe I had the feeling that I was repeating myself too much in talking about adolescence, and I needed to talk about other periods.
PS: Could you discuss the genesis of Arthur and the Invisibles?
LB: The first signal came from Patrice Garcia, who worked with me on The Fifth Element as one of the main designers. We became friends, and he came to me during the editing of Joan of Arc with one drawing of a Minimoy seated on a leaf. I was fascinated with the drawing and with the character because you could use this character to say anything you want about nature and childhood. I felt that it was the perfect messenger that I was waiting for to express myself on a lot of things. As you mentioned, my previous films were more violent, and I couldn’t talk about that. That was how it started—with him and his drawing. He wanted to do a short animated film for television, and I convinced him that this character was powerful enough for an entire feature film. We started on this, and a friend of mine—a producer named Emmanuel Prevost—joined the team. The fourth musketeer was Pierre Buffin, who was from BUF and could take care of the 3-D animation. He did that, Patrice took care of the 2-D and creating the characters, and I took care of the film.
PS: Obviously, making an animated feature film is much different than making one that is live-action. Did you have any difficulty in adjusting to these new demands?
LB: Half of it was stuff that I knew. The script was something that I knew, obviously, and the storyboards I knew. Then I filmed the live-action scenes with Mia Farrow and Freddie Highmore, and this was something that I knew. At the beginning, it was very tough for me. [The computer animators] wouldn’t even say “Hi” to me—they were a bunch of nerds with a mouse in their hands. It was tough for me because I had to learn to be patient. I had to learn to spend two to three hours every morning in the room giving my advice and comments and come back the next day and do it again. For the first two-and-a-half years, I didn’t see one frame, and we had already spent over $30 million. That was very hard for me because everyone around me was saying “Luc, are you sure you know what you are doing?”, and I had to say, “Yes, of course!” when I was really feeling totally depressed. One day, after two-and-a-half years, they finally showed me eight seconds of Arthur walking, talking, and smiling, and I had tears in my eyes because it was real and it worked! After that, they just had to do 2000 more shots, and that would be it.
PS: Can you talk a little about the casting of the main voices for the English-language version of the film?
LB: The first rule in casting voices is that you have to find a good voice—a perfect voice—to play the part. That is the thing. I started with Snoop Dogg because I was inspired by him for the role of Max. I went to see him, and he said yes right away. I actually filmed him because no one else can move like him. I went to LA with my camera, and he played the part—he is the only one who actually played his part. With Madonna, I recorded her three years ago before doing the animation. That was new because you do the exact opposite for the rest. I worked with her in a studio for three or four days to get the voice. I had asked her to play Selenia, who is a young princess about ten or 12 years old, and I wanted her to really play the character. Then the young actress who played Selenia had to play with an audio playback—she had the voice of Madonna and had to act in a way so that she followed all of her intonations. With David [Bowie], it was the same thing—he did his voice and then the actor who played him had to follow all the little movements in David’s voice. That was new because usually you do the exact opposite—you do the character and then Madonna would have to follow what was on the screen.
PS: You have written and/or produced a slew of films in the last few years—the Transporter films, Kiss of the Dragon, District B-13, and Bandidas, to name just a few—but Arthur and the Invisibles and Angel-A are the first ones that you have actually directed since The Messenger back in 1999. Had you planned on taking such a long break from directing, or was the gap simply the result of Arthur and the Invisibles taking so long to make it to the screen?
LB: Patrice Garcia came to me with that drawing when I was in the editing room of The Messenger, and I never stopped. I know that people think that I was on the beach for five years, but in fact, I started Arthur before that film was even released. That was a very long process, and it is why people think that I disappeared for a couple of years, but I was really just working on the film. That was so long, even for me, that after three years, I decided to do Angel-A.
PS: Years ago, when you were first starting out, you proclaimed at the time that you planned on only directing ten feature films because you feared running out of things to say as a filmmaker. With this film and Angel-A, you have now reached that goal of ten features. Are you still planning on making good on your vow, and if so, is that limited to just directing or are you going to stop writing and producing films as well?
LB: I don’t know. I love the moviemaking field—I love to write and produce, and I don’t want to disappear. What I am saying is that I feel full and happy and very lucky in a way, because I got to make ten films, and I never expected that I would be able to do that in my career. I feel a little empty and tired after 30 years of working in this business, and I am not sure that I will have the energy to start a new project feeling fresh and brand-new. It is difficult for me to consider film in any other way—just taking a big check and making a big action film. I have too much respect for my films and for the audience, and I just can’t do that. If I feel that I can’t bring anything more or anything new—I don’t want to repeat myself—then I’d rather see that as a signal to stop.