LOCARNO – For decades now, Luc Besson, a director who gave French cinema a huge shot of mainstream action-traction and grandfathered – though not old himself – a new generation of Gallic action directors, has been dubbed, and sometimes dismissed in his native France, as “American.”
That, from Besson’s point-of-view, would appear to be an over-simplification.
Fresh off an $81.9 million first ten-day U.S. bow for the Universal-distribbed “Lucy,” the Luc Besson who spoke at the press conference at Locarno Fest, which “Lucy” opened on Wednesday, was a full-on supporter of the world’s new multi-culturalism in an Internet age.
Like Lionsgate-Summit “Now You See Me,” from Besson alum Louis Leterrier, or indeed “Taken” and “Taken 2,” both produced by Besson’s EuropaCorp, “Lucy” globe-trots with a modern-day ease, in location, characters, thesps and filmic influences.
Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, kicks off in Taipei, Taiwan, as a hard-partying American girl whose feckless b.f. persuades her to deliver a suitcase of highly potent synthetic CPH4 substances to a South Korean mobster (Choi Min-sik). Meanwhile cut to visiting neuro researcher Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), talking on unused human brain capacity in some august Paris lecture hall. And cut to two cheetahs, somewhere on an African prairie, bearing down on a deer.
An unwilling drug-mule, with the CPH4 exploding into her system ramping up her brain-power to unprecedented genius, Lucy flies to Paris, with its narcotics brigade and a mob of South Korea goodfellas soon in tow.
Meanwhile, short scenes unspool supposedly in airports in in Berlin and Rome. In Paris, Lucy receives aid from a dumbfounded Paris cop, played by Egypt’s Amr Waked, a major star in the Arab world.
Besson doesn’t just accept multi-culturalism. He positively revels in it.
At his Locarno press conference, he talked in French and English, and encouraged an Italian journalist to go on asking a question in Italian, only listening to a had-phone translation when the question seemed to get technical.
Besson’s warmest anecdote turned on how he persuaded Choi Min-sik, (Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy” and “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance”) to play a magnificently menacing Korean druglord: Besson flew to Seoul, he recalled, to have dinner with Choi and talked him through the whole film, though that took two hours and Choi didn’t understand Besson’s English.
“Lucy” ended up having Taiwanese actors who only spoke Mandarin, South Koreans who only spoke Koreans, Americans who only spoke American and French actors who only spoke French,” the director said.
It was all “a bit complicated” but had its upside. (Choi’s use of Korean in “Lucy” is in character, for instance: a drug-pin who takes it upon himself to murder bystanders with his own hands is unlikely to defer to strangers by speaking their foreign language.
“When you make a film in Hollywood or Paris, nobody asks for your passport, “ Besson went on.
“On my crews, even in Los Angeles, there are French technicians, Italian, Hungarians, Czechs, Chinese people: Everything’s very mixed up.”
Multi-territorialism is of course now grist to the mill for high-end actioners from studios and big independents as they look to international for the lion’s share of their revenues.
Besson hasn’t just recently embraced multi-cultural ways. 2011’s “The Lady” turned on Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who is married to an Oxford academic; 2013’s “The Family” stars Robert De Niro and Michael Pfeiffer as the heads of a mafia family hunkering down on a witness relocation program in Normandy.
In fact, the French director has been multi-cultural from his beginnings, The son of scuba-diving instructors, he spent much of his youth in Greece, then in Coloumiers, in the countryside outside Paris, where he could open his window and contemplate cows, he recalled at Locarno.
Multi-culturalism also has large advantages. In the ‘80s, Besson revolutionized French filmmaking with a high-on-style moving-towards-the-mainstream sensibility nearer to that of many young Gauls. It paid huge B.O. rewards. Grossing $263.9 million worldwide, “The Fifth Element” remains to date his highest-grossing film as a director, though “Lucy” may well overhaul it.
Pushing a multi-cultural envelope, Besson now has a new way to once more reach out to global youth.
“What I find marvelous about this multi-culture which is coming together is that young people are so much faster than us, thanks to Internet,” Besson said at Locarno.
“They can be in Iceland, eating sushi and listening to reggae. That’s quite possible and you can have a very good time,” Besson added.
Then, promoting “Lucy” as it opens in 80-plus countries worldwide, Besson and “Lucy” producer Virginie Besson Silla had to dash, catching a plane to another land.