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Valerian

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks as spectacular as The Fifth Element

Luc Besson returns to his first love

EuropaCorp

Jean-Claude Mézières sits quietly next to me in the front row of a tiny, impromptu screening room built inside a flimsy tent on an upper floor of the Javits Center in New York City during New York Comic Con.


He seems moderately excited, if not slightly nervous.

I ask him if he’s seen the clips for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that we’re about to watch.

"No, I haven’t seen anything," he says, smiling. "Well, I was there when they filmed some, but I haven’t seen what it looks like completed."

Born and raised in Paris, Mézières co-created the serialized French sci-fi comic strip Valerian and Laureline in 1967. The comic, which ran until 2010, became a major influence on a wide variety of science fiction, including, some believe, Star Wars.

Among those drawn to the genre by the comic was director Luc Besson.

He told a gathering of journalists after the screening that he started reading comics when he was 10, around the same time that Valerian and Laureline got its start.

Jean-Claude Mézières at NYCC 2016
Jean-Claude Mézières holds the original copy of the first magazine in which Luc Besson discovered his comics.
Brian Crecente/Polygon

"At the time it was two pages every Wednesday in the magazine," Besson said. "You basically had to wait six months to read the entire album."

But it was all he had to escape his world, a country that offered up just two television channels and a bedroom with a view of rolling farmlands.

"I was living in the countryside and when I opened my window I had cows," he said. "But every Wednesday you have Valerian and Laureline and you’re like, ‘Yeah!’ It builds your imagination, your sense of beauty. It’s important. It’s almost your main food when you’re 10 years old. That and music.

"I was in love with it when I was 10. Probably the first time I fell in love was with Laureline."

The screening

Once the tiny screening room filled up with a dozen or so journalists and Mézières, Besson walked to the front of the room to address the gathering.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets poster EuropaCorp

"It’s six minutes. It’s not a trailer; it’s, like, four scenes," he told us. "I chose the scenes not because they are great but because they have less special effects. It’s just a way to present Valerian and Laureline [rather] than to try and impress you. The special effects will be finished in March. So there is nothing finished. You know how hard it is for a director to show [scenes] which are not finished. But that’s OK, this is for you.

"Just enjoy it, remember everything is temp. I can’t even watch it. But in five months it will be good."

With that, Besson walked from the little tent, turned and zipped us in.

The first clip opens on a scene of Valerian standing inside what appeared to be a space station. He’s talking to someone over an intercom built into his helmet, looking for the quickest route to a location. It turns out that route is through a wall.

Next we watch a clip of Laureline taking down two armed guards in a spectacular, though short, fight scene.

Shungouz from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
The Doghan Daguis from Valerian.
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Other moments in the clips show off the duo’s XB982 Astroship, the alien trio known as the Doghan Daguis (in the comic they're called the Shungouz), an impressive desert planet, a massive alien marketplace and the titular Empire of a Thousand Planets. One scene gives us a look at Ethan Hawke as a sci-fi pimp and Rihanna as, well, we’re not sure yet. The clips wrap up with the second half of Valerian’s wall conundrum, with the hero closing his helmet and then blasting through not just the wall, but a half-dozen wildly different settings as he sort of jets across the stunning scenery.

The first teaser for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is expected to be released Nov. 10, with another teaser in January and then a full trailer in March.

I couldn’t help but notice Mézières smiling as he watched his characters brought to life on the screen in front of him.

"So what did you think?" I ask him as the room goes dark and the sudden silence is broken by the sound of a zipper releasing us from the tent.

"Give me a chance to breathe," he says, laughing.

Avatar

Besson first met Mézières when the director was filming his first space opera, The Fifth Element.

"I called him to see if he wanted to participate," Besson said. "He’s the one who said, ‘Why don’t you do Valerian rather than this fucking Fifth Element?’ But at the time you just couldn’t make it. Five or seven of the characters are human, but all the rest are aliens. The technology just wasn’t ready."

It wasn’t until James Cameron’s Avatar came out that Besson knew he’d be able to turn Valerian and Laureline into the sort of movie he envisioned, he said.

In some ways, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

"Fifth Element was the last film done with old-fashioned special effects," Besson said. "It was a nightmare, a nightmare. And then six months later, digital arrived.

"I was very frustrated when Fifth Element was released a year later and you could do everything [digitally]."

Cameron actually invited Besson onto the set of Avatar as he was filming to show off the technology being used. When Avatar was finally released in 2009, Besson said he was "totally depressed." But after a month or so, he pulled himself out of it.

"I said, ‘OK, let’s start again,’" he said. "So I start again."

Besson said that moment was about a year after Avatar’s release. It was a moment, he said, when everything clicked and he felt comfortable with both the new technology and the concepts he had for the Valerian movie. It was important for him to get to that point, he said.

Avatar main character
A scene from Avatar.
20th Century Fox

"You need to be sure you have the energy, that you love it enough to know no matter what, I’m going to hold this thing for two years and love it," he said. "You have to be sure. I love [Valerian and Laureline] and I didn’t want to betray them."

Mézières said that’s the most important thing to him as well.

"I don’t want to have the feeling that I’m betrayed," he said. "It’s very important that the base is the same."

That said, Mézières added that he knew it wouldn’t be exactly what he drew or a detailed retelling of some of the stories laid out over the course of the comic’s more-than-40-year run.

"There are a lot of things I don’t draw," he said. "I create the entrance and the exit, that’s it. In between the frames many things happen.

"I think a good comic book should bring ideas to its readers, but not tell everything."

Special Effects

The Fifth Element had 188 special effects shots over the course of the movie, Besson told us, and a lot of them were practical. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has 2,734 special effects shots. There are so many, in fact, that Besson decided to break them up into three types and send them out for bids. Ultimately, Weta Digital, Industrial Light & Magic and Rodeo FX signed up to provide the effects.

"I don’t think anyone could have taken the entire bid by itself," Besson said.

ILM is doing the first 25 minutes of the movie, which is essentially one big scene that takes place at an intergalactic, interdimensional marketplace. Weta is handling the bulk of the rest of the movie, which mostly takes place on an 18-mile-long space station. And Rodeo FX is doing all of the spaceships and technology.

Besson said the setup, especially one that has both ILM and Weta working on the same movie, came with some surprising benefits.

"They both know they will be shown in the same film and want to be the best," Besson said. "It’s a nice competition and they’re giving them best, believe me."

A boy and a girl

While the special effects are sure to help make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as visually rich as The Fifth Element, the heart of the film’s story is its two main characters: Valerian and Laureline.

Besson said he was able to cast Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as Valerian pretty fast.

Valerian comic from 1994
Empire of a Thousand Planets
Dargaud

"I just met him and after 10 seconds I knew, just his voice, his eyes, the way he is, it’s just him for sure," he said. "But you can’t hire the guy without knowing who is going to be playing the woman because you need to have the match, so I waited for a couple of months."

When Besson first met Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad), he wasn’t as quickly convinced that she was a good fit for Laureline.

"I was skeptical at the beginning because she was a model," he said. "We met maybe 10 times and talked about everything but the film, because I wanted to see if she was serious. I found out she wanted to be a actor from the age of 5."

Eventually, she won him over, and Delevingne and DeHaan were cast as the two.

Besson said one of the things that drew him to the comic was his love of those two key characters and the way they were portrayed.

Valerian comic from 1991
Ambassador of the Shadows
Dargaud

"It’s a boy and a girl, they have fun, they love each other, but they don’t want to say it," Besson said. "He’s a puppy. She’s kind of like very old-fashioned. For her, you fall in love and you have kids and that’s it.

"That’s what I love. I love to have that in the 28th century with aliens. It’s very human. That’s the thing I’ve wanted to keep since the beginning."

With the main characters cast, Besson went about trying to turn the many pages of the comic into a single feature-length movie. Ultimately, he ended up taking some elements from a half-dozen different collections of the comic, little things like side characters. Most of the story, though, was drawn from Ambassador of the Shadows, volume six of the series. He said the comic creators had some notes on the screenplay, but they were all positive.

Backstory

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets features about 60 major aliens (all told there are hundreds, Besson said). Each of those aliens has their own backstory and history, all put together in a 15-page dossier.

Laureline EuropaCorp
Cara Delevingne as Laureline.


"We have where they come from, even with the coordinates in space," Besson said. "How they reproduce, what they eat, which city they live in. For 60 of them."

The dossiers were handed out to the actors to read over, especially the ones who play the cops of this mammoth city.

"When they interact with them, they really know who they are," he said. "They know their weapons and how sneaky they are."

Valerian EuropaCorp
Dane DeHaan as Valerian.

There are also 60 pages that walk the actors through the more-than-100-year history of Alpha, the massive space station.

"It’s a book," Besson said. "I gave it to Dane and Cara and said, ‘You have to learn all of this.’

"It’s very useful when you have a green screen."

In the movie, special operatives Valerian and Laureline head to the sprawling intergalactic city of Alpha of 17 million inhabitants to try and stop a threat that places the entire human race in great danger.

"What the fuck?"

There may have been a time, Besson said, that he would have been concerned about the French-ness of the film, but he now feels that Americans, the French and the world have grown a lot since 1997 and the release of The Fifth Element.

He said that when he created The Fifth Element, the French hated him because they thought he had become an American.

"But when I released it here, I realized how French I was," he said.

Besson talked about a screen test he did for the movie in Phoenix. He said he sat in and watched the audience react.

"There was one big white guy with popcorn," Besson said, mimicking someone holding a massive bucket in front of him.

the Diva from The Fifth Element
Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element.
Columbia Pictures

When the movie’s president of the universe came on the screen, and the guest saw the president was black, Besson said the man sort of shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked around.

Then when the blue alien Diva Plavalaguna started to sing opera music in the movie, Besson said the guy said, "What the fuck?" then grabbed his son and left.

"The thing is," he added, "now with the internet we hear Bob Marley while eating sushi and watching an American show at the same time.

"Twenty years later and it’s much more [...] we’re all a bit American, a bit European, which I love. The difference between where I was and the American audience was kind of far with Fifth Element, but not with this one.

"I’m still crazy, but the world got crazier."

Imagination

Jean-Claude Mézières / Luc Besson, NYCC 2016
Jean-Claude Mézières (left) and Luc Besson prepare to sign autographs at NYCC 2016.
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Mézières sat next to Besson during the roundtable interview with press, after getting his first look at his characters brought to life in a feature film.

Eventually, it seemed, the experience of his first viewing sank in.

"It was an excellent surprise, really," he said. "This is the first time I have seen the really finished sequence.

"When Valerian is jumping through all of those special effects [at the end of the clips] … I tried to do something like that with my pen and ink, and it was slow. It wasn’t worth it.

"[Besson] improvised like a musician on the base of the music."

Now Mézières anticipates how the wide world, those who have never read or even heard of his comics, will receive the film.

"We will see, for the people who don’t know the book, how they will react," he said. "But the fact that Luc wants to make a movie out of it shows that the quality of my comic book is imagination. It’s not just a French version of a comic book; it’s something different."

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