Exclusive: An interview with Lucy director Luc Besson
The French filmmaking king talks Lucy, The Fifth Element, The Professional and more.
With Lucy, French director/writer/producer Luc Besson has directed his first all-out sci-fi film since 1997’s cult classic, The Fifth Element. Scarlett Johansson stars as the title character, a young American woman living in Taiwan who is forced by a local drug cartel to become a mule. But when the powerful drug she is carrying in her body leaks into her system, it allows her to begin using more than the standard 10 percent of our brain capacity that humans use, turning her into a new form of superbeing and possibly the next step in the evolution of our species.
If Lucy sounds heady and cerebral, don’t worry: this is also a Luc Besson film, which means there is plenty of action, gunplay, offbeat characters and the decidedly unique sensibility that permeates all the man’s movies, whether it’s The Professional (Leon), The Fifth Element, the Transporter series or the Taken franchise (he has produced and written the latter two). Besson’s distinct visual touches and highly kinetic style are very much evident in Lucy. Den of Geek got on the phone with France’s reigning genre film mastermind to talk about the philosophical background of Lucy, changing Scarlett Johansson into a superbeing, and whether he’ll ever tackle sequels to two of his most popular movies.
Den of Geek: I read that you’d originally had the idea for Lucy about ten years ago, so I was curious what initially inspired that idea back then and why it stuck with you all this time.
Luc Besson: In fact 10 years ago I was promoting a film in a town and the mayor threw a dinner. They put a girl next to me and I thought it was the niece of the mayor, who wanted to be an actress. And I said, "What are you doing?" And she said, "I’m a professor and I’m studying nuclear cells that get cancer." So I was really not expecting at all to be next to a person like this. And then we started to talk for hours and I got very excited about what I learned. And then I started to read a couple of books and a couple of years later I met this professor who works on the brain. We became friends and I became a founder of an institute that does research about the brain. So I swam in this environment for a couple of years and I have this feeling that I needed to know more really about what’s going on before we even start to write the script.
I started to write the script two, three years ago and I went very slowly. I guess I was not using 10 percent (of my brain) but probably less, so it took me a while. I didn’t want to mess up the thing. The brain is very important. You can’t joke around. But at the same time I wanted to do an entertaining film. I didn't want to do a documentary. So I tried to mix up the two to make a thriller with philosophical content. That was the idea: let’s see if we can reach both at the same time in the same film.
Was it a challenge to marry this sort of very cerebral and philosophical concept to the format of an action film?
It’s very difficult, in fact, because you’re on the edge all the time. You can’t be goofy every second or too serious because people say okay, you know, forget it, it’s too much. So you just have to find the right balance. There are a couple of things in the structure of the script that are meant to keep you awake and alert all the time and I was counting on these elements. For example, when you have your main actress who after 25 minutes says, "I will probably die in 24 hours but I have to do something," it’s very intriguing. What do you mean she’s gonna die? Why do you tell me now she’s gonna die? Is she gonna really die? It’s not tricks but it’s an element that I use for a different kind of suspense to keep the people on the edge and to structure also the purpose of the film. I tried to put the moviegoer on the edge at the beginning so that anything can happen. It’s a way of prepping the audience for the end because the end is –- if you just see the end by itself it’s pretty unbelievable.
Were there any progressions or advancements in the research that was out there and even maybe some research that your own institute did that you incorporated into the script as it evolved?
I was not at this level of knowledge. They gave me information that was very new, but I tried to be around the basic things. There are a lot of elements that we know for sure that were, for me, very interesting. For me, there were four big pieces of what Lucy could eventually do. The first one is the control of yourself. The second one, the control of others. The third is the control of matter. And the fourth is the control of time. And when I presented this to a professor, this professor with a smile told me that it was fake but it’s okay (laughs). They were kind of skeptical because it was not stupid, you know, there is a kind of logic to it, and basically they were in agreement on the first three, control of yourself first and control of others and control of matter. They said that’s definitely logical.
How did you come up with the visualization of the transformations that happen to Lucy and her brain?
I worked very early on with ILM and I was very happy with them. They put together a bunch of artists and we worked a little differently than usual. I basically gave them the subject and I let them create. I let them come back to me with crazy ideas. It was very free, you know. We said, come back with everything you want. Come back with crazy stuff, that’s okay. You’re free. No pattern to follow or no guidance or things like this. We did that for a month or two just to let their minds be totally free. And some of the stuff was really crazy and totally out of purpose. But there was a bunch of things that were very much in the tone of the film, which I kept. It was a very nice group to work with.
The biggest work we did was with Scarlett about being credible. And when the main actress is –- when all the protagonists are credible and they’re right there, you are in the right place to believe everything. And if she was not playing it so well then it would be difficult to believe.
What made her right to play the role?
You know, the only moment for a director to meet with actors and actresses is between films (laughs), over lunch or tea. I met her and a couple of other actresses. But Scarlett right away was very serious about it and she asked me lots of questions. She read the script and called back: "I like it. I want to do it. Can we meet?" And then she bombarded me with questions for five hours. That’s exactly the type of actress I need for this film -- someone who is not just a pleasure to meet, but is all about the work to do and the character and why this line and why this word. She was very precise and very demanding and I liked that.
You’re constantly writing and producing films that you don't direct. What makes you decide that you want to direct a particular project?
When I have the feeling that another director will miss it (laughs). On this one, because I met all these professors for a long time, I felt like I could bring something more maybe. I felt useful on the film. I need to feel useful. I need to feel that I can bring something more. If I feel that another director can make it even better than me, I’d rather not do it and give it to him, you know.
What attracts you to the sci-fi genre? You've come back to it a few times.
I've always worked with sci-fi since my first film. So it’s never very far. But I like going from Fifth Element to Joan of Arc and going from The Family to Lucy. So I like that. But what attracts me also very much as a director is the cast. To have Scarlett, who I really like -- I’ve seen her on Broadway in her play. I’ve been there twice. I love Morgan Freeman. Choi Min-sik is a genius. Amr Waked is a great Egyptian actor. For a director to have this mix of characters coming from everywhere around the world, it’s so exciting, so exciting.
I read that you might direct a science fiction trilogy next. Is that the case?
I read that too (laughs). I don’t know where it comes from. It’s always a problem. But no, I don’t even know what it refers to. What I did say, I think, a couple of months ago was that when I did The Fifth Element, the special effects were really painful, almost prehistoric when I did it. And the year after that, everything became digital and then you can shoot whatever you want. And then you can do Avatar or whatever. I was very frustrated by that and I always say that one day I would love to avenge that (laughs) and make a sci-fi film with the tools that we have today. That would be very exciting. So yeah, it’s something I would love to do but there is nothing special in the air.
Would you be interested in returning to the universe of The Fifth Element and telling a different story there?
Yeah, yeah. I love that. I love the fantasy and it’s so enjoyable and so funny and fresh. You can reinvent everything and yeah, it’s very enjoyable.
Has anything come to mind for that yet?
There are a couple of things but I'm probably writing about 10 to 12 scripts at the same time so nothing special, you know.
What about returning to the world of Mathilda from Leon/The Professional and following her as an adult?
The thing is, if I had a good idea I would have made it a long time ago. But I never found an idea that satisfied me enough. That’s the problem. Now Natalie is older, she’s a mother, she had kids, it’s probably too late at least to do it with her.
Well she’s moving to Paris so that might be very convenient actually for you two to get together.
Yeah, it would be even more convenient if she was 19 years old.
I also understand that Taken 3 is nearing completion.
It finished three days ago. The first two films were the same story in two parts. The third one, we had to come up with something good, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. And we found something that I really like so we did it. But no one is taken. The dog is not taken (laughs).
What do you want people to take away from Lucy?
First if they come in, thank you. That’s the first thing. And if they get out I just hope they’re gonna run to the library and buy some books (laughs), because they say "F**k, I want to know more." I like when you get out of a film and it stays with you and you ask questions and you want to talk about it because you don’t have all the answers. I love that. I love this feeling. I hate when you get out of the theater and the first thing is, "Where are we gonna eat?"
Lucy is out in theaters this Friday, July 25.