Luc Besson on casting Scarlett Johansson as ‘Lucy’ and his philosophy of action

My favorite moment during the Saturday afternoon panel I moderated for Universal's upcoming movie “Lucy” was when an audience member asked director Luc Besson if he'd be interested in directing a Marvel Studios movie about “Black Widow” starring Scarlett Johansson.

“I am afraid of spiders,” he answered, and then just looked at me, ready to move on to the next question.

If you've seen the first trailer for the movie, you get the general idea. Besson says he started noodling with the idea a decade ago, the first time he heard someone mention that “we only use 10% of our brains” idea. “I know it is wrong,” he said, “but I liked the idea and I just wanted to start there. What happens if we take a character from that 10% to 100%?”

When Universal asked if I'd like to moderate the panel, it was an easy yes. After all, this isn't just a new action movie written or produced by Besson. I like the work he produces for the most part. There's a type of Euro-action that I've grown fond of that seems to all hinge on Besson in some capacity. He's practically a genre. But here, he's directing as well, and I consider that a very good thing. There's something special about “La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional,” “The Big Blue,” and “The Fifth Element.” One of the things we discussed during the panel is that he seems to have been ahead of the curve when it comes to the now-omnipresent archetype of the action gurrrl, the cute little ass-kicker with a sharp attitude and a vicious punch. “I like to tell stories about the strength of women,” he told the audience during the panel, “and the weakness of men.”

After the panel, a handful of other film writers and I joined Besson and rode to the far end of the convention center, then up in a huge freight elevator. He was chatty the entire time. At one point, he brought up another famous Lucy, the important archeological remains that were discovered in 3,000,000  B.C. “Her brain was 400 grams,” he said. “And the modern brain is just 1.4 kilograms. So in 3 million years, we've gained, what, 1000 grams? That's it?”

Besson seems relatively self-deprecating about his own place in the lineage of the action movie, but he's also very blunt about what he believes is important. He's pretty much exactly what I'd hoped, and he seemed happy with the way the crowd responded to the footage. The first thing I asked about what how involved he is in the films he writes and produces, since they seem to have such a strong overall shared sense of style. “I can't see it,” he admitted, “because I'm too close. Maybe, when I'm older and sitting around the campfire…”

I asked him how he feels about how many of the films are already being remade. After all, I'm seeing “Brick Mansions” later this week, which is a remake of “District 13,” the parkour-oriented action movie that Besson wrote and produced, and even Besson's breakthrough, and he replied, “It depends. It depends. For example, when they did the remake of 'La Femme Nikita,' that was weird.”

I agreed, especially since John Badham basically did it shot-for-shot in places. “Yeah, it's very strange,” he went on, and I mentioned the moment in “Nikita” where I became a fan of his films. It's after Anne Parillaud has gone through her training and she's “graduating,” and she goes out to dinner, and she is so happy. She's glowing. And she's given a gift, and she glows even brighter as she opens it, and then… well, if you haven't seen it, you should. It's a perfectly directed moment, and Parillaud is shattering as she realizes what everything means, as all the pieces fall into place, and she just crumbles. He smiled as I described my reaction to the moment. “If you're watching the DVD and you start the piece right after that, like when she takes the gun, and you just watch the action scene, it's pretty good. But it's not exceptional. It's pretty simple. She's running. She jumps. I have seen better action scenes in my life. The big difference is the emotional charge that you have when you see the scene before it, and you know what it means to her to do this. That's the big difference. Have you seen 'The Hunger Games'?” I was surprised when he asked this and said yes.

“The second one?” I said yes again. “So you know when she's in the tube and she's saying goodbye to Lenny Kravitz and she has to go up in the thing? And as she's about to go up, they break in and they start kicking his ass. They raise the platform up and suddenly she's screaming, but she can't do anything. She can't help. And she's screaming and she goes up, and suddenly she realizes, 'Fuck… now it's about my life and I have to fight.' That's the kind of moment I love. That was a very good emotional hook.”

I asked him how he feels now that Hollywood is basically doing the thing he's been doing for most of his career with the women-kicking-ass action movie model. He got such great performances out of Natalie Portman in “The Professional” and Anne Parillaud in “La Femme Nikita” and Mila Jovovich in 'The Fifth Element” and “The Messenger.” I asked him how he knows he's got the right person for the part each time.  “It's different each film,” he said. “In the case of 'Lucy,” for example, there are a bunch of girls who could play it. It comes down to the meeting. You say, 'Okay, why not? Let's meet.' And then you talk and I talk about the film and I watch their eyes. I see, you know, how she eats her food. I see if she's trying to please me or if she's not really there, if she's distracted. In the case of Scarlett, she came in, and she was such a strong woman. She was looking at me like this…”

He gave me a piercing glare, as if he was trying to see in to the back of my skull, then laughed. “She just looked at me the entire time, really trying to take it in, which I love. She's pure concentration. She's not here for nothing. She was all in for that meeting, to see how it might be, and at the end, I tell her, 'Okay, read it.' That's it. She took it. She called me back. And that was it. She was in.”

Johansson came to him physically ready for the action side of the film, since she'd been making Marvel movies for the last few years, and I asked him about how they built this character she's playing. “So in the film, she goes from this 10% of her brain capacity to 100%. After 15 or 20%, there's really nothing, no reference, for her to draw on. There's no one you can point at to say, 'This is what you're doing.' Nothing. That was very scary for her.”

Since his entire film is performance-based, I asked if he was nervous while waiting to see how she would play it and how it would come together. “It's very exciting. I have the answers for a lot of her questions, but at the beginning, she doesn't know I have the answers yet. And she certainly didn't have all the answers at the beginning, which is exciting. When she finally realized that she was going to have to do it, she really got into it. She started to say, 'Okay, so when I reach 50%, what does that look like? How about 60%? If I can't use any of who I am, then what am I using?' Because an actress always uses a bit of herself, her knowledge, her experience. You have to. Here, there's nothing you can use. You're not playing any of the normal intention. If I say, for example, 'I strongly recommend this!' and I pound the table for emphasis, that's a very human thing. You can't do that.”

It's hard not to draw some comparisons between her roles in this movie and the Spike Jonze film “Her.” In that  movie, she played Samantha, an artificial intelligence who becomes self-aware and who has a relationship with a man. In this film, she plays a person who is being reprogrammed, who's dropping all of the dogma and social programming that we all live with. “Yes, but at the first part, when we first see her, she's so human. The first ten minutes, she's just this fucked-up kid who studies in Taipei. She parties. She gets lost. She tells herself, 'Oh, my god, I shouldn't party. I should work.' But, you know, she's sort of a dumbs. 'Oh, my god, I really should do something with my life.' So she's really, really human. And then you see from that first scene where she wakes up and she kicks some ass… at that point, she's at 15%. She still has most of her human feelings, but it's just starting to go away.”

There's a physical precision to the performance Johansson was giving in the clips we showed to that WonderCon audience. “She's that good from the start, but she gets stronger, even better.” I asked him about the various franchises he has up and running, with new “Taken” and “Transporter” movies due soon, and what makes one of the films eligible to be turned into a series. “It is not commerce. Not ever.” I asked if helping to break new talent is part of what keeps him working so hard and producing so many films. “I like that. I like to find people who get that there has to be an honesty to these movies. Of course, you want to respect the comical rules, but I'm not sure these movies can just be funny. I think people want more. Like I can tell you a story right now, about this young boy who is deeply in love with this young girl. Deeply in love. He can die for her if he has to. The only problem is that their families hate each other. That story is 200 years old, but people continue to want to see it, because they can relate to it. You know that everybody would love to be deeply in love like that, willing to die to be with someone. Everyone has had something that they couldn't have or that they lost, and everyone knows frustration. The essence of all these movies is truth. You can respect the business side and the way things work and how they financed, but you have to try not to rely on that. If it's a story that people like, then maybe you and I want to see a particular actor, but the audience doesn't care. Sometimes, if someone's not bankable, they're just really fucking good. So let's do something with him.”

While reactions were mixed to the film when it was originally released, I really like “The Fifth Element.” I love that it's got such a strange Euro-comic book sensibility, and there is something really lovely about the world-building. At the time the film was released, Besson talked about doing a sequel called 'Mr. Shadow.” I asked him if that might still be an option someday.

“Actually,” he told me, “I want to go back to a big sci-fi film. I'm writing one.”

I was immediately interested, and told him that seemed exciting. “It's a big one,” he said, “and it's going to give me a chance to fix one big frustration I have on 'The Fifth Element.' It's one of the last big movies made before everything went digital. We used some, but more of it is physical.” I told him that was a pivotal moment for the jump from one generation of FX to the other. “Just a year after that, I couldn't believe what we could do. I was so frustrated. On 'The Fifth Element,' there are just 200 digital effects shots. That's it.” I told him I thought they made them count. “Yes, but all the rest is practical. A year later, on 'Joan Of Arc,' I can take my camera on my shoulder and shoot a scene, and they can just drop the castle into the background. I was amazed. I said, 'Fuck, why didn't you come a year sooner?' I always wanted to do another one, another 'Fifth Element' where I can use all the modern tools that we have today. I was very frustrated with the film, you know? Like the chase we did with the cab and with Leeloo falling… it's actually very similar to 'Star Wars' where Anakin falls, but they have the tools so they can make it much better than mine.”

While I did my best to convince him that I am far more fond of the cab sequence in “The Fifth Element” than the car chase in “Attack Of The Clones,” he told me again how frustrating it was to be right at the moment where things are changing and be on what he felt was the wrong side of it.

Still, it's great news that he's getting back to science-fiction, and that he appears to have been re-energized as a director. I've been waiting for him to get back to what he does best, and it feels like he's happy to be doing it.

“Lucy” arrives in theaters August 8, 2014.