How Luc Besson’s 1997 Space Opera Conquered Cannes – The Hollywood Reporter

It takes a lot to crack the top list of Cannes parties. But an event costing a festival record $1 million and featuring a Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show, a futuristic ballet and guests including the biggest A-list couple on the planet, not to mention dinner, fireworks and tickets in the form of a specially- made Swatch watch, certainly sounds like it has the right sort of ludicrous credentials.

The party in question was for The Fifth Element, which opened the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997 in extravagant, star-studded style and now firmly resides on the list of cinema’s cult classics. Luc Besson’s wild space opera brought lead star Bruce Willis and his then-wife Demi Moore — plus co-stars Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker and Milla Jovovich (wearing a loincloth style skirt and little else) — up the Palais steps for the world premiere, followed by a grand post-screening shindig for 1,000 guests by the seafront in a specially-built space of more 100,000 square feet. And all this glitz was a precursor to a global box office in excess of $260 million, making it the ninth-highest grossing film of the year.

In the 25 years since its release, much has already been written about the making of The Fifth Element and how it began its epic journey, culminating on the Croisette, as an idea in the imaginative head of Besson when he was just 16 years old. But it wasn’t just a cinematic odyssey for the director, who was 38 when it hit cinemas. French studio Gaumont took the project on when it was still in infant form and spent a full nine years developing it — during which time Besson made three other films — before a camera was even picked up. The company even stumped up the lion’s share of the budget that, at the time, made it the most expensive European film in history.

According to then Gaumont head and The Fifth Element‘s lead producer Patrice Ledoux, he first optioned the rights to Besson’s wildly colorful sci-fi adventure — or at least the idea for it — back when the director was developing his 1988 free-diving aquatic drama The BigBlue, the film many consider his international breakout. The company had backed his previous, and debut, feature, the French box office smash subwaya film — later Oscar-nominated — that marked the director out as a fast-rising star (the “enfant terrible” badge was already being heavily overused) and a pivotal figure of the new, highly-visual and pop-soaked Cinema du look movement.

With Besson initially focused on making his second feature, which was shooting on the Greek island of Amorgos, Gaumont hired a team of creatives to begin putting together the script for The Fifth Element. “We had a lot of people working on the writing,” notes Ledoux. But even once The BigBlue (it screened out of competition in Cannes) was completed and with numerous hands, including Besson’s, on board, the film was still proving to be something of a monster, impossible to contain into one manageable feature.

“At one point, we had two scripts of 300 pages,” says Ledoux, who acknowledges it was always going to be a “very, very ambitious project” (while he says that Besson would have likely gone for it, Gaumont was never going to agree to split the story into two features). 120 pages was the ideal size, so there was a lot more work still to do.

With Besson itching to get behind the camera and the development work for his magnum opus still rumbling on, he wrote and directed two more live-action features for Gaumont in 1990’s La Femme Nikita and 1994’s Leon: The Professional, which Ledoux produced. He also squeezed in time to make the 1991 underwater documentary Atlantis.

But — eventually — The Fifth Element was whittled down to an acceptable size, with Ledoux agreeing on a budget of around $90 million. “Which for a French company was absolutely insane,” he admits.

So the producer went with cap in hand to the US and to Sony’s Columbia Pictures, which had taken both The BigBlue other leon, and it agreed to hand over $25 million for the US rights. “But $90 million minus $25 million still leaves a lot to make up,” he notes. Although there were a few pre-sales and other investments, Gaumont paid the — then European record-breaking — rest.

While he says it was a “big risk,” it wasn’t his first risk with Besson. “We were pretty confident we could succeed.”

Ledoux also notes that Besson was no longer the young upstart filmmaker behind The BigBluebut the director responsible for leonwhich had become a major critical and box office hit around the world.

The Columbia deal came with conditions, however, not least the casting of a Hollywood star of a certain caliber to fill the lead role of taxi driver-turned-savior-of-mankind Korben Dallas.

“Luc’s initial idea was Mel Gibson,” claims Ledoux, who adds that the actor made frequent visits to Besson’s house in LA But Gibson eventually turned it down. A major name who was interested, however, was Sylvester Stallone, who says the producer heard about the film and approached independently. “It was very strange, and Luc was actually annoyed because although Stallone was a big star at the time, he wasn’t the right guy for the movie.”

Several stories have arisen over the last quarter-century as to how Bruce Willis eventually joined The Fifth Elementbut in the one Ledoux tells, it was actually his then-wife, Demi Moore, who first told the The hard star about this crazy project from Besson, who had become “very fashionable” in LA thanks to leon other Nikita. The two met up.

However, there was a problem: at the time, thanks to the likes of pulp Fiction other 12 monkeys, Willis was one of the biggest stars on the planet and, despite the already oversized budget, the production couldn’t afford him. “I said to him, Bruce, we don’t have the money to pay you, it’s just not possible for us,” claims Ledoux. But Willis was still interested, so sent his agent to discuss how much Gaumont could actually afford.

“It was very bizarre, because one day Luc went to a hotel with a script, which he gave to Bruce and then waited in the corridor until he finished reading it. Then he came back in and Bruce finally said, ‘yes, I agree to it’.”

With Willis officially signed, the rest of the cast – including Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker – were much more straightforward and required far less intense negotiations, Ledoux claims, who adds that they were all hand-picked by Besson.

And while Willis may have taken a pay cut, Ledoux asserts that he was “very well taken care of,” with his family, coach, cook, secretary and two bodyguards all paid to accompany him to London, where most of the 21-week shoot took place (there was a brief jaunt to Mauritania for the scenes set in Egypt). Although Besson had wanted to film in France, the country at the time had no experience when it came to making major sci-fi features, so he had to turn to Pinewood, where the production took over most of the sound stages — including the enormous 007 stage — and where Ledoux says there were as many as nine sets running at the same time.

When shooting started in January 1996, Ledoux handed over the reins to veteran line producer Iain Smith, who he hired after first meeting him in Costa Rica where he was working on Ridley Scott’s Christopher Columbus drama 1492: Conquest of Paradise (another Gaumont title). “I came to supervise production, and he served us chicken with mint, and I thought, if this guy can get us chicken with mint in central Costa Rica while shooting this film, he’s the right guy for us.”

But even despite taking a back seat for the production as Smith oversaw proceedings at Pinewood, Ledoux had a firm grasp of the enormousity of the project he had greenlit. “In the middle of the shoot, there were weeks when I was signing a daily payroll that had more than 1,000 names on it,” he says, adding that the VFX work — which took place in California — involved 400 people working at the same time. But he says that The Fifth Element never went over budget. “I had put my reputation and position on it,” he says.

And Ledoux still had one major trick up his sleeve — getting The Fifth Element to Cannes as the curtain-raiser. As it happened, despite a loud, colorful and campy sci-fi not seeming standard opening night material for a festival more focused on art house, it proved relatively easy.

First up, the film’s French credentials – The Fifth Element being the biggest and boldest production in history from the best-known French studio. “Cannes was very happy to show the world what we can do,” notes Ledoux. “But the second thing was that I brought Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, and at that time, if you were to tell the Cannes Film Festival that you could bring Bruce Willis and Demi Moore to the opening… let’s just say they were enthusiastic!”

There was also the not-inconsiderable fact that Gaumont spent $1 million on the opening party.

But Ledoux says there was a method to this flashy madness, with Cannes effectively serving as The Fifth Element‘s condensed international press tour. “We knew it would be impossible to take Bruce Willis around the world with the film, so instead we invited everyone who had bought it to Cannes to spend a couple of days with him,” he claims. “So the expense was not actually that huge if you think about it. Sure, we did spend a lot of money. But it was spectacular. And everyone who came said, ‘Yeah!’”

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