Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
I wanted creativity without frontier.
Visionary director Luc Besson is known for such groundbreaking cinema like LA FEMME NIKKITA, THE PROFESSIONAL and THE FIFTH ELEMENT. His latest, an adaptation of the French comic book VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, is just entertaining as it is dazzling and disarming. You’ll get a high off all the superb spectacle.
In the film, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Agent Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked to get to the bottom of a mystery involving the genocide of an entire race – and a possible military cover up. Their perilous quest lands them Alpha, the titular city and home to a multitude of cultures. Together they must navigate through the city’s many layers to unravel the case – and save the universe.
Besson, who dedicated the film to his father, was first introduced to the comic by his father. However, taking this from page-to-screen proved difficult. Getting this off the ground was a major effort. At the film’s recent press conference, he explained that it all starts very slowly with the designers, who were kept in the dark in the beginning.
I selected ten designers in the middle of 2000. They don’t even know the script. They only have contact with me once a week through Skype for a year. I wanted creativity without frontier. I wanted them to come back with the weirdest thing they can find out.
It was upon seeing James Cameron’s AVATAR that Besson decided to trash the script he’d worked months on, in favor of something he felt was stronger.
My script was almost ready and I went to see AVATAR. I put my script in the garbage and I started again. AVATAR pushes all the limits and it was amazing. I was not at that level. If you have to run with Zeus and Bolt, I don’t mind to be second, but I want to be second. I don’t want to be nine.
Besson received more than 6,000 drawings in return. From there, he was able to start thinking about casting the space opera.
It’s an unusual couple and an unusual hero. [Valerian]’s obviously not Schwarzenegger. He’s a different kind of a hero, maybe a little bit more European in a way – more fragile. I love that. [Laureline] is the granted one. I need someone who is most of the time what we have in a couple. I really want to have this flavor – this little tiny story of this real couple in a totally incredible amazing story in space. I want the salt and the sugar in the same story.
Because VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is so visual, and with not many of the sets built practically, the actors relied on Besson’s pre-visualization videos to show them. DeHaan said,
He made pre-viz’s for things in a way I’d actually never seen anyone do. He took local Parisian students from the cinema school. He shot the sequence, shot-by-shot, with them acting it out with barely any special effects just to explain to us how the sequence was going to work. Because until I saw it, he could explain it to me over and over, many times, and I still didn’t understand. It was a complicated sequence to explain, but once you saw it, it was brought to life. I really relied on those pre-viz’s.
To communicate his precise vision, Besson color-coated the worlds in order to distinguish the many levels of certain scenes. Perhaps the most intricate involves the mission set at the Big Market, an multileveled invisible desert mall – a scene that took 7 weeks to shoot. He explained,
I made a meeting with everyone with special effects and the entire team to explain Big Market. The explanation took two hours. At the end of the two hours, it was 150 people like this [imitates dumbfounded looks] and I could see that no one understands. That’s where I decided to take all the students from the cinema school – 60 students. We put the storyboards on the wall. We rented the studio for three weeks and we shot every shot.
There’s three visions in the film: the desert vision, the helmet vision and the merchant vision. When we finished the editing, the first was slightly yellow, the second one was slightly blue and the third was slightly red. When you watch the pre-viz, you know exactly which vision. Two months later, it helps everyone to understand.
DeHaan was more than game to do the film’s intense stunt work.
There was one sequence and we were in a room full of blue. The camera was on a cable cam, like when you’re watching a football game. It was a 30 second shot where I’m running and going through an obstacle course and I had no idea what it was going to look like in the end. I was busting over things, [going] up and down a ladder. It’s exhausting, but fun. The physical challenge of this movie was something I enjoyed and trained every day to make sure I was ready to do it.
Delevingne, too, relished the opportunity to pick up new skills.
Anything that I get to learn during the movie, whether that be sword work, or where it’s learning a new skill, I’m the first one to dive in headfirst to it. It was important to feel like we were two people that could potentially save the world and save the universe. I would’ve done it forever. It really was so much fun.
Some of DeHaan’s college training came into play when helping bring the scene in Alpha’s restricted area to life.
I took sword fighting in acting school and I never thought I would use that. When I was handed two swords and got to fight with these guys on stilts, it was a blast.
DeHaan’s already existing skillset intimidated Delevingne slightly.
You were so modest about it because you would say, ‘Yeah. I’ve done this a few times,’ and then pick up these double swords and be spinning them around, kinda yawning at the same time.
The jobs also entailed a bit of sacrifice on the actors’ parts in order to be in tip-top shape. Their challenge? Not eating delicious, tantalizing French cuisine. Delevingne elucidated,
Luc would sit at his table eating his beautiful French baguette – this amazing bread with cheese. Filming in Paris is an incredible opportunity, but the food is so good. When you only have to eat a piece of fish with the vegetables, that was the biggest challenge – just saying “no” to the food.
Besson was very appreciative of their dedication.
Every morning, they went for one hour at the gym and on the set, they had their little plastic boxes with the lunch. The two of them in spacesuits with the little box, eating, they were very brave. Thank you so much.
Even though VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is a popcorn movie, there is a deeper message there – one that deals with immigration, cultural diversity and ecology. Besson knew exactly how to instill the profundity in a easily digestible manner.
I can’t just make a film like a cheeseburger. I’m not interested. I need some weight. I need to talk about [a race] who get wiped out at the beginning of the film – it’s a mistake, but who’s going to pay when society doesn’t want to pay? That’s what we have today. These people say they can forgive, but how can we forget? If I do that seriously, it’s going to be very depressing and no one would go see the film. I love to talk about all these things – talk about ecology and immigration – with a little smile and having fun at the same time. At the end of the day, you watch the film and there’s something left – especially for the kids. I love to talk to the kids like this. If you talk to them straight, it doesn’t work. Maybe this way we elevate the consciousness of the young.
The long road Besson’s labor of love took to make it to the big screen was worth it in the end. He’s aware that the rewards were because of the dedicated work that was put in.
It was a long labor of work, every day. That’s the only way you can win and have, at the end, something that looks like a piece of art and not something that looks like another film. It’s made by hand, really, with a lot of love.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS opens on July 21.