Not since Avatar has there been a 3D moviegoing experience that leaves viewers so breathless.
Based on the groundbreaking comic book series that inspired a generation of artists, writers and filmmakers comes the visually spectacular new adventure film from Luc Besson, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a vision a lifetime in the making.
Long before Luc Besson became one of the world’s foremost action auteurs — writing, producing and directing a string of iconic hits (The Professional, The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita and Lucy) — he was a young boy transfixed by a comic-book series called “Valerian and Laureline,” which debuted the decade before he happened upon it.
“ When I was 10 years old, I’d go to the kiosk every Wednesday. One time, I found this magazine called ‘Pilote.’ Inside, I discovered ‘Valerian and Laureline.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is this thing?’ That day, I fell in love with Laureline, and I wanted to be Valerian.”
Besson quickly became addicted to the engrossing graphic serials written by French author Pierre Christin and boldly illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières, devouring all 22 volumes.
“It was the 1970s, and it was the first time we saw this modern girl kicking ass,” he shares. “It was not about the superhero with the cape. This was much more light and free and enjoyable because Laureline and Valerian were like two normal cops today — except it’s the 28th century, and everything is weird and amazing.”
First published by Dargaud in 1967, the comic-book series on which the film is based inspired Besson not only to imagine his seminal The Fifth Element, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets—Production Information 6 it has also influenced other filmmakers to create some of the most iconic science fiction movies of the last half-century.
With his love of “Valerian and Laureline” always in the back of his mind, Besson grew up to become the creative force behind such influential action films as La Femme Nikita and Léon: The Professional. It wasn’t until he started filming his cult-classic, retro-futuristic dystopian epic The Fifth Element, that he considered taking his childhood fantasy hero off the shelf and began toying with the idea of adapting the graphic novels into a movie.
Besson laughs: “JeanClaude Mézières, who designed The Fifth Element, said to me, ‘Why are you doing this? You should do Valerian!” Constrained by the relatively primitive visual effects technology available in the 1990s, Besson knew it would be some time before he was able to create the wondrous “Valerian and Laureline” universe he knew the source material deserved.
“When I went back to read the comic books again,” he recounts, “I decided it was impossible to make the films. The technology at the time was not good enough to re-create all these worlds and aliens.”
It would take a seismic jolt and a huge evolutionary leap forward in visual effects to enable the filmmaker to bring “Valerian and Laureline” to life. After James Cameron invited Besson to the set of his space epic, Avatar, the French director made up his mind. “When Avatar arrived, it made everything seem possible. I remember thinking, ‘One day I will come back to sci-fi with these new tools, where the only limit is your imagination. That’s when I decided to make Valerian.”
A Visionary Approach: The World of Valerian
In order to bring his vision to life, Besson employed a unique approach to conceptualizing, creating and fleshing out the worlds and creatures that comprise Valerian universe.
Long before the cameras began rolling on the film’s production, Besson adopted a novel approach to formulating concept art for the film by building out the art in two distinct phases.
The first phase, commencing in 2010, entailed mobilizing hundreds of both amateur and professional artists to submit concept work via a competition. After narrowing down the general pool of admissions to a smaller group of designers in late 2010, Besson further pared down his selection to approximately twenty designers who met with him either in France, Los Angeles, or via Skype in order for Besson to share his vision of how to render cinematic the world of the comic book.
The artists then worked independently on developing their interpretations of Besson’s dream as a test to see if they would proceed to the second phase.
Ultimately, Besson selected six key artists to move to Phase 2 and further develop the drawings that Besson chose as part of the first phase of the concept art process.
From there, Besson provided directives and guidance to the six artists on how to combine, finesse and augment the selected drawings. By the end of the second phase, the drawings were predominantly the product of a collaborative effort between Besson and the six artists, with the exception of several drawings from the first phase, which were kept intact. This process lent itself to a thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive approach to creating painstakingly detailed designs that fit together into one cohesive vision.
A Wild Menagerie: The Species of Alpha Space Station
Also known as the City of a Thousand Planets, the Alpha Space Station is truly an intergalactic hub. “All the knowledge in the universe is there. It’s Wall Street, City of Science, United Nations, Broadway—everything is there,” explains Besson. “That makes it the most important place in the entire universe.”
An ever-expanding metropolis, its population includes thousands of species from across the galaxy, many of which are rooted in the mythology established in the graphic novels. Besson’s fertile imagination gave birth to the creation of dozens of astonishing intergalactic characters, including the Mylea jellyfish, the massive 300-ton aquatic Bromosaur, and a Khodar’Khan by the name of Igon Siruss — voiced by Goodman — who is the criminal mastermind of the intra-dimensional trade center known as Big Market. Among the most memorable of the aliens are the Doghan Daguis — a species of multilingual information brokers who exist as a trio and make a giant impression, even though they stand just under four-feet tall. “They sell information and speak 8,000 languages,” Besson explains. “One of them starts a sentence, the next one continues the line, and the third one finishes it, because they’re one brain in three pieces. No one likes the Doghan Daguis, but you can’t kill them. If you kill one, you kill the information.”
Besson also conjured up a squad of ruthlessly efficient mechanized soldiers called K-Trons, which serve as the personal bodyguards of Commander Filitt. According to the writer/director: “They never talk and only have two functions. When the dot is green, everything’s okay. As soon as the dot turns red, you have five seconds to lie on the floor because they’re going to shoot everyone. That’s how simple they are. If you control the K-Trons, then you truly have the power.”
Lensing at Cité du Cinema: Outer Space, Outside Paris
“There is no way to make this kind of movie quickly,” sums Besson.
For three years, he supervised artists, illustrators and designers as they developed meticulous concept art. He spent another year and a half devising painstakingly detailed storyboards.
Principal photography began on January 5, 2016, with shooting wrapping in June. “I’m glad we took the time to do this right,”
Besson says. “I’m a longdistance runner. I don’t do 100 meters; my distance is 10 miles, so I’m used to long shoots. For The Big Blue, we spent 24 weeks under water and 22 weeks on land. Joan of Arc took 24 weeks. I’m stubborn, so 100 days of shooting for Valerian felt almost easy.”
Valerian was shot entirely at Besson’s Cité du Cinema in the suburbs of Paris.
Launched by Besson and his partners in 2012, this facility serves as the largest film complex in France, designed to compete with Rome’s Cinecittà film facility and England’s Pinewood Studios. With nine soundstages spread across 65 acres, Cité du Cinema has everything needed to build a fantastical cinematic universe, according to producer Besson-Silla.
Designed by Besson, the Cité du Cinema campus includes three film schools, a restaurant and a daycare center, all aimed at fostering a nurturing atmosphere for cast and crew alike. “Instead of having trailers, we have green rooms furnished like nice, cozy apartments,” Besson-Silla offers, proudly.
“We covered the walls with the designs from the film so the actors could get different scenes inside their minds. Then they’d just take the elevator down and go straight to the set.”
The bustling collegial atmosphere yielded a variety of unexpected surprises, like the time Besson alum Natalie Portman walked past Besson-Silla dressed as Jackie Kennedy for her role in Jackie.
“I also remember one very special night,” the producer reflects. “Herbie Hancock filmed that day and in the evening we said, ‘Herbie, we do have this piano…’ So this genius played for the whole crew. We had a lot of special little moments like that. Everybody was there to make a film, but in a good and nice way.”
Welcome to the 28th Century: A Unified Design Vision
To bring his childhood inspiration to life, Besson assembled a core team of longtime collaborators. “The most important thing was the coordination among the production designer, costume designer and the DP,” Besson states. “If you treat each of these elements separately, you’re in trouble. The synergy has to come from all three, so every day, I wanted the DP to see the costumes; I wanted the costume designer to see the sets. We were constantly exchanging information.”
This core team consisted of veteran costume designer Olivier Bériot, whose outfits graced Lucy and the Besson-produced thriller Taken; longtime cinematographer Thierry Arbogast; and production designer Hugues Tissandier, who had also previously teamed with Besson on Lucy.
Production wrapped, the boy who began dreaming of a space saga all those decades ago is satisfied he has done “Valerian and Laureline’s” creators justice.
Besson reflects that he has long envisioned Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as 3D escapist entertainment at its most mind-blowing: “I want people who work all day to see this movie in the theater and forget everything for two hours, like they went on a holiday.”
While the vintage source material remains inextricably embedded in the film, Besson has imprinted the science-fiction genre with his own unmistakably vibrant aesthetic. With a technology that has finally caught up to Besson’s vision, not since Avatar has there been a 3D moviegoing experience that leaves viewers so breathless.
The director took pains to ground the cavalcade of outlandish alien spectacle in a compelling human partnership. “We show you this crazy world in the 28th century, but the characters’ lives, feelings and emotions are ones that everybody can relate to,” he concludes. “You will love Valerian and Laureline because of who they are and what they go through together.”
Within minutes of meeting Dane DeHaan, who exploded onto the screen as Spidey’s nemesis in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Besson knew he had discovered the titular character of his boyhood inspiration. “I’d seen a couple of Dane’s films and liked him as an actor,” Besson says. “The first time I met him at a restaurant, he smiled, said ‘Hi,’ and that was it. I knew. The tone of his voice, the sparkle in his eyes and his smile — I thought ‘My God. This guy is Valerian.’”
DeHaan gravitated to the role because it gave him a chance to portray a swashbuckling space-age investigator who also happens to be a hopeless romantic. “Valerian has a huge crush on Laureline, but he has a history of being a player,” says the actor. “The movie’s not only about saving the universe, it’s also about Valerian’s mission to convince Laureline that they should spend the rest of their lives together.”
For the role of the intrepid Laureline, Besson needed to find an actress who could live up to the spirit of empowerment embodied by our heroine. Laureline is no shrinking violet, no damsel in distress — she is wholly equal to Valerian: brave, strong, whip-smart, and sharing in a 50/50 partnership in their crime-fighting endeavors. It would take someone wildly unique to embody the character that Besson had fallen in love with as a boy.
From then-unknown performers from Natalie Portman to Milla Jovovich, Besson has a knack for recognizing actresses with potential to break out as action stars.
By choosing his dream Laureline, Besson would place her in rarified ranks as the next global star. Ultimately, he chose model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, who has made her mark on small dramas such as Paper Towns and big-budget blockbusters like Suicide Squad.
“I knew Cara from the modeling world, and my first concern was to make sure she was serious,” Besson notes. “Cara’s gorgeous, but I had to know if she had the capacity, physically. Could she act? Did she really want to?”
After allowing Delevingne a rigorous audition process, Besson determined the answer was a resounding “yes.” Recalls the British actress: “Luc put me Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets—Production Information 9 through trials like you’d have at drama school. He’d ask me to become an animal and that type of work. It was very old-school, and so very cool.”