Luc Besson on Making 'Dogman' After Rape Case Dismissal
By Elsa Keslassy
Luc Besson, the formerly A-list director who rose to the top of the box office with his kinetic action films, had his career derailed by rape accusations leveled against him in 2018 by Sand Van Roy, an actress on his film “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” The ensuing legal battle consumed five years of Besson’s life, but after being cleared last June of all charges by the Cour de Cassation, the French equivalent to the Supreme Court, he’s re-emerging at this year’s Venice Film Festival with the indie drama “Dogman.”
But will the industry work with Besson? That’s one of the questions that we discuss during a lengthy interview at the Plaza Athénée Hotel in Paris on the eve of his big premiere. Besson is evasive about the matter, preferring to talk up his latest effort, the story of a bruised man who faces rejection and finds solace in dogs, as well as dissatisfaction with a movie business that’s become more obsessed with superheroes than style. I wanted to know how the rape case had impacted his career – is top talent wary of working with Besson now?
“That’s not my problem,” he tells me. “I’ve been trying to focus on my work for the last several years. I consider myself an artist and the most important thing to me is to write good scripts, like ‘Dogman.’ I want to write better and better stories because I only have a few more films to make – and in 20 years, the only thing that will remain are the movies.”
He seems convinced that he will rise or fall on the strength of his ideas and that those will be compelling enough to overcome any lingering apprehension. “The only rule that prevails in this industry is that if you have a good project, people will want to be part of it,” he says. “On ‘Dogman,’ TF1 and Canal+ came on board in 24 hours. That’s how it works. As for the rest, it’s not in my control,” he continued.
This year’s Venice has been called out for including the latest films by problematic men such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Besson is no longer facing any charges since being cleared in June, but he doesn’t want to have a conversation separating the art from the artist.
Besson, who previously attracted passionate fans (and a few detractors) with stirring, swaggering, ballet of bullets like “The Professional” and “Lucy,” is feeling confident that “Dogman” delivers the goods. The character-driven movie has a slightly darker edge than his recent work, but it still boasts a far amount of action swiftly orchestrated by super-powered dogs.
The movie, which Besson produced via his banner LBP, has already been pre-sold by French banner Kinology in most major territories, save the U.S. and other English-language territories. EuropaCorp, the company he founded that was taken over by New York-based Vine Alternative in 2019, has distribution rights.
It’s also one of dozens of projects Besson wrote during the solitary years that followed the rape complaint. On paper, “Dogman” was a gamble. Its only star, Caleb Landry Jones, is virtually unknown in France (he was cast before winning a prize at Cannes for his work as a mass murderer in “Nitram”) and having over 60 dogs on a movie set didn’t sound feasible. But as with “The Big Blue,” a drama about free divers which was shot largely under water, Besson pulled it off, thanks to a towering performance by Landry Jones.
Despite the chaos of having to deal with so much canine presence on set, Besson says the shoot went smoothly because there was a “real osmosis” between the director and star. “We were in the same hotel, we shared meals, we would visit the dogs every day,” Besson says. “We were in our bubble.”
Asked if he could see himself establishing such a strong connection with a female star on a future film, Besson offered a shrug.
“Sincerely, I don’t care about this, I was in love with Jean Reno for years after I made ‘The Professional’ and no one cared,” he says. “What’s a film apart from feelings? We might as well give scripts to ChatGPT if the point is to sterilize everything. Artists are there to shake up society. It’s dangerous to scrutinize the artistic process. If the ultimate goal is to have people glued in front of their screens stuffing their mouths and feeling numb, we’re on the right path.”
In the film, Landry Jones stars as Douglas, a man who was abused as a child by his violent father, and who turns to dogs for friendship as he turns into a tormented adult. Ultimately, the love of dogs is what brought Besson and Landry Jones together.
“Caleb and I had two meetings where we just talked about life and movies, and then on the third meeting, I asked him if he liked dogs,” Besson remembers. “He spoke to me about the dog he had when he was a boy. It resonated with me because I had the same solitary life growing up, always with my dog. We became close right away.”
Landry Jones prepared for the role for nearly six months, much of it spent in a wheelchair to “understand how it feels to be disabled and how people look at you differently.”
In “Dogman,” Landry Jones also cross-dresses as a woman (to say any more would be a spoiler warning) even though he’s a straight, cisgender character. This aspect of the film has been flagged as potentially transphobic on social media. But Besson said Douglas’ cross dressing is just one of his different disguises throughout the film. “Like Douglas says at some point, ‘You dress up when you don’t really know who you are, you forget you own past.'” The film also boasts several scenes in a drag queen cabaret with real performers that Besson said he cast in London. “The best answer to a controversy like this is to say that the film was also selected at the Queer Festival,” Besson says, referring to the fact that the film is nominated for the Queer Lion Award.
The French director also cracks up as he reminisced about having 65 dogs running around all day with trainers and even canine makeup artists.
“There were 22 dressers talking to their dogs at the same time, hiding in every corner of the set, under the couch, in the wardrobe etc., and I remember Caleb sitting there in the middle reading Shakespeare,” Besson says. Instead of relying on visual effects, Besson resorted to make-up artists to give the dogs a special look. “We had a British make-up artist for dogs, who is very well known. She read the script before committing, and then she came with a truck and had all kinds of shampoos and tools. If you looked at the dogs in real life, you probably wouldn’t recognize them,” he says.
Besson’s previous films have generated controversy. Natalie Portman, who starred in Besson’s 1994 movie “The Professional” at the age of 11 as a young orphan who is being mentored by a professional hitman, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in May that she thought the film had some “cringey aspects to it.”
Asked to address Portman’s comment, Besson says the relationship depicted between Portman’s and Reno’s characters was a “platonic love.” “The problem is that society sexualizes everything,” he says, adding that Portman’s “parents were there all the time. We were very careful.”
He also revealed that Portman almost didn’t make it into the film because she was only 11 at the time.
“I had several actresses shortlisted for this part, but I was not convinced so I asked the casting director to show me the pictures of the girls who had been refused,” he remembers. “Out of 6,000 photos I pulled three of them and found Natalie in there. She had been turned down because she was only 11.” He says he decided to audition her even if she was too young for the part, and asked her to cry and laugh in the same scene. “She blew me away in this audition. I told myself that I was so lucky to have found her,” he says.
The director reveals that he had first offered the part of the hitman in “The Professional” to Robert De Niro, whom he had met in 1983 at the Avoriaz Film Festival where he presented Besson with the jury prize for his feature debut “The Last Battle.” De Niro asked to meet Besson over dinner in New York after reading the script. “He said to me, ‘I wanted to see you, because it’s a great film and you must do it,’ and then he explained why he wouldn’t be in it, because he had already done this character at least four or five times,” Besson says. Ultimately, the pair stayed in touch and worked together on a Paris-set crime movie “Malavita.”
Besson recently returned to Paris after living in Los Angeles for many years. Despite living in the heart of the movie business, he struggled to find a place in Hollywood.
“I just feel like I’m an artisan, and I think for them it’s complicated to work with someone who makes one piece of furniture once in a while. I don’t have any harsh feelings, but I think we were never really on the same page,” Besson says. Without revealing any titles, Besson says he was approached to make a big U.S. movie every week for nearly 20 years, but always turned them down. “I never wanted to be like a cherry on a cake and when I look back, all of the movies I declined are bad, so I don’t have any regrets,” he says.
Besson says he would love to revisit the science fiction genre, if only he could raise a budget of $150 to $200 million. “I have the whole film in my head, but it doesn’t fit in any boxes, I just need to find someone who will be crazy enough to follow me on it,” he says.
He implies the financing would likely come from either Europe, Asia or the Middle East rather than the U.S. “The tide has turned, because folks in the U.S. have become too risk-averse and that’s a shame,” Besson says.