Once upon a time, Luc Besson was a kind of anomaly. A popular director from France whose visually ravishing films featured both expertly made action scenes and doses of dreamy lyricism, he transcended cultural boundaries. Back then, of course, films like Subway, La Femme Nikita, and Léon: The Professional stood in sharp contrast to movies starring macho men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Even his sci-fi action epic The Fifth Element, with its poetic flourishes and offbeat sense of fun, was nothing like the sci-fi blockbusters Hollywood churned out.
Over the years, Besson has become a successful producer of more bread-and-butter hits like the Taken and Transporter franchises, but now, with the Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flick Lucy, he returns to the world of stylized, lyrical action. Besson takes an enticingly silly premise — Lucy (Johansson) is a hapless drug mule who accidentally ingests a powerful new drug that allows her to use 100 percent of her brain — and uses it to indulge in both elaborate action setpieces and moody bits of surreal melancholy. Lucy is essentially Besson’s version of a superhero movie, and again, the result is a far cry from anything Hollywood might ordinarily give us. (When was the last time an American superhero called her mom to tearfully tell her she could suddenly remember what her breast milk tasted like?) Besson talked to Vulture last week about his long history of creating female action heroes, the junk science behind Lucy, and his fondness for ambivalent endings.
In recent years, it seems we’ve had more female action heroes in the movies. I feel like you were a pioneer in this regard. When you made Nikita back in 1990, did you get any pushback about making an action movie starring a woman?
I was maybe not very happy in the ’80s and ’90s, when all the big parts were big guys with muscles and simple minds. And the girl was always in the back, crying, waiting for the hero to return. That’s not the energy I have from women. So I always try to write the best I can for women, and the best I can for men. Big Blue is about two guys; Subway is an adventure with two guys and one girl; Nikita is a girl and a bunch of guys. Léon [in Léon: The Professional] is a very big, strong guy, but Mathilda is as strong as him. I always try to do the best for both. I don’t feel that I’m a specialist in female characters. I mean, when you see Lucy, there’s one girl and three guys. So I try to treat them the best I can no matter what they are.
Actually, the funny thing is that when I was trying to do Subway years earlier, one of the comments that one producer who wanted to put money in the film said was, “Yeah, we don’t know. You never filmed an actress, so we don’t know if you’re going to be good with an actress.” [Laughs.] And when you see my career after that, it’s very funny that people were wondering if I would be able to direct an actress.
I love how the male cop in Lucy who follows her is clearly relegated to the background in a funny way. At one point Lucy kisses him, but she does it aggressively, the way a male character might; she’s basically kissing him good-bye.
Yeah. He’s a “reminder”; that’s all he is. I love that.
One of the things that impressed me about Lucy was how far you were willing to take this premise. It’s not just “She gets a lot of powers, and then: the end.” You have her transcending space and time, and the film goes off in a totally different direction at the end. Did you ever have any fears about going so far with the premise? Did you ever think, Maybe I should just pull back a little here?
No. I was excited, and I always want to go beyond. We have to push, we have to push. It’s so exciting to do it. It’s a couple of minutes, anyway, so it’s not a big risk. And so for the people who followed the film, I tried to make it very appealing, you know, since the first image: What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s going to happen next? And you’re in the train, you’re rolling, you’re rolling, you’re going. And then at the end it’s like a triple looping. [Laughs.] You don’t know where you are, exactly. And I love that.
When we see the prehistoric Lucy in the beginning, she’s 3 million years old. Imagine that you come into the grotto where she is, and you’re dressed normally, like in a suit and tie, and you open an iPad, and you show a video of Lady Gaga … the girl will collapse. Because you have so much information in one moment, about the sound of music, the tissues, the language, the hair, everything would be just amazing. So I tried to figure out what it would look like. Where can we go? So I tried to show the end of the universe. And then for a couple of seconds we even go in a black hole. And then we see what’s after. You know, the music is totally reversed. The background is white rather than dark. And it’s the reverse of the universe. So for two, three seconds, we see what we have here, and then woop, we come back. And that was so exciting to do that.
Do you ever get frustrated when you see other films with interesting premises that they don’t seem to carry far enough?
I’m a very simple moviegoer. I see a trailer, and I go to see the film, and I enjoy it most of the time. But, you know, I’m not 15 anymore; I’m 50. So most of the time I need a little more “food.” When the action is well done, I appreciate it, but if you don’t give me more than that, I start to get bored. So I start to please me also as a moviegoer. I think, in an action film, it doesn’t hurt to have real content.
Some people are complaining about the fact that the science behind your film — the whole idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brains — is not true. What’s your response to that?
It’s totally not true. Do they think that I don’t know this? I work on this thing for nine years and they think that I don’t know it’s not true? Of course I know it’s not true! But, you know, there are lots of facts in the film that are totally right. The CPH4, even if it’s not the real name — because I want to hide the real name — this molecule exists and is carried by the woman at six weeks of pregnancy. Yes, it’s true that every cell in our body is sending 1,000 messages per second, per cell. And in fact, the theory of the 10 percent is an old theory from the ’60s. It’s never been proven. Some people worked on it, and it sounds like it’s not the truth. What is true is that we’re using only 15 percent of our neurons at one time. We never use 100 [percent]. We use 15 percent on [the] left, and then after, we use 15 percent on the right. But we never use more than 15 percent at one time.
The 10 percent is a metaphor in a way. So that’s why I was not bothered by that. I’m always amazed by these people who become scientists at the last minute and go, “This is wrong!” Of course; it’s a film. [Laughs.] What’s more interesting — more than the 10 percent or the 15 percent — is that if we get the capacity of full intelligence, in the film, we say that the first step is the control of the cell, the second step is the control of others, the third is the control of matter, and the fourth is the control of time. And I talked to a lot of scientists, and they believe that at least the first three are possible. They don’t say it’s true, but it’s at least logical. The good thing is when you take a lot of things that are totally right and mix them very well with a few things that are wrong, at the end of the film, you think everything is real. And that’s the magic of film.
Your films often have ambiguous endings. Characters often disappear at the end: Nikita vanishes; Jacques Mayol in The Big Blue goes off into the blackness of the ocean. Without getting too much into what happens to Lucy at the end of this film, I find it fascinating that you’ve been able to get away with these ambiguous endings.
I think it’s how characters become legends. What about God? Everyone’s been talking about him for thousands of years and no one has seen him.
When The Big Blue came to the U.S., it was recut and they added a shot at the end where we see Jacques coming out of the water and swimming away. So, has it been difficult to convince studios and distributors to let you get away with these kinds of endings over the years?
No. The only time it has happened to me was The Big Blue. And they did that totally behind my back. And when I discovered it, I canceled the tour of the U.S. I didn’t do any promotion. And that’s the only country in the world that had that version. All the rest is my version, and it works very well. Do you remember this whole story about Bambi, and how when they did a sneak preview, the audience response was, “We don’t like the end”? The studio was ready to redo something because they thought it was a catastrophe. But they tested the film again, and this time, they ask the question differently. They say, “Do you like the movie?” and the answer is “no” from like 80 percent. And they then ask, “Do you want a different ending?” and the answer is “no” again from like 80 percent. It was very interesting. Why don’t they like the ending? Because it’s so sad! But at the same time, we love the movie because it’s sad.
In the ’80s, I think you were something of an outlier for France — a director of action films. I imagine your relationship with the French film industry has changed throughout the years.
Oh, I try not to think too much about it. I have a very good relationship with French directors, and lots of friends. And honestly, any time we see each other, we appreciate each other. Directors are never in competition, in a way. Because we always do our film the way we think. So we never are in competition with somebody else, you know. The rest of the community, I try not to pay too much attention — not because I feel superior or anything, just because for a long time there was lots of shit about me and jealousy and things. You know, France is producing 250 films per year, and I produce ten. So there’s really room for everyone. There’s 240 films to do [all] that I will never do.
Years ago, I read something John Boorman wrote about trying to get a film off the ground. It was at a studio that was also producing Spielberg’s Hook at the time. So he was desperately watching the box office returns for Hook. If Hook was successful, then his movie had a better chance of getting made — because the studio would be in good financial shape. I think directors realize that the big movies often help pay for the little movies.
All the time, all the time. When you make a hit, you’ll make more films the year after. Everyone’s doing that. You need the locomotives to grab the wagons. Sometimes the big movies help to produce the small, intellectual films that we need also. This year I produced The Homesman with Tommy Lee Jones, and I was very proud to produce the film. It was a difficult film. We tried to be careful not to lose money. You obviously know that you need to make money, but sometimes you want to do the film because you love the guy and you love the film.
You’ve been producing since the ’80s, but you’re also a director with a very pronounced style. For projects you produce but don’t direct, is it hard to give up some control and let someone else be the director?
No, very easy. Because there’s only one boss on the film — it’s the director. So when I work with, for example, Olivier Megaton, I work with him before on the cast, the costume and everything. We really challenge each other and share the information. When the film starts, I’m not there. There’s only one boss. I’m not there at all. I don’t come on the set at all. I come once to say hi and eat lunch with the main actors; otherwise they don’t think I love them. And that’s it. And I leave the director to edit his film, and when he’s tired, when he doesn’t know what else to do, I come back and I’m fresh. I’m here at the beginning and the end. But during the shooting, it’s about the director. Because if I’m there all the time telling him what to do, what’s the point? I’d rather right away know if the guy is strong or if he’s weak. If he’s strong, then he’s going to be a great director to have for future films.