Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a cinematic sensory spectacle of the highest order from visionary filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy). At the center of all this eye candy, giving it a heart and soul, are stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. The trio have an artistic shorthand that was even apparent when we caught up with them at the film’s recent press day.
The dynamic duo of Besson’s latest out-of-this-world adventure finds DeHaan portraying the title character and the British actress/model portraying his partner — as an agent of galaxy law — but also it’s teased they connect in areas of the heart.
Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets is based on a legendary comic book series. The titular locale was born out of the International Space Station, who grew as more and more species of souls connected and stayed to add their unique stamp on the growing interstellar until it was too big to exist in Earth’s orbit and it was set loose as its own entity and given the titular moniker.
Hundreds of years later, our dynamic duo seem to be the only two who can save the City of a Thousand Planets from utter destruction… and so our action begins.
Besson has been a fan of the Valerian comic and it has been his dream for some time to bring it to the big screen. He knew it faced several challenges. “It’s an unusual couple and an unusual hero,” Besson admitted.
“He’s obviously not Schwarzenegger. He’s a different kind of a hero, maybe a little bit more European in a way — more fragile. I love that. [Laureline] is the guarded one. I need someone who is most of the time what we have in a couple. I really want to have this flavor. I want the salt and the sugar in the same story.”
Delevingne is relatively new to the green and blue screen work, while DeHaan on the other hand is no stranger. But, both felt this was equally a unique experience.
“Anything that I get to learn during the movie, whether that be sword work, or where it’s learning a new skill — I’m the first one to dive in headfirst to it. It was important to feel like we were two people that could potentially save the world and save the universe,” Delevingne said. “I would’ve done it forever. It really was so much fun.”
There was one particular scene, known as the “Big Market,”, which featured our heroes on one dimension with special glasses serving as the only means to see the other souls they were interacting with who are existing on other dimensions. It’s an incredible visual sequence (and mind-blowing). It is also one that required DeHaan to bring every facet of his actor’s toolbox to set during the filming of those scenes.
“There was one sequence and we were in a room full of blue. The camera was on a cable cam, like when you’re watching a football game. It was a 30-second shot where I’m running and going through an obstacle course and I had no idea what it was going to look like in the end. I was busting over things. It’s exhausting, but fun,” DeHaan said. “The physical challenge of this movie was something I enjoyed and trained every day to make sure I was ready to do it.”
If it sounds challenging to explain, Besson is used to it. When he first laid out the scene to his crew (and even his actor’s!), he was met with a vast room full of blank stares.
“I had a meeting with everyone, special effects and the entire team, to explain Big Market. The explanation took two hours. At the end of the two hours — it was 150 people like this (makes a jaw-open face). I could see that no one understands,” Busson said and smiled. “That’s where I decided to take all the students from the cinema school [and film it]. We put the storyboards on the wall. We rented the studio for three weeks and we shot every shot.”
Besson then explained the idea behind that scene to us in a manner that actually fits it perfectly. Then again, we’ve seen the stroke of genius that is the scene he refers to.
“There’s three visions in the film: The desert vision, the helmet vision and the merchant vision. When we finished the editing, the first was slightly yellow, the second one was slightly blue and the third was slightly red. When you watch the pre-viz, you know exactly which vision. Two months later, it helps everyone to understand,” he said.
DeHaan was clearly impressed with the final product as well. Shooting a video with his film school students certainly brought it to life for the actor.
“He made pre-viz’s for things in a way I’d actually never seen anyone do. He shot the sequence, shot-by-shot, with them (his cinema students) acting it out with barely any special effects just to explain to us how the sequence was going to work. Because until I saw it, he could explain it to me over and over, many times, and I still didn’t understand,” DeHaan said and laughed. “It was a complicated sequence to explain, but once you saw it. It was brought to life.”
As an enormous fan of the Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets world, this is project that has been gestating in his head while he made a slew of other films, such as the recent blockbuster Lucy. Yet when a certain James Cameron film debuted, his initial ideas for his movie went out the window. “My script was almost ready and I went to see Avatar. I put my script in the garbage and I started again. Avatar pushes all the limits and it was amazing. I was not at that level. If you have to run with Usain Bolt, I don’t mind to be second, but I want to be second. I don’t want to be nine,” Besson said.
Once he did settle on a script, he selected ten designers, in about 2000, and had them come up with ideas. “They only have contact with me once a week through Skype for a year. I wanted creativity without frontier. I wanted them to come back with the weirdest thing they can find out.”
What made it in to the final film is unlike anything you have ever seen on screen prior. It also packs a punch emotionally, much like all of his films… dating back to The Fifth Element and The Professional. “I can’t just make a film like a cheeseburger. I’m not interested. I need some weight. I need to talk about a race who get wiped out at the beginning of the film. It’s a mistake, but who’s going to pay when society doesn’t want to pay? That’s what we have today,” Besson said.
“These people say they can forgive, but how can we forget? If I do that seriously, it’s going to be very depressing and no one would go see the film. At the end of the day, you watch the film and there’s something left — especially for the kids. I love to talk to the kids like this. If you talk to them straight, it doesn’t work. Maybe this way we elevate the consciousness of the young.”
The man behind the title character, Valerian, found a few skills he learned many moons ago come in handy in the most wild of ways. “I took sword fighting in acting school and I never thought I would use that. When I was handed two swords and got to fight with these guys on stilts, it was a blast,” DeHaan said.
Delevingne found her co-star’s approach to work inspiring. “You were so modest about it because you would say, ‘Yeah. I’ve done this a few times,’ and then pick up these double swords and be spinning them around, kinda yawning at the same time,” she said looking at DeHaan.
Filming took place in Besson’s home city of Paris. For most people that would be a delightfully delicious endeavor. Not so, says Delevingne. “Luc would sit at his table eating his beautiful French baguette — this amazing bread with cheese. Filming in Paris is an incredible opportunity. But the food is so good… you only [get] to eat a piece of fish with the vegetables — that was the biggest challenge – just saying no to the food,” the actress said.
His two lead’s dedication, across the board, impressed the helmer. “Every morning, they went for one hour at the gym and on the set, they had their little plastic boxes with the lunch. The two of them in spacesuits with the little box, eating, they were very brave,” Besson said. “It was a long labor of work, every day. That’s the only way you can win and have something that looks like a piece of art and not something that looks like another film. It’s made by hand, really, with a lot of love.”