Luc Besson Lucy Onset

The son of scuba-diving instructors, Luc Besson came of age exploring the depths of the ocean floor and inventing stories out of the debris he would find along the shore. Some 50 years later, he is still playing with rocks in the sand — only now his shoreline is the river Seine and his castle a 667,000-square-foot film studio called Cite du Cinema (literally Cinema City). Built from the shell of a 1930s thermal power plant in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, the sprawling complex — which includes nine soundstages, a 500-seat auditorium and a full-service restaurant — is headquarters for Besson’s prolific production and distribution outfit, EuropaCorp, plus a host of affiliated vendors and two film schools.

On a recent Friday afternoon, despite a bank-holiday weekend in France, Cite du Cinema was a hive of activity as editors, sound mixers and visual effects artists readied two new EuropaCorp productions for their premieres at the Cannes Film Festival: “The Homesman,” a classical Western from actor-director Tommy Lee Jones; and French director Bertrand Bonello’s fashion-world biopic “Saint Laurent.” There was also much work still to do on a far bigger EuropaCorp gamble: the Besson-directed action-fantasy-adventure “Lucy,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an American student in Taipei who unwittingly becomes a drug mule for a sadistic Korean gangster (played by “Oldboy” star Choi Min-sik). When a package containing high-test synthetic crystals explodes in Johansson’s stomach, her brain begins evolving at an alarming rate, imbuing her with an array of enhanced powers.

With an estimated $100 million pricetag, the R-rated “Lucy” is a record-setting investment for the cost-conscious EuropaCorp, which fully financed the film, with Universal Pictures acquiring worldwide distribution rights (except for France, Benelux and China) while it was still in preproduction. Following a two-week location shoot in Taiwan, the movie became the first to make full use of Cite du Cinema, which opened its doors in September 2012. The film debuts in U.S. theaters July 25.

Aurelien Chauvaud for Variety

“Lucy” also marks a return to high-end genre filmmaking for the French-born Besson, following the costly failure of “Arthur,” a hybrid live-action/animation trilogy that was to have been his “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings.” Though the first film in that series, 2006’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” grossed more than $100 million worldwide, the two sequels failed to recoup their combined $180 million cost, and went straight to DVD in North America. He complained publicly about “Arthur’s” North American distributor, Harvey Weinstein, while EuropaCorp posted a $43 million net loss on its 2011 balance sheet.

Still, even in light of such setbacks, the 55-year-old Besson remains the only European-based filmmaker with the outsized ambition of a Hollywood mogul and the global box office clout — thanks largely to the lucrative “Transporter” and “Taken” franchises — to prove it. Now, with “Lucy,” he aims to reassert himself as a visionary auteur who can hold his own against the Michael Bays and Peter Jacksons of the world, and win the hearts and minds of younger moviegoers who were not born when his 1994 pic “The Professional” was remapping the landscape of the modern action movie.

“It would be nice to have a film of Luc Besson that’s a hit so that younger audiences today would know him better,” says Virginie Besson-Silla, his wife of 10 years and “Lucy’s” sole credited producer.

Besson describes himself as “nervous but excited” about the film before showing this reporter a 25-minute assembly of scenes that includes the entire set-up, plus a whiplash-inducing Paris car chase. “I live in a country of food, and you can’t have a third star in a restaurant (the top Michelin rating) without risk, invention or creativity,” he says of the movie, which is one of this summer’s few big-ticket offerings not based on a movie, TV show or comicbook. “I’d rather take some risks, and maybe some people will say, ‘What the fuck is this film?’ But some others will embrace it. I totally understand that we can’t take this kind of risk on every movie, but at the same time, you can’t progress if there is not risk and novelty.”

The film, which he began writing a decade ago, has its roots in the enduring scientific canard that says human beings use only 10% of the brain’s capacity, and that if we could access this other 90% … well, anything might be possible. “Cells exchange information at a rate of 1,000 messages per second per cell, and we have 100 billion cells, so if you calculate the number of messages in one body, it’s insane,” says Besson, who wears a “Lucy” T-shirt under a gray cardigan as he pilots a golf cart down the two-football-field length of Cite du Cinema’s massive glass-and-steel entrance hall, known as the Nave.

Besson met with a couple of actresses to play the lead role, but denies widely published reports that Angelina Jolie was his first choice. He says when he saw how strongly Johansson reacted to the story, she immediately landed the part.

Notes Johansson in an email: “The character of Lucy when we first meet her, the details of her backstory — those things don’t really matter. What was more interesting to me was the challenge of playing someone who is in a constant state of transition. As the capacity of her knowledge expands and her abilities simplify nearly everything, the character’s biggest challenge is to hold on to the nuances that make her human or connect her to human life and the person that she once was.”

The footage makes it clear that “Lucy” is vintage Besson, with Johansson’s naive party girl gradually evolving into a latter-day version of the sleek assassin played by Anne Parillaud in “La Femme Nikita” (1990), while the trippy, candy-colored visuals hark back to the outre grandiloquence of 1997’s “The Fifth Element.” Drawing an explicit link between Johansson’s eponymous heroine and the similarly named bipedal skeleton discovered by French geologist Maurice Taieb in Ethiopia in 1974, Besson even inserts a computer-animated version of the prehistoric Lucy into a prologue modeled on the dawn of Man sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey” — one of several such homages that are sure to inspire his detractors to draw their knives.

Such reactions are nothing new for Besson, who has weathered more than his share of negative publicity throughout his four-decade career. As a director, critics have long accused him of vulgarizing French cinema with his signature brand of glittering pop spectacle — to which the multihyphenate happily notes that he makes films for the public, not the critics. As a hydra-headed mogul, his ambitious empire-building has also been the target of intense media scrutiny and claims of impropriety.

“EuropaCorp: How Luc Besson’s Dream Turned Into a Nightmare” screamed the headline of a 2011 report in the French newsweekly L’Express, around the time of his much-publicized split from EuropaCorp co-founder Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. (Le Pogam, who refused repeated interview requests from Variety, told French newspaper Le Monde in 2012 that his relationship with Besson had deteriorated after the hiring of EuropaCorp CEO Christophe Lambert, a former PR adviser to French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Besson, meanwhile, went on record saying that the breakup was “not a divorce,” and that Le Pogam wanted to focus on his producing career rather than the running of a studio.

Last November, French newspaper Le Parisien alleged that Cite du Cinema had received inappropriate government funding as the result of backroom glad-handing between Lambert and the Sarkozy administration. More than 80% of the studio’s estimated €170 million ($232 million) construction cost came from Caisse des Depots et Consignations, a state-owned fund dedicated to projects that support French “national interests.” There were grumblings that this money had gone to back what was essentially a private enterprise.

EuropaCorp responded to those claims in an official statement in which it pointed out the long-term economic benefits to the nation of Cite du Cinema, and rejected the notion that Besson (through EuropaCorp, a minority owner of the studio) was getting rich off the deal. In December, the Paris public prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation. But half a year later, Besson notes that no formal charges have been filed. Ironically, given the accusations, Besson’s desire to have his own production space grew out of what he saw as the French government’s intractability when it came to supporting one of its most celebrated homegrown industries. In 1996, when he was preparing to shoot “The Fifth Element,” he desperately wanted to keep the $80 million Gaumont-backed film — at the time, the most expensive movie ever made outside the U.S. — in France, despite the lack of any local studio with enough space to accommodate it. Besson petitioned government ministers to subsidize the construction of a fifth soundstage at the Eclair studio in Epinay-sur-Seine. “They said, ‘No we can’t do that,’ ” he recalls. “We said, ‘But we’re going to go have to go to England.’ ”

So off to England a fuming Besson went for an 18-month shoot at Pinewood Studios, returning to France with an idee fixe. But it would be another 15 years before the dream of Cite du Cinema became a reality.

Since the beginnings of cinema, iconoclastic directors have yearned to build their own facility so they could exercise more control over the means of production, but only a few have made good on the effort. In 1917, Charlie Chaplin turned five acres of lemon, orange and peach groves at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue into a full-service studio, which he continued to operate until his exile from the U.S. in 1952. In 1980, Francis Coppola purchased the historic Hollywood Center Studios and made it the headquarters of his quixotic Zoetrope, only to auction off the property four years later, amid massive losses from the failed avant-garde musical “One From the Heart.” And in 1999, Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks abandoned its plans to construct a $250 million studio lot in Playa Vista, four years after announcing the start of the project.

Aurelien Chauvaud for Variety

Besson-Silla credits the literal and figurative family atmosphere of EuropaCorp for eliminating much of the waste and middle management that burden many Hollywood productions. “When it comes to making decisions on the day-to-day matters, it’s just a discussion between Luc and me, so it goes much faster and easier,” she says. “There aren’t a ton of producers with their assistants and all of that. We’re able to control the costs more efficiently.”

Still, Besson muses, such projects are more easily realized in America than in France. “That’s what I admire most about the U.S.,” he says. “You always have someone saying, ‘Let’s try it.’ It doesn’t mean that you succeed, but when you fail, the people say, ‘Too bad. Let’s try something else.’ This energy is amazing. In France, the first thing you always hear is, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be possible.’ And you have to ask, ‘Why? Why not try?’ That’s painful after a while, because you’re trying to do something for your own country, and they don’t get it.”

“The Fifth Element” was a watershed moment for Besson in more ways than one. With a worldwide gross of $264 million, the outlandish Bruce Willis vehicle became the biggest hit of  the director’s career, and the highest-grossing French production until “The Intouchables” sailed past $400 million in 2012. But despite the success, Gaumont (where Besson had made all of his films since his sophomore feature, “Subway,” in 1985) balked at his proposed follow-up project: “Taxi,” a sort-of French “48 Hrs.” about a working-class Marseille cab driver who becomes unlikely partners with a cop who can’t pass his driving test.

So Besson struck out on his own, founding Leeloo Prods. (named for the character played by his then wife, Milla Jovovich, in “The Fifth Element”) and producing “Taxi” together with newly launched independent distributor ARP. Released in the spring of 1998, the movie — written by Besson and directed by Gerard Pires — sold more than 6 million tickets at the French box office, launching a lucrative franchise that has since spawned three sequels, a Hollywood remake and the current NBC television series “Taxi Brooklyn.” Flush with profits from the pic, Besson and former Gaumont exec Le Pogam set up EuropaCorp in the fall of 2000. (Le Pogam, who remained a minority owner of EuropaCorp even after his departure, sold his remaining interest in the company in February 2012.)

In the subsequent years, Besson has written (with frequent partner Robert Mark Kamen) and produced two other highly successful franchises: the three “Transporter” films (directed by Besson proteges Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton), which collectively grossed nearly $240 million worldwide and contributed to the cult popularity of star Jason Statham; and the two “Taken” films (directed by Pierre Morel and Megaton), which combined to gross more than $600 million worldwide, and reinvented Liam Neeson as a latter-day action hero. In May, a third “Taken” film was under way on Cite du Cinema’s largest stage. “A big fight happens here,” Besson said as he walked through a set designed to resemble a New York apartment. He added that, title notwithstanding, “no one gets taken this time, not even the dog.”

But playing impresario has seemingly taken its toll on Besson’s directing career, which has been marked by long gaps between projects, a couple of French-language films designed for the local market and, since “Arthur,” a little-seen biopic of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”) and the star-studded mafia comedy “The Family” — as close to a perfunctory job-for-hire as anything he has done.

“For sure, his image is now split: Is he a big new French mogul or is he still a filmmaker?” says Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux. “The suspicion is that if he’s doing a movie, it’s because he has some industrial strategy. But I think when he’s behind the camera, he’s still doing the films he wants to do.”

Love him or hate him, in the 1980s and ’90s, Besson was a stylistic force to be reckoned with, churning out a series of fast-moving, visually and sonically innovative pop entertainments that did as much to reinvigorate French filmmaking as the New Wave had a generation before. Grouping him with his equally flashy contemporaries, Jean-Jacques Beineix (“Diva,” “Betty Blue”) and the somewhat more esoteric Leos Carax (“The Lovers on the Bridge”), critic Raphael Bassan aptly termed the new style “cinema du look.”

Says Jean Reno, the hulking French-Spanish actor who served as Besson’s muse from the short film “L’avant dernier” in 1981 through “The Professional” in 1994 — a movie whose orgiastic ballets of slow-motion violence were a precursor to the Wachowski siblings: “Luc is not an intellectual. He’s doing things that come from his heart, and sometimes he’s the only one who believes in them. Most French cinema speaks about your life, your relationship with your grandfather, your girlfriend … he’s on the other side of the world.”

Besson is cautiously optimistic that “Lucy” will reconnect him with a large international public, especially in the U.S. “I guess the film has the possibility to be a hit with the American audience,” he says. “Of course, I would rather that it perform and the people are happy with it.”

Whatever his fortunes or misfortunes in the director’s chair, Besson — and EuropaCorp — are forging ahead. The company recently expanded into exhibition with the opening of a 12-screen multiplex near Charles de Gaulle airport and, earlier this year, announced the formation of Relativity EuropaCorp Distribution USA (RED), a joint venture with Relativity Media that will give Besson more direct control over the distribution of his films in the U.S. And during Cannes, it was announced that EuropaCorp had secured a five-year $450 million credit line from J.P. Morgan, SunTrust Bank and OneWest. The influx of capital is causing him to think even bigger, if that’s possible.

“I wish that in 10 years, we can be competitive with the American studios, and to have the films we release be successful,” Besson says. “Not only one per year, as we have right now. I would like us to have two or three films a year that are exciting and that work. That would be a big pleasure.”

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