Credit: Daniel Smith

French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) was 10 years old when he fell under the spell of Valérian and Laureline. The comic book, which began publication in 1967 and is considered an ancestor of Star Wars and Avatar, tells the adventures of two space agents who solve crimes in intergalactic worlds. The tales so flooded Besson’s brain that they groomed him for young love (Laureline was little Luc’s first crush) and the technological challenges of movie-making that would lie ahead. “When I look at bluescreen,” Besson, 56, says from the Paris set of his Valerian adaptation, “I see everything. My imagination is very comfortable with bluescreen.”

And that’s good, because Valerian includes 2,400 F/X shots. (The Fifth Element contained only about 200.) Besson is coy about the plot (and secret roles played by actors including Rihanna) but says his ultimate goal is to create a sci-fi fantasia that will also appeal to non-devotees of the genre. “Like a cocktail where you don’t even taste the alcohol,” he says with an endearing Santa Claus laugh.

Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens in theaters in July 2017. He spoke to EW exclusively from Paris and shared five fantastic images from the film, including the one (above) of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) in full armor with a certain Monsieur Besson standing in profile behind them. On his jacket is a drawing of the comic book version of his two heroes.

Entertainment Weekly: From your Twitter account, it looks like you’re about halfway through shooting on Valerian. How are things on the set in Paris?

Luc Besson: Tomorrow will be half of the film. Our total is 98 days, but I saved two days already on the schedule. I feel really, honestly, more than happy. Which is rare. Usually I’m always skeptical and I wait for the editing, but I have so much good stuff already. The trick of the film was to be sure that Valerian and Laureline were working as a couple. And if I have that, I’m safe.

The two actors you chose to star, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, they’re not superstars, but they both have a very unique charisma.

Since day one, they clicked. They connected. Dane is already a genius before he met me. But Cara right now is like a bird who’s taking off. She’s really going to be such a huge star.

Credit: Vikram Gounassegarin

Is must be difficult for them to work with so much blue screen. And for you too.

Honestly for me, no. When I started to write this at 13 years old, I was living in the country of cheese, and I wanted to make movies. But when I open my windows I see cows, so believe me, that pushes your imagination. Because you want to escape. I start to read Valerian when I was 10. At the time there was no Internet; there wasn’t even a TV at home. So I read and just had my imagination. So when I look at bluescreen, I see everything. My imagination is very comfortable with bluescreen.

What enchanted you about the comic book originally?

Well, the system at the time was two pages a week. As kids we were so excited. Can you imagine today? We can’t even wait two seconds for the next thing. I was sci-fi which was pretty rare in the early 70s. And it was a guy and a girl, and there weren’t many female heroines at the time. So the first girl I fall in love with, when I was 10, was Laureline. She’s a tough cookie. And she doesn’t say “Yes, yes, yes” to Valerian all the time. I loved that about her.

What took you so long to embark on a film version?

I can say this. Jean-Claude Mézieres, who was the father of Valerian, he worked on Fifth Element for a year, and he was telling me all the time, “Why you don’t make the film?” And I always answered, “We cannot.” There are 10 or 12 human characters, and the others are all aliens. So the technique is not there. We had to wait for Avatar.

And so what happened when you saw Avatar?

I saw Avatar and threw my script for Valerian in the garbage. [Laughs.] I was inspired by James Cameron. He invited me on the set of Avatar. And I asked him questions and he was very open and very sweet. He was sharing with other directors. He helped other people like me to progress.

So what was different when you started writing it again?

I allowed myself much more freedom. I centered the story to make it more real, more human. If you don’t like sci-fi, I want you to still like Valerian. And the other part was: Let’s try to do everything, before someone tells me its impossible. Let’s have the imagination go to the limit. And let’s be so super complicated, with aliens and robots and all this, but to make it look easy like a dance. You watch the thing, and it’s fluid and funny and wild. It’s not deep and complicated. It’s ultra sophisticated to do, but it looks easy. Like a cocktail where you don’t even taste the alcohol [laughs].

Credit: Vikram Gounassegarin

So we have this photo of the two of them, Valerian and Laureline, and they seem to be on the run. What’s going on there?

It’s a part of the first mission. Beginning of the film. Like when you see James Bond, there’s always that one mission first. It’s the James Bond-style pre-story mission. They are in the middle of this big mission, and they’re disguised, so that’s why they’re dressed that way. They try to escape. It,s pretty funny how they have to escape.

And who is this big black robot character?

His name is K-Tron. He’s a police officer. You can’t even deal with him. You don’t argue with him. He’s not really important in the film, but he’s just like the the military police. Believe me, I have hundreds of these characters like him.

Credit: Eric Gandois

How involved were you with the costume design? That was one of the aspects that was so distinctive about The Fifth Element.

Since the beginning. When I started a couple of years ago, we had a selection of 6,000 designers from all around the world. We finished with 10. Basically five of them worked for a year. And many of the costumes come from them. Half come from them, and half come from Olivier Bériot, who is the costume designer. And then we had this big contest where we received a lot of drawings, and we picked the best 20, and they’re also in the film. It’s a long long process. We started three years ago.

You’ve got some great actors in the film, like John Goodman and Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke. It’s very exciting to see Rihanna in the cast — is she playing the villain?

I can’t tell you that. The big difference between this and the Marvel pattern is that with Marvel you know after five minutes who’s the villain. They do films that are super well made, but this pattern bothered me a little bit. What’s new here is we have two agents, and over the course of one film, it’s a police investigation, in fact. So you don’t know who’s exactly bad until the end, because it’s an investigation. That’s why I can’t talk too much. But it’s a real story. That’s what I love about it.

How much will I know about the movie from reading the comic? There are 29 Valerian and Laureline comic books.

There is flavor from the comic, for sure. When you read a comic book, it takes you 20 minutes. The film is two hours. So I take the essentials, but I have to go to other worlds. But when you see the film, you will remember in the comic and say, “Oh yeah, yeah, this and this.” The characters are there and a big chunk of the story.

Credit: Luc Besson

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