Jennifer Merin interviews “Arthur” director, Luc Besson

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BESSON’S COMING OF AGE WITH “ARTHUR”: “Arthur and the Invisibles” (or “Arthur et les Minimoys,” in French) took seven years to make, and Luc Besson says it’s probably the last film he’ll direct.

“I started 30 years ago and have made ten films. I‘m tired. I feel like a sports guy– can he beat his record every time? Maybe not. After spring and summer comes autumn and winter. I feel like autumn,” says Besson. “I have too much respect for myself, for moviegoers and for cinema in general– I can’t just go to Hollywood and take a big check and make a film. It’s an act of faith. I give it everything– my love, my life– and it exhausts me. Out of ten films, there are four I finished completely collapsed on the ground– really crying from exhaustion.”

MERIN: Doesn’t the creative process give you energy?

BESSON: Yes, of course. But not directing. It’s too much like leading a small army– that you have to solve every problem on every level, even the weather. I get so anxious, I can‘t even talk to my wife and kids. That’s not good. But I will still make films– just writing and producing.

MERIN: Doing this animated family film is a real departure from your previous films– in both theme and style. Why did you take this turn? How does “Arthur” fitting into your own arc as a director?

BESSON: It’s difficult to analyze your own work, but I would say all my films are honest and are about where I was in my life at the time I made them. When I watch them, I get a sense of who I was then when I made them. I started when we were very clever and edgy, and I can see how I fit that description. But you change. You learn. You grow.

I see myself in a different phase when I watch “Arthur.“ I feel that I want something for my kids, something that shows them the way they can be in a world that‘s very difficult.

I fell in love with Arthur as soon as I met him. It was while I was editing “Joan of Arc,” Patrice Garcia (designer on “The Fifth Element“) brought me a drawing of Arthur sitting on a leaf. I fell in love. I said we have to do this story. That was the start.

I think Arthur reminds me of my own childhood. I’m Arthur (played by Freddie Highmore) and Granny (Mia Farrow) is my grandmother. That was a relationship that was very important for me. But, the adventures of Arthur, the stories, are pure fiction, of course, but I think they’re going to show kids that there’s a balance in life, in nature– that different creatures, the big and small– need each other or the world is in disaster, and that there are consequences for what people do. They may not realize it right away, but their actions have big results that might not always be good. I feel that’s something that needs to be said right now. I feel it for my own children.

MERIN: While you were working on the script and storyboard, you wrote and published the story as a book. Why?

BESSON: It had been so long since I’d directed my last movie, everyone in France was asking me what I was working on, so writing the book was the best way to let them know.

Making the movie was very slow and demanding. It happened in stages: writing the script and story board meant creating Arthur and his world, which took a five person team three years doing about 15-thousand drawings. Then we shot the film with actors, but no sets, for capture motion. We invented a way to do it without using wires, so the actors were completely free to move. We filmed the actors one by one and that took seven months. Then I edited that film. Than I gave it to the computer guy who drew the characters and took it to 3D. And then we were also getting the voices– in several languages. So, for Korean, for example, we had to shoot motion-capture close-ups with Korean-speaking actors so the animation would really work.

It was exhausting. I was there for five years, every day. It was physically less difficult because I followed a regular schedule from 9 to 11 AM. At first, that routine was difficult because I’m used to working with actors and actresses, and they’re very dramatic. And I’m used to having to cope with weather, which can be very dramatic. And here there was none of that. But the work was intense. In the middle of it, I had to break away and direct a live action film, I just had to.

MERIN: What film is that?

BESSON: “Angel A.” It’s only in French– it’s about a grown up man understanding he’s not perfect, and that that’s okay.

MERIN: I find that interesting very interesting– that in the middle of creating this animated fantasy about elves and other extraordinary creatures, you‘d turn to making such a film. Especially since so many of your films– “The Fifth Element,” Joan in “The Messenger,” “Nikita” and even, to a certain extent, “Arthur,” with the strong character of the princess, have amazingly strong female leads– characters upon whose shoulders the future of the world rests. Why such strong female characters? And why do you now turn to the opposite– with an ordinary man?

BESSON: I love women, and I believe always in the equality of men and women. So often women are not shown to be as powerful as they are. So, I like to do that in my films. It’s wrong to do anything else. But for Angel A, I felt it was something I wanted to express about what I’m learning about myself, in a way. What we have all to learn about ourselves– that we are not perfect. I find that out. It is true. And it’s okay.

MERIN: In “Arthur,“ your voice cast– at least the English one– is amazing. How’d you assemble so many huge stars in the cast?

BESSON: I’m amazed and I am very lucky. When I saw all their names on the poster, I almost couldn’t believe it. Because I never saw them all together until I saw that poster. I just saw them one by one over the course of four years. Madonna, I recorded four years ago. Robert De Niro four months ago. I was extremely happy to get out of the editing room come here to record Robert, and a few weeks later to see Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t feel the impact of having this cast right away. Just when you see the finished film. Then, it’s wonderful.

They were all very gentle– we drank a coffee together and they said yes right away. Madonna was fasted. She’s gorgeous that way. You call her up and she says, “Oh, yeah. Okay. When?“ With David Bowie, it was that he liked the book. He has a child and he wanted to make sure the story is okay. I really like that about him and I felt good when he accepted.

I’m glad I’ve made other films they could watch and, based on them, decide to work with me on “Arthur.”

MERIN: Did you use their likenesses to develop the look of the animated characters?

BESSON: To some degree, but drawn characters arrived in their own time. Some characters came quickly, like Maltazard (David Bowie), Betameche (Jimmy Fallon) and Darkos (Jason Bateman)– the bad guys. Bad guys are easier. The hardest was Selenia (Madonna), who we finished six months ago. It’s like she‘s been in plastic surgery for three years.

MERIN: The title in French is “Minimoys.” Why change it to “Invisibles” in English?

BESSON: That was Weinstein. They thought it would be better. I’m not sure why, and it wasn’t an issue for me. I’ve learned over the years, that the distrubtor often knows best. So, really, I trust their judgement.

MERIN: “Arthur” begs for a sequel. With the characters already in place, might we see you direct an eleventh film?

BESSON: Well, maybe. But that wouldn’t be my eleventh. It’s just a continuation of my tenth.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).