Valerian: How its wild, twisty opening action scene came together

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We’ve all seen movies in 3-D, but director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) raises the bar on the whole extra-dimensions craze in his new sci-fi spectacle.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (out July 21) is set in the year 2740 and centers on space cops Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they solve a mystery involving the extinction of a peaceful humanoid alien race called the Pearls. But what triggers the story is a Besson special: one wild, twisty, visionary 18-minute action sequence that takes place in two parallel dimensions at once.

STX Films and Europacorp
STX Films and Europacorp

“I had this idea 15 years ago, during conversations with crazy friends,” Besson says. “Then the next question is, ‘How can we have fun?'” He imagined a place called the Big Market, which looks like a desert until Valerian plugs into a machine and puts on tinted glasses that reveal a vast supermall with thousands of shops stretching into the sky and 500 floors below the surface.

And so half of the action sequence plays out in the humongous parallel-dimension city maze, while we also see Valerian walking through the desert and looking like a mime. “It’s easy for the desert to look like Earth very quickly,” Besson says about the challenges of rendering the landscape. “So I came up with the idea of colored stripes on the rocks, which is based on coral. And no red sand or else it looks like Mars.”

A chase ensues between the minions of a three-nosed Jabba-type beast named Igon Siruss (voiced by John Goodman) and Valerian, who has inadvertently trapped his arm between dimensions.

If this sounds complicated, Besson understands that. “After I wrote the sequence, I explained it to the crew for an hour,” he says. “They were smiling, but I could see on their faces that they didn’t understand a thing.”

STX Films and Europacorp

And so at his L’École de la Cité in Paris, a free film academy the director opened in 2012, Besson recruited the whole student body to shoot a demo of the action scene’s 600 storyboarded shots as part of their curriculum.

“I brought the 120 students to the soundstage and we shot the entire scene,” Besson says. “They were the actors, they were the cameramen, the lighting people, the grips. Costumes, accessories. We put the 600 shots on the wall and one by one we shot them. They did everything in three weeks, and then we edited and put in some temp music.”

Besson adds with a proud laugh, “And then the crew understood the scene.”

Thus concluding Multidimensional Action 101.

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