Luc Besson on VALERIAN, Building a Better Spaceship, and More (Exclusive)

Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again–forever.”

When Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rustin Cohle spoke those words in 2014’s  True Detective, they had a distinctly pessimistic bent to them. But when you apply them to the lens of pop culture, specifically to the work of director Luc Besson, they take on an entirely new meaning. The Paris-born writer-director is hard at work on his latest film,  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planetsa big budget, sprawling sci-fi epic based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ cult classic graphic novel Valérian and Laureline. The comic, which Besson discovered and fell in love with at the tender age of 10, didn’t just inspire Besson’s 1997 hit  The Fifth Element, but also seminal works of space fantasy like Star Wars too. Now, things are coming full circle as Besson is bringing the criminally under-the-radar comic to audiences all over the world, and it looks like the shot of adrenaline that genre film sorely needs.[brightcove video_id=”5205453389001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”2bfa565b-5412-4cfd-9211-6269880b8a5e”]

With a $180 million budget, Valerian is the biggest budget European-made film of all time, and every dollar of it can be seen up on the screen. The film revolves around two spacecops (spatiotemporal agents, if you’re nasty), Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who work as special government operatives for Galaxity, an organization that maintain order in various human territories across the universe. As partners, the two could not be more different: Valerian fancies himself something of a swashbuckling lothario, constantly trying to sweep his partner of her feet. Laureline, on the other hand, is more business-minded, focused on doing her job (i.e. kicking ass and taking names) rather than succumbing to the would-be Don Juan with whom she shares an intergalactic beat. Together, the two are tasked with a mission to the sprawling megalopolis of Alpha, the titular City of a Thousand Planets, where thousands of different races from the far-flung reaches of the universe live together to create a city of the future. Except not everyone agrees with this experiment, and dangerous forces behind the scenes threaten to undo it all unless Valerian and Laureline can save the day.

Recently, I visited Luc Besson in the editing bay at the Beverly Hills-based post-production facility Wildfire Studios. After pouring himself a cup of tea and grabbing a biscuit, Besson led me to a large, tony screening room where he screened the teaser trailer, which launches worldwide on Thursday. Those who are familiar with the technicolor, sci-fi majesty of Mézières’ artwork, should put down a towel before watching the trailer as they’ll likely be drooling within seconds. The trailer is largely bereft of dialogue, and goes by in a flash, but left my jaw agape in a strange mixture of awe, wonderment, and sheer joy. It’s scored by a truly memorable song from a The Beatles that Besson has asked us to keep a secret for the time being. This marks the first time that The Beatles have licensed a master of one of their songs to be used in a film trailer, according to Besson. What follows is a stunning array of images showcasing the teeming biodiversity of Alpha, the wildly inventive futuristic technology used by our heroes, and our favorite spacecops kicking, punching, and snarking their way through any and all obstacles in their way. Oh, and there’s a glimpse of Rihanna in some sort of futuristic cabaret that looks like a wickedly good time. In particular, the banter between Valerian and Laureline, gives us a sense of the playful tone Besson is striving to achieve, and had me shaking my fist at the sky because summer 2017 is so far away.

For Besson, Valerian is his dream project, something which he has sought to bring to the big screen for years and years. You can see the influence of the comics on Besson’s previous films, with a focus on both strong female characters and fast-paced, staccato dialogue. Besson and his studio, EuropaCorp, are betting big on Valerian, having licensed nine of the comic book volumes for what could eventually be a trilogy, according to MovieFone. Despite its name, this first film is largely adapted from Ambassador of the Shadows, the sixth volume of the series, which starts with our dynamic duo protecting Earth’s ambassador at a political function, and winds up in a kidnapping plot with potentially universe-threatening implications. (There’s also a small, bluish hedgehog like alien creature that can poop out multiple copies of anything it eats; whether or not that’ll be in the movie remains to be seen, so sleep easy for now Baby Groot.)

“Even if you read [Ambassador of the Shadows] in 25 minutes, the base of the story is very cinematographic,” Besson told me when I asked him why that was the best access point to introduce audiences to these characters. “It’s a big one for Valerian and Laureline’s relationship, that’s also important. It’s the most open one, you have a lot of creatures in it, so it’s a good one to start on.”

Besson has most definitely done his homework, too. In addition to a lifetime of living, breathing, and dreaming these characters, the director  revealed to  CinemaBlend that he created a massive 600-page creative bible that answers practically any conceivable question one might have about the world of Valerian. This includes details on the seemingly infinite amount of alien races populating this expansive universe, of which Besson explained to me there are more than 100 in the film. Besson confirmed that we’ll see the Shingouz, a race of conniving little information brokers that we’re never entirely sure if we can trust. When asked for his favorite of the myriad alien races populating this world, Besson was quick to answer: the Kortan Dahuk, a peaceful, technologically advanced race that was the first to make contact with mankind. Besson also revealed to CinemaBlend that The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier has a guest starring role as one of the Kortan Dahuk, so keep your eyes peeled for that sneaky cameo.

The Shingouz in all of their scheming glory | Image: Cinebook (above); EuropaCorp (below)

Bringing all these alien races and intergalactic cityscapes to life was no small task either. While more than 20 different practical sets were built in the Paris studios where Besson and company shot the film, much of Valerian will be brought to life through visual effects wizardry. Though the film is completely edited and clocks in at a run time of two hours and nine minutes, the arduous task of finalizing VFX is underway. Three different post-production studios—ILM, Weta, and Rodeo FX—are hard at work on what Besson told me are 2,700 VFX shots that will be included in the final film. Of those 2,700, a mere 200 are completed, so there’s plenty of work to be done between now and July 21, 2017. Yet what was perhaps most shocking to learn is that none of the shots featured in tomorrow’s teaser trailer are final VFX shots that will appear in the film. Considering how jaw-droppingly gorgeous the teaser looked, I cannot wait to see the final product.

One of those products of which Besson is proudest is The Intruder, the massive spaceship which Valerian and Laureline use to travel all over the known (and unknown) universe. Here’s an exclusive GIF of the gigantic craft flying overheard:

The Intruder, also known as Astroship XB982 in the comics, made its debut in 1969’s The Great Collector. Made in China in the early 2700s, the Intruder is an intergalactic spaceship allows Valerian and Laureline to travel anywhere in both space and time (up to 30 centuries), and the duo has used it to travel more than 100 million lightyears since first acquiring it. While the rest of us use Siri or Waze to navigate the unknown reaches of our world, The Intruder is equipped with an on-board supercomputer named Alex, who assists the duo on all of their missions, giving them valuable information and a hard time because, like all great AI, she was programmed with a sense of humor. What makes the ship especially important is the fact that the XB 982 has been assigned to them for the rest of their natural lives, meaning that if they lose it, they will be immediately dismissed and stranded wherever they are.

“When I was 10, the first thing that would strike me was the spaceship because it looks very cool, kind of simple, but has a shape that you would never forget,” Besson told me. “And as soon as we put it on shape, on digital, you can feel that it’s made for movies. It’s the third character of the film because when you are a team, you have one spaceship assigned to you and that will be your spaceship: you have to take care of it, you have to repair it, you have to do everything with it, and if you lose it, you are on foot.”

Now if only I could get my hands on an Intruder of my very own and travel to July 2017. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for watching Thursday’s teaser trailer on a loop until then.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters on July 21, 2017.

Images: EuropaCorp

Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of books about Star Wars and the Avengers. Follow him on Twitter ( @Osteoferocious).

Travel back in time to when we interviewed the Valerian cast at Comic-Con!

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