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Interview with Luc Besson
[At Besson's request, the more usual format of half an hour of one-on-one interview then questions from the audience for the remaining 45 minutes was abandoned, and the interview consisted entirely of questions from the audience, with Richard Jobson managing proceedings. The transcript has been edited for clarity]
Question: A couple of years ago you were reported to have said you were only going to make ten feature films and now you're on eight. Is this true?
Luc Besson: I promise I will do two more.
Richard Jobson: Won't you change your mind?
LB: No, that's it. I mean come on, I'm tired! I'm exhausted just watching. (To audience) you are in the best place.
RJ: What are you going to do? Are you going to go back to being a diver?
LB: I'm still wet...no, no...I want to produce. I produce about three or four films a year. I love that because I work one hour per day. And I see the director at the end of the day and I just say: "Oh yes, change this, and that's good, fine..." It's great, I love that.
Q: I'm intrigued why you're only going to make 10 films only? How serious were you when you made that remark?
LB: There are a few directors that I really loved who made like five, six great movies, but are still shooting and they're not good anymore and I'm sad. I want to tell them: "Stop, please." You watch everything in nature - even us, or sports people - you grow and have a lot of things to say. And then one day you just say the same thing over and over, so I think it's just natural and elegant at a certain point to say: "I've said it already...and goodbye."
In my head, the fact that I have only two more films to make is pushing me. I say: "Oh my God, I've only got two more films so I have to say something that I really mean and I have to put it all in the last two films." The last two will be very good, I hope.
Q: But why 10?
LB: Because 10 is good, you know, the 10 commandments, it's good in a library - 10 DVDs...and Snow-white and the 10 Dwarfs.
Q: Can actors and actresses actually help with the writing? I remember reading the original notes for Leon and there was a lot of conflict with Natalie Portman's parents wanting things changed. Is it collaborative or do you just go in and change what you want?
RJ: So is it collaborative experience, or is Luc a fascist?
LB: I think that I am a collaborative fascist. With Natalie it was different,
she was only 11-years-old and Leon was her first film. And it's about
a young girl who takes guns and shoots everywhere, so her parents were
very scared, they didn't know me very well. So I think that's why they
were on my back for a few weeks.
RJ: I remember interviewing you at the time of the film and you got really pissed off with me because I kept on at you about subject of the relationship between the Jean Reno character and Natalie's character and you said to me: "Well it's your interpretation that there's something sexual there, it's not in the film." Do you still stand by that?
RJ: And is that why you felt you needed to change the film with the director's cut?
LB: No, I'm not responsible for what people think. The story is about two kids, a girl and a boy. They're both 12 years old, in their minds, and they're both lost and they love each other. And the rest is just your problem.The most important line for me in Léon is the one we've just seen where her conscience says to her "you didn't see what it was, you saw what you wanted to see".
That's always the dilemma. Either you believe her or you don't. Maybe she has seen something but nobody else has seen it? You can ask yourself questions all night like: "If God wants to stop the war why doesn't he just show up in the middle of the battlefield? " That would be perfect. He's just shown up, he's saying: "I'm here, don't fight." I think that no one would fight, everyone would be down on their knees saying "oh my God".
RJ: And the idea that small people can change things. Small people can become big people?
LB: It's always the small people who change things. It's never the politicians or the big guys. I mean, who pulled down the Berlin wall? It was all the people in the streets. The specialists didn't have a clue the day before. If you read the newspaper a few days before...nothing...no one was talking about it. And even the French revolution, we just said "That's enough", and took the king.
The famous line about the French king was that he didn't even know what was going on. He said: "Is it a revolt?" And the other guy said: "No, it's a revolution." The king was thinking it was nothing.
RJ: Something we've never had here.
Q: What do you think of directors repeating themselves, and why did you feel the need to do a director's cut?
LB: Let me remember why...I was happy with the first one, it was mine, my director's cut, no one asked me to cut it. But at the same time you still have 25 minutes that nobody has seen. I think it was the beginning of the summer; in the summer France is like a desert, the people are on the beach, but there are some poor guys who stay in the cities to work, so we decided to make a long version, an extended version, to play in a just a few theatres for the people who stayed. Why are you laughing? It's true!
RJ: It's totally ridiculous.
LB: No, it's true. So we had like five screens and people loved it and sent their friends and then the Japanese called and said: "We want the long version, please."
Q: Have you ever met the real Jacques Mayol? He's in London this weekend.
LB: He's in London? Yes, of course I've met him. That's the first thing I did when I wanted to make the Big Blue, I contacted him and met him in Marseille. And I said: "I'd love to make a film about you."
Q: Is he quite a different person in real life from how he is portrayed in the film?
LB: I've not seen him for a few years but a big part was really inspired by him.
Q: He's at the London International Dive Show at Olympia this weekend.
RJ: (to audience member) What did you like about the Big Blue?
Q: It was very inspiring. Inspiring character. Visually, totally incredible. Amazing person, the whole sort of man association with the sea and whether that can really be embodied in a person or not. I don't know how much of a fantasy it is or whether somebody can really be like that.
RJ: He's good Luc. Why don't you go and sit there and get him up here?
Q: Why did you decide you wanted to be a film director?
LB: Originally I wanted to be a diver and take care of dolphins, but
then I had an accident and couldn't dive anymore. I was 17 and I wondered
what I was going to do. You know sometimes you're in a position of risk
and you feel that you can turn good or bad, or you can do all kinds of
stupid things? You're 17. So I tried to concentrate on what I could do.
So, I said: "OK, let's go on the set." So I went on the set and the first thing that I remember is that there was this big truck outside and then I saw the cables which were like, umbilical, and you found the set by following the cables and it was like..."wow". And then you arrived in a room and it was full of light and I fell in love. I was living 60km from Paris in a small city. The day after I went back to see my mum and told her that I was going to make films and stop school and 'bye. And I did it! Very soon after I made a short film and it was very, very bad. I wanted to prove that I could do something, so I made a short film. That was in fact my main concern, to be able to show that I could do one.
A very good friend of mine watched the film and said: "Luc, there is one thing you have to learn and that is when you have nothing to say - shut up!" So I decided not to make films any more and to be an assistant. So I started as a third and then a second and then a first. The funny thing is the farther I went, the longer I thought it would take to become a director. Because the more you know, the more you see. After two years I was thinking: "It's going to take me ten years to be a director." The confidence? It came two years ago.
Q: Why did you chose to do the story of Joan of Arc?
RJ: I guess if you look at your career, it's been urban thrillers, nature films, sci-fi pictures, suddenly there you are doing a huge historical drama, an epic. Why did you choose to go into that area?
LB: I'm always guided by the characters. The character. Joan of Arc's story, it's insane. So that's maybe the relationship between the characters that we were talking about. I'm always attracted by people who are lost in their time. I think it helps us. We see this is her life and it should not be like this. I learn something from that all the time.
Q: Is there a consistency in female characterisation of the female characters in your films? From Nikita all the way through to Joan of Arc.
LB: I'm more attracted by a female character because I think that now for 30 or 40 years the image of the male actor has been as a strong man, and is most of the time about force and strength. And I'm attracted by the weakness, how they (women) can fight when they don't have that. And the ways they have to find to be able to fight for something or say something - it's richer. It's much more interesting.
RJ: Your male characters have been a lot softer too, haven't they? They haven't been typically macho, French characters.
LB: The problem I think is that I like the feminine part of the male character and the male part of the female character.
RJ: So film number nine might be a transsexual awakening?
LB: From space.