Director Luc Besson Tests the Outer Limits With His New Film, Sci-Fi Epic Valerian

Besson’s origin story doesn’t start with film. He grew up with a weekly habit familiar to nerds worldwide: On Wednesdays, he went to buy comics. French bandes dessinées, though, weren’t like US comics. They eschewed primary-colored spandex-clad do-gooders in favor of science fiction, weirdness, and sex.

He didn’t go to film school. Besson talked himself into apprentice-level gigs on-set, carrying cables and guarding cameras. His second film, Subway, was an homage to musicals and gangster movies and also to 1980s Paris, and it elevated Besson into an emerging cohort of young French directors. Unlike New Wave avant-­guardians like Godard and Truffaut, with their broody, art-house mannerisms, Besson and his contemporaries valued things like “plot” and “action.” American stuff.

The French critics, they did not much care for this. They called it the “cinéma du look,” damning with faint English. Yet Besson was committed to fight scenes among urban ruins, shot in wide-open Cinema­scope. He didn’t seem like an auteur. In fact, he described himself instead as a metteur en scène—literally a stage director. To me, at Cité du Cinéma, Besson describes himself as “an artisan.”

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When Besson was developing The Fifth Element, he turned to bandes dessinées creators for production-design help. Jean Giraud, who under the pen name Moebius had ruled ’70s sci-fi comics in Europe, illustrated characters. And for Bruce Willis’ flying taxicab—a full-size version of which sits in Cité du Cinéma’s cathedral-like lobby—Besson turned to Jean-Claude Mézières, cocreator of Valérian et Laureline. According to Besson, adapting Valerian was Mézières’ idea. “I said, ‘We cannot do Valerian,’” Besson says. “‘There’s too many aliens and robots and spaceships. It’s impossible.’”

Besson had a point. The series follows the titular characters, far-future space cops who get around in a time-­traveling flying saucer. The first issue sends them back in time to fight a mad scientist under a flooded, post­apocalyptic Manhattan. Before long it’s off to a hollow planet, where men wage war against women in galleon-like airships. (Laureline spends a lot of time in a metal bikini in this one.) So yeah, good luck filming all that.

Besson and his longtime producer (and wife) Virginie Besson-Silla bought the rights anyway, thinking conditions might change. And they did: Avatar came out. Big enough computers fueled by large enough bank accounts could make anything look real. “Suddenly, only imagination became the limit,” Besson says.

Imagination wasn’t a scarce resource for Besson. In a binder that grew to hundreds of pages, he wrote biographies for Valerian and Laureline and dozens of secondary characters. He described the centuries-long history of Alpha, a 12-mile-wide space station that’s home to 17 million, most of them aliens. He put out a call to designers all over the world, seeking ideas for creatures and ultimately ended up with 3,500 submissions. “So when the actors arrived, they had a package with all that. That’s their homework,” Besson says. “Honestly, none of this information will ever be used in the film. But when you tell them, ‘You’re in headquarters on Alpha,’ they know exactly what it means.”

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