Luc Besson knows something about wild and colorful science fiction. After all the French filmmaker was the mastermind behind The Fifth Element and its outlandish vision of the future. Now Besson is returning to the screen with his biggest, most ambitious effort yet with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, his adaptation of the Valérian and Laureline comics from creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières. Stepping into the leading roles are Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. Recently, Besson, DeHaan, and Delevingne spoke about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets at a press conference in Los Angeles.
“You cannot start Valerian and say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do it.’ No. There’s lots of competition. You know, Marvel, DC Comics, lots of superheroes,” the French auteur said of the long development process the film went through. “It’s almost a $200 million film. I started ten years ago and I started very slowly. I started with the designers. I selected ten designers in the middle of 2000, and made them work for two years in the dark. They don’t even know the script and they only have contact with me through Skype for a year. Because I wanted creativity without frontiers. I want the weirdest thing they can find out.”
Besson continued, “Then I received more than 6,000 drawings and start my puzzle, and start to think about my two actors because you cannot make this film without this couple. It’s an unusual couple and an unusual hero. He’s obviously not Schwarzenegger. He’s a different kind of hero, maybe more European in a way, more fragile, kind of different. Sometimes he’s even spoiler or pretentious, but I like that. I really love that from the character. She’s the grounded one. Most of the time it’s what we have in a couple. The women are in charge and we pretend that we are. I want to have this flavor. This really tiny story of this real couple in this totally incredible story in space. I want the salt and the sugar in the same story.”
Just when Besson thought he had finally cracked his script for Valerian, an atomic bomb was dropped in theaters and caused Besson to rethink everything he’d worked on to that point. “I wrote the script for many, many months. It’s a true story. I went to see Avatar when my script was almost ready. I see Avatar and I came back home and put my script in the garbage, and I start again. Because Avatar just pushed all the limits. It’s amazing and I wasn’t at the level,” the director candidly said. “Thanks to Jim Cameron my script is much better now than it was. It was really a long labor of work.”
For the stars, taking on Valerian was taking on an extremely physical shoot. “I mean it was a blast,” DeHaan said of vigorous stunt work. “I think Cara like doing stunts more than I do.”
“I live for stunts,” Delevingne coyly added.
“We’d be on wires and she’d be like, ‘LET’S DO IT AGAIN!’ You know, it was fun,” DeHaan continued. “I took sword fighting in school, in acting school, and I’d never thought I’d use that. When I was handed two swords and to fight these two guys who were on stilts was like – sometimes it was like a ballet. There was one sequence where I was just in a room full of blue and the camera was on a cable cam, kinda like when you’re watching a football game or something, and it was like a 30-second shot where I was just running and almost going through an obstacle course. I had no idea what it was going to look like in the end.”
“For me, as Dane said before, I really love doing stunts. Anything I get to learn doing a movie, whether it’s sword work or learning a new skill or trying it, I’m kind of the first one to be like, ‘Sure.’ I’ll kind of dive in head first,” the model turned actress said. “It was important that we feel like two people who could potentially save the world or save the universe. So in a physical sense just doing everything we possibly could to do the best job. Everyone we worked, the stunt coordinators, everyone was so incredible. I really would’ve done it forever.”
The director was there to heap praise upon his cast. “Every morning they went one hour in the gym. On the set, they’d have a little plastic box with their lunch. The two of them in their space suits with these little boxes eating on the set,” he said with a chuckle. Then the director looked over to his stars and said with immense sincerity, “You were very great. Thank you very much.”
Also in the cast is pop star Rhianna, who appears a shape-shifting alien in a wild sequence that pays homage to Cabaret. “In my head I said, ‘Who would be the best person for the part?’ And my first answer was Rhianna,” Besson said of casting the music star. “I don’t even know if it was realistic or not, it was just my idea, my dream. And you don’t know until you ask. I was lucky because at this period she really wants to play. She really wants to try to be an actress and be in movies, so I was lucky. I arrived at the perfect time, and she was exceptional.”
Besson has a level of intimacy with the story of Valerian. “The thing is I’ve known the comics since I was ten years old, and there are 29 volumes. I really know Valerian and Lauraline very well, so it was more for me I have a picture of who I want and check who could fit,” he said of casting his two leads. “It was pretty easy. When I saw them for the first time, the first hour of conversation, I knew it was them. One thing that was very important was the timbre of the voice. He has the voice Valerian for sure. She was, Lauraline, she had to work for a couple of months on her accent because she sounds so British.”
Despite all that confidence in his cast, Besson did have one certain fear. “My only fear was putting them together,” the director said candidly. “Sometimes you have one is perfect, the other one is perfect, and you put them together and it doesn’t match. So I tried to organize that they, because I wanted to be there the first time they met, and I organized my calendar, and then she called me and said, ‘Oh, I saw Dane last night.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I went to a meeting and he was there.’ And then he called me. I was not there when they met and it was so frustrating. I had to wait a month to finally get them together and honestly it takes ten seconds. In ten seconds you can tell if they match or not. And I was like so happy I tried not to show it too much.”
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in theaters everywhere Friday, July 21.