The director of ‘Léon: The Professional’ and ‘The Fifth Element’ shares insight on making movies and keeping the dream alive.
A true auteur, Luc Besson is a French writer, director, and producer who’s worked on films such as Léon: The Professional, Lucy, and Subway. Growing up with scuba-diver parents, Besson has long had a fascination with the ocean and has translated that to his onscreen work in films such as The Big Blue and Atlantis. He is also often linked with the French Cinéma du look movement, notably with his film Nikita, is most popular for spectacular sci-fi, such as The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
As a producer, Besson has served as a kind of mentor to fresh talents, including Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), Olivier Megaton (Colombiana), and Pierre Morel (Taken), and last year he even started a free film school in France. In recent years he’s also begun sharing advice on making movies and what it means to be a filmmaker. We’ve gathered some of his tips for success below.
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When asked by GQ magazine in 2014 which three films everyone should see, Besson gave a specific answer, but one he was not completely settled on. His advice? Live forever.
You know what? I have so many friends who are directors, they’ll be calling me saying [fakes sobbing] “why did you not mention my film?” but I would say at least one Scorsese, a Spielberg, a Stanley Kubrick, ah where do I stop? My advice is don’t die and watch more movies [laughs].
Then again, he also more recently said, in a 2017 Film in Revolt interview:
“You cannot just look at a painting or just watch cinema, you need to be out there. Art and film should not come before, as methods of inspiration than real life. Art is a reflection of that.”
Young Audiences Are Important
Whether it be obvious or ambiguous, filmmakers often try to convey some sort of message with their movies. Besson stresses the significance of using the medium to relay important messages for young people especially, without necessarily calling direct attention to them. He told Birth. Movies. Death. in 2017:
“I think that on the left we have films with content and on the right we have films like cheeseburgers. I think it’s wrong. I think we can easily have films that are fun but have content also. Even if you’re not serious about the content and not pushing your finger on it and saying, ‘This is important,’ just put some message here and there.
“The most important thing is the kids. Today, they need this kind of message. They’re playing video games and think they’re the king because they kill 200 people in one minute. That’s not a nice way of saying you’re king. The politicians around the world and the big companies, you see how they’re lying and just do things for money. They’re able to do evil things, like Volkswagon lying to millions of people by saying they’re ecologic, while they’re polluting twice as much. These guys should be in jail. In jail.
“We see black people, Mexican people in jail because they stole a cheeseburger. These guys lie for money and they’re alive. They’re there. It’s important to put little messages in for the young audience, because that’s a way to teach them the morality, the dignity, because the heroes in the films they love are like this. If you do it too strongly, they reject it. You have to put it on the table. It’s like my kids. I never come and say, ‘Would you like to play piano? Can you imagine you as a pianist?’ Never say that. Come home and say, ‘Oh, what is that? That’s a piano.'”
Be Honest with Yourself
When first entering the business, feeling intimidated and selling out your vision for even moderate success is tempting. However, Besson advises sticking to your story and doing the film the way you know it needs to be done, even if that means it gets pushed to a later date.
When Mélanie Laurent was embarking on her directorial debut, 2011’s The Adopted, she cold-called Besson, whom she barely knew, asking for advice. She shared the story and tip in a 2013 IndieWire interview:
“‘Hi Luc, it’s Melanie, do you have any advice, because I’m gonna start shooting in six months, I don’t know why I’m asking you, but hi…’ And he said, ‘yeah, I have just one [piece of] advice. You’re gonna be surrounded by so many people who are gonna give advice all day long – ‘if that was me, I would film this angle, and I prefer that color’ – just say no to everybody, just focus on your idea, trust your idea. Even your producer, they’re all gonna torture your trust but you’re the only one who knows what you really want.'”
Later, during a Q&A with YouTube Space in 2017, he explained more fully this advice:
“I think you have to define your own honesty. You know, like what’s real for you. What’s important for you, but for the good reason. So when I did my second film, for example, called ‘Subway,’ it was in French, there’s a moment where the producers tried to impose on me a casting who was really, really not appropriate. Not. They were way too old. I was like 22. There was no way I was going to work with these guys. It makes no sense.
“The only reason why they were pushing is because they were older and they were known and they thought it was good. But they were making a mistake, in fact. And I knew it. I feel it. So, I was not fighting for a bad reason. I was fighting because I really think that they were too old and it was the right way to make the film. So at a certain point, I left. I said, ‘You know, if you really want to do this film like this, no I’m not going to do it.’
But I didn’t sell the rights yet at this time, so when they say to me, ‘We’re going to make the film with these people, otherwise we don’t do the film,’ I was courageous enough to say, ‘Yeah I understand and I respect you. But it’s me who’s not going to make the film with you.’ So let’s be honest, I get down to this office and I cry for an hour on the street. So I was courageous for three minutes. I was very sad after that. I ended up doing the film with the cast I want.
“What I’m trying to say is that it’s up to you to find the limit. I never ever look for fame, money, or whatever in this area. Never in my life. That was not my purpose. I have a story to tell, I was in love with my story, and I want to tell my story and every time I have to take this kind of decision, I would rather not do it. It’s okay, it’s life, you know, too bad, but that’s it, and that’s what you have to find. I really think that it sounds probably cheesy but I think if you’re really waking up early and you work a lot and you’re true and then you, a day or another, I don’t know when, but a day another you will be recognized for that for sure. So trust me on this.”
Watch the full Q&A:
Filmmaker and dreamer are two labels that are often intertwined, as Besson touched upon in a Q&A with Syfy Wire in 2017:
“Keep dreaming if you want to stay alive.”
He should know about dreams coming true, too, because Valerian was something he’d wanted to make all his life and he finally got to do it. Upon its release in 2017, he told The Guardian something he’d expect from his students:
“My dreams are my dreams. I wanted to do ‘Valerian’ for the longest time. I wondered, ‘Can I do it?’ But once I get started, I’m like the English foxhound: I will never let go.”
Accept the Pain
While it may be the most difficult part of filmmaking, Besson notes the need for directors to find a balance between being sensitive and being the leader. He told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017:
“You need to have an extra sensitivity, permanently, from the morning to the end of the day. It’s almost like you take your skin out and people are touching you all day. I remember going back to the hotel at 10pm and watching TV, and they were talking about the opening of a salon of flowers, and you see some old people going there — and I’m crying. It’s terrible. And it’s terrible because you take the skin out and then every morning you put on armor because you need both. You need to be absolutely nonsensitive. You need to be a general of an army, and at the same time if a flower [touches] your arm, you scream. It’s painful. And honestly, every time you start to film, you remember that. You say, ‘All right, OK, I’m going to make the film,’ and you take the decision, you accept the pain. You never go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to be great! We’re going to do a film!’ You know it’s going to be painful.”
Pass It On
In an interview with DP/30 in 2014, when asked about his loyalty to the filmmakers who have worked alongside him, climbing their way up the ladder, he emphasized a logical step forward for any filmmaker who finds themselves in a position of power.
“It’s funny because it’s the subject of ‘Lucy.’ ‘Lucy’ is when you have power, the only thing you can do is to pass it on. The first cell of the human race, the first cell is cutting in two and give everything she has to another one. And that’s who we are. I think it’s the only logical movement to learn and pass it on. So, I love this energy around and I produce probably between three and five first films per year. Sometimes they’re not good. You know, you trust the guy, he has the energy, but he doesn’t have the talent. And sometimes they are very talented. I mean Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton, you know, these guys are very talented.”
Watch the whole interview below.
What We Learned
Being a filmmaker is by no means an easy job. You have to have a tough skin and take the lead at times when you feel like screaming, but you persist nonetheless. That said, parts of the job are extremely rewarding in a way nothing else can be, such as the ability to use your platform to reach younger audiences with important messages.
Remembering why you’re passionate about your story and the reason you chose this career is necessary to stay afloat. Only aiming for fame and success will get you nowhere at the end of the day. But as long as you tell your story the way it needs to be told, you will find your own personal success.