Struggling independent filmmakers in the region may take some comfort from the words of Luc Besson – the director of Taken and Lucy raised about US$225 million (Dh826m) to put together his latest project, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, making it the most expensive indie movie yet made.
The French cinema legend insists it was a remarkably straightforward process. "In fact it's pretty simple," he says. "There is always a moment where you go to Cannes or wherever and you have the script, thousands of drawings, the cast, and you go in a room with 150 buyers around the world and you have an hour-and-a-half to explain what you want to do. Then they go in another room, they read the script and they make an offer, or not."
Not all directors seeking funding have Besson's stature, but then not all directors seeking funding are asking for a cool quarter of a billion dollars. Besson seems at ease with the simplicity of the process: "At the end of that day you know – if they like it they say, 'OK, we'll buy our territory and we'll give you an advance' or they say 'No', and then you know your script is not good enough and you go back to work. You just have to be humble and come back next year. I'm not even nervous when I go on these big days, because I know at the end of it I'll have an answer, and the answer is either you didn't work enough or you worked pretty well. We found more than 80 per cent of the money for this film on that day three years ago, so I knew the project was green-lit in one day."
Besson may be best known for moody action films such as 2008's Taken and 1994's Léon, but Valerian isn't the first time he has entered into the realm of big budget sci-fi. In some respects, Valerian looks very much like the movie his 1997 cult classic The Fifth Element could have been, had Besson been given the tools, and budget, available to him today. Jean-Claude Mézières, the artist from the original Valerian comics on which the new film is based, worked as a designer on The Fifth Element. There's a story in movie circles that one day on set, Mézières asked Besson: "Why are you making this film? Why aren't you making Valerian?" Besson laughs and confirms the story is true, explaining: "He knew I was in love with Valerian and wanted to know why I didn't do it, but I'd never even thought about it. It was a souvenir of my childhood, and I didn't know if I could make a film about the souvenir of my childhood."
The Fifth Element doesn't seem to be one of Besson's fonder filmmaking memories, but he admits the experience helped him when it came to making Valerian 20 years later. "I learnt a lot on The Fifth Element set," he says. "It was a nightmare to do, but I learnt. I was young and I did my best, but the special effects were a nightmare. In that film there were 188 shots with special effects. In this one, there are 2,700. Lucy [Besson's 2014 Scarlett Johansson-starrer] helped me, too. There were 600 shots in that, and I worked with [George Lucas's SFX company] Industrial Light & Magic, and learnt the process."
Despite all these lessons, and being one of the most respected filmmakers in the current game, Besson admits he found Valerian a huge challenge. "I studied for maybe three years before I even said: 'Let's try this'," he says. "I just didn't feel I was experienced enough. It wasn't the technology that wasn't there, but me that wasn't there."
Besson clearly feels he has risen to the challenge – he already has one eye on a sequel: "Some films have a possible sequel in their DNA, and most of mine don't," he says. "Like Lucy – everybody wants a sequel, but that would be difficult. Taken wasn't really made for a sequel. He finds the girl, that's it, we're finished. Even though we did a sequel, we cheated. It wasn't really a sequel, more of the second part of the first one."
Valerian, on the other hand, is prime sequel material, according to the director. "It's made for a sequel; it's in its DNA," he asserts. "It's a couple of cops and they travel round the galaxy, and each film is an investigation, each episode is a different adventure. That's why there are 29 [comic] albums. It's Starsky & Hutch in space – you can make as many as you want, for sure."
Indeed, it sounds like Besson may be back in Cannes trying to whip up a few hundred million dollars for the next instalment before too long.
"I've written the second one and half of the third already. My friends all say: 'Why are you writing? You don't even know if you'll get a sequel. And I say: 'It's OK, I like to write.' It's good what I have, so I hope we get it."
With the movie hitting cinemas at the weekend, it's up to audiences to decide whether Besson will get his wish. Although even if the movie should go on to smash every box office record out there, the modest Frenchman seems unlikely to get too carried away with such a success. "I remember when I did [the 1988 free-diving drama] The Big Blue. This French journalist said to me: 'You've had 10 million admissions at the French box office – that's amazing.' And I said: 'You're right, it is amazing – but how is it that 50 million people in France still haven't seen it?' How is it that after 20 weeks in cinemas, 50 million people are still: 'Ah, whatever.' But you just have to live with that," he says.