French director Luc Besson is best known for frenetic action films like his La Femme Nikita and Taken, which he wrote. His latest effort, a devoted biopic of the heroic Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi starring Michelle Yeoh, switches gears entirely. Critics were downright chilly when The Lady premiered in Toronto on Monday night, but less than 48 hours later, the film secured U.S. distribution via the Cohen Media Group (Chasing Madoff). The company intends to give the film a limited Oscar-qualifying release in December before a wider run early in 2012.
The daughter of a patriotic hero and the wife of an English academic (played on screen by David Thewlis), Suu Kyi initially returned to her homeland to care for her ailing mother, but that trip became permanent when the country turned to her for leadership. Now 66, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for refusing to yield to the ruling generals in Burma (also known as Myanmar) despite nearly 20 years of house arrest — a period that kept her from her family at crucial moments in their lives. In 2010, while The Lady was in production, she was finally freed from isolation, though severe restrictions remain on her freedom today.
Before his movie landed its deal, Besson sounded off on the film’s heroine, his dabbling in diverse cinematic genres, and the role of video piracy in bringing The Lady back to Burma. Read EW’s interview below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The premiere gala audience seemed to embrace your film, but I imagine the experience of watching with strangers for the first time is never easy for a filmmaker?
LUC BESSON: It’s scary because you obviously love the film you have done — otherwise you would still be in the editing room. But you have no defense at all. You’re ready to accept people who boo the film or having a standing ovation. You’re ready for everything. You’re very disarmed. It’s a very strange feeling. I was amazed by the audience. There were so concentrated for two-plus hours. It was late — thank you Madonna, [whose film W.E. had the earlier gala timeslot on Monday night]. [Laughter].
Not only is this very different subject matter for you, but even the tone and style seem like a departure for you.
I love to go from Big Blue to Fifth Element and Fifth Element to Joan of Arc, to Arthur and the Invisibles, which is for kids, to The Lady. I love that. I guess I have this freedom and I love it. I’m very lucky.
For most Western audiences, your story will be their introduction to Suu Kyi as well as inspirational amusement. How familiar were you with her struggle before this script came your way?
I was almost like everybody, just read a couple of articles. I knew she was fighting for her country and for democracy but not so much more than that. I didn’t know at all her life, her love story, her kids. And that’s what amazed me when I read the script. She is fighting for her country and at the same time, she’s a human being like everybody. You have a husband, you have kids, and you have to deal with your real life. How can you deal with your two destinies? I was amazed by her. You see 200,000 armed to the teeth soldiers scared of a 55-kilo woman who never fought, who never had a gun, and fights with words. The funny thing is she’s not scared of them at all. It’s really the mouse and the elephant.
There was quite a presence of Burmese immigrants at the red carpet on Monday night, and they treated Yeoh like she was Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
So many Burmese have been touched by this movie. All the extras that you see in the film are Burmese, and none of them is an actor. They are all refugees who crossed the jungle for six days to get to Thailand. There’s a camp with like 30,000 refugees, and we went there with the casting director and we told them we were making a film about Aung San Suu Kyi, and they lined up to be in the film. They are so proud that at least there is one film that talks about them. They feel very abandoned, the Burmese people. They feel like no one cares for them.
You had a chance to meet her after her release, at her home in Burma. What did you learn?
Yes, after the filming. I was so frustrated. I wish I could have met her before to have more tales about her, because there’s almost nothing out there about her. No books. The truth is not allowed to get out of Burma. Even now, [her organization] the NLD dissolved. She’s not allowed to speak in public. She’s so-called free, but she’s not at all.
I don’t imagine it’s easy to visit Burma. In fact, Michelle Yeoh was turned away in June after she tried to visit Suu Kyi for a second time.
I think someone made a mistake somewhere in the French embassy and give me the stamp. They refused Michelle at the frontier. They heard about the film [by then], and as every other dictatorship, they are scared of everything. But I went through, miraculously, and I spent three days with her at her place. She’s an incredible woman.
Do you think she’ll see the film?
Probably not now. Probably later. I hope for once that piracy will work. Piracy is a real problem today in our societies, but maybe the only good effect is that I hope Burma’s people will pirate the film. [Laughs]. For people who have no access, I think it’s kind of a good thing. I think there’s a lot of directors who don’t mind so much when it comes to… you know, like North Korea, Burma or a very poor country like Yemen. We don’t mind so much.
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