One of the biggest names in French filmmaking, Luc Besson’s latest movie, The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec, is a return to the kind of fantastical movie making we last saw in The Fifth Element, back in the late 90s.
A surreal, frequently hilarious adventure based on the comic books of artist Jacques Tardi, the film stars Louise Bourgoin as Adèle, a heroine who’s like a pithy, Edwardian Indiana Jones.
In the UK to promote Adèle Blanc-Sec‘s release, we met with Besson to discuss the making of the film, writing, female protagonists and what he’s up to next.
I loved Adèle. I thought it was brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in a cinema.
[Laughs] And, like, mummies, for years, have been [adopts zombie-like pose, arms outstretched] Urrr! Like this, you know? Mummies are 4,000 years old. So, they’re pretty smart, you know? They have so much knowledge. Ours take their tea and are polite.
Yeah, I liked the humour you got in there.
It was a lot of fun doing this one. Eight to twelve-year-olds, they love it too. Also adults, but the kids, they see mummy, and they’re a little scared, and then they see the mummies are nice, and they start to laugh. I’ve seen the film a few times with kids, and it’s so wonderful. It’s really large.
The technology’s there now, too, to bring those characters to life.
You couldn’t have made this film ten years ago.
No, and this is probably your most effects-heavy live-action film since The Fifth Element, isn’t it? In terms of marrying effects with live action.
Yeah. In fact, with the mummies, it’s an actor playing them. He’s in a grey suit with dots all over it. For me, I’m just directing an actor. Nothing’s changed for me at all.
It’s pretty easy for me. If you give me an actor to play the mummy, it’s the same. There’s a big jump after, because we have to go to Cairo to take pictures of the mummies one by one.
Because, technically, one thing that’s quite interesting, is Ramses II is the real one.
Yeah, we modelled him on the real one. I’ve seen people who know about ancient Egypt, and they’re amazed. They say, “Oh, my God. You’ve really taken Ramses II.” And Patmosis, also.
That attention to detail extends to the characters, who look very much like those in Jacques Tardi’s comics.
You know, the funny thing is, when Tardi makes the characters, all of them, he gets inspired by pictures from 1912. So I asked him, “Would you mind giving us the picture that inspired this character?”, and I give the pictures [to the people] in charge of the masks and special effects, so they don’t go from the drawing. They go from the original [photograph].
What’s interesting is, they’re the real guys. Sometimes people think we’re being cartoonish, but when you look at the pictures, they’re like this [pulls out ears] some of the time. They didn’t have the same health, the same food. All this was very bad at the time, so people basically had ears like this, big noses.
They looked very [cartoon-like]. Too much, perhaps. But they were looking like this at the time.
And in the midst of all this, you’ve obviously got Adéle herself, who’s a really striking female lead. What is it that attracts you to strong female characters? We’ve already seen Nikita, Mathilda in Leon, Joan Of Arc.,,
What I try to do is treat actresses and actors at the same level. Since the 70s, cinema has been much more male-oriented – Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Stallone. From the 80s, these big, testosterone male actors – Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, all those guys.
It’s true that when Nikita arrived, that was a surprise to see that a woman can lead an action film, and I think it’s opened a thing that says, “Oh yeah, we can…” And then you have Lara Croft, and a bunch of other leads.
We can have both now, and that’s good.
One thing I noticed in Adéle, was a brief sequence involving a sarcophagus, which I wondered, was that meant as a reference to the ‘nuking the fridge’ sequence in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull?
Oh, yeah. I remember. It wasn’t a direct reference. But I remember, when you get the nuclear explosion. It wasn’t a straight reference, but it is a little similar. It’s more a reference to ancient Egypt, where they always had a back door with a tunnel. When you find the king’s room, it’s never really the king’s room. It’s always hidden somewhere.
I remember after I wrote the scene, someone said, “Oh, that’s a bit like the fridge.” But that’s just the kind of joke I love.
I think one of my favourite jokes is with the pterodactyl, and Adéle throws it some grain to eat, thinking it’s a pigeon, and she realises that it eats meat, and she’s like, “Okay, forget it.”
You must be pleased with its reception so far.
It’s almost like an ice cream desert. It’s so enjoyable, it’s like skipping the main course and going straight to desert. The film’s almost like that.
I made the film in the middle of the financial crisis. The world was falling apart everywhere. The more I see the news when I get home, the more I want to see a movie that’s sweet. I can’t do anything about the crisis, but I can at least make you smile for a couple of hours, and give you a little happiness.
Do you find female characters more interesting to write?
Men are supposed to be strong, and I like to show them when they’re weak. Women are meant to be weak, purely because of muscles and so on, and I like to show them when they’re strong.
So, I just like to reverse- to have a hero crying is very interesting. But to have a small, female character fighting for the world is more interesting.
I know you’ve rejected suggestions of making a sequel to Leon in the past.
There’s been talk on the Internet, but it’s fake, speculation, because we never wrote a sequel. Leon is dead.
But you could have Mathilda as a grown woman, perhaps.
We could, but- I know that people would love to see Mathilda fifteen years later, but we need to find a good story, and as long as I don’t find a good story, then, no.
I don’t want to make a sequel for commercial reasons, just because people want it, you know? I’m honest, so if one day I find an amazing story to tell, I will. But at the moment, that’s not the case.
Ridley Scott’s returning to the Alien universe thirty years on with Prometheus. Do you think it works when directors return to a premise after so long?
I don’t know. There are no rules. Just try to keep your honesty, that’s all. If I do a sequel to Leon for money, and they say, “Oh, it’s less good than the original.” What’s the point? If I do do it, it’s because I feel I can do one that’s even better.
One sequel you have written now, of course. is the second Taken movie. Given that the first film was so self-contained, was it difficult to come up with another story of the first one?
It’s true. Lots of people said, “Taken is so good. Are you going to make a sequel?” And my answer was, “No, I don’t see how…” And I never finished the sentence. I’d just say, “I don’t see how… or maybe, if we… Oh! That could be good.”
I got an idea for a sequel. Taken has no way of adding a sequel, in reality, unless you have a very good idea. But I think I’ve got one. So then, we’re going to have a sequel.
I look forward to it!
The story’s very good. But we won’t have a third one. We’ll have a second one, because it’s almost a continuation of the first movie. You could even take one and two together, in a way, and that works. But I don’t think we’ll go like Transporter, for example, with two, three and four. We’ll stop at the two. But we have room for a good second one.
And you wrote the sequel with Liam Neeson in mind, specifically?
Oh, yeah. We’re going to shoot in November.
You haven’t directed an English live-action film in some time.
I’ve directed an English language film out this summer, called The Lady. It’s going to be about another female action figure. It’s about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. She spent twenty-three years under house arrest in Burma. She won the Nobel Prize in the 90s, and she’s still alive.
She’s like a female Ghandi, she’s such a figure. I made a film about her life, which will be out soon, with Michelle Yeoh playing her, and David Thewlis, an English actor, a brilliant actor.
That was quite a long shoot, a big, epic thing. It was totally different, much more serious.
You obviously work in a lot of different genres, fantasy, family, sci-fi. Are there any genres left that you haven’t explored yet, but would like to?
I will never make a porn film. [laughs] I don’t see myself doing a Western. I think you must be American to do one. You must be in love to make a film. You must be in love.
So, as long as I’m not in love, I don’t make one. And can you predict with whom you’ll fall in love? [shrugs] You love the brunette, but then you marry the blonde one!
So, what is it that you enjoy about the action genre? That’s one you do keep returning to.
The funny thing is, I produce far more action films than I direct. I love to write Transporter or Taken, but I’m not interested in making it.
Action is very technical, in a way. You need invention, in a way. I’m more interested in characters and emotion. So, when it comes to straight action films, I’m not so interested as a director. I like it as a moviegoer, because it’s fun and easy to watch, but as a director it doesn’t attract me so much.
Leon and Nikita, there isn’t so much action in them, in terms of pace. Sometimes you have one little fast action scene for two minutes, but it’s more atmosphere.
As you say, it’s the characterisation that makes those films so memorable. Which aspect do you prefer, then, in your career? The writing process, producing or directing?
Writing. Definitely writing.
How do you generate your ideas?
You need to have all your senses open. You need to keep yourself in life, real life. If you start to get private planes and a chauffeur, sunglasses, you don’t see the real world any more, just the world of the happy few. You become disconnected and you have nothing to say. Most of the rich people I’ve met are boring.
I have so much more fun with my boulanger [baker]. When I go at 6am for my croissants, the guy’s so passionate about his croissants. “Oh, you must try this one, because this morning I changed the butter!” The guy’s passionate.
Watching old people in the park, talking about their lives. That’s where it comes, from food and talking. I sat on the plane over here with a guy who studied cancerous molecules. He talked for eight hours about it, and I was amazed – the science, and how they separate the molecules, you know? That’s where it comes from. It’s fed from all these people who come from life.
Talking to the fast food guy who doesn’t have much business, and I ask, “Where are you from? How did you end up here, selling fast food?” And he says, “I studied the history of Greece, but there’s no work for me.” You learn so much from these people.
Luc Besson, thank you very much.
The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec is out in UK cinemas on 22nd April.
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