Luc Besson discusses his five-year struggle to bring Arthur And The Invisibles to the big screen, while providing updates on Leon 2, 3, 4 and 5 and explaining his urge to live in the jungle as a small child…
What inspired you to become a director and when did that happen?
I didn’t know what to do with my life when I was 15. I wanted to be an astronaut first, then a fireman, then a biologist because I love dolphins and the sea. Finally, one day my friend was producing a short film and I went on the set and I fell in love totally.
I then did something that no child should do. I went back home and I said to my mum ‘I’m gonna make movies’ and I left. I was 17-years-old and she screamed, she beat me, she tried everything. But I was stronger than her. So I took my suitcase and left when I was 17, one month before the Baccalaureate and that was rough. And I am still in love.
After a few months I tried to join the National School for Cinema. I come in the room, they ask me two questions, I gave the wrong answers, so I was not allowed to go to the school.
Why was there a six year gap between your last film as a director and Angel A?
The guy who invented the characters in Arthur, his name is Patrice Garcia, he worked with me for two years on The Fifth Element. When he came to see me with the first drawings I was editing Joan Of Arc. So I was not on the beach. [laughs] It just took five years to do. In fact it took so long to do Arthur that I did Angel A in the middle of it. I didn’t feel the gap, but I thank you that you feel it.
Was it difficult to wait so long for the animation to be finished?
After two and a half years, we have spent 30 million Euros and we have not seen one second of film. That was hard. And then you have to pretend because all your friends are going ‘are you sure what you’re doing?’ And you say ‘yes I’m sure’. One day they showed me like five seconds, which was just Arthur walking and talking and I had tears because oh God it’s working. And we just have to repeat that 2,700 times and you have the film.
What challenges did the animation produce?
What was complicated was to mix the 3D and the real nature because most of the flowers, trees, the river and the natural elements, 50 per cent of it is real. If today you want to do a normal 3D film like Cars or Happy Feet it takes two years and a half. And that is much more easy in fact.
You’ve worked with a young star before, casting Natalie Portman in Leon. How did Freddie Highmore compare?
I am very lucky to have met two geniuses, because Natalie Portman is a little genius and Freddie Highmore is too. You are very lucky to have this little British actor. You lose David Beckham, but you have Freddie Highmore now. I’ve worked with big main actors, much more childish than he was. He is very intelligent and focussed.
There are a certain number of hours that you are allowed to work with a child but that is the only restriction because in terms of working with them, I’ve worked with big main actors, much more childish than he was. He is very intelligent and focussed.
Natalie it was her first film, she was 11-years-old. She didn’t quite understand that you have a shot and then you have a reverse shot. And because she was a child I was always starting with her because the concentration is less long. There’s a scene where Leon is quite emotional and I do the shot on her first and she was very good and very emotional. Then I turn the camera but I don’t see her because I see only the back of her head. It was difficult for Jean Reno to give his performance and I understand after he said ‘do you mind to take your chewing gum out.’ Because she was doing the scene [he mimes open mouthed chewing with a slopping noise]. And he said to her ‘I’m playing, it’s my turn.’ And she realised for the first time the difference between the two, which was very funny.
Is it true you acted out a lot of Arthur And The Incredibles using the script before beginning the animation?
First you get the script and then the storyboard of the whole film. Then the design people have to invent all the characters, which came in three parts. After that you shoot the references. So I have an actor who plays Arthur and Selina and the King and all of them. Very good actors, very frustrated because at the beginning they say ‘Oh my God I’m going to shoot with Luc Besson.’ And then they realise that even though we shoot the references for eight months we will never see their faces. But I give all of them a little part in the film so they all snuck in. Then I did the editing, so I have a real film with the real actors.
What happened to that live action version?
I gave it to 350 nerds. [Laughs] They barely say hi. I think after a year they start to think ‘who is this guy who comes everyday?’ I want to strangle them at the beginning for the first year, but after that we became friends and played football and it’s OK. And we cried in the end when we separated.
Will you be separated for long or will the stories of Arthur continue onscreen?
I’m going to do two and three together, because I wrote four books. Book one and two is what you have seen and there are books number three and four, but they are too long so I’m going to make two films. There is lots of new adventure.
Will Evil M be in the sequel?
Yes. Actually, Maltazard is going to go up to the real world and he’s going to trap Arthur down in the land of the Minimoys. He’s going to be two metres fifty and he comes with some mosquitoes. Just by saying that I feel tired because it sounds good when you say it but then you actually have to do it.
Is it different making a film aimed at children?
I feel much more responsible when I do a film for children. When we say something children believe it so we have to be very careful. You can say to an adult ‘yesterday I was on the moon’ and he’s going to say ‘yeah, yeah, sure’. But if I say that to a three-year-old he’ll say ‘oh you’re so lucky’. So we have to be careful.
Also, I’m a dad, I have five children and I’m sure you’ll agree that the last couple of years in animated films there are so many jokes that are made for the parents or musical references that the kids don’t understand. I’m kind of sad about that because the big studios think, “well the parents have to come with the child and they’re going to get bored so we have to work for them”. And at the end of the day the film is not for the kids anymore. And I really thought about that when I started Arthur and I am happy to say that it’s a real film for kids. From the bottom of my heart for them. If the parents are happy with it then I’m happy for them but I made this for the kids and I think they deserve it.
What’s your favourite children’s movie?
Jungle Book. And when I’ve seen Jungle Book I don’t want to talk to my parents anymore I want to be raised by a panther and a bear. And I don’t want to go to school I want to go out into the forest.
How long did it take to write Arthur?
I have a very slow process. I have the ideas in my head but they can wait like sometimes for 10 years before I pick up a pen. Once I do that I’m very fast. Angel A, for example – I started to think about it and write a little 10 years ago. So usually I’m fast, it goes from two weeks to two months.
Is there some of yourself in the character of Arthur?
Yes. He’s 10-years-old in the ’60s and I was 10-years-old in the ’60s. So it’s a bit of me with my grandmother. I had a dog called Socrates. I thought it was the name of a cheese. He was my best friend. He never betrayed me, he never said anything to anyone and he was very patient. I always gave him the bad part so he was always playing the villain.
Have you made a conscious effort to make films in different genres?
I think it’s natural. If I listened to some of you I would do Leon 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and that’s not fun for me. If I do one genre I just want to try something else after. That’s the fun part of it.
Do you judge your own films when they are finished?
What I do every time I finish a film is I have a screening just by myself, just me in a room for the first time alone. And then I decide if I like it or not.
What’s your next project?
I have a bunch of friends now in France, young people I have picked up all around. Now we are 19 in the company and we produce 10 to 12 films so we are preparing a lot of things.