Ever since his French action film La Femme Nikita was released here in 1990, filmmaker Luc Besson has been known for his wild action movies and his kick-ass heroines. For the past 14 years he and his writing partner Robert Mark Kamen–yes, that’s the same guy who wrote the original The Karate Kid–have continued their run with some of the most inventive action flicks from the “Transporter” series to District B13 to the 2009 hit Taken and last year’s From Paris with Love. (And yes, they’ve had a couple of duds in there as well.)
Besson and Kamen’s latest is Colombiana, a film that acts as a vehicle for Zoe Saldana, an actress who is hotter than ever thanks to the one-two punch of starring in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and James Cameron’s Avatar. In the movie directed by Olivier Megaton (The Transporter 3), Saldana plays Cataleya, a woman who saw her parents killed by a local crimelord when she was a young girl living in Colombia, and as she gets older, trains herself to be a killer with the intent of getting revenge on those responsible.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Besson for a quick interview to talk about a wide variety of topics including how he works on a project as a writer and producer while directing other films.
ComingSoon.net: I want to ask about the writing of this because you and Robert have worked together for such a long time, so was this something you wrote specifically for Zoe? How did this idea come about?
Luc Besson: You never know… the ideas, they always fall on your lap. (laughs) I don’t know. I had this idea and I talked to Robert about it and he said, “Yeah, I like it, it’s great.” We were more interested by this little girl coming for revenge, how when your family is hurt, it’s something that you never forget in your life, and I was also very attracted by the South American feeling and heat and colors. We never wrote anything about South America and it was very attractive for us.
CS: I was actually surprised this doesn’t take place more in South America. When it opened in Columbia, I think I expected the whole movie to take place there. Was that ever the plan?
Besson: No, no, all the beginning is there and then after, it goes to another place but we keep the feeling from where they’re coming. The family spirit, so no there were no other plans to go there.
CS: You’ve written some great roles for women before such as “La Femme Nikita,” which is a classic, and “Angel-A” had a great woman character, so how do you approach writing for women as the main character in a movie?
Besson: It’s funny that it’s a classic now, because if I remember well, it didn’t work so much when it opened. (laughs)
CS: Which one? You mean “Nikita”?
Besson: Both. “Nikita” was a very small release and it became a cult after ten years. It’s very strange, and now everyone is referring to it, which makes me very happy, but when people talk about it to me, I have the feeling we made $200 million. (Laughs) When in fact it was in French and a very small release.
CS: I think because I’m older, I remember seeing it at the theater. It was an arthouse theater, but still.
Besson: Did you see it at the time in the theater?
CS: Yeah, I did.
Besson: Ah, so we are two. (laughs)
(Yes, we realized later that he never answered the question we asked him!)
CS: How do you work with Robert? Once you guys have an idea, do you have brainstorming session to develop these ideas and then you throw it to him for the writing? How does the writing process work with you two?
Besson: You know, honestly, after a couple of years, it’s really being on the same bicycle, it’s a tandem. We have our habits and we are pretty fast. I’m basically the camera on legs, that’s the nickname he calls me, and he is the brain. So I’m the legs and he’s the brain, and we just confront each other, playing ping pong all day long. We don’t write so many things until we have the film in sequences, all the characters defined, all the arcs of characters and everything, and then after, he usually goes by himself and starts to write the first draft and then we go from there.
CS: How did you end up with Olivier directing this? You had worked with him before on “Transporter 3,” so was he involved very early on?
Besson: I gave him the script and he called me the same night and said, “I love the ambiance and I want to do it” so he was on board pretty soon, because he wanted to do the film, which is an important for me always. When someone is passionate, I think he has a big advantage to others. We don’t go through the process (where) you give the script to an agent and then badger everybody and then three weeks later, they say, “Maybe yes, we don’t know.” I gave him the script, he read it that night and then he called me at midnight and said, “I love it.”
CS: Does he have to give you any kind of pitch or does just having the enthusiasm enough?
Besson: No, enthusiasm is enough, because we have made a few films together, and I know what he’s able to do. He’s the type of director who is very conscientious. He has learned a lot on the previous film, things that he knows to do well and things he knows he can do a little less good. He knows it, he works on it. He’s a great guy to work with because he always wants to be better, and he always wants to learn, so you never have an ego problem with him.
CS: I’ve spoken to Pierre Morel two or three times, and he basically told me the same thing about your system of working with directors, that it’s very fluid and hands off.
Besson: Yeah, we usually do the casting together, the location scouting and costumes and thing. We share that a lot until the first day of shooting and then on the first day of shooting, the only chief is the director. There’s only one captain of the boat, so when the film starts, it’s his film and then he goes. But we agree on everything before he starts, so on “Colombiana” I went to the set two or three times only. I have Olivier on the phone, I see the dailies on my side and I call him directly, so no one knows what I’m saying to him. It’s strictly between us, and then he can say whatever he wants to the first assistant or the DP. The reaction and the changes come from him and not from the producer, which I think is sometimes a mistake. I think a crew needs to know who is the boss here. If everybody is calling (them) then they’re lost.
CS: How was it shooting this film in South America and the United States? I know when you’re making a movie in France, I understand you’re able to get anything you want there, so how is it shooting a movie in Chicago, especially when you’re not always there to help get the director what he needs?
Besson: I was shooting my film at the same time, so I got them on the phone. I think it was pretty hard, but we have a big advantage in the movie business that most of the people love films and they always find a way to be nice with us and to arrange for us. We also have to give a big thanks to Michael Bay, because he was shooting in Chicago and he basically had the entire town and all the helicopters around were borrowed by him (chuckles) and then he heard we were here and I was producing the film and he was very nice. He even gave us some space and one of his helicopters to do some shots, so it was very kind of him.
CS: You have a really interesting relationship with Hollywood. You’ve had movies like “Taken” which end up doing huge business and you do some smaller personal films. How do you feel your relationship is with Hollywood these days?
Besson: There are lots of good actors and actresses and lots of talent in town, and people are really professional, so when you arrive here, I always feel good. That’s the first point. What I see now since maybe two or three years, because of all the global financial problems around the world and the crisis, things get a little more difficult. People are more scared and lots of sequels and they watch the catalogue and there’s not so much new stuff. People take less and less risk, and my feeling is that the less you take risk, the more it’s risky. Because they’d rather a film not be perfectly done but at least fresh and new, rather than a well done film that they’ve seen many times.
CS: You must have enjoyed working with Olivier because he’s going to direct a sequel to “Taken,” right?
CS: How’s that been going? Do you already have a script together?
Besson: Yeah, we’re starting in October.
CS: Were you able to get everyone back including Famke?
Besson: Yeah, yeah. Actually, (Olivier) is here in town to do some location scouting. I’m in L.A. I arrived last night and Olivier’s around and he’s location scouting for the film.
CS: Great, so you’re moving locations and doing the sequel in the States?
Besson: A little bit, yeah.
CS: I understand that you have a movie at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) which is a very different movie for you, and I feel that as a director you’ve been moving away from doing action in order to groom other directors with those movies? Do you feel that’s true?
Besson: The funny thing is that they always catalogue me like “action film” but as a director, if you want, I’ve done 13 or 14 films. There’s not so many action films. There is maybe two, “Nikita” and “Leon,” but the others are not very… I don’t see them like action films like “Transporter” or “Colombiana.” I love to write this type of stuff and I love to produce it and to watch them, but I’m not so attracted to doing it as a director. I’m more about characters, so “The Lady,” that was the type of material that I like.
CS: I’m hoping to see it in Toronto, because I love Michelle Yeoh.
Besson: It’s the best part ever for her; she’s amazing in the film.
CS: Are you going to be actively involved with the “Transporter” TV show as well?
Besson: I’m following (it), but TV is another model and I’m very brand-new in this area, so I’m staying very humble. The film is being taken care of by people who know how to do TV so for now, I watch them, I help them a little if I can, but I’m more learning than taking care of it.
CS: As a producer, what are you excited about right now that you’re developing? Now that you’ve finished “The Lady,” you’re writing another film for yourself to direct?
Besson: Oh, since I finished the film, we’ve written two or three (laughs) because that’s what we prefer… to write. I’m actually with Robert and we’re writing something right now.
CS: So writing is a full-time thing and you’re getting together with Robert every day?
Besson: It’s the best time, because with just the two of us, we’re cracking jokes and we’re writing and we have fun, and you can write “2,000 spaceship invade the screen” and no one is telling you it’s too expensive. We have time to change 2,000 to basically 20… or maybe two. (laughs)
CS: Are you guys working on the science fiction movie you’ve been talking about doing?
Besson: Yeah, it’s not a real sci-fi movie, it’s a “kind of.” It’s a kind of epic thing, and working on a couple others. It’s a very good period creatively, so we have a lot of scripts going.
CS: I understand that you’re going to be producing Xavier (“Ils”) Palud’s next movie “Blind Man.”
Besson: “Blind Man”? I didn’t know the title in English was “Blind Man,” because in French, it’s (something else in French) which is an expression when you do something without knowing where you’re going. You go somewhere and you don’t know if you’re right or not. You’re blind in a way.
CS: How’s that going? Has he started shooting it yet?
Besson: They shoot I think in two weeks?
CS: So is that going to continue Xavier’s run of horror movies?
Besson: No, it’s more an action-thriller, but it’s in French, it’s a French film.
CS: You’re still doing movies in France, but is that “kind of sci-fi” movie going to be in English?
Besson: It’ll be in English. As soon as it’s a little bit too big, it has to be in English. There’s another film that’s going to come soon called “Lockout,” it’s a sci-fi film with two young directors and it’s pretty good. You will have a teaser in a couple of weeks, but it’s really interesting.
Colombiana opens nationwide on Friday, August 26.