Luc Besson: How to make an action movie

French film director shares his killer instinct on making action films for the big screen

Making Lucy
Making Lucy
...The Action Icon
...The Action Icon
Scarlett Johansson...
Scarlett Johansson...
Luc Besson
Luc Besson
Léon (1994) Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Léon (1994) Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
The Big Blue (1988) Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Rosanna Arquette
The Big Blue (1988) Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Rosanna Arquette
La Femme Nikita (1990) Anne Parillaud, Marc Duret, Patrick Fontana
La Femme Nikita (1990) Anne Parillaud, Marc Duret, Patrick Fontana
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French film director Luc Besson shares his killer instinct when it comes to making action movies like Nikita, Léon and latest box office hit Lucy, out now in cinemas across Dubai.

Luc Besson, the director of Nikita and Léon, is a man who knows his way around an action film. The French director transformed European cinema with the futuristic sci-fi The Fifth Element, and his EuropaCorp studio is behind action hits Taken and The Transporter. Besson’s new film Lucy stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman who accidentally consumes a substance that opens up her mind’s telekinetic potential. We asked him for his rules for making the perfect action movie.

1 Action is about more than things going bang
‘If the action doesn’t have a soul or a purpose, I’m not interested. If it’s pure action for its own sake, I enjoy it like a cheeseburger. You eat it, then you’re hungry. Indiana Jones is perfect: you have all the action with the giant boulder, then he’s betrayed, loses the idol to the villain, goes home and he’s a teacher. I’m not a pure action moviegoer.’

2 Know your character
‘Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lucy is about vulnerability. Something extraordinary is going to happen to her, so I take the worst case scenario. She’s an American in Taiwan, 15,000 kilometres away from home; she doesn’t speak the language; she’s just an average woman. If you make a movie about a guy who wins a billion dollars on the lotto, and the guy is rich to start with, who cares?’

3 Cast an actor you get along with
‘If you’re going to spend eight months with someone, you need to be sure about them. Do I like you? Do you like me? Are you interested in the movie? When Scarlett came in she asked a thousand questions.’

4 Plan the action
‘I usually start with a couple of key shots, then I build the rest. When I wrote the car chase in Lucy, I knew where it would happen: rue du Louvre in Paris, backwards, at noon! I went along there, took a look at the angles we could shoot, where the cars could go, and put it together that way.’
Lucy is out now in cinemas across Dubai.


Time Out reviews the Best of Besson

Léon (1994) Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Besson’s first American movie begins promisingly with a stylish action sequence, but goes off the rails. Hit man Léon (Reno) lives in isolation in his starkly appointed New York apartment, but when a neighbouring family is massacred by corrupt cop Stansfield (Oldman) and his thugs, he becomes reluctant protector of 12-year-old Mathilda (Portman), who asks him to instruct her in the art of killing. Initial wariness between the two turns to something warmer, mutually affecting and sentimental. Reno brings a likeably naive, quiet panache to his role; Portman is overbearingly cute and sassy; and Oldman is hammy.

The Big Blue (1988) Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Rosanna Arquette
The action centres on the rivalry between free-divers Barr and Reno – they dive deep without an aqualung – which begins when they are little boys. The first time you see someone plunging into alien blackness is exciting, but the novelty soon wears off. The first half-hour is the best part of the movie. Going through her usual kooky routine, Arquette plays a New York insurance agent who encounters Barr in Peru, and is captivated by his wide-eyed innocence (which others might describe as bovine stupidity). Her sole purpose seems to be to reassure the audience that there is nothing funny going on between best buddies Barr, who talks to dolphins, and Reno, a macho mother’s boy (a performance of much comic credibility).

La Femme Nikita (1990) Anne Parillaud, Marc Duret, Patrick Fontana
A thriller that centres on the transformation of Nikita. She first appears psychotic, on the edge and heavily involved in violent crimes. When Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is arrested for shooting a cop during an armed robbery, she is spared death and offered an alternative – to become a trained assassin. She takes the offer and the training and is seemingly rehabilitated into normal society, but the hit-woman awaits her first assignment, she falls in love. Despite the love interest this is an action-packed and gritty film, one made with such slick directing that even the violent scenes seem glossy.

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