After one week's location shooting in Mauritania, on Africa's eastern
peninsula, The Fifth Element began its principal shoot on January 28, 1996,
on the nine largest soundstages of the twelve maintained by London's Pinewood
Studios, including the famed "007" soundstage, which remains one
of the largest film soundstages in the world.
Besson acts as his own camera operator, while maintaining a very "hands-on"
directing technique with his actors. He first developed his unique approach
at the start of his career, when limited budgets and resources required
the director to work with smaller crews, and to go to extremes to get the
exact shot that he needed.
When shooting, particularly during close-ups, Besson is often in the middle
of his scenes, shaping the performance as it happens. "Sometimes I
will grab an actor by his shoulders and move him exactly where I want him
in my frame," says Besson. "Or, if the take is not so good, I
will talk with the actors in the middle of it -- instead of saying 'cut,'
explaining and starting again. Between the words 'action' and 'cut,' you
have a very particular moment, with a living energy to it, that I don't
like to lose."
Besson compares this method of working with the living moment to medical
surgery, where "you can cut someone open, reach your hands inside and
massage the heart to bring life to it, then close them up. Between the words
'action' and 'cut,' everything can happen. I push them, I talk to them and
push them again. When I feel they are getting tired, or are out of breath,
then I say cut."
With the exception of Oldman, who'd grown familiar with Besson's direct
involvement in his actors' performance on The Professional, the cast of
The Fifth Element was surprised by Besson's very physical involvement in
his films. "Bruce and Ian were both a little disturbed by it at first.
But after a little while, they came to love it -- to know that the director
is with them, and with the performance, and not yards away watching a video
The numerous extras and minor players seen in The Fifth Element, on earth
and elsewhere, were frequently surprised by the star treatment they received
from director Besson and costumier Jean-Paul Gaultier. "For me, whoever
is in my frame is the most important person in the world at that moment,"
says Besson. "So, generally, I spend more time with inexperienced actors,
because, with Bruce or Gary, for instance, I will start my explanation and
they'll immediately get it, and know exactly what to do."
While shooting the film's substantial crowd scenes, Jean-Paul Gaultier would
act as final "quality control" as the extras trooped onto the
set, seeing that the look of each design was properly "finished."
"On practically every extra, he would change some little thing,"
Besson recalls. "He would adjust the hat, or add a piece of braid,
change the shoes-- put the final touch to each one very quickly, send him
onto the set and call 'next!"' For one scene, involving hundreds of
extras, Gaultier invested over two hours to prepare each member of the crowd.
"He was sweating," recalls Besson, "but he was so excited,
you could see that he loved doing it."
The final days of shooting were dedicated largely to the film's extensive
pyrotechnics, including the largest indoor explosion ever created, filmed
in the mammoth "007" soundstage. "It took all of twenty minutes
for the fire crews to extinguish the blaze afterwards," says Besson.
"It was certainly an interesting way to wrap the shoot."