Does Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets share the same universe as The Fifth Element? Maybe not, but there appears to be plenty of overlap in tone and influence, and Besson seems to not mind if people get the feeling they’re firmly in Fifth Element territory here. Plus there are Easter Eggs. Multiple Easter Eggs.
Fellow Fan Contributor Ryan Aday and I sat down with Besson and Dane DeHaan at Meltdown Comics in LA on a drizzly Saturday to talk about everything from the influence of The Fifth Element, to Besson holding the camera himself while directing, and making a mega-budget movie in the style of an independent.
FANDOM: Valerian is based on a comic-book series that dates all the way back to the 1960s. For a viewer that is not familiar with the stories, would you recommend they try to learn a little or would you prefer they go in blind?
Luc Besson: Both ways are OK, honestly, because it takes 20 minutes to read one comic book. The film is two-plus hours. So there is so much more in the film than in just one comic book. Well, if you do, in one full blast, I would not recommend reading the Ambassador of Shadows, just as the film is based on it. So if you do read one – just read another one. If you’re not sure about what’s going on in the film and so on, you can then read the Ambassador of Shadows. But otherwise, just sit back, relax, and… go to space! I think if you like it – it’s impossible to watch just once. Impossible. There’s so many things in it, aliens everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. You can’t see everything at once.
FANDOM: Dane – Luc has been making films since you were a little kid. What are your favorites and did they encourage you to work with him?
Dane DeHaan: Yeah, totally. I grew up with The Fifth Element for sure, I watched it a lot as a kid. Of course, that was the movie I thought of when he was describing this to me and it’s what gave me the general idea of the aesthetic and the tone of it. But you know, I’ve always loved The Professional also, and I had seen Lucy, but I knew Luc was capable of so many different things. But obviously, The Fifth Element is what excited me about the project.
FANDOM: There’s a wiki for The Fifth Element as we have a lot of fans of the film and they’re interested to know if there are any nods to The Fifth Element in Valerian, maybe a ship, character or prop?
Besson: [Pauses]… There’s like two or three. You have to find it.
FANDOM: Was it your idea, or did the art or some other department try to sneak it in?
Besson: It wasn’t me. At all. From some of the artists who worked on the film who injected it in, and then asked for my permission. They said: “Can we do that?” and I said: “Yeah, yeah, sure.” But you have to find it.
FANDOM: We want to find it…
Besson: The thing is, if you go into the theater, you won’t find it the first time, it’s impossible. You’ll have to wait for the Blu-ray so you can go slow-motion. I’ll tell you what – there is one, more obvious than the others in the first… 20 minutes.
FANDOM: In recent years there have been several expensive projects that have adapted books or comics into sci-fi films. There have been a few success stories, but many also underperformed. How will Valerian reach out and attempt to bridge the gap to the audience outside the book?
Besson: I don’t know. [A long pause, shakes his head]. The only insurance I can give to people is the amount of work and sweat that we put into the film. I started doing storyboards on this five years ago, and chose the designer [Ben Mauro, The Hobbit trilogy] and many others who have done over 10,000 drawings on the film, and the storyboards are 8,000 drawings. We worked with ILM and WETA – this is the first time ever that they have worked together, and there are 2,700 special effects shots, so we did our best, that’s all I can say. You know some people, you know who they are already, are not going to like it, it’s fine. But I think that the ones who are excited, and want to see it, they will be rewarded.
FANDOM: Is it daunting making a movie that costs this much?
Besson: Look, years ago I went to James Cameron’s studio, he was nice enough to invite me on his set [of Avatar], and he gave me a lot of tips – that was my model – just the way he was working, and he gave me a lot of tips, so I went to the king!
FANDOM: Dane, there were a number of iconic actors in this film – John Goodman, Ethan Hawks, Rutger Hauer, etc. I know you’ve been doing this for a while but did any of these guys give you any tips or advice that helped in the process?
DeHaan: Well, Ethan Hawke was there the first week that we shot, and he was just so happy to be there – he was such a fan of Luc’s and fan of The Fifth Element. He just told me to have as much fun as possible – fall in love with your director and have a good time. To not take the whole thing too seriously, because that will help the movie and make it more successful. You know, these kinds of movies people just want to watch people having fun, and it was a huge gift to have him there that first week giving me that advice because it did launch me into that next six months and it ended up being the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie.
Besson: And also on some of these films they have four teams – 2nd, 3rd, 4th units, all working on different stages, and the actor can get a little lost because it’s difficult to get attached, technicians are changing all the time… but we did this film by hand. Which means, there’s one main team, and that’s it. He knows the technician, and me, and that’s it.
DeHaan: And Luc operates the camera. Which is such a unique thing.
FANDOM: Isn’t that against union guidelines?
Besson: How can someone say you’re not allowed to take the camera? I have a lot of respect for technicians, I pay them well, and I always care for them, but let me do my job. So if I want to take the camera, I take the camera.
FANDOM: That’s good for fans to hear, because the image we get sometimes is that the director is 50 feet away, isolated behind a tent of monitors…
DeHaan: And more important because Luc has such a signature aesthetic. Like, there are frames I see in his movies where I know that’s a Luc Besson frame, and no one else is going to get that besides Luc.
Besson: Sometimes on the set, I get the camera, and I grab him into the shot… [they both laugh]
FANDOM: Luc, we see that you have several upcoming films that you’re producing and you’re currently writing for the TV version of Taken. When might be the next time we’ll see you in the director’s chair?
Besson: You are basically asking to a woman who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant, “do you want to have another baby?” [all laughing] Can I deliver this one, please? Just to let it out…
FANDOM: Dane, anything on the horizon for you? Any projects you have lined up?
DeHaan: I’m just really focused on this one too. I just had a baby, so I’m staying home with baby, launch this into the world and see what happens.
The fact that Besson seems unbound here by limitations has to thrill Fifth Element fans in terms of what they’ll get from Valerian. Operatic sequences? Flights of Fancy? Compelling, unseen worlds? Musical sequences? Radical tonal shifts between camp and edge-of-your-seat-action? Over-the-top sequences with scene-hogging villains? Look, when Ethan Hawke is playing a space character named ‘Jolly the Pimp,’ I go. That’s just what I do.
Put simply, the fact that this appears to be such a risky venture is what also makes it so alluring to us fans of sci-fi cinema: an independently financed auteur gets to make his childhood-dream film with a nearly unlimited budget, and all of today’s high-tech tools at his disposal. We definitely came out of the interview believing fans ought to be ‘seeing it on day one’ excited. If all of these elements come together, Valerian certainly possesses the potential to become a universally loved and influential Besson classic.