Luc Besson on turning Rihanna into a 28th-century Cleopatra and being stood up by Prince

From The Fifth Element to Lucy, Bessons gender-splicing sci-fi films have never played by Hollywoods rules. Now hes taking the biggest gamble of his career by sending Cara Delevingne into space in Valerian

No one needs a hit right now more than Luc Besson. His production company, EuropaCorp, recently posted record losses of $135m. He was ordered last year to pay nearly half a million dollars after being found guilty of plagiarising John Carpenters Escape from New York in his 2012 screenplay Lockout. And his new futuristic adventure, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is the most expensive independent movie ever made, with a budget of around $200m. The film needs to crack at least $400m worldwide (like his Scarlett Johansson action fantasy Lucy) to push the company back into the black. Right now, that looks as far fetched as any of the films 28th-century intergalactic escapades. Valerian had a dismal $17m opening weekend in the US last month. In Germany, it landed in third place behind Despicable Me 3, which had already been on release for three weeks.

Luc
Luc Besson. Photograph: Lee Jin-man/AP

There are glimmers of hope. France welcomed the movie enthusiastically last week, as it usually does with anything by the Parisian film-maker, giving it the second-best opening day of the year. But these are still fraught times for Besson. Its difficult launching a film like this, the embattled 58-year-old director says when we meet in a London hotel. The big studios dont leave you any room. They love to take all the space. He is a stocky bear of a man but today he looks small and sheepish with unkempt hair, a more-salt-than-pepper beard and a T-shirt bearing the title of the movie on which his reputation rests.

Besson had tried to get Valerian made for seven years. Its my baby. Probably my most important one. He gives a soft heh-heh. Its kind of crazy. Adapted from the comic strip Valrian and Laureline, the film presents a jubilant, noisy, gaily-coloured alien world. Flirting and bickering their way through it are a pair of young law enforcers, played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, investigating an attack on a peaceful planet. The movie opens with a warmly funny montage of interspecies etiquette, as scientists and astronauts encounter various alarming extraterrestrial counterparts throughout the centuries.

Thats the stuff that makes it real. I wanted to imagine the future positively. Today people look around them and say, Oh shes black or hes homosexual or this one is too old, this one too young. Theres always some barrier to make others difficult to be with. Imagine now that we have to deal with 8,000 different species coming from space. Suddenly anyone terrestrial will look like my brother. So the film is my way of saying, Are you sure its so difficult to live together? Really? How comfortable will you feel when you have to deal with these guys?

Bessons equally out-there 1997 adventure The Fifth Element was progressive in its view of race and gender, placing in the traditional damsel-in-distress role a priapic African-American man (Chris Tucker). The new film goes further, enabling several characters to personify male and female simultaneously. Society is structured around the differences between men and women, but if you have too much difference, there is trouble. I think the artistic part is more feminine. I have the feeling that I have been using that side of myself since I was 10. That was the age he got hooked on Valrian and Laureline. It was the first time I had ever seen a couple where the woman was so in charge. That was a big influence. He grins. Look at me. I am like the guy who cuts down trees in Canada. A lumberjack? Yes! Im the lumberjack. But inside I have the sensitivity of a woman.

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Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element. Photograph: Allstar/GAUMONT

This claim is hard to reconcile with the man who bashes out coarse action thrillers beginning with T: Taxi, Taken and Transporter can all be attributed to, or blamed on, him. Thats Besson in hack mode, as a one-man script factory, whereas the films he chooses to direct (such as the hippy-dippy diving drama The Big Blue and the hitman buddy movie Lon) tend to be more nuanced. There is certainly tenderness in Valerian, which is dedicated to the directors father, who died last year. It was Besson pre who first introduced him to the Valrian and Laureline comics. I dont think he ever offered me a novel in his whole life, he laughs. But he bought me so many comic books. Another absent figure looming large over the movie is David Bowie, whose song Space Oddity rings out during the opening sequence. I was trying to find a good moment to call him to show him how the song fitted into the film but he died before I got a chance.

They last met when Bowie provided one of the voices for Bessons animated adventure Arthur and the Invisibles. Indeed, the director has a penchant for directing musical performers, including Rihanna and Herbie Hancock in Valerian and Madonna, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Snoop Dogg in Arthur and its two sequels. The Fifth Element also featured a cameo by Tricky and very nearly starred Prince in the Chris Tucker role.

Ah, Prince, sighs Besson, ruefully. I love him but it was impossible. He said yes to the part. You make a meeting for Monday at noon and he turns up on Tuesday at six. Or he cancels three times. Always so charming and sweet but the reality of musicians doesnt fit with film. I warned him a few times and he said, But this is my tempo. Finally, I asked him: Do you mind if we just do something less big another time? Working with Rihanna, who plays the shape-shifting dancer Bubble in Valerian, was more straightforward . He took particular pride in getting her to deliver lines from Anthony and Cleopatra. For me thats the ultimate pleasure Rihanna, the queen of music, as Cleopatra. Its the sort of mix I love. We can all listen to reggae music in Greenland while eating sushi. We are allowed to do whatever we like!

If this is Besson thumbing his nose at critics who accuse him of being lowbrow, then it wont be the first time. In his 2013 black comedy The Family, Michelle Pfeiffer blows up a shop in rural France because the owner is heard disparaging America. I am Michelle in that scene, he says. Ive heard so many French people saying, Oh, the Americans dont have culture. I want to say, When is the last time you went to the Louvre? Shut up!

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Jean-Marc Barr and Jean Reno in The Big Blue. Photograph: Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

His career can partly be explained as a populist lashing out against the cinephile country of his birth but it is also the revenge of the nerd. Bessons parents divorced when he was a child and dumped him in a boarding school while they started families with their new partners. When he realised he wanted to make films, he was mocked by his friends. They said: Oh, youre gonna work with Alain Delon, are you? He felt completely alone. Youre by yourself. Youre too weird for girls. The two subjects I could talk about were dolphins and movies. The girls actually ran away when they saw me.

Out of these feelings of isolation came his witty 1983 debut, The Last Battle, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by mute, scavenging survivors. The first scene shows the hero having sex with an inflatable doll, a moment I had always taken to be a screw-you to the establishment which had denied Besson entry to film school because his influences (Spielberg, Scorsese, Milo Forman) were too mainstream. But he corrects me. The message of that scene was exactly the same as Valerians: look after what youve got before you lose it. It was a way of saying to people: Be careful. If you destroy everything, this is what youll be left with. Earth will be dying and you will be all alone, fucking a plastic Barbie.

Perhaps that message extends also to Bessons own future. A bruising for Valerian would still knock the stuffing out of EuropaCorp. But thats unlikely to hamper someone as passionate and eccentric as Besson: he has been making films for too long now to start playing it safe. My dreams are my dreams, he says proudly. I wanted to do Valerian for the longest time. I wondered, Can I do it? But once I get started, Im like the English foxhound: I will never let go.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/03/luc-besson-valerian-interview-cara-delevingne-rihanna