The Fifth Element: About The Film

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Every five thousand years, a door opens between the dimensions. In one dimension lies the universe and all of its multitude of varied life forms. In another exists an element made not of earth, air, fire or water, but of anti-energy, anti-life. This "thing," this darkness, waits patiently at the threshold of the universe for an opportunity to extinguish all life and all light.

Every five thousand years, the universe needs a hero, and in New York City of the 23rd Century, a good hero is hard to find.

One of today's most provocative and acclaimed filmmakers, director Luc Besson' s works have captured the imaginations of filmgoers worldwide. His visually innovative style has marked the critically-acclaimed thriller The Professional, the exotic undersea adventure The Big Blue, the new wave thriller Subway and the seminal action film La Femme Nikita, the first major French blockbuster. Now, Besson teams with Bruce Willis, one of the most dynamic and successful actors of his generation, to take the science fiction film in a new and exciting direction.

Columbia Pictures presents The Fifth Element, a timeless story about love and survival, heroes and villains, good and evil, set in a strangely familiar yet intoxicatingly different 23rd Century. The film stars Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm and Milla Jovovich. A Gaumont Production, The Fifth Element has a screenplay by Besson & Robert Mark Kamen from a story by Besson. Patrice Ledoux is the producer. The film also features an eclectic cast including Chris Tucker (Friday Dead Presidents, Panther), Luke Perry (Normal Life, 8 Seconds), Brion James (The Player, Blade Runner), Lee Evans and international media star Tricky. Thierry Arbogast (The Professional, Ridicule) is the director of photography. Dan Weil (La Femme Nikita, Total Eclipse) is production designer, and the costumes are by internationally-renowned designer JeanPaul Gaultier (The City ofLost Children). Visual effects by Digital Domain were supervised by Mark Stetson (Total Recall, True Lies) and produced by Dan Lombardo. Eric Serra (The Professional, GoldenEye) composed the score. The film was co-produced by Iain Smith and edited by Sylvie Landra.

Chosen as the opening film for the prestigious 50th Annual Cannes Film Festival this May 7, The Ffth Element opens in the US this May 9.

The title of The Fifth Element refers to the four elements of alchemic Greek tradition -earth, air, fire, and water. Four elements gathered together to create the fifth one: life. Besson conceived of this energy -- the energy used to talk, to engage in sports, even to think -- as an actual, living thing that never disappears, but spreads throughout the universe and beyond.

Though the acclaimed writer/director conceived of the story while still a teenager, he was unaware that the concept of a fifth element -- known in Moorish traditions as "Akasha" -- is deeply rooted in ancient mythology. Besson remembers: "When my father came across Plato's writings on the subject, he came to me with the book and said, 'Do you know that your movie is a remake?' I read it, and was amazed to see the similarities between what Plato had written and what I had put into the script."

In The Fifth Element, Besson posits the question: what if an opposite form of life existed in another dimension -- one not made up of life-energy, but a dark, cancerous embodiment of all that is evil? "The energy of life, and this other, evil life-form, are opposites, like fire and ice," Besson explains, "and the more of this life-energy we create, the more it irritates and provokes this other."

In the 23rd century of The Fifth Element, humanity has wandered out among the stars, spreading this life-energy, and further agitating the dark being. "It feels as if we are asphyxiating it," Besson notes. "It is dying because of us. It wants to fight back, and extinguish every source of energy or light --animal, vegetable, human. But it has its own limitations: it is isolated in another dimension."

The dark being's time to strike back occurs only once every 5,000 years when a doorway between the parallel dimensions briefly opens. "At the very beginning of the movie," says Besson, "we show that a way was once found to fight this entity, but the years have passed, and the way is forgotten. When our story begins, he is back, and no one knows how to defeat him." The setting in which this heroic quest drama unfolds is among the most filly-realized fantasy worlds ever committed to film, and certainly one of the most unique. "We looked at all of human history," says Besson, "in order to come up with what we think is a very possible scenario for humanity in the year 2259, which is when the story takes place -- to be very precise, the story begins on March 18, 2259, at 2 a.m. What will the evolution be? How will people live, and think? And how will that be reflected in the world? It seemed very important to me to create for this story a world that people can accept as a real possibility for the future."

The result is a menagerie of weirdly exotic aliens: hulking, armored creatures with incongruously small heads called the Mondoshawan who, despite their imposing presence, work on the side of good; and huge, dogl ike Mangalores -- an army of mercenaries in the service of Zorg (Gary Oldman), the agent of all that is evil. The filmmakers also created imagery of a brave, new Earth that has never been seen before, along with an array of fantastically-imagined vistas on other planets and our own.

Bringing this world to life on screen is in large part the responsibility of production designer Dan Weil, whose first film with Besson was the undersea adventure The Big Blue in 1988. Weil supervised a team of top-rank designers and illustrators -- including such legendary artists as Moebius and Jean-Claude Mezieres -- through a lengthy development process, and worked in close collaboration with the departments of hair, makeup and costume designer JeanPaul Gaultier. The next step was realizing the designs into sets, models, matte paintings and digital canvasses, requiring meticulous unification and coordination.

The elaborate sets and mock-ups took up 9 stages at London's legendary Pinewood Studios, with director Besson running from world to world as he crossed from stage to stage.

Heading the London creature shop -- a task that included building full-body creature suits, animatronic puppets, and giant armored alien spacesuits, as well as numerous miscellaneous prosthetics and organic props -- was Nick Dudman, whose credits include Interview With The Vampire, Alien 3, and, for Tim Burton's Batman, the creation of Jack Nicholson's startling "Joker" makeup. "I chose Nick because the work he showed us was the best of what we'd seen," says Besson. "But what really convinced me was the intense enthusiasm that he had for this project." Besson's desire to show audiences a real city of the future in convincing, photo-realistic detail led him to decide against a purely digital solution for the visual effects of The Fifth Element. Canvassing effects firms for a shop that could seamlessly combine scale models with digital enhancements soon narrowed the field, and Digital Domain won the contract. Mark Stetson, an effects veteran with work on more than 100 films, including True Lies and Interview With The Vampire, to his credit, joined Digital Domain just as the effects studio agreed to undertake the task. Stetson's long experience as owner of one of Hollywood's top model shops particularly qualified him for the role of Visual Effects Supervisor.

Complementing the look of the film's futuristic cityscapes and space sequences are the forward-looking costume designs of designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, the "enfant terrible" of haute couture, whose designs for film include The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, The City ofLost Children, and the stage sequences of the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare.

While the element of fable runs strongly throughout Besson's work -- with La Femme Nikita as a reversal of the Pygmalion myth, or The Professional, a gritty, modem take on Beauty and The Beast -- The Fifth Element is Besson's return to the realm of science fiction, an area he first explored in his first feature, The Last Combat. "When I make a movie, I want to transport people away from their everyday lives," he says. 'I say, 'let's go somewhere that you've never been before, someplace that you would only dream of going. Let's see the subway in a way you ve never seen it before. Let's go to the bottom of the sea. Let's go out into space.' It's that idea of the dream, and escape, that draws me to these types of films."

The film's story has its own history, originating before the 37-year-old filmmaker began his career. "I started working on this story when I was 16," Besson reveals, "writing solely for the pleasure of it --just to escape the everyday, and to dream about this world. There was no way that I could imagine someday filming it, and it grew to two or three hundred pages of story. Then, years later, I began to think that maybe I could make this story into a movie."

Only after the international critical and commercial success of Besson's features The Big Blue, his first English-language production, and La Femme Nikita was it possible for Besson to consider undertaking a film of the immense scope of The Fifth Element. "After 'Nikita,' I began to work seriously, adapting it to screenplay form," says Besson. "The first draft was 400 pages and would have cost $145 million to shoot, but on my first draft I never think of realistic needs -- I just put down on paper everything that I'd love to see. I just like to go for it, and I consider the serious questions later."

After taking his story through second and third drafts, Besson, working with screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, decided to divide the epic story into two grand acts. "We had to do that in order to make this film possible to shoot," he explains. "So if there is any call for it, a sequel is already written, though that didn't happen by plan."

The preproduction team for The Fifth Element first came together in 1993. Heading the design team under production designer Dan Weil were Moebius, a.k.a. Jean Giraud, the French illustrator who first came to prominence in the pages of "Metal Hurl ant" magazine (and reprinted to wide acclaim in the U.S. edition, "Heavy Metal") and Jean-Claude Mezieres, celebrated in France as the illustrator of a series of bestselling graphic novels featuring the character "Valerian, Agent Spatio-Temporel."

"I looked at the work of hundreds of designers," says Besson, "and narrowed that down to a great team of seven artists, in addition to Mezieres and Moebius. We worked for a year, designing all of this world -- we made wonderful progress in that year, and everything was very good. But finally, some people involved became a little scared of the size of the project, and so it couldn't happen at the time."

Undaunted, Besson turned his disappointment to a productive end. "That is when I wrote The Professional," he says. "Very fast --I had the script written in thirty days, and because I produced it mysel{ two months later The Professional was in preproduction."

The Professional reached an even wider audience than La Femme Nikita, further adding to Besson's worldwide reputation. That global success was sufficient to put The Fifth Element back on the fast track at Columbia Pictures.

Besson's first choice for the role of Korben Dallas, the New York cabbie who becomes an unlikely hero, was Bruce Willis. "I met Bruce for the first time about five years ago, when we were first developing this project," Besson recalls. "We discussed the script, and had a lovely talk. Since then, we've stayed in contact, but it was much later, after all the financing for this picture was set up and the screenplay was ready, that I met with him again in New York and gave him the script. I went off to do some shopping, came back two hours later, and he said, 'Yes, let's do it' --just like that. That was great, it felt like it was already a movie when he said that." The Fifth Element marks Besson's fourth film with longtime producer Patrice Ledoux, Gaumont Films' Chief Operating Officer since 1985.

Composer Eric Serra was an up-and-coming pop and jazz guitarist when Besson asked him to score his first feature, Le Dernier Combat in 1982, and they have worked together ever since. Now a major figure on the French music scene, Serra most recently brought the revived James Bond series into the nineties, with his innovative, modern score for GoldenEye. "The composer of the music is like a co-writer," says Besson. "I am the eyes, the composer is the ears. The fact that I've known Eric for 15 years and we've made seven movies together makes him that much more valuable to me, because now we understand each other so well."

Besson expresses the same sentiment for the several other core members of the production who are veterans of his past films. Director of Photography Thierry Arbogast worked with Besson on La Femme Nikita and The Professional, in addition to such other distinguished French features as Patrice Leconte's Ridicule and Andre Techine's Ma Saison Preferee. Editor Sylvie Landra is a relative newcomer to the team, having worked on one previous Besson film, The Professional. "I have been lucky to find these people," says Besson, "and, since I know their work has made me happy in the past, it would simply be illogical to work with anyone else."

It is the first film for co-producer lain Smith, whose past production credits include Mary Reilly, City of Joy and Local Hero. His past work with both British and American crews, along with his fluency in French, suited him perfectly for the task of coordinating crews on this truly international effort.

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