For his upcoming film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” “Lucy” and “The Fifth Element” director Luc Besson looked to the comic books of his youth.
Created in 1967 by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, “Valerian and Laureline” gave a young Besson stories with a brave heroine, a flawed hero and formative sci-fi adventures. Mézières joined Besson Friday at New York Comic Con, where they met with a small group of journalists to screen six minutes from “Valerian,” answer questions and conduct a tour of the film’s booth.
The footage focused primarily on Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), special operative assigned by the government of the human territories to maintain order throughout the universe. The scenes featured a monster attacking a moving truck, a wall-smashing run through a massive space station called Alpha, a handcuffing gone horribly wrong, a trip to Glam Club, and a desert that’s much more than it seems.
Like many of Besson’s other films, the action and special effects looked on-point, despite the director cautioning that the footage wasn’t complete. DeHaan and Delevigne also exhibited solid chemistry, which was one of the main aspects of the comic Besson wanted to carry over into the adaptation.
“At the time it was two pages every Wednesday in a magazine,” Besson remembered of the comic. “You basically had to wait six months to read the entire album, and that’s it. In France at the time there were two channels, one in black and white, the other in color. The only way to escape between 10 and 12 years old was this kind of comic.”
“This kind of comic book, I think, built myself when I was younger,” he added, crediting “Valerian” with helping to develop his imagination and sense of beauty. “It’s almost your main food when you’re 10 years old.”
The love goes deeper than just fandom, with Besson admitting, “The first woman I fell in love with was Laureline.” The idea to turn the comic into a film came many years later. Before that, he asked Mézières to work with him on “The Fifth Element.” Besson even remembered Mézières asking why he didn’t want to turn “Valerian” into a film instead of “this fucking ‘Fifth Element’?”
However, Besson noted it wasn’t until he saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” that he finally thought he could bring “Valerian” to the screen. “Now imagination is the limit,” he said. “Now we can do everything.”
To make it happen, Besson enlisted Weta, ILM and Rodeo to work on the film’s 2,734 special effects shots. The benefit so far has been that the companies keep upping their games to compete with each other, which results in even better-looking scenes filled with aliens and spaceships. “There’s a little smart and nice competition,” he said. “It’s good for me.”
“Avatar” also had another effect on “Valerian.” After Besson saw the 2009 blockbuster, he threw his original “Valerian” script in the trash. “It was not at the level,” he recalled. He waited four months before returning to the project; after about a year, he understood that it had clicked and would work.
“I think I love women, that’s it,” he said when asked whether Laureline influenced the female leads in many of his movies. Because of his strong connection with that character, he had specific ideas about who should play her as well as Valerian. “Dane was pretty fast,” he said of casting. “I just met him; after 10 seconds I knew.”
It took longer to find his Laureline, however. He admitted to initially being skeptical Delevingne, given her background as a model, but after about 10 meetings, where they discussed everything but the movie itself, and a six-hour screen test, he realized she was the one. “These actors speak just like our paper models,” Mézières added.
As far as the source material for this story, Besson said the basis and about 30 percent of the aliens come directly from the book, specifically an album called “Ambassador of the Shadows.”
Although he mainly looked forward to “Valerian,” Besson admitted he was disappointed with his earlier space epic “The Fifth Element” because it arrived at the end of the practical era of filmmaking, before digital effects became so impressive and versatile. “A year later you can do everything,” he said. “I always said to myself I would avenge one day. And now I venge.”
Mézières actually saw the “Valerian” footage for the first time with journalists at New York Comic Con. He said it made him feel “warm,” adding that he prefers to see Besson building on his ideas even more than the transition of his drawings into moving objects. “I’m not betrayed,” he said of the footage. “The base is the same.” He later referred to one of the previewed scenes, saying, “I tried to do that with my pen and my ink, but it was slow and not worth it.”
When he started “Valerian,” Mézières wasn’t a fan of American comics, which were difficult to find in France at the time. “I knew nothing about superhero stories,” he said. “We created the story together, learning how to write the script and draw the script together.” From there, he and Christin began a series of adventures that continued for 43 years.
Besson addressed some of the film’s headier concept, like alien triplets who each say one part of a thought, a trans-matter bazaar that’s hidden in a desert, and Alpha, a 22.4-mile-long ship housing just about every kind of living thing you can imagine.
At it’s heart, though, “Valerian” is about a couple of kids in love. “He’s a puppy,”Besson said. “He’s watching all the girls. She’s very old-fashioned: You fall in love with one man, you have kids, that’s it.”
Ethan Hawke also showed up in the footage as the operator of Glam Club, a place where shapeshifters become whomever you desire. Rhianna also appeared in that scene, but she might not be a glampod. “She’s working in the club, but she may be something else,” Besson said.
“You grow and you want to explore more,” Besson said when asked about his continued work in the realm of sci-fi. He revealed that they worked up documents for 60 alien species and the Alpha ship which were given to DeHaan and Delevingne to learn for their roles.
“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” arrives in theaters July 21, 2017.
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