On Friday, Luc Besson, the madcap French filmmaker behind "Nikita," "Leon: The Professional," and "The Fifth Element," takes a break from overseeing his European action genre movie empire to unleash his newest directorial effort, "The Family." The movie stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as former mobsters sent off to live in Normandy, France, as a very extreme form of witness relocation (Tommy Lee Jones is their gruff FBI handler). Like most of Besson's other concoctions, it veers wildly from extreme violence to maudlin melodrama to broad physical humor, sometimes in the same scene. This is par for the course with Besson.
We got the opportunity to talk with the filmmaker about why he chose to direct this one, while countless other projects that he shepherds as a writer and producer (things like the "Taken" and "Transporter" franchises) he hands off to other people direct. We also discussed Martin Scorsese's involvement in the film (he has an executive producer credit on the final film), and whether or not he would have even done the film without him. Plus, we get into whether or not he would return to one of his preexisting projects, which brings up the mention of a potential "Fifth Element" sequel and, of course, whether or not he saw a dime from the "Nikita" spin-offs (the two television shows and the American remake "Point of No Return"). Besson is a smart, lively filmmaker and gets his points across despite the language barrier, with a grasp on filmmaking and a love for the craft that you can feel just by chatting with him. He's the real deal.
Of all your various projects, what made you decide to helm this one?
I was supposed to just write and not direct [this one]. But I did a reading with Robert and all these friends, half of the cast of “The Sopranos,” all these people… And the reading was incredible. It was so funny. So I started to think, "Maybe I will have to do this thing…" Then Michelle was on board and then Tommy Lee Jones was on board. So it was impossible to say no because the three of them had never made a film together! I just wanted to be there to see them work together! And the second thing is that I spent a lot of time in U.S. and I have a house in Normandy so I think I was the good guy to do it because I know the two worlds.
Where did all these Scorsese references come from in "The Family"? It seems like the voiceover is riffing on "Casino" and there's obviously a "Goodfellas" gag.
The book ["Malavita," on which the movie is based] and the film are really an homage to Martin Scorsese, for sure. I was very young when I saw "Taxi Driver" and "Mean Streets" and I am a huge fan of the master! That's why we called him at the beginning and said, "Would you like to be involved with us? Because it would mean a lot to us." He was kind enough to accept and it was already a lot of happiness for me. It's really a love letter to Scorsese.
So if he had said no would you have still included that stuff?
If he said he didn't like it, I would have never made the film.
What about your decision to produce and write all of these big movies in France while not directing as much?
The thing is that because of my parents, I don’t know how, but I have an idea every five minutes. It was just too much. As a director I can make a film every two years only, so I started to write all of these things and I didn’t know what to do with it, because I can’t do all of them. So then I started to write things and give it to a couple of friends, my assistant and all of these new directors. I just like it. I love to write and sometimes there is a film where you have this excitement because you think, maybe I’m wrong, that you can bring something more than the others. Usually if it relates to water or space or if it’s related to Normandy, then I feel more [close to them] than others.
What about your decision to do animated films?
Animation is a lot of freedom because you can really invent whatever you want. I wrote four books for children—for my children, really—and then we decided to make the films. It was something I really liked. Animation is a lot of freedom and poetry and things that you can’t have with a normal film. So I loved that.
“The Family” is your first really commercial movie in a while, in terms of things that you’ve directed, and one aimed at America. Was that a conscious choice?
No. Honestly, I think the only way to do films is to believe in it. I always follow my instinct. You know, you have to live with a film for two years when you're making it and then when it's done you have to live with it for 2 or more years after. So you should love it, you should love the film. You always do the film you want to do. You know I've done French films in black-and-white and know that it won't be so popular and will probably never come to the U.S.. But that doesn't matter. You want to do it. And you never know which film will help which film. If you do a blockbuster, one after the other, where is the happiness? Where is the creativity and freedom? It's difficult. When you do one every once in a while, you feel excited to do one because you have another choice. You're not obliged to them.
Have any of your movies surprised you for not getting the kind of traction you were expecting?
My mission is to do the best that I can. And that's it. For the rest, you never know. I stopped thinking about it twenty years ago [laughs]. You know, the other day I had this 15-year-old Korean guy coming with a red mohawk on his head and the guy screams at me and says, "My favorite movie is 'Subway!'" And I realized he wasn't even born when I did "Subway." If you were to tell me 25 years ago when I did "Subway" that one day a 15-year-old Korean guy with a mohawk will come and say that, I wouldn't have believed you. You make the film and then the film has its own life. The other day I showed my kids Charlie Chaplin and they loved it.
You've produced a lot of sequels to the movies you've overseen. Do you want to go back and do one for a film you've directed?
"The Fifth Element" I was a little bit frustrated because I made the film right before all the new effects arrived. So when I did the film it was all blue screen, six hours, dots on the wall, takes forever to do one shot. Now, basically, you put the camera on your shoulder and then you run and then you add a couple of dinosaurs and spaceships. And I was so frustrated because it was not so easy at the time. So I always think to myself that I would avenge one day and use all the new tools to do a sci-fi film for sure.
Would it be connected directly to "The Fifth Element?"
I don't know if it would be directly connected but it would be the same area and the same genre. So for me it would be connected even if the stories had nothing to do with each other.
When you made "Nikita" did you think it would spawn a remake and these TV shows?
You know, at the time it was rare for a French film to get remade and get a TV series. My contract at the time was not well made so I haven't seen one dollar on all of these things. And that's pissed me off a little bit, because I don't know how many seasons they did, but nobody sent me at least flowers…
Have you decided what to direct next?
Actually I started two weeks ago. It's called "Lucy" and it's with Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman and this Korean actor you probably know named Choi Min-sik from "Oldboy." So it's the three of them. It's a pretty interesting cast.
"The Family" opens on Friday, September 13.