Luc Besson is in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, looking at pictures of frogs, and he can’t stop giggling.
The French filmmaker behind movies like The Professional and The Fifth Element is explaining the creative process behind his new film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s a visually stunning space opera that brings the classic French graphic novel Valérian and Laureline to life with Besson’s usual stylistic flair. And when it comes to some of the movie’s dozens of creatures and alien races, the inspiration lies in the photos he’s scrolling through on his iPhone, including a bird with a rainbow spray of plumage, and a frog with eerie translucent skin.
Besson explains that while brainstorming, he collects these images as visual references, each serving to spark a creative idea later down the line. He swipes to an angry-looking fish, spikes studded across its face, and adopts a gravelly voice. “‘Hello, how are you?’ You see, you have the voice already. Can be an alien, easily.”
For the 58-year-old Besson, Valerian serves as the closing of a loop. He’s adapting a graphic novel that was fundamental to his childhood, and that helped inspire many of his own sensibilities in terms of adventure, style, and tone. But as he explains, designing Valerian went far beyond collecting insane source photos of animals and creatures. It was a collaborative, iterative process with one aim: helping him build a fully realized alien world where humanity was one part of a much larger picture.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It’s clear from the film that you have a real love for this source material. I know you discovered Valérian and Laureline when you were younger. What kind of impact did it have on you?
You just have to remember that it was the '70s, I was living 40 kilometers from Paris. There is one channel in black and white [on the television]. That's all we have. We didn't have 200 channels and HBO and Netflix and all this. There's no internet; it doesn't exist. Even the Walkman is not there. You don't have portable music. If you want to hear music, you have to go a salon, and that's it. No video games. So it's pretty dry.
And then suddenly, you have this little comic book every Wednesday. You open it, and there's this boy and this girl. Twenty-five years old. Traveling in space and time. On a spaceship, kicking ass. It's the most open door — the biggest way to escape — that you have at the time. It's the only way you can dream of something else. Space, aliens… and I have two pages per week! I have to wait six days to get two other pages. So you learn patience.
My kids are on the internet, have access to 2 billion hours of information, and they complain after five seconds because, "Oh God, I don't have a connection." Are you kidding? I had to wait six fucking days to get two pages! Believe me, I remember clearly: having the magazine, coming back home, putting it aside. Doing my homework. Finishing my homework. Cleaning my table, locking my door, taking the booklet and opening it. Because with two pages, it was like “Whoa.” I'm gonna really [appreciate it]. I’d read it three, four, five times per day, those same two pages.
The drawings, the details. You live with that. They're your imaginary friends, but they help you in your life. It's less boring, you're less depressed. You don't kill yourself at 16, because you have a wish. You say, "I wish I could fly in a spaceship."
That artist on that book was Jean-Claude Mézières, who you later worked with on The Fifth Element. What was it like collaborating with him, and did that experience inspire you to make Valerian?
It was great. I asked my three favorite designers that I love. [Jean-Claude] Mézières, [Enki] Bilal, and Moebius. Bilal was doing a film at the time, so he apologized. He was very sweet. But Moebius said yes, and so I have Mézières and Moebius working on The Fifth Element. For me, I'd followed the comics since I was 10, so it was like working with my heroes. But at the time, I never thought I should make a film of Valerian. I never even thought of it, ever.
Why? It seems like such a logical next step.
It was just part of my childhood. You know, intellectually it takes time to think that your relationship with your mother could make a good film. Because you're thinking of your mother as your mother, not as a film, so it doesn't occur to you right away. And Valerian was the same. I never thought about it. Mézières is the first one who said, "I thought you loved Valerian? Why don't you do a film of it, instead of this stupid Fifth Element?" And I went back home, and read again, and I came back the day after, and I said, "Because it's not possible. That's all. There's two characters and 2 million aliens. You can't do it; forget it."
And we went on like this for 10 years. Once in a while, he would say to me, "You should do it." And then one day, 10 years ago — maybe I felt more comfortable with my knowledge — I said, “Let's start to write, just in case.” And it takes another eight years. [Laughs] And then Avatar arrived, and the technology was suddenly [there]. Avatar makes everything possible.
You’re working from this rich source material that’s known for its visuals and design. But you actually spent a lot of time creating original visuals, to the point where you ran a competition for visual artists. Can you talk about that process?
Almost five years ago, I sent a letter to all the design schools around the world. And in the letter I didn't say my name. I said, "We are a film production, we're going to do a big sci-fi film" — I didn't say which one — "and if you want to participate, you have to send a world, and alien, and a spaceship.” We received 2,000 submissions. I hired five artists for a year, and that's how we started. They didn't know which film. They were not allowed to have contact with anyone except me, and I saw them once a week per Skype. I was the only contact, because I wanted to protect them. I don't want them to think about anything other than creativity. So I never described an alien. I would tell them who the alien was, and then let them imagine what they looked like. "Okay, his name is Kortan Dahük. He's pretty nice, this is his speciality, this is where he lives, this is how he breathes. Come back with whatever you want."
We really wanted to have 360-degree creativity for a year. They brought back almost 2,000 drawings. It was everything from insanity to things I'd already seen somewhere; that was the range. And then they were cooked after a year, so I brought [in] three more, and they worked for a year again. And after two years, I put them all in one room [together]. The energy they would have when they were drawing separately was their own energy. I put them in one room so they could energize each other. So they worked another year again, all together.
That sounds like you’re mimicking the evolution of the world of the movie itself. You have that opening sequence where different aliens meet humanity in space, year after year, each bringing their own unique look and style — and then everything gets mashed up together on space station Alpha.
During the credits of the film, we have six types of aliens shaking hands. I had the choice between 200 aliens, and I choose six. The scene is two minutes long. They come for 10 seconds each. But the order of the six took me almost a month [to figure out], because it needs to be logical. Even if we don't understand the logic, it has to look logical. We have to be able to see the evolution. So I used six out of 200. I still have 194! And an interesting detail: some of those aliens in the group of 200 were used in the Big Market, in the background.
The most prominent alien race in the movie are The Pearl, and it’s important the audience feels empathy for them. How did you evolve their design from what was in the books?
It was the ‘70s, so they looked too much like natives [in the books]. So I wanted to explore. We explored for a long time, and then I come to this idea of a blue planet full of water, so their skin is almost like the porcelain of shells. And the pigmentation is like an octopus. You know how the octopus can change colors? When [The Pearl] touch and they change color a little bit, that comes from the octopus.
That’s a really interesting lens to think about it through, because you’re not just talking about visuals there, you’re talking about world-building in the way the aliens interact. When in the process does an idea like that come up?
Sometimes I'm eating with my mom, and I'm thinking about the octopus. I'm not saying my mom is boring, it's just… [Laughs] When I'm at that stage of, "Okay, I'm brainstorming about that," which stays open a lot of time with me, it's 24 hours. It's always open. It's almost like flypaper. Whatever passes — it grabs it. And then it goes in storage, and you do an association.
It's nature, most of the time, and you see little things. I'm watching TV, and I see an octopus changing color. "Oh, because the Pearls are living in shells, that could be interesting. And they're so sensitive that maybe the skin is a good way to express their sensitivity." And then you start to build.
One thing the film does really well is present the idea of a lived-in universe, with a ton of aliens and creatures touched upon briefly, if they’re even mentioned at all. There’s a lot to explore, even with what’s on the screen in just this first film. Are there other stories you’re hoping to tell in that world?
Sure. [Valerian and Laureline] are cops. You can make as many films as you want, because every time, it's a case. You can have a totally, totally different world in space, in time, anywhere. So at least [any new] film doesn't look like the one before. Which I don't like so much today, with all the heroes we have, like Iron Man and Spider-Man. It's like, they were cool five or six years ago — but it's always New York, it's always the same thing, it's always the same time. The only thing you change is the alien, which is always the villain, and changes shape, and that's it. The rest is the same.
What I like about Laureline and Valerian is, in the next one, you can do whatever you want. It's not repetitive for the director. So I finished [writing] Valerian 2 already, and I'm in the middle of Valerian 3. And everybody says, "Why are you writing if you don't even know you will do it?" And I say, “It doesn't matter. I just like to write it.”
You just like hanging out with these characters?
So if the first one doesn't work and we don't do the second one, I will say, "You will never know how it ends! But I know it. Hah!"