The acclaimed filmmaker discusses his life and latest film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
Filmmaker Luc Besson
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Super heroes are singlehandedly saving Hollywood this summer from Wonder Woman to Spider Man, but a new name you may not recognize is hitting theaters this weekend and is brought to you by French filmmaker, Luc Besson. Tonight we’ll journey to his latest visual extravaganza. It’s called “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Legendary filmmaker, Luc Besson, coming up right now.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Long before Luc Besson became one of the world’s foremost action auteurs, he was a young boy transfixed by a comic book series called “Valerian and Laureline”. This weekend, his vision of that graphic novel series hits the big screen with an accomplished troupe of performers and newcomers.
It’s called “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”. Before we start our conversation with Luc, here now a brief journey to the visually stunning world of “Valerian”.
Tavis: First of all, congratulations.
Luc Besson: Thank you [laugh].
Tavis: I say that because when you see a project like this, even if you’re not a filmmaker — obviously, I am not — it’s hard not to have an appreciation for what it must have taken to get this thing done. Because it is so massive on every scale.
Besson: It’s the work of a nant. You know, every day you just have to bring a little piece. If you put your eyes up and you watch the mountain, you die [laugh]. So don’t watch it. Just like do every day a little piece and surround yourself with the best people. Weta, ILM, the best special effect company in the world. 2,000 people, seven years. Then at the end, it looks like something [laugh].
Tavis: With your wife as producer, you can’t go wrong.
Besson: Yeah, that’s true.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh]. I saw this in 2-D. I started mentioning this to you when you came on the set. I saw this in 2-D and I’m anxious to see it again. What’s it like in 3-D?
Besson: It’s amazing. I’m not a big fan usually of 3-D. “Avatar” was amazing in 3-D, but this one, it’s really another level. I was amazed by it, in fact. I was the first moviegoer to watch it in 3-D because they showed me like 10 minutes by 10 minutes, but it’s pretty amazing.
Tavis: As a child reading “Valerian”, what was it about this character that captured and captivated you?
Besson: We have to remind at the time, I’m 10 years old. I’m living at 60 kilometers from Paris in the countryside. When I open my window, I have cows [laugh] and there is one black and white channel. No radio because my stepfather hates music and my only escape is these two pages that I have every Wednesday on the comic book called “Valerian”.
That was my passport to escape. You know, like a guy and the girl in space suits kicking butt to aliens. I’m in, you know? But that was my only way, my only way to get out and dream, in fact.
Tavis: What did that escapism — to use your word, Luc — what did that escapism do for your imagination?
Besson: I think it’s everything. It’s my drug. I never drink in my life, never smoke, never take anything, but I’m dreaming [laugh]. It’s my way to — no one can take your soul, you know. You can live with it.
I have also a very — I have my best friend which is this little Luc, 10 years old, talking to him all the time. I like this boy. He’s a great guy [laugh]. We have a good relationship and, even now if I’m not childish or a child anymore, I really have a particular relation with him. I think I made the film for him.
Tavis: And what did he think of it?
Besson: He say, “Yeah. Good work. I like it.” [laugh].
Tavis: When you were a child reading “Valerian”, did you see — I’m trying to find the right word here. Did you see the humanity in this story that you have brought to life? I must admit, you said earlier you’re not a fan of 3-D and I’m going to be honest with you. This isn’t really my type of movie, but I was just completely blown away when I saw this.
I was blown away not by all the woo-woo-woo. That’s just not me. I was blown away by the humanity in the story. I followed the story and I got caught up in the story that you were telling. As a kid, did you see the humanity in it or were you caught up in all the woo-woo-woo stuff?
Besson: No. I think you feel it. You don’t understand it, but you feel that the food is good. You don’t know why, but there’s lots of talking about oppression and people being, you know, slavery, a lot of things like this.
You don’t quite understand, but you feel this is right. You feel that the Valerian and Laureline are fighting for noble causes and you follow that. It teaches you also in life. I mean, they teach me so many things when I was young.
Tavis: Like what? Like what?
Besson: I remember there is one album where the humans are on the planet and they take all the minerals and everything. And this alien who comes, they said, “No, we just want for hunting, for tour” Yeah, okay, it takes us 10,000 years, but it’s our place. We just come back. We were just hunting in a forest to another planet.“
And the human can’t understand. Because they say, no, we’re here since 800 years. Then when you’re a kid, you say, oh, so who is right? That belongs to who? You think about it and then you like these aliens and you say, no, that’s their land. We should get out. Then Valerian and Laureline help them to get out. Then you feel good. Teach you life.
Tavis: This story shows human beings doing some pretty awful things, but it’s human beings in the end — not to give the story away — who help turn this thing in the right direction. You had to sort of balance out the story line of we humans.
Besson: I think we have to accept it. We invent penicillin and the atomic bomb. We have to accept it. That’s who we are. The yin and the yang, you know. We are black and white. We are like the two and then we have to fight with it. It’s up to us every morning to decide which side we want to be. It’s a fight. Sometimes I want to be mean. I want to say I don’t like my neighbor [laugh].
No, just to learn and accept and work on yourself. It’s very important. You know, I don’t like in the film to put my finger too much on it because otherwise it looks like I give a lesson to people or a thing like this. I learned that with my kid.
I’m going to give you an example, a very funny one. If you said to your kid, “Oh, you know, you must learn music. You should do piano or guitar because it’s important in your life”, they’re going to go, “Oh, I don’t care.”
Then one day with our daughter, I was like pretending working and she comes in and she says, “What is that?” Oh, that’s a piano. “Can I touch it?” Yeah, sure, sure. Then she start. “Can I play?” Yeah, sure, play. And then a month later, “You think I can have a teacher to learn more?” Yeah, sure. I swear if I tell her before, “You have to learn piano”, she will say, “No way.”
Now she’s so good and we just put the piano there. That’s what I tried to do with this film. I bring a lot of things for the kids and they catch it and make their own, you know. It’s much more powerful when they tell you the lesson, you know.
Tavis: How has your curiosity — because it’s hard to read anything about you and not see that you are a curious person — how has your curiosity served your filmmaking?
Besson: It’s endless. It’s my food. I mean, there’s lots of people in the movie business who they take their food from other films. It’s the worst things to do because it’s been digested by somebody else already. My food is in the streets.
You sit down in the park for an hour and you just watch it and it’s the best show ever, the best show ever. I remember the other day, there’s this old lady crossing the park. I was so in pain for her. It took like forever to do like 10 meters.
This jogger passed five times because he was doing, you know, a circle around the park. She was here, she was here. Just this movement of life, like this poor lady takes an hour to get out of the park. The guy was sweating and going around forever. And the tree. You watch a tree and say, “God, it’s 300 years old. I’m 50. I’m a baby.”
He’s watching you like this and you say, “Hi.” You know, you learn from him, like if he wants to go up, he have to put his roots down. I learn from that. I say, “Oh, okay. If I want to go up, I have to stand on my family and my roots and be strong if I want to go up.” You learn everywhere. You don’t need to watch a film to learn. That’s what I mean [laugh].
Tavis: Speaking of not having to watch a film to learn, I read a piece of an interview did with somebody not too long ago. I was struck by your candor, your honesty, in assessing how seriously you take your work, but not yourself.
I was struck by your candor in how you assessed the power of film, but the film isn’t — you’re not scientists, you know, inventing stuff. You’re not doctors saving lives. I was struck by the balance. You seem to be pretty well even-keeled about your work.
Besson: I’m an aspirin. That’s all I can do.
Tavis: An aspirin.
Besson: I can’t save cancer, but I can for two hours, I can make you feel better [laugh]. So I’m a little aspirin. That’s all I am. But I think a film is the art of lying because everything is fake, but you have to tell the truth so much to lie so well, you know [laugh].
Tavis: I feel you, yeah [laugh]. Very nicely put, yeah. You mentioned family. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times in the conversation. I am so curious. You told me a bit about how you were raised and where you were raised. Tell me about your mom and daddy. Tell me about your parents.
Besson: Yeah. There’s one moment where I have both of them in the same time because they divorced after. That was in Greece and I was seven or eight years old. So I have no shoes for at least nine months. I was living rocks, the sun, the sea, and that’s it. No friend, no TV for sure, no internet, nothing. I was never happy as at this moment. It was just perfect.
I have two friends, one octopus. Very nice, super sweet. always the same place I come every day. The octopus, you know, in the rank is number three or four after there’s human and dolphin and fox. I think that the octopus is just right there. It’s pretty intelligent.
If they like you, they don’t glue anymore. You can take them and play with them and they’re like this and they’re very sweet. And a moray eel, a long like six-foot moray eel, very sweet also. They don’t live together. They were not friends, so I have to see one first and the other one after. That was my day [laugh].
Tavis: It’s almost — again, it’s impossible to see your work even in this project, “Valerian”, and not have a grasp, not get a grasp, of your appreciation for animals, for life. Tell me about — you just talked about it a little bit with the octopus story, but tell me about your…
Besson: No, it’s essential because they have something that we lost. You know, I’m a biker sometimes and I have my jacket and sometime I’m in the street and I’m saying, “Oh, excuse me. What time is it?”
The person is like this because, you know, the beard, the jacket, they’re scared and they don’t know me. Why are they scared? And the animals, especially in the sea in fact, when you go to places where they never seen a human, they’re not scared. The enemy is yellow, you’re not yellow, so you’re not an enemy.
So I’ve met people — I mean animals — but I’ve met some of them in the sea and they look at you with a humanity who makes you like feel like a stupid man, you know. I remember this huge shark. He was like probably 15-foot. He was like this. Very strong.
I was like looking on the thing and I see a shadow. I thought it was the boat and I turned and it’s a 15-foot shark. My first reaction is like this. Then he passed just like this and these eyes just looked like me and kind of like, “Oh, you too?” [laugh] You’re by yourself? You only? Then he went and that’s it.
And I felt so stupid. I feel so stupid just to be scared of him because there is not even a millimeter of aggression. He was kind. He was “Just look at me and accept me the way I was.” Even if I was really different than him, he was okay with that, and that’s a lesson.
I mean, I am amazed to see — I mean, the subject of “Valerian” in fact is living together. You know, we start in 1975 with the American and the Russian shaking hands in space that they don’t do so often now [laugh]. Then we see after all the year the people coming out together and doing this big station.
I am amazed sometime to see that just for a question of color or religion or sometimes just the age. You’re too old, you’re too young, you’re a man, you’re a woman. You know, it looks like we always looking for what could be wrong or what could be different.
I have this dream is to see before I’m dying to see the first alien coming on earth because we will feel all like brothers suddenly [laugh]. Suddenly, like they are not from here. They are foreigners and I hope it will unify everyone because we won’t care about the difference we have. This one is different, for sure, so I hope they will save us in a way.
Tavis: Speaking of hope, what gives you hope that we’re headed in that direction? That we’ll make it to that place? Because one could argue — I won’t because I don’t need to with you — but one could argue that the state of the world right now is leaving a lot of people hopeless for a lot of different reasons. What makes you so hopeful we’ll get to that point?
Besson: Two things. Okay, let’s forget the last six months [laugh].
Tavis: I wish we could [laugh]. I wish I could, Luc.
Besson: Let’s forget it. Let’s watch for like 1000 years, 10th century to now. 10 centuries ago, if you’re not the same color or the same region, they just take a hammer, 50 kilos, and they just like kill you. They don’t even talk. Today, took the plane, you can see Christian, Black, Muslim, we live together. We say hi. Oh, sorry, you want my seat? Oh, okay, here, a pillow. You know, we progress.
If we looking on the big scales, you know, for 10 centuries, we went like this. The last six months, we have a bump, a little bit [laugh]. So if we watching the curve, I’m pretty optimistic. I think we’re going the right way. That’s one. The second one is the youth. The youths today, internet, the way they’re living together, they don’t care so much about the social thing, the color of the thing.
You know, if they like you, they like you. They mix much more today. You have low-cost flights. Some kids, they go to Asia, Europe, they come back. I’m very optimistic with the youth because they’re not as much as we are or our parents were. You know, they’re much more okay with all this. They’re okay to live together much more than us.
Tavis: Speaking of the youth, you have two young stars in this film and your fans know that you’ve been pretty good about discovering and breaking these young stars out. What’s your hope for the two in “Valerian”?
Besson: Oh, Dane is a powerful actor since a long time. He was playing in Broadway and he’s the new DiCaprio for me. He is so talented. Cara, when I met her, I was fascinated by her. She was Laureline for sure. I didn’t know if she was a good actress, so I started a couple of tests with her. I tortured her. Let’s be honest.
Tavis: You tortured her [laugh]?
Besson: Yeah, for hours, for hours. I need to know if she has it. And at the end, she left. The agent, called me and she said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “No.” “But she’s crying. She say it was horrible.” I said, “No, she got the part. She’s great.” [laugh]
I think Cara, first, she’s a natural-born actress and she’s a model by [inaudible]. You know, someone met her in the street, said do you want to make pictures? She said, yeah, sure. And she became famous over there, but she’s not in fact for me. She’s really an actress, really.
Tavis: There are going to be comparisons this weekend when this thing hits and everybody goes to see it. There are going to be comparisons because we’re humans and we have to compare it to something to explain to people what we saw. So I suspect we’re going to be comparing it to “Avatar”, as you mentioned earlier. They’re going to be comparing it to “Star Wars”.
Again, in researching — the more I’ve gotten into your work, the more I wanted to learn about you. So in researching you, I found a fascinating conversation you were in once where you talked about your — I’m paraphrasing this — but your respect for the guys before you who’ve done this, your respect for James Cameron, your respect for etc., etc., etc.
As you’ve been watching over the years the technology grow, the opportunity to use technology expand, and watching the good stuff we’ve seen on film, “Star Wars”, etc., etc., was that encouraging for you or discouraging for you?
Besson: No. When I watched “Avatar” the first time, I was in shock. Because my script of “Valerian” was almost ready. I like it. I say, oh, my God, that’s pretty good. I went back home. I throw the script in the garbage [laugh] and I start again.
Tavis: “Avatar” was just that good for you?
Besson: It’s basically ready for the Olympic game and you do vaults. You say, “I will go in four years, all right? Give me four more years.” [laugh] So that was the feeling. Then after a couple of hours, I was just like respecting him so much because I’m so happy that some people are pushing the thing so much and show you the way and basically say, “Kid, okay, come on.”
He was kind enough to invite me on the set of “Avatar”. He gave me a lot of tips. This guy is very generous. He doesn’t want to keep the thing for himself. You know, he’s happy to share and we’re using all this technology that he has in “Avatar” which is even better now.
So all the people in Weta in New Zealand and ILM here in California who work on “Star Wars”, they were all working together and we benefit from all these guys for sure.
Tavis: So if this thing works — I suspect it will, by the way, not that my opinion matters, but you got my vote already — if this thing works, then they’re going to be begging for the next installment, the next installment. Can you already see where this thing is headed?
Besson: Where do I have to sign [laugh]? I would love, and the main reason is these two cops, Valerian and Laureline, it’s “Starsky and Hutch” in space basically.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I used to love “Starsky and Hutch”. I love those guys, yeah.
Besson: Me too, me too. So if you do another episode, if you do another film, it’s another adventure. So you don’t have this repetitive things where you go back to the same place, it’s in New York, it’s still like super power and thing. It’s you can go to a total different direction and a new mission.
And for a director, that’s all you want. I don’t like so much to go to a remake where you repeat yourself. It’s the same story. It’s kind of a little boring to do, in fact. But here, I want to see these two agents again and again and again.
Tavis: Well, thanks for being my aspirin for those two hours. I had a lot of fun. I enjoyed it immensely.
Besson: Thank you.
Tavis: And it’s powerful stuff, so thank you.
Besson: And I want to thank you for one thing.
Tavis: What’s that?
Besson: The thing that you do with Prince a few years ago. It was just like…thank you for that.
Tavis: Well, thank you. I miss him.
Besson: Yes, me too. I miss him sincerely.
Tavis: “Valerian” opens this weekend, as if you didn’t know. It’s been promoted everywhere. I think you’ll have a good time. I did, and let me know what you think about it. Congratulations in advance, sir. Luc Besson, the director of “Valerian”. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.