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INTERVIEW: Luc Besson had to talk his producers into casting Rihanna in Valerian

William Mullally

Published: Updated:

Close your eyes, picture an ‘indie’ film. What comes to mind? Probably something low budget, character-based, do it yourself, filmed on an iPhone like 2015’s Tangerine. Definitely not a $200 million plus science fiction space opera based on a comic book that has more in common with Avatar (2009) than any film since, right?

But that’s exactly what Luc Besson’s has made with Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets. And why not? When you’ve got 50 credits to your name, including the massive hits The Fifth Element (1997), Lucy (2014), Taken (2008) and The Transporter (2002), who needs the studio system to make the film you’d been dreaming of for years?

If you’ve heard the words ‘Valerian’ and ‘Besson’ together before, it was probably back when Besson hired Jean-Claude Mézières, the artist for the legendary French comic book series Valérian and Laureline, to work on the Fifth Element, itself greatly inspired by the comic. Besson had loved the comic since he was a young boy, but when Mézières asked him to make it, he said it couldn’t be done.

But the idea stayed in his head. After a while, he finally wrote a script. And he was happy with it. But then James Cameron invited him to the set of Avatar.

William Mullally
William Mullally

“I’m going to make an example that’s very easy to understand,” he tells me. “If you’re a race runner, and you run, and progress, and you have the feeling that, yeah, you’re pretty good. You watch your time, and every week you make it better, and there’s a certain moment that you feel that maybe you can go to the Olympic games because you feel good. And then you watch TV and you see Usain Bolt. And then you say, ‘I’m not going to go this year, I’m going in four years’. Because this guy is too strong, and he won’t even see me during the race.”

Besson threw out the scrip.

“Sometimes I think it’s worth it, and wise, to say, ‘I’m going to work four more years and I hope I’m ready in four years.’ That’s exactly what happened to me. The script was not bad, but it was just not good enough, that’s all.”

But James Cameron’s Avatar didn’t discourage him—far from it. It opened up his mind to what film could be in the 21st century.

“Before he invited me on the set of Avatar, for me in my head, these kinds of things were just impossible to do. And by watching him doing it, and seeing how technical, and practical, and organized it was, it makes it human. Like a normal human being can do it! He’s a pretty normal guy. He’s very bright and intelligent, but he’s just a man making a film. So suddenly it looked human—I said to myself, ‘if I’m well organized, if I take my time, it’s feasible’. But before I came on the set, it was just impossible to make, for me.”

His old beloved comic continued to inspire him, and finally, he was ready to make it into the biggest-budgeted independent film ever made. But could you call it a lifetime dream? Not exactly.

“The kid who was reading Valerian doesn’t want to make a film about it. It’s only Luc the adult who wanted to make a film about it.”

That doesn’t mean that he’s no longer in touch with the boy he once was.

“I talk with him often,” Besson says. “I know him pretty well, he’s a nice kid. We have a lot of conversations together. There’s a philosopher who said that the child is the father of the man—everything that the man knows, it’s the child who taught him. I respect my father, and my father is this little boy. I think I made the film for him, in fact. I hope he enjoys it.”

He pauses.

“He better enjoy it, or I’ll slam him.”

William Mullally
William Mullally

Casting Rihanna, Cara, and Dane

With a budget big enough to fund an actual expedition to space, you would expect Besson to have been saddled with big stars, chasing as big a box office as possible. But Besson is never one to compromise. In fact, he doesn’t even believe that big stars do much help these days.

For a pivotal role in the heart of the film, Besson wanted Rihanna, the pop icon with a mercurial reputation and few films to her name.

“Bubble is the ultimate artist—that’s the part. And for me, Rihanna is the ultimate—she’s the queen. I thought about her from the beginning. And when we started the cast, I said, ‘for Bubble, I’d love to contact Rihanna.’”

His producers didn’t share his enthusiasm. “They said, ‘what’s your second choice?’ I said ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Luc, come on.’ I said, ‘Why not? Let’s try it. Let’s see!’”

“The first question we asked to the manager is if she’s interested in shooting in the film. If she’s not interested, then don’t even give her the script! But the guy came back and said, ‘definitely yes’.”

And how was Rihanna during filming? The answer surprised even Besson himself.

“On set,” he pauses, “she was normal. Even me, at the beginning, I said, ‘I hope it’s not going to be Rihanna and the great orchestra’. But on the first day, she looked at her entourage and said, ‘you, out.’ No one was on set. She came on set by herself."

William Mullally
William Mullally

“So she said, ‘Luc, ok, what do you need, can you help me with this?’ It was a normal relationship between an actor and an actress. When she got emotional she let me get in. She was perfect.”

“The fact that she is the queen of soul is a handicap, in fact. I don’t use that. She’s not singing in the film. She’s not a superstar in the film. She has a specific role. It’s a handicap. And my concern with her was if she wanted to be in the film for the right reason or not, and she did. “

“She’s said, ‘Luc, I’m a beginner.’ And coming from her, that’s pretty funny, because she’s able to sing a cappella in front of 20,000 people, but she knew that when it comes to acting, and being directed by someone else, she’s brand new, she’s a newcomer. And the shooting was in fact, very simple.”

He may have gone easy on Rihanna, but for the co-star of the film, Cara Delevigne, herself more famous for modeling than film, Besson did not making things so simple.

“I tested Cara a lot at first. I tortured her. She cried a lot, but I needed to know if she was able to handle it for six months. I need to know who she is, and I need to go inside. At the end of the tests, which was a couple of weeks, I can tell you she is not a model, at all. She’s a natural-born actress. She’s finally home.”

For Valerian himself, Besson chose Dane Dehaan, a talented young actor with little star power. Again, Besson couldn’t have cared less.

“So I have a role, and for me the best question is, who is the best guy in town to play Valerian? Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve seen them on tests, on pictures, and the only one that I fell in love with and said ‘Yes, that’s the Valerian for me!” is Dane Dehaan. So I chose him. And after, the question of if he’s popular, if he’s not popular—it doesn’t matter, you just have to work with it. Is it practical? No. And so what? I’m not going to take the best guy because it’s not practical? It doesn’t make sense!”